Everything you need to know about the Nintendo 3DS
It's not every day that a new Nintendo handheld launches, let alone one that's more than just a tweaked version of the console that came before it. While the 3DS shares a good portion of the name and conventions of its baby brother, it's much much more than a DS with a new coat of paint. It's a powerful new beast in its own right, far more capable than the 6-year-old DS system which it replaces.
The 3DS system is, much like all of the other DS systems, a dual-screen clamshell device. That is to say, when you're not using it, it folds closed in much the same way as a book does:
The bottom screen is touch-sensitive, allowing users to interact via the mechanic of touch (much like an iPhone / iPod), in addition to displaying game information. The technology used for the 3DS touch screen, like the previous DS systems, is called "resistive" technology; that is to say, it's a "soft" screen that you need to push down on for your contact to be registered (unlike the resistive touch screens used on iPhones and iPods). It is typically used with the included telescopic stylus, although you can use your fingers as well - as shown in Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition, where the bottom screen is divided into four buttons for instant access to your character's special moves:
The top screen is where the 3D action takes place. For the first time the DS line's history, the top screen is a different ratio to the bottom screen, taking on the widescreen aspect that has become du jour in modern television sets (particularly LCD & Plasma screens). Other than its dimensions, the thing of considerable interest (and the source of the system's name) is its remarkable ability so present users with a genuine 3D image, without that user having to wear any special glasses.
The technology behind this remarkable ability is actually fairly old but, until now, it hasn't made it to a mainstream device for one very good reason: you can only experience the 3D in a very narrow "cone", directly in front of the screen. If you move your head too much to the left, right, up or down, the 3D disappears and the image becomes a blurry mess. That makes it next to useless for a television but totally perfect for a handheld device. In our experiences, we've found no problem whatsoever staying inside that narrow field of view without having to think too hard about it.
So how does it work? The 3DS uses a form of Autostereoscopy (essentially "3D without glasses") called Parallax Barrier. In English, this barrier essentially separates the screen into two parts, one that only your left eye can see and one that only your right eye can see:
Each of these two parts of the screen (the "Brown" and "Green" parts from the diagram above) shows a view of the same scene from a slightly different angle, which your brain then merges into the same image - a process which results in the apparent depth being added to the scene. If it sounds familiar, it should - aside from the specific details of the screen itself, the rest of the process (separate images showing slightly different angles which merge to create apparent depth) is exactly how the 3D at your cinema works, even the old "red & blue" (anaglyphic) glasses rely on this classic brain trick.
With all this brain trickery going on, is it safe to use? Nintendo recommend that the device is not used for periods of longer than 30 minutes in 3D mode (there's a slider to the right of the screen that lets you dial the effect all the way from "extremely deep" at the top of the slider right the way down to "2D" at the bottom), without taking a 10 minute break, due to the extra work your brain is doing in piecing the two images together. They also don't recommend children under six years old use it at all, although there is some debate as to whether that advice is warranted or not. In our hands-on experiences thus far, we haven't experienced any adverse side effects (headaches, blurred vision, etc) at all - although people who had vision problems had difficulty seeing the 3D images.
If you're at all concerned about whether you'll be able to see the images or whether they'll cause you any kind of adverse effects, retailers will likely be able to demonstrate the units from March 31st onwards - pop in to a store and check it out for yourself (Nintendo's marketing, after all, is that "to believe it you just have to see it").
In addition to playing games on the 3DS, you can also use it for viewing photos and watching movies - a potentially very interesting ability in a world where 3D cinema is desirable but a financial stretch for most people. Actually being able to watch Avatar as it was intended, even if on a smaller screen than what is available at your nearest 3D-capable cinema, could provide the "PS2" effect for gamers, giving them that "tipping point" incentive to get on board.
In the US, Nintendo announced a partnership with streaming movie service "Netflix", while in the UK the partners announced were Sky Sport and Eurosport. No New Zealand plans have been announced yet, but NZGamer.com will naturally keep you posted as soon as anything hits the news here.
Other important hardware highlights:
The Circle Pad
Set above the standard Directional Pad (d-pad), the Circle Pad is much like an analogue stick on your console's controller, only in a format that suits a clamshell handheld (i.e. it doesn't stick out too much). This finally brings genuine, usable analogue control to a handheld device - its position ensures it sits perfectly under your thumb, which should make it comfortable for even extended periods.
Like the DSi, software for the 3DS is specific to region.This means that, for example, the 3DS you purchase in New Zealand will not play 3DS games that you import from the USA or Japan. There are three regions for the 3DS, which match the old "PAL, NTSC and NTSC-J" regions that have long been used to separate the world for the purposes of videogames. Specifically, that means that the consoles we buy here will be compatible with games from Europe / Australia, while North America (USA & Canada) get their own region and Asia (primarily Japan) make up the third region.
There's an inner camera, allowing you to participate in various DSi-like games and utilities where you can see the game at the same time as the camera can see you (for example: video chat in Pokémon Black / White). There's also two external cameras set at the top of the top screen, facing outwards. Why two? So that you can take 3D photos and shoot 3D movies, of course! The cameras are, by today's standards, pretty low resolution, rocking a measly 300,000 pixel sensor (compared to the iPhone's 5,000,000).
This little metal pointer, which you use to interact with the touch screen, becomes a longer stylus on demand, allowing it to take up a small amount of space when it's stored away in the 3DS console itself and service different sized hands when it's in use. It feels good in the hand, with a slightly wider "grip" than older styli and, thanks to the mechanics of the telescoping mechanism, it can actually be used at any length along its travel (i.e. not just "shortest" and "longest").
Taking about 3.5 hours to charge, the battery lasts between 3 and 5 hours when playing 3DS software (depending on how much time the device spends in 3D mode) or 5-8 hours when playing DS titles. In our experiences, the battery life doesn't feel short - helped in no small part by the included charging cradle, which provides both a handy place to store the unit when you're not playing it and a nifty method of ensuring the battery is topped off at all times.
The 3D (top) screen is 76.8mm x 46.08mm (if you're comparing to your television, that's 3.53 inches) and can display 16.77 million different colours (known as "truecolor" due to the human eye's ability to discern only about 10 million different colours). This compares favorably to the DS, which was only able to display 18 bit colour (262,144 colours)
While the screen is 800 pixels wide (and 240 high), you need to remember that only 400 pixels can be used per eye, as each eye can only see half of the vertical lines that make up the screen when in 3D mode. Given its size (much smaller than the PSP's 4.3" and the PSP Go's 3.7"), the result is a much higher pixel density, which gives images a much cleaner, crisper look than on any other currently available handheld systems.
The bottom screen doesn't display 3D, but is capable of accepting touch input. It measures 61.44mm x 46.08mm (3.02 inches) and is similarly able to display truecolor / 16.77 million colors.
The 3DS has built in motion sensing capability, including a Gyro sensor, allowing future titles to take advantage of the current trend in motion-controlled gaming. How well this will work in combination with the 3D screen which you need to be precisely oriented towards remains to be seen, as no applications have yet demonstrated support for this functionality, outside of the in-built pedometer which uses the hardware to measure how far you walk while carrying your 3DS.
SD Card Support
Like the DSi before it, the 3DS supports SD-card storage. Not only that, but it comes with a 2GB card pre-installed so if you're worried about having to buy a memory card along with your console, stress not.
The system is backward compatable with DS and most DSi games - exactly which games are not compatable is not known at this stage, however the impression Nintendo has given thus far is that the number is small. There is no Gameboy cartridge slot, however, so Gameboy / Gameboy Advance or even DS titles with hardware accessories that used the DS system's GB slot will not be compatable with the new system.
At launch, the download store will not be available. However, it will be added in a system software update - scheduled for May worldwide. When it comes, the download store is promised to be a much better experience than that available on the DSi and Wii, which Nintendo acknowledge as being a poor experience (if you've ever used it, you'll know just how slow and unenjoyable it is to muddle your way through).
The new and improved store will bring a combination of downloadable software options, including download software intended specifically for the 3DS, all of the games from the existing DSi store and an all-new virtual console. Games on the VC for 3DS will be handheld games, starting with Gameboy, Gameboy Color, Sega Game Gear and the TurboGrafx 16. Some of these games will be tweaked to ensure they display in 3D on the system, which presumably means parallax detail (like the backgrounds in Super Mario Land, for example) will be pushed back in 3D space to give added depth even though games for all three systems are, almost without exception, 2D sprite-based games.
It's assumed that more systems will be added to the system's VC library over time, although the ultimate inclusion of any games for Nintendo's failed Virtual Boy system is anyone's guess at this stage.
If you've already got a DSi and want to transfer your existing library of downloaded games to your new 3DS, you're in luck too - Nintendo will be making available a tool to download on both systems to allow you to transfer your licenses over to the new system. So if you're considering trading in your DSi for a new 3DS, it might pay to take an alternative route for financing it!
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