Nintendo 3DS review: Is glasses-free 3-D gaming worth the $250 price tag?

First things first: Yes, the glasses-free 3-D screen of the Nintendo 3DS — the central new feature on the venerable gaming company’s latest handheld salvo for total domination of our free time — is a wonder to behold. The experience of watching your games play out in three-dimensions with just your own eyeballs, whether it’s a furry puppy running away from you in Nintendogs + Cats or a wide-receiver racing for a Hail Mary pass in Madden Football, is all kinds of uncanny. When the sleek, slim device first arrived at my office, I took it around to several of my non-gamer colleagues to gauge their reaction, and to a person, they all lit up with the kind of giddy fascination I imagine kids in the early 1980s felt when they stepped into their very first arcade. For the first five minutes, anyway.

Because here’s the inescapable thing about the Nintendo 3DS: It is a sure-fire headache machine. In order to view the screen properly, you must keep your eyes within an unforgiving sweet spot roughly 9 to 12 inches away. If your head or the 3DS itself tilt to either side much past half of an inch, the screen’s image begins to double-up, and your eyes pretty well freak out trying to make sense of what they’re seeing. And that’s if you fall out of the sweet spot; even viewing the screen properly challenges the brain to interpret visual information in a way it never really has before, i.e. looking at a relatively small two-dimensional surface and seeing it expand along the Z-axis into a virtual space your mind knows isn’t really there. The initial time I really played with the 3DS — about a 40 minute-long demo — I spent the rest of the day with a nagging pain in my cranium, and a slight unsettled feeling in my stomach.

That kind of reaction is probably why the system reminds you, repeatedly, to take a 10 minute break for every 30 minutes of play. The very first button within the 3DS’s home screen is for the “Health and Safety Information”; the very first section within that info is labeled “3D Precautions”; and the very first thing you see when you click on “3D Precautions” is this: “WARNING — 3D FEATURE ONLY FOR CHILDREN 7 AND OVER. Viewing of 3D images by children 6 and under may cause vision damage.” Well, okay then. Do I really want to play something that could literally harm the eyesight of a child?

Of course I do, silly. Because here is the other inescapable thing about the Nintendo 3DS: It is the best handheld device Nintendo has ever made, improving (even if just slightly) on previous DS systems on almost every score: The analog controller is simply long overdue, as is the refined, Nintendo Wii-like “Home” hub. (The 3DS even builds your Nintendo “Mii” avatar for you after you snap a shot of your face with its inner 2-D camera.) Then there’s the unavoidable suite of social media offerings, like “Street Pass,” a system that allows for automatic data exchange between otherwise unacquainted handhelds, which encourages carrying your 3DS with you at all times and only makes me feel like the world is just becoming evermore like one giant singles bar. The stereo speakers project a surprisingly enveloping soundscape, and the touch-sensitive (and still 2-D) second screen still works like a charm, with a telescoping stylus that’s a bit tricky to open with one hand. The system even comes with a handy charging cradle — which you’ll use often, given the 3-5 hour battery life when playing 3-D games.

The real standout, though, is the 3-D camera. When paired with the internal motion and gyro sensors, it enables players to partake of some wickedly enchanting “augmented reality” games that transform your desk into an archery range or sci-fi battlefield. For one game, I warded off a fire-ball spewing dragon threatening my car keys by physically moving my 3DS around my office; for another, I fought back an army of disembodied versions of my own head that appeared to be crashing through the walls. It’s a kind of interactive, personalized fun that feels entirely, addictively new.

But is all of that gaming goodness worth the 3-D headaches and $250 price? In a word: probably. For one, you can adjust the depth of the 3-D experience with a slider just to the right of the screen, which allows you to find a level of dimensionality that works for you. Of course, that also means you can turn the 3-D effect off entirely, and I reckon many players will do just that, especially at first. But the 3-D actually does imbue games like Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition and Bust-a-Move Universe with a feeling of tactile play that’s lost when you switch back to 2-D. After spending a week with the system, my eyes began to adjust, and the headaches morphed to a mild feeling of discombobulation after my gaze finally broke away from the virtual 3-D world and back to the real one. I can live with that, and I reckon many, many players will too. Grade: B+

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  • ^..^

    I have a bad feeling that this is going to be a flop for Nintendo, and I’m a huge Nintendo fan. They dropped the ball on their DS downloadable content and Apple picked up on having cheaper content. That $250 price-tag is way too much money for my tastes.

    • UGH

      I remember upgrading my DS to a slightly better version only to find that I could no longer play my older Gameboy/Gameboy advance games. I haven’t touched my DS in probably a couple of years. Last good game was Mario Kart maybe? I’ve been satisfied with my iPod touch for my on-the-go gaming.
      $250 for a hand-held gaming system? No thanks! It’s about $100 overpriced.

      • Anya

        I agree, I want the system because I want some of the games coming out for it, but I’m not sure I’m going to buy one til next year, when the price will have probably went down at least a bit. I don’t care how much of an improvement it is over the DS, $250 is way too much to ask for a handheld.

      • GerryTaylor

        Game Boy Advance games play on the original DS and the DS Lite. They don’t play on the DSi or DSiXL – or on the new 3DS.

      • Update…

        I got a good deal trading in my DSi and several games at GameStop and paid $12.00 out of pocket for the 3DS and Street Fighter IV. Not a bad deal. Yes, the 3D effects are headache-inducing.

    • MEso SOup

      A Flop???? Nintendo will continue to dominate…..

      • UGH

        Ever hear of a little thing called The Virtual Boy?

      • HUG

        The Virtual Boy had two colours, and you had to put it right up to your face. I think Nintendo has a better grip on it this time.

      • Reborn

        I still have my Virtual Boy. Go Wario!

    • Paul

      $150 I would have picked it up on Day one. $250 probably never, unless the upcoming games are worth it. As it stands now, the reviews on all the new games are horrible.

      • ^..^

        What a lackluster lineup of launch games, too.

    • JPX

      Yeah I’m with you, $250 is way too much for this, I would never spend that kind of $ on a hand-held. When this drops to $100 than perhaps.

    • Steve

      My g/f has been playing it and she said when you play in 2D mode, especially older games, the colours are washed out and the graphics are not as good as a regular DS. So if you want to play older or other non-3D games keep your older DS.

  • Fitronic

    Wow, I had a quite a surprise when I saw the headline. I didn’t expect EW to post their review for the Nintendo 3ds.

    • C Men

      Great story. I bet you just can’t keep people away from you at parties.

  • Tim (@rural_juror)

    It really is incredible. I traded in my DSi and a bunch of old games I haven’t looked at in years yesterday to get the 3DS. I only ended up paying $75 out of pocket on the system, extended-warranty & Super Street Fighter IV.

    The console is great now, but the real fun will begin when they release a system update in May that adds things like a web browser, Netflix movies (including 3D movies) and video recording. All they need to do is partner with YouTube to create a way to share your 3D videos with other 3DS users.

  • Kerri

    Nintendo DS + Pokemon black/white = FTW!

  • Creepy Pedophile

    FAILURE ALERT: Game Boy colour was the best handheld Nintendo has ever produced. Since then they have only updated the graphics maybe twice.

    • Midori

      WARNING YOUR POST IS A FAILURE!

      The GMC did one thing, made GB games in color. That’s not a graphics update, thats a color update.

      GBA regular wide holding system that hands can actually fit around nicely.

  • Richard

    I’m a 1st day adopter, and I am very impressed with the features this device has. However, if you are upgrading from a regular DS, I would wait. Yes the 3D features are amazing (especially playing Street FIghter), but since some features are not activated yet (Internet and eShop), plus add in a weak line up, I would wait. I never had a DS, so I am lovin’ my 3DS. Please note, not everyone will experience the same discomfort from playing 3D games; in the full 24 hours with the device I experienced little to no strain on my eyes.

  • Sheli

    Oh, and Ocarina of Time in 3D?!?!? Can’t wait!!

    • ryan

      Yeah that will be fun I guess, Although I have played the original over and over again over the years, dont know, unless im on a train or plane, if can do it all again.

  • Al

    I am pretty sure you will see this discounted in some places. The camera option might be the deal breaker for me

  • Jon

    I defaulted to having the slider turned all the way up and it definitely was a bit much. The sweet spot for me was about half way — there’s still a very noticeable amount of 3D and I had no problems with eyestrain.

    I was on the fence about upgrading until Ocarina but my girlfriend was really excited so I pulled the trigger and I think it was the right decision.

    The AR (Augmented Reality) stuff is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen period.

  • Colbie

    Mine arrived on release day, and within 20mins I put it for sale on ebay, I just can’t get on with the so small screen size, big let down.

    • ^..^

      3DSXL within 2 years.

    • John

      The screen is BIGGER than the other DSes. Get over it, noob.

  • Chris Wright

    Why on earth would I pay more than $50 for a device that will leave me with headaches and nausea if I play it longer than 30 minutes? The whole point of gaming is to forget the world for long stretches of time.

    Thanks but no thanks, Nintendo.

    Also, you might want to wait for at least one great new game idea before you start work on any more consoles. This same old crap is getting stale. The last time the company had much vitality was around 1994.

    • ^..^

      The Wii was genius but got stale after awhile. XBox for the win!

      • Jay

        I think the Wii and Xbox are pretty even.
        Sure the Xbox pushes better graphics, but the Wiimote is still the best sensor wand technology available. Kinect is awesome, dont get me wrong… but I think the next best system will have a Kinect type camera combined with a Wii type wand + remote. the first system to do that will be KING

    • TRC Throbbinhood

      Don’t get it if you don’t want but it’s awesome, and what headaches lol, great piece of kit, the only negative comments here are jealous pricks who can’t afford it.

  • Natalie

    A $250 price tag IS hefty, but I wonder if they will lower it now that the incentives some stores were giving are gone. We got ours (or, *ahem*, my son got HIS) for $100 by pre-ordering and turning in his original DS (that hadn’t been used in ages) and his DSi XL. It is definitely an innovative and fun little system, though I will limit the amount of time any of us spend in 3D mode.

  • Marcus

    I still have my original DS – the big one with the GBA slot on the bottom – and it does what I want it to do… The 3D on this is tempting just from a nifty gadget perspective, but it’s not worth $250. I might buy one when the price drops in 6 months to a year.

  • Pat

    I am not a fan of the current 3D fad, but I do think this system looks fantastic. That said, I’m waiting for its next iteration (knowing Nintendo, that will take a year or two, tops)… that 3-hour battery life is a serious deal breaker for me. Larger screens would be nice, too.

    I can’t say how successful the 3DS will be in North America… everywhere I went on its release day, the stores were stocked to bursting with them even in the late afternoon. No one was in ANY danger of selling out, and I’ve never seen that happen with a Nintendo system on release day before…

  • Tom

    3DS is amazing…..loving it!!

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