It's the games that make the system, right? That's especially true with the Nintendo 3DS, which judged on its technical merits isn't a particularly great bit of hardware.
The graphics are well behind those of the PlayStation Vita, the 3D effect is finicky and rarely put to essential use, and the touch tech feels ages old compared to phone and tablet screens. But where else are you going to play some of Nintendo's best modern games, not to mention a solid handful of third-party efforts?
The New Nintendo 3DS and 3DS XL (yes, “New” really is part of the console’s name) lightly chip away at the hardware deficiencies, making numerous improvements that are notable, albeit not exactly dramatic or game-changing. It's inarguably the version to get if you're just buying into the platform now, but if you already have a 3DS, do you really need a New one?
Revised and reconfigured
We’ve been playing with the larger New Nintendo 3DS XL, and it's the model better primed to compete with the PlayStation Vita: it's a fuller-bodied handheld, with its top 3D screen closer in size to Sony's own handheld. At a glance, the New 3DS XL maintains the familiar fold-open, laptop-esque silhouette of the original models.
Nearly everything has been rejigged, though. Considering how similar the shapes are, it's amazing how almost every switch, light, button, and port is in a different position on the New model. The cartridge port, stylus slot, and power button are all along the bottom now, the physical Wi-Fi switch is gone, the microSD card slot is locked beneath the back cover (and a couple of screws), and the volume slider is opposite the identical 3D slider now.
And there are aesthetic differences, too – all for the better. The outer top is flattened and has an attractive diagonal line pattern, the inside and spine plastic has more of a matte finish that looks less like cheap plastic, and you won't find massive buttons under the screen anymore – a tiny "Home" logo remains, while Start and Select are smaller and to the right. Even the face button labels get throwback colouring to the iconic controller scheme of the Super Famicom (Super Nintendo) from Japan.
Frustratingly, and weirdly, the New Nintendo 3DS XL doesn't come with a wall charger, or even a USB cable (since it's a proprietary connection). You'll either need to buy a charger separately, or use one from an older 3DS model. Yes, really.
More speed, more stuff
The latest Nintendo 3DS doesn't mark a new console generation, but it does have an upgraded processor within – which currently is put to best use navigating around the menus. Seriously, the clunky menu screens took ages to flip through before, and here it's a lot more tolerable. It's still sort of an awkward interface – not that the Vita's UI is that much better – but at least it's an improvement.
Capcom's Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate runs a little crisper on the New Nintendo 3DS, and loads faster to boot, but the differences aren't dramatic. We'll start seeing that extra processing power put to more use soon, however, as Nintendo's own Xenoblade Chronicles 3D – a port of the well-regarded Wii RPG – will be a New 3DS and 3DS XL exclusive when it releases in April, due to the extra computing demands.
The New 3DS XL also adds a right analog nub found near the hinge on the right – and when I say nub, I really mean it. There's no fluidity to its movement, and you'll probably never use it to control a character. It's clearly designed just to allow occasional, sorta-precise camera control in 3D games, which is how it's used in both Monster Hunter and the new Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D. The nub works fine for those tasks, but I can't help but wish Nintendo had put a real analog stick or circle pad there to allow developers more gameplay flexibility.
Elsewhere, you'll find extra ZL and ZR buttons inset on the shoulders, which feels a bit crowded but could be helpful for complicated games, plus the New 3DS XL has NFC built-in to let you tap Amiibo figurines and pull characters into supported games. Right now, that's only Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS, and the Amiibo usage is wholly inessential. But if you like the figurines, having the tech built is better than buying an NFC dongle adapter for the old 3DS.
The New Nintendo 3DS XL's big marketing hook is "Super-Stable 3D," as much a feature enhancement as an admission that the original model's effect was sort of terrible. Rather than offering fixed (and very limited) viewing angles, now the tiny camera above the top screen follows your eyes and adjusts the image accordingly, making for a mostly-smooth 3D image as long as your focus remains on the screen.
Having not used my 3DS in a while, I'd somehow convinced myself that the 3D effect wasn't so bad. But comparing the two now, it really is a big enhancement. However, it's not one without flaws. You have to keep the system at that 12-to-14in distance window from your face to avoid a partially distorted image, and while the eye tracking generally works well in the dark, it seemed just a little less consistent. Also, looking away and then back at the screen is super disorienting.
And truth be told, stabilizing the 3D effect doesn't make it mechanically better. It's still a minor effect in most games, and much of the time, I found myself turning the feature off within 15 minutes – because it's rarely worth the mild eyestrain and disorienting moments. The 3D just isn't as essential a part of the 3DS experience as Nintendo intended it to be, but at least it's less irritating in usage here.
Sadly, the screens aren't overall any better. The top 3D screen, where most of the action happens, still doesn't get terribly bright, and it has a washed-out look compared to the eye-popping Vita display. And the bottom one is even worse, thanks to the old-school resistive touch screen that slightly muddles the view.
Nintendo's not-so-secret talent
Luckily, the draw of the earlier 3DS models remains intact for the New Nintendo 3DS XL: it has Nintendo games, and the Vita, smartphones, and tablets simply don't. That's enough to sell many gamers on the system, even with third-party developers shying away from the platform. So long as Nintendo keeps pumping out a few real gems per year, the 3DS has value.
And there's a nice stack of gems at this point. The Mario series is in brilliant form on the 3DS, with the tremendous Super Mario 3D Land and great Mario Kart 7 and Super Smash Bros. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Fire Emblem Awakening, and Pokémon X & Y are all superb time sinks, too.
It's even become a repository for stellar ports from older Nintendo platforms, notably with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Star Fox 3D, and Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D. Those are all Nintendo-published games, but how about Super Street Fighter IV, Persona Q, and Shovel Knight? The New Nintendo 3DS XL doesn't have a massive library, but it has impressive quality where it counts.
And don't forget the entire Nintendo DS selection, which is playable on the New 3DS XL via cartridges, as well as the digital Virtual Console, which has a modest selection of retro games to download. Explore both and you'll find ample greatness.
New Nintendo 3DS XL Verdict
The New Nintendo 3DS XL isn't a dramatic upgrade over the standard 3DS XL model, but it's not meant to be – it's the half-generation improvement, and in that regard, it shows value. That 3D effect is less frustrating, the hardware is more refined and useful for certain games, and the improved processor means faster loading times and enhancements in supported software.
But the real question is: if you already have a 3DS XL, should you buy the New one? If you play handheld games casually, then probably not. The tweaks are collectively meaningful, but individually they're small perks – the core experience is unchanged.
But for the hardcore, regular player who fires up deep-dive role-playing adventures or plays through every Nintendo-published game like clockwork, you'll definitely appreciate the enhancements. Find the best trade-in offer or sell the original system to a mate, and then spend the remaining money and bask in the New-ness.