Nintendo have always been ahead of the curve when it comes to most things, but when talking about hardware itís rare to be able to say otherwise. The NES was the first home console to take root and effectively saved the fledgling industry before it had even got going. The Virtual Boy didnít really work but you had a depth effect in the early to mid-1990s when only recently 3D has actually taken hold. The Gameboy, and latterly the DS defined, redefined and owned the handheld market. Competitors have come, gone and/or are still hanging on in a distant second place. All of this is a wonderful thing.
On the revision front the first example of some updated Nintendo hardware was probably the Gameboy Advance. Since then it has been extremely common for the handhelds to get updated,; the DS a few time and now the first change to the 3DS hardware. Only just over one year since the original 3DS was released to fanfare centring around the no-glasses 3D effect, Nintendo are back with the 3DS XL. There are two main questions Ė is it better than the existing 3DS and if so is it enough to warrant an upgrade? Firstly though we need to understand the background. Back in 2004 when Nintendo released the original DS people didnít know what to make of it. No one had seen touchscreens in home entertainment technology really, and why would a second screen be a good thing anyway aside from the fact Nintendo and its partners could trumpet on about things being twice as good/big/fun as before? Folk shouldnít have worried themselves Ė this was Nintendo. The DS went on to be the most resounding success story and although originally envisaged as a third pillar, it actually meant the Gameboy brand would die a death (to date, at least).
The difference in the world when Nintendo released the 3DS though was marked, and for good reason this time. It was not a high resolution screen, let alone HD ready. It was still a resistant touchscreen with the need for a stylus to impart true responsiveness. All of this in the age of the smartphone and tablet computer. It still utilised full priced cart games and although promised in time an electronic download shop, it was never likely to match the 69p offerings on the iOS App store and Google Play. It was more powerful than the DS but Nintendo didnít really explain that very well. Nintendo, in the world of 3D being the big thing, focussed on that. No glasses! 3D! Headaches for some! Sorry, that last bit is harsh, but it is unfortunately true. How could a console marketed as something not deliver a satisfying and matching experience to everyone? For perhaps these reasons and others it didnít work. Nintendo recognised this. They fixed things. Price point altered, focus changed. A second analogue stick attachment developed and the PS Vita seen off (perhaps Ė thatís a discussion out of scope of this article). The 3DS has become a success and the DS is a long forgotten relative.
So why the need for the 3DS XL so soon after the originalís launch? Itís hard to second-guess the thought process of Kyotoís finest but The Digital Fix suspects it was a combination of a few things. The need for a more cost effective production process and finished product. Integral improvements to existing hardware that in turn would support the second hard sell, the one ignoring the third dimension. It does indeed make good on a few of the things that once were wrong (in true Quantum Leap style) but in other areas makes very little sense Ė some of which could be put down to the project timescale perhaps, but which still surprise they werenít a thought from beforehand.
The first thing you notice when you take the 3DS out of its box Ė itself not that much bigger than that of the 3DS (an important factor when you consider the customers Nintendo have to persuade to make space on their shelves Ė here it can be a straight swap; the best for both parties) Ė is that itís more DS than 3DS in style and looks. Itís a two-tone matt plastic affair, all big, and full of bulk. The original was actually rather sleek. Shiny, small form factor and very un-Nintendo like, youíd not be amd to think it had the PSP or anything Apple in mind when the industrial design was done. Here, itís all about the cheap and the pragmatic. Maybe matt plastic isnít actually cheaper than shiny plastic but thatís how it looks. Now, in isolation itís not bad. Itís a Nintendo product. Side by side however and this first impression is one of disappointment. But then, thatís not the point is it?
The thing is, there are other design choices which grate. Why no AC adapter included in the box? To maintain a similar footprint to the originalís packaging? To artificially keep costs appearing low to the consumer who forgets to tally things up after a day downtown? Itís annoying, more so if youíre thinking of upgrading as there is no dock. Whilst this has no effect on the functionality at all it is incredibly disheartening to think youíd lose that.
All of this falls by the wayside though when you realise (just six months after the release of the second analogue stick attachment) that Nintendo forgot to add on a second analogue stick. This can, frankly, only be described as totally insane. It makes less sense than an elephant on a unicycle on skis in the Alps. Why would anyone release a hardware revision and forget to bring it up to date with the existing hardware? As mentioned above it can only be that when the 3DS XL project began the second stick was not a factor. By the time that came into being Ė as an emergency correction to a strategy perceived as flawed (perhaps when the Vita was announced?) it seems more clearly each day Ė the 3DS XL was so far down the line machinery to make the thing had been paid for and put in place. Changing it then to such a degree would have been madness from a cost point of view. Fundamentally, thatís what the 3DS XL revision is. A cost saving. This is supported by the general look and feel of the product, and in particular the displeasing start, select and power buttons.
The thing is, itís still an all round superior machine than the original. Yes it retains the same resistive touchscreen technology and no it has no second analogue stick. The former can be explained by ensuring all 3DS owners have the same platform so as not to be disadvantaged when future software comes along. The latter has been discussed but suffice it to say in this paragraph that adding a second one when the first had been modified to allow one would not have imbalanced the playing field for owners one little bit. But the main screen is 90% bigger than the original. The console itself is a more natural fit to most adult hands without making it too hard for children to use. It allows for pain-free extended sessions. Itís not much bigger than a PS Vita if at all and also very comparable to large screen smartphones and smaller than all tablets available currently. Itís a brighter screen, too. The SD card that comes with the device is twice the size of the originalís. It feels very robust reassuring you of the build quality. It feels nice and stable in the hands.
Itís hard to know what to think of the 3DS XL. It is not worth upgrading to if you already own the original. The upsides are balanced out by the downsides and the overall gain Ė of which there is some Ė is so incremental itís not worth it. Itís also hard to say go for it when there has to be a third version of the hardware in development. Itís the Nintendo model these days but even more so given the confusing choices made in the 3DSí lifetime. If you donít have one at all itís the best way to play such impressive titles as Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7 and should frankly be the only solution an aspiring Nintendo Wizard should look to. Ultimately though, this is an ever so slightly sad indictment on the times we live in. Look what Nintendo have resorted to. A half-baked solution to what remains a wonderful but highly flawed device, driven by the economic needs of the world at large.