The most important thing to know about the Nintendo 3DS is that it works. The handheld system displays games in glasses-free, stereoscopic 3D. The effect is uncanny and somewhat diminishing: The layered backgrounds of games feel like tiny dioramas when viewed through the 3DS’s wide-aspect top screen. When games like Lego Star Wars III use distant cameras, the avatars tend to feel like miniature toys. But tighter angles, especially in the up-close portions of Super Street Fighter IV, do much to nullify that shrinking feeling. A dial on the right-hand side of the top screen allows users to adjust the intensity of the 3D effect. Those prone to eyestrain, or looking to prolong battery life, can simply turn it off.
A couple of pre-loaded games leverage the 3D display and on-board cameras to mixed effect. A bundle of physical AR cards create augmented-reality games that let you take pictures of Nintendo characters or play mini-games in your own surroundings by taking live video feed of your immediate environment and injecting moving characters into the scenery. A built in Wii-style accelerometer allows you to swing the 3DS around to look at the projections from different angles. Another game, Face Raiders, uses pictures of yourself and friends to personalize enemies that float around your real-world surroundings. As games, these are little more than shooting galleries, but their ability to intermix the real and virtual world make them more than a little nifty.
Otherwise, the 3DS is a souped-up version of the Nintendo DS—it’ll play old DS carts, in fact. As such, it’ll feel a tad retro for those who’ve grown accustomed to the mega-touch of the iPad. The 3DS’s smaller, secondary screen frequently demands use of a stylus, telescoped and tucked into an orifice on the back of the system. Conventional gamers will most appreciate the 3DS’s long-overdue analog thumb stick. That’s still one stick away from the console status quo, though.
Maybe the biggest bummer around the 3DS is its noncommittal approach to online gaming. There are lots of ways to connect locally: Local wireless allows for sharing demos and multiplayer demos. The StreetPass mode is sanctioned war-driving. With your 3DS in sleep mode, you troll your town for other players, automatically swapping Miis and other goodies with them. But unless you live in a metropolis, or make a habit of haunting elementary-school playgrounds, this mode will only get play at semi-annual nerd conventions. And while some games come with integrated online play—it’s easy to get your ass destroyed by Japanese Street Fighter players—the core 3DS experience still feels walled off. Even once you friend up (via the wildly unpopular friend code system) there’s no easy way to send messages or jump into games with your online friends.
Nintendo’s app store doesn’t go online until May, when a downloadable update will be pushed to handhelds. This non-feature of continual system updates may be one of the Nintendo 3DS’s best. That is, if Nintendo continues tweaking the 3DS experience and adding new features over the months to come. Because right now, the 3DS feels like a great handheld waiting to happen.