Review by Phange
3DS XL - Improved in every way, but it accentuates fundamental flaws
The Nintendo 3DS XL is absolutely, without question, an improvement over the original device. What was once a bizarrely-shaped, slippery, wobbly-hinged monstrosity of a system is now a remarkably reserved (especially for Nintendo), expertly designed, and much more ergonomic device. Gone are the sharp corners, the inexplicably tight viewing angles (for 3D), and the inescapable sense that Nintendo had clearly designed a system with blatant flaws to be addressed in the next iteration.
The 3DS XL is, plainly, the next iteration. In essence, it is the DS Lite to the original "Phat" DS.
It does make some of the same mistakes (the select/home/start buttons are no longer covered by a bizarre strip of plastic, but are even more stiff and awkward), but on the whole it feels more robust, the screens seem higher quality, and if anything the larger screens provide a better representation of just how surprisingly good 3DS graphics really are, even compared to the powerhouse that is the Playstation Vita.
The 3DS XL, like its forebear, is a sea of ironies, but for different reasons. Upon first inspection, the XL feels immediately tougher and more sturdily built, but beneath the facade is a system that is rife with blatant cost-cutting - gone is the unnecessary gloss exterior, gone is the unnecessary LED indicator to let you know that 3D content is available, gone are the "layers" of different-colored plastic, gone is the textured-then-lacquered base. Make no mistake, the XL was designed to recoup the losses the original 3DS incurred with its drastic price cut. That said, none of these changes have an effect on the overall sturdiness and quality of the product, and in most ways the XL's overall design aesthetic is simply better than the the original's.
Though the XL eschews a lot of costly design choices in the original (the aforementioned gloss, layers, etc), most of these cuts actually improve the system. The loss of layers means the base is thinner and rounder than the original's, making it immediately more comfortable. While the XL's slightly rubbery control area (surrounding the bottom screen) definitely feels cheaper, the textured design means it's far less slippery. On the whole, the 3DS XL is perhaps best compared to Apple's latest MacBook Airs as compared to the Air that was introduced in 2008. The one in 2008 was made from space-age materials, no expense was spared, and it cost almost $2,000 for the base model, yet was rife with extremely poor design choices (an unbelievably slow hard drive and CPU nonwithstanding). Zoom to today, and a MacBook Air looks, runs, and costs better than ever before (there's even a $1,000 model). Yes, every bit of it is more cheaply made than the 2008 model, but better engineering trumps expensive design gimmicks. The same applies to the 3DS XL.
When the 3DS launched in 2011, I found it to be crassly behind the times for a handheld electronic device of its price (then $250) when compared to smartphones. This was made worse by the Vita launching at the same price, with high-end smartphone hardware.
But then, reality started to set in. The Vita suffered for so blatantly copying smartphone hardware (and software) - being a not-quite handheld and not-quite smartphone made it a not-quite value. There was nothing it did that smartphones or handhelds, respectively, couldn't do better. While the 3DS, on the other hand, remained the clunky, bloated, slow monster with a lackluster game selection that was nevertheless better than most smartphone titles and nearly all of the Vita's.
In short, the 3DS is pretty much just bad at anything that isn't game-related. Netflix on 3DS XL is painfully slow and excruciatingly ugly, the MP3 player is borderline useless, the Nintendo eShop is a garbled, unorganized mess in dire need of a redesign, and the web browser is barely functional.
Yet behind all of these phoned-in features is a video game system that is actually quite good, if not excellent. The 3DS's graphics can be described as "good Gamecube / Wii" which in some ways is more useful to developers and enjoyable to players than the Vita's "bad PS3" graphics. Games on the 3DS almost always run with solid frame rates, with excellent animations, and have fast loading times. Contrasted with the Vita's unusual plastic-y early PS3 graphics that are usually coupled with poor frame rates and inexplicably long load times. In the annoying "games vs. graphics" argument I usually argue "both", but for the first time I've felt like a system's hardware can extend past its potential (Vita). With the 3DS, developers limit themselves to what is feasible on a handheld equivalent of the Gamecube, and have delivered spectacularly with games like Kid Icarus, Kingdom Hearts, and Resident Evil. While on the Vita, recent titles like Madden 2013 feel like cheap approximations of their console counterparts - providing little value as handheld titles. Other titles, like Resistance: Burning Skies, have been disappointing not just because they only weakly approximate their console equivalents, but because they fail fundamentally to satisfy the requirements of being a handheld title as well.
Unfortunately, all good praise must come to an end. As has been rightly stated by reviewers in the past, the 3DS (and Vita, really) operate on a 2005 model in 2012. In 2005, cellphone gaming was at best an ugly, expensive mess. But with the advent of the iPhone, cellphone gaming has slowly chipped away the "value" argument for handheld consoles such as the 3DS. Older smartphone games were rightly compared to cheap flash titles. But then developers kept chipping away - making higher and higher quality titles until games like Modern Combat 3 and Where's My Water proved to have more content and better production values than nearly all handheld titles, at a fraction of the price. While games like Kid Icarus and Super Mario 3D Land are still a cut above what's available on the App Store, they are the exception rather than the norm. In a world of 99 cent compilations of 100 Atari 2600 games, Nintendo sells NES games for $5.99. Houston, we have a problem. Value is a fickle thing - and as touch controls continue to improve (alongside game quality), the argument for $40 handheld titles becomes less and less logical. That is why Nintendo's eShop is simultaneously their one big hope and their most significant downfall. Like pre-iPod Apple, their perceived value is lost on everyone but themselves and their most ardent fans.
Not to end on a dire note, here's my summary of the 3DS XL:
This is the best handheld Nintendo has ever made. The screen size, coupled with excellent graphics, make the system far more immersive and enjoyable than the original 3DS, and in many ways make the 3D itself less of a gimmick and more of an actual selling point. But it is with a heavy heart that I feel compelled to address the obvious: The 3DS's meager game selection (albeit with excellent first party exclusives) is a function of changing market dynamics that Nintendo has thus far avoided confronting. How much longer it can afford to do so is anyone's guess, but if one is capable of ignoring the obvious like Nintendo attempts to do, one can at least admit that the 3DS XL is quite an improvement over the original. Then again, so is the Sony Reader Touch Edition. But you'd be hard pressed to find anyone using one.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Nintendo 3DS XL (US, 08/19/12)
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