Console hardware revisions are a common way for manufacturers to reduce costs, drive fresh sales and maintain user interest in their systems, and industry stalwart Nintendo has been one of the most prolific revisionists; in fact, the company arguably pioneered the concept of repackaging systems every few years.
The confusingly named New Nintendo 3DS and its larger sibling the New Nintendo 3DS XL are the latest in a proud tradition that began in the '90s with the AV Famicom, SNES Jr. and Game Boy Pocket. It adds some much-needed improvements to the company's incredibly portable platform.
What is It?
The New Nintendo 3DS is an enhanced version of the existing 3DS console. It boasts an improved 3D effect thanks to camera-based head-tracking, a meatier CPU, additional control inputs, and replaceable cover plates on the standard model. The New Nintendo 3DS XL has larger screens than the standard version, but lacks the cover plates.
Who's it For?
The reason Nintendo is so keen to revisit its hardware every few years is because it can count on millions of devoted fans to snap up each and every fresh console facelift. The New Nintendo 3DS, complete with desirable and collectable cover plates emblazoned on with famous Nintendo brands, is sure to get those very same diehard followers reaching for their wallets. However, the system is also intended to pick up new customers who've yet to take the plunge with Nintendo's handheld range and give the system renewed momentum throughout 2015.
The most obvious difference between the New Nintendo 3DS when compared to previous models is the interchangeable cover plates; at least on the standard model, as Nintendo has strangely decided to omit this crowd-pleasing and money-spinning feature on the larger XL variant. The top plate clips into place and can be removed by tugging at a corner with your fingernail, while the rear plate – which covers the battery compartment and Micro SD card slot – is secured by two screws for additional peace of mind. In Japan there are over 40 different cover plate designs currently available with many more on the way, and when the system launches in Europe next month you'll be able to get your hands on a significant proportion of those.
Opening up the machine shows other design improvements. The addition of a second controller is long overdue, but in this case Nintendo has opted for something a little different to what we saw on the Sony PS Vita. The C-Stick takes its name from the Nintendo GameCube controller, and in reality is more of a rubber nub than a stick. Pushing it barely seems to register any kind of movement, but in-game it's surprisingly responsive – very much like those old mouse pointers that were so popular on laptops a few years back.
Titles like Super Smash Bros, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D and Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate all support the C-Stick from day one, while older titles designed to utilise the Circle Pad Pro attachment (such as Kid Icarus and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate) will also be compatible with the controller thanks to a firmware update Nintendo instigated not long after the Japanese debut of the New Nintendo 3DS.
Another element borrowed from the Circle Pad Pro is two additional shoulder buttons, located on the top edge of the device. These extra buttons have forced the reshuffling of existing elements, such as the game card slot and stylus dock - both of which are now located on the bottom edge of the console, where they are joined by the power button and headphone socket. The volume slider has been moved from the main body of the machine to the upper screen, directly opposite the 3D slider.
This rejigging of previously familiar elements means that it may take some time to become fully accustomed to the new arrangement, and while we're not at all convinced by the fiddly positioning of the power button (it's harder to press than it should be, due to its location), after a while things settle down and become second nature once again.
The other big design change is that Nintendo has moved from SD cards to smaller Micro SD cards for storage. You get a 4GB card with the system, but if you're planning on downloading retail releases from the 3DS eShop that will fill up pretty swiftly. If you already own a 3DS system and have invested in a roomy SD card, then you'll be in the rather irksome position of having to shell put for another card when you upgrade; it's not as big an issue as it could be, as flash media is pretty cheap these days.
A pleasing degree of customisation and a revised control layout aren't the only changes you'll notice in this new hardware: under the bonnet there are technological improvements which are arguably even more impressive. First up, the system's glasses-free 3D effect has been enhanced almost beyond compare; owners of the existing 3DS console will attest that it didn't take much to "break" the impression of 3D, which was a limitation of the parallax barrier screen technology. A perfect viewing angle was paramount in order to maintain the illusion of three dimensional depth, and even the slightest movement could ruin the impact.
On the New Nintendo 3DS, the 3D effect is maintained by bringing the front-facing camera into play. This constantly monitors your position and adjusts the image in real time, meaning that even extreme movements don't break the effect. It's an remarkable feat which is sure to convince more people to play with the 3D slider all the way up.
The New Nintendo 3DS also includes a more powerful CPU, and this has already resulted in more technically impressive releases. Super Smash Bros., which launched last year, offers a solid indication of just how much better the hardware is. On the older 3DS, playing the game disabled such features as Miiverse, and closing the software would effectively result in the entire console rebooting, rather than simply dropping you back to the Home menu. However, on the New Nintendo 3DS this doesn't happen, and it's possible to pause the game and post to Miiverse as normal.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate offers similar performance improvements, with the game running much more smoothly on the new machine. In the future, we'll see software which is exclusive to the New Nintendo 3DS and does an even more convincing job of harnessing the more powerful CPU; the first being a conversion of the cult classic Wii RPG Xenoblade Chronicles, which is due in April this year.
It's impossible not to love the removable cover plates. They're a very basic means of customising the standard New Nintendo 3DS model but they're bound to appeal to hardcore collectors, as well as the devoted and lifelong followers of the Japanese veteran gaming machine. That Nintendo didn't choose to also include them on the larger XL model is a genuine puzzle.
The rock-solid 3D effect is another massive, massive bonus that will totally change the way you use the console, irrespective of whether or not you had any issues with previous iterations of the system. The inclusion of a second stick means we can finally abandon the bulky Circle Pad Pro attachment, while the beefier CPU already offers tangible benefits, even without any exclusive games. The system is faster, with load times drastically reduced; you can now move around the console's interface with much greater speed, and downloading content from the eShop also takes less time.
Finally, we couldn't write any review about this system without mentioning the gorgeous SNES-colour face buttons on the standard New Nintendo 3DS. If you were lucky enough to live through the golden 16-bit era, the sight of that iconic red, blue, yellow and green button cluster will have you weeping tears of pure nostalgia.
Battery life has always been something of an issue with the entire 3DS range, especially if you like playing with the auto-stereoscopic effect switched on. While both models of the New Nintendo 3DS offer a slight increase in stamina over their respective forerunners, it's nothing to write home about: you get roughly an additional hour when compared to previous versions, if that. If you're planning on using the system regularly and keeping it in sleep mode in order to capture all those lovely StreetPass hits then you should expect to charge it every couple of days, if not more.
Speaking of charging the system, neither model of the New Nintendo 3DS comes bundled with a wall charger. Nintendo clearly assumes that if you're picking up the console, then you've already got a 3DS somewhere in the house and will therefore have access to a charger. If you're coming to the console entirely fresh, then you'll need to purchase one from day one. Otherwise you're not likely to get very far with your shiny new gaming acquisition.
Should You Buy It?
While the battery life could be better, there's no doubt whatsoever that this is the best version of the 3DS we've seen so far – and are likely to see, given the hardware's advanced age. The improved 3D effect, additional controls and downright gorgeous cover plates (on the standard model) are reason enough to trade in your old console and upgrade.
If you've managed to resist the charms of Nintendo's handheld for this long, then there really hasn't been a better time to jump on board. Sure, the internal specs are modest when compared to modern smartphones and tablets, but the 3DS plays host to what are arguably some of the finest video games of this generation, including The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Fire Emblem: Awakening, Luigi's Mansion 2, Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart 7 and – as from next month – Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D and Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. In short, what is arguably the world's best dedicated portable gaming system just advanced a level.