Nintendo 3DS XL – Thoughts and Concerns

The 3DS XL screen. Apparently, size DOES matter.

I don’t want people to think I’m a raging Nintendo fanboy, I just feel they sometimes get a lot of stick for actually trying some good new ideas because we’re meant to hate them. The Nintendo 3DS XL reveal, however, I feel might be that moment I can pick on Nintendo for actually doing something potentially stupid…

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So the moment we were expecting has arrived. The Nintendo 3DS XL has been revealed, scrutinised and even priced (£179.99 currently, expect price wars to drop that considerably).

As I said in my intro, some may think I have a bit of a stiffy for Nintendo and its true I do have a lot of respect for Nintendo, perhaps more than others. As I see it, it’s cool to hate on Nintendo for absolutely no more justifiable a reason than it is Nintendo, and they are deserving of our contempt. This is a really annoying attitude for me, because a lot of what Nintendo do – and have done – is actually pretty impressive and amazing, and benefits the industry. That doesn’t mean they should be immune to criticism for bad ideas, but they shouldn’t be assaulted for good ones, or good games regardless of what the general gaming community might have against them. The light does not shine out of the arses of Sony or Microsoft either – Sony have made few concessions to the state of third party games on the PS3 (a criticism mainly aimed at Nintendo, so the hypocrisy of this does not escape me!) and Microsoft are making it harder and harder to release games on the Live service, and impossible if you’ve had the sheer audacity to release it first on another platform (PC, PS3 or Wii). That’s not healthy either, and just two of dozens of criticisms I can level at them.

However, the inevitable unveiling of a redesigned Nintendo 3DS does allow me to actually have some justifiable criticisms on Nintendo and their ideas.

Now, let’s clear this up. Anyone who has ever bought an upgraded Apple device – iPhone, iPad etc. – or has in the past paid for a slimline console release because it looks prettier or seems more reliable has no place criticising Nintendo. Fortunately, I still have my fat PS3 and 360 and don’t buy Apple products so I can stand in a position of some neutrality here without the whiff of hypocrisy following me around like a bad smell, even if it is the cool thing to do here in the UK right now.

I’d like to start also by saying the new setup of buttons at the bottom – the new design and seperated start, home and select buttons are visually and practically leaps and bounds ahead of the old 3DS setup, and actually look like buttons and not like you’re pressing down into the bowels of the system potentially about to break them. That’s a good thing, and something the redesign gets right.

The rest, however, I fear it doesn’t.

For a start, the 3DS XL is proportionally much bigger than the 3DS – and the 3DS itself is hardly a small device either. This makes it more impractical from a portable console point of view. Now I know we have in the past had the Gameboy and Game Gear, which were cathedrals compared to what we have now, but that was the 80s. We’ve come a long way in the last 20-odd years, and looking at smartphones, clearly the tech exists to create a portable device to fit inside the average pocket. I suspect the 3DS XL will be ‘relegated’ to backpacks and rucksacks. Not a big distinction, but an important one – this is making stuff bigger when it doesn’t seem necessary.

The larger screen (they claim 90%, I’d say that might be optimistic by 10 or 15%) does raise some questions as well. It seems to have a higher pixel count that it brings means that some games will need to be either stretched to fit the new screen size, or run in their native resolution (which it can do apparently) – this is not a case of larger pixels (and would you really willingly run the risk of making your games potentially uglier?). For some games this may not be a big issue – I don’t think Resident Evil: Revelations will look that bad upscaled onto the larger screen, but other more precise things like Pullblox and many of the Virtual Console downloads might suffer the transition of upscaling, and end up mostly run in the native resolution of old. It also creates a real problem in new, upcoming games – the old resolution vs the new resolution, do they design for both, one or let upscaling do the legwork? It’s an important complication that might negatively impact a lot of games in development for the 3DS, and that makes it a real thorny issue for Nintendo. A larger screen is impressive, and lovely, but when it causes so many headaches at the same time – they may be rendering the old 3DS titles obsolete, if newer games decide to design for the larger screen having more pixels, meaning they won’t function or look right on the smaller screen. This means previous 3DS owners will be forced into buying the new one – where their old 3DS systems become pretty much worthless. That’s a REALLY BAD DECISION if it turns out to be true. Catastrophically bad, even.

Likewise is the new sleek and rounded design, it doesn’t look quite as secure or as pretty. On the upside, they clearly fixed the 3DS display issue with the screen increase as the plastic on the inside can be the same colour as the plastic on the outside, rather than a refractive black sheen. I don’t know, I don’t think the 3DS XL is especially pretty. It just seems a design by committee thing. That’ll do. There’s nothing about it that screams like their old designs, “I am SEXY and I know it!” That’s personal taste more than a general criticism, but Nintendo are usually pretty good when it comes to their new designs on handhelds. This just feels rushed out, and I fear Nintendo may not be happy and order ANOTHER redesign for the end of the year.

Then there is another issue – no second analog slider. Okay, I know it’s not necessary or anything, but this means you can’t use the 3DS Circle Pad Pro on it (although I’d argue that isn’t a bad thing, that piece of crap was AWFUL and should be burned like a witch on a stake! Unclean! UUUNNCLEEEEAAAANNN!) . This was a good chance – with a proper size increase – to add in the second slider and appeal to those upgrading. Instead, it feels like people are short-changed, and asking what the new Circle Pad Pro device will look like – and how BIG it is going to end up making the whole thing. It’s a missed opportunity to add in something that would make the upgrade important and serious, like a large step rather than a small one.

Likewise is the absence in this case of potentially rendering their old devices obsolete in the future to offer a concessionary rate to those already owning a 3DS. Most stores would be happy to transfer your SD Card and System Memory to the new device and take the old one in if Nintendo were to offer incentives to do so – that there is none I fear means Nintendo hopes for a while to maintain a sort of status quo here, a situation where they have a new 3DS that has significantly more potential than the old one but has to be held back somewhat so that older users don’t feel like they are being forced to upgrade to the new 3DS XL. This will not last forever, and Nintendo must be aware of the potential for this to blow up in their faces in the coming months.

Despite this, I think the 3DS XL is otherwise promising. But it’s a smaller step than I thought it was going to be, and it has the potential for upsetting those unable (or unwilling) to afford the expense of an upgrade. And if that upgrade ends up feeling mandatory, with no incentives to lessen the burden on their old users, Nintendo could be risking their handheld market domination in the process. Nintendo has succeeded a lot of the time on goodwill and shrewd business practices – this has the potential to damage both, detrimentally and possibly irreparably.

It makes the 3DS XL an interesting but perplexing next step for Nintendo, a calculated gamble that both seems at odds with their direction and at odds with their image. This is a little more than a simple redesign – the larger screen does bring with it many more practical and visual implications, but at the same time this could end up rendering the old screens utterly useless. It will be interesting to see how Nintendo plan to square this – if they artificially restrict their resolution, things could get ugly – well, uglier. If they don’t, then they will render all the 3DS consoles sold the past 12-18 months obsolete overnight.

It’s a serious problem. It’s a serious and valid criticism. It doesn’t matter that this is Nintendo – it could be any company, and it would still be a valid criticism. This is the key point here. Cheapening attacks on Nintendo means when there are VALID and SERIOUS questions and criticisms to be leveled at them, it just sounds like the same old whining anti-Nintendo sentiment. It makes it harder to raise and address the real issues. That’s why I try not to get involved in the traditional Nintendo ire. Because you need a standpoint where valid criticisms hold some weight, and you can’t do that when you’re being critical of every single thing they ever do ever. You need to know which battles are worth fighting. This is, I fear, going to be one of them.

And this is a point where Nintendo needs to really tread carefully. Because the new 3DS XL could be amazing – but it could very easily damage their brand as well.

And that, for Nintendo, will simply not do.

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Update #1 – I did some digging around and the 3DS XL apparently will be using a 1-1 Pixel Ratio, meaning the extra size WON’T mean more pixel density. The smaller “native resolution” is just natural resolution before being scaled up to the screen.

This is good for the 3D games which can of often do upscale very nicely but as I pointed out, there will be some serious issues for pixel-based games and classic games. Larger pixels can have a detrimental effect on visual fidelity for these games, moreso the Virtual Console titles that were designed in an era where upscaling was simply unheard of. That may be an unfortunate consequence of the larger screen – a push away from games based on pixels and sprite based animations, and for a handheld, that could also be quite worrying.

Will need to see side-by-side comparisons of some of these games. Dragon Crystal is my current favourite going in and out of hospital, but the 3DS version is the much lower-resolution Game Gear version rather than the more slickly-polished Master System version. I fear Dragon Crystal itself is going to look awful on a screen nearly twice the size…

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