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48 Hours With Nintendo 3DS

The first two days of the rest of our lives...

In case you missed it, Nintendo representatives brought a train of pretty ladies to our office on Tuesday to make a show of the delivery of our very first Nintendo 3DS. It's the Cosmo Black version, to be specific. After failing to lock any of Nintendo's hired help in the dungeon that lurks in the back of our bar, we tore into the system to quickly look at its menus and features. You can relive the magic in this video... 

But that was Tuesday. After two days of messing with the 3DS, I've seen some pretty cool system-level things that feel like a collection of great ideas. Other portions of the system are elegant solutions to DS issues that don't exist anywhere else in the world (except for perhaps on the Wii). And some of it still seems a little awkward. Anyway, let's talk about this thing, cool?

Nintendo has never been known for its prowess in the online arena. Between game-specific DS friend codes and an utter lack of support for modern Wi-Fi security settings, Nintendo's previous work has been a source of much sadness and/or snarky humor over the last few years. The 3DS improves on all of this a bit, starting with one 12-digit friend code that sits at the system level and is, hopefully, the last friend code you'll ever have. Like previous incarnations, the friend codes must be swapped in both directions before you can make a match, though you can also automatically swap codes with local friends without having to enter codes.

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Along with the system-level friend code comes a persistent friends list that you can pull up from the home menu. Here you get little friend cards for each person, showing their Mii, their friend code, a status message (like an Xbox Live motto), and, potentially, a pair of games. You can select your favorite game via a list of anything you've run on your 3DS... even if it isn't a game. Me? I chose the "Health and Safety Information" screen as my favorite. Safety first, right? If your friends are online, their cards will light up and the game they're currently playing shows up when they're selected. This is, of course, an option that you can disable, if you want your game choices to remain a secret. Showing that kind of presence is pretty cool. Obviously, it's something that the modern consoles have been doing for years, but it's not something I'd expect to see on a handheld. I've seen people online taking photos, messing around with their AR cards, and so on. 

The home menu on the 3DS comes equipped with a bunch of stuff, though some of the items on the menus are merely placeholders for later development. There's a button for the web browser right on the main screen, but tapping it just tells you to wait for a later update. The DSiWare button does the same thing, as does the button for transferring data from an old DSi over to your 3DS. There's a notifications section which gives you some tips on how the 3DS is used and also tells you if you've had any digital contact while walking around in the real world via the 3DS StreetPass system.

You've probably heard something about StreetPass by now. It's the updated version of the "tag mode" or "bark mode" found in old DS games like Dragon Quest IX or Nintendogs. Both of these games allow you to exchange items or information with other players that you encountered on the streets without having to actually speak to them--if the game was in your DS and the system was in sleep mode, you could automatically make exchanges. The 3DS appears to be making this a more crucial part of the overall system structure by allowing the StreetPass features of multiple games to run at the same time, all from the home menu. This is accomplished by installing the StreetPass function while running a game, which appears to copy some data to the SD card slotted into the side of the unit. This means you might make contact for multiple games while you're out and about... though, to be straight with you, I have serious doubts about this whole thing. From a functionality standpoint, it seems terrific. But I'm a little sad about the whole thing because I don't live my life in a way that is conducive to me randomly walking past strangers who also happen to have a 3DS in sleep mode on their person. 
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Sure, at E3 or PAX or something, it'll probably be great. But in my everyday life, I drive a car to work. I walk to lunch and back in a district full of dead-eyed automatons that, above all, walk too slowly and take up the whole damn sidewalk. They, if I had to guess, aren't going to rock a 3DS in sleep mode. Maybe it'll be different for school-aged kids and people that stand around in a lot of subway trains, but how many kids per school are going to get into StreetPass, and how many of them are going to stick with it once the system has been out for a few months and they've already collected all of the nearby friend cards they can find? Overall, this feels like a feature that was designed for Japan. But even there, the system's battery life--which I'm still sort of testing--doesn't seem great. For as much as the system's power off screen might want you to drop into sleep mode instead of powering down, I think the desire for more game time is going to win out over collecting Street Fighter figurines and such.

The other neat sleep mode thing on the 3DS is the pedometer, which keeps track of how many steps you take in a day. For every 100 steps you take, you earn a "Play Coin." This is a system-wide currency that different games support in different ways, allowing you to translate movement into, to keep bringing up the game I've played the most of, Street Fighter figurines. It's a really awesome idea and I'm totally in love with it, conceptually. Whether or not games will use them for more meaningful exchanges will probably determine its long-term success. It's potentially a good hook to convince people to keep their 3DS around at all times, even though it suffers from the same sleep mode/battery life quandary that will impact StreetPass.

There's an audio player for your MP3s, and this ties into StreetPass by sharing playlist data There's a camera that lets you take 3D photos, which all look sort of weird to me. Or, at least, it doesn't look nearly as natural as seeing game graphics in 3D does. I sort of expected to dislike the 3D feature--every time I've seen a 3DS up until this retail release, it's been the same old story of eye fatigue and an inability to stay focused on the 3D screen for any serious length of time. I'm not really having that problem anymore, and the whole "faster frame rate in 2D mode" thing that some games offer hasn't ended up being as big of a draw as I thought it might be. I'm pleasantly surprised by all of this.

There's a notebook in there, which is sure to be frustrating for Nnooo, the developers of the myNotebook series for DSiWare. Like most of the other home screen features, you can hit the home button while playing a game to suspend it and drop right into the notes section. You can jot something down, export it to your camera roll, and get right back into your game without losing any progress. It's quick, and I don't think it'll be something that most players will need, but it's a simple idea that's implemented reasonably well.

Yes, the 3DS can get onto Wi-Fi networks that are protected by WPA2. TKIP and AES options are available, and it'll store up to three connections. In another one of those developments that'll only seem rad if you forget that every other wireless device in the world has been doing it for years, the 3DS will automatically connect to your saved networks without adjustment. So if I have the office Wi-Fi and my home network entered, I don't need to tell it which one to look for when I move from place to place. Actually, it's been so long since I tried getting a DS on the Internet that I've completely forgotten if it did that or not. I suspect not, but maybe I'm just thinking of the PSP, which definitely doesn't do that. Either way, I've been playing Super Street Fighter IV on a WPA2 AES network without any issue. However, for some reason it doesn't seem to see one of the Wi-Fi networks we have in the office. I'm not sure why.

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OK, how about the games? Well, so far I've messed around with a lot of the built-in stuff. AR Games is clever, allowing you to slap cards down on your desk that cause statues of Nintendo characters to pop onto the screen, like they're totally in the real world. It's cute, but after messing with it once or twice, I don't know that I'll return to it unless I'm showing the system off to someone new. Face Raiders is more my speed. This is another free, pre-installed thing that takes photos of you or your friends, maps them onto spheres, and places them into the real world, augmented reality-style, via the 3DS' front camera. You can shoot holes in your walls as you stand up and rotate around like a goon to track down enemies. Again, it's clever, and more of a tech demo than anything else, but it's more satisfying as a game than any of the AR cards are. Inside the Mii editing and sharing tools is a dungeon adventure that stars Miis that arrive on your system via StreetPass. As I haven't met anyone else with a 3DS yet, I've been unable to test this, but you can spend Play Coins on "heroes" for this little menu-based RPG thing, too. So I hired a couple of cats and had them swing swords at ghosts? The benefit to playing this very, very simplistic game is that you'll unlock hats to place on the StreetPass version of your Mii, potentially giving you something to make you stand out in a crowd.

We received six retail games along with the system, and we have more on the way. So far, I've mostly been sticking to Super Street Fighter IV, which is incredibly slick in some ways and a little frustrating in others. On one hand, it's great that it's the same game you remember from PS3 and 360. You'll notice some cut corners, such as completely static backgrounds, but it's identical where it counts. In some ways, it's better. For example, getting into an online battle seems significantly faster than it is on consoles, and I haven't run into any of those stupid "can't join" error messages that have plagued Capcom's last few console fighting games. The downside is the game's control. The analog slide pad isn't ideal for this game, and the D-pad isn't quite big enough for my hands. I felt my left hand cramping up a bit while playing it. Also, with two buttons up on the shoulders, it's tricky to perform some moves. Capcom gets around this by allowing you to map attacks or button combos to four large retangles on the touch screen, but taking your thumbs off of the pad or buttons takes some getting used to. Also, in the game's "lite" control option, you can map specials, supers, and ultras to one tap of the touch screen and even enable auto-blocking. This appears to allow charge characters to pull off moves without charging them first, which seems kind of insane. I was getting ripped up by a Guile player who would throw sonic booms, walk forward, and flash kick from a standing position when I attempt to jump over the projectiles.

If you like, you can filter out the lite mode players and only fight players using the pro setting, which limits what you can put on the touchscreen buttons to things like hitting all three punches or kicks simultaneously, or focus attacks. It's a little closer to being "pure," but Street Fighter would sure feel a lot better if the 3DS had six face buttons.

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After discovering the horrors of auto-blocking, I yanked SSFIV out to check out a little Steel Diver. It's three submarine games in one, and none of them made a terrific first impression. There's a side-scrolling mode that gives you controls on your touch screen for speed and direction. There's a lot of inertia to your movement, so slamming the sub into reverse isn't always going to stop you from crashing into rocks and such. There's also a hex-style strategy game that can be played with another person via download play. And then there's the periscope game.

The accelerometers allow for tilt and other motion-style control setups on the 3DS. The catch is that anything that requires you to tilt the device is going to mess up your view of the screen, especially if you're using 3D. So when you're manning a periscope and blasting torpedos into enemy ships and subs, you need to stand up, line up the 3DS just right, and spin in place without moving your arms too much to play. As you spin around, you'll rotate your on-screen view, bringing additional enemy ships into view, where you can line up shots with ease. It's a great way to look like a total jackass. I'm all for making a fool of myself, but that's because I can justify it all under the guise of "I do this for this website because that's what the people need to see." If you're on a train or standing on a street corner, this will be a great way to send a very clear signal that you are not "together" enough to hold a conversation with anyone in the immediate vicinity. Maybe you're trying to send that signal, though, so... go for it, I guess?

Of course, there are still four more games here to play and more on the way, but it's likely that I'll be returning to Super Street Fighter IV, both because I'm impressed by it and because it'll probably be the first 3DS game I review. Look out for that in the relatively near future.

So far, I'm really enjoying the 3DS. It still has that goofy, not-quite-together feeling when it comes to friend codes and some of the online structure, but it's certainly a step up from the DS in every way. Super Street Fighter IV's online support has me particularly excited, mostly because it's fast and easy to get it going. The platform has a ton of potential, and I hope some of the more esoteric elements, like the Play Coin system, are well-supported in future games.
Jeff Gerstmann on Google+