At any rate, I got a little time on Friday evening and Saturday morning to test the thing out, along with a more substantial chunk of time on Sunday. On the basis of this, I thought I'd post some first thoughts about the device.
First impressions As is often the case, my first impressions of the console were formed before I'd even switched it on. In this case, they were pretty positive. This is an expensive handheld, so I'd been hoping that it would look and feel the part. The omens weren't great - previous Nintendo handhelds have basically felt like "plastic toys" rather than "desirable gadgets". Fortunately, the 3DS is a big improvement, with a slick, well-presented design. It doesn't quite have the slick-yet-solid feel of the first-generation PSPs, but it does match the 3000-series PSPs in terms of feel (which is by no means bad). If I have a complaint - and this is one that I have seen elsewhere - I would have liked stiffer hinges for the case - as it is, the thing tends to feel a little bit floppy unless you have it locked in the full-open position. Once opened, the 3DS is reasonable enough, albeit in a fairly unsurprising way. The upper screen is notably larger (and higher quality) than that on my old first-generation DS. The arrangement of the buttons is more or less what we saw on the DS, but with the addition of an analogue nub on the left hand side. I was impressed by the analogue nub - previous Nintendo controllers, such as the Gamecube controller, the Wii's nunchuck and the "classic controller" have had really, really bad analogue sticks, with poor ergonomics. The 3DS's analogue nub, however, is about as good as you could reasonably expect to see on a handheld - which is to say, better than the PSP's. It has quite a lot of "travel" and I found it easier to make precise adjustments than I do with the PSP's nub. On the down-side, there's only one analogue nub - which means that some types of games may suffer from the same control-method issues that have plagued the PSP (and which Sony seems to be trying to address with the NGP). Powering up
After a fairly long recharge cycle (about 3 hours, maybe a bit more, but at least I had Crysis 2 as a distraction), I powered on the 3DS. The new front-end is fairly good. The touch-sensitive lower screen is used for navigating the menus, with the 3d upper-screen just being used to eye-candy (which I confess I wasn't paying much attention to at this point).
The menus are fairly well presented - the style reminds me heavily of the XMB system from the PSP and PS3 (though in this case, it's ordered bottom-up rather than top-down). There's quite a bit of stuff pre-installed, but I confess that besides a quick mess around with the camera, I've not really looked at most of it.
After setting the 3DS up to access my home network (which was painless), my next step was to stick in the Ridge Racer cartridge and fire the game up. Having set up a profile etc, I jumped into the "quick race" mode and got to the car-selection screen. This was the first time that I actually paid attention to the 3d effect on the upper screen.
Jumping into 3d
For the first few seconds, I just couldn't see it. It looked blurry and out of focus and not even slightly 3d. Then after 5 seconds or so, my eyes refocussed and the effect suddenly jumped out at me - and oh my word it is impressive. The effect - without glasses - is among the most convincing 3d effects I've seen - including "with glasses" setups on far more expensive hardware. Once properly in-game and racing against other cars, it becomes more impressive still - and is occasionally actually useful in helping the player to judge entry points to corners.
This does, however, come at a price. Focussing your eyes so as to be able to see the full 3d effect is a bit uncomfortable. On an instictive level (which may not be at all evidence based), it feels as though it may be doing dangerous things to my sight. This means that reflexively, I keep snapping my eyes back to their default focus (losing the 3d effect and getting some double-vision on the upper-screen into the bargain). I get similar losses of focus if I look away from the 3d screen for a moment - including if I look down at the lower screen. Each time, I have to actively refocus my eyes to see the 3d effect in the upper screen properly. Adjusting the 3d slider down to a lower setting reduces the effort involved in focussing slightly, but does not eliminate the problem (and diminishes the 3d effect somewhat).
Moreover, after about 20 minutes of play, my temples began to throb. At this point, I turned the 3d mode off entirely and continued to play for another 10 minutes or so, before the continued throbbing prompted me to switch off the machine entirely. Over the next couple of hours, I experienced a fair to middling headache and a general sense of tiredness around my eyes. Later experiments replicated this effect - playing on lower 3d settings delayed the headache, but did not remove it. Only playing in pure 2d mode allowed me to get away ache-free. As a result, most of my play on Sunday was done in 2d mode.
The games - Ridge Racer and Pilotwings
The 3DS's launch lineup has come in for quite a bit of criticism - the absence of the "big" Nintendo franchises was particularly controversial. Actually, I don't care about this - I long since got tired of the constant rehashing and lack of fresh ideas associated with Mario and Zelda.
Indeed, from my point of view, the launch lineup wasn't too bad. I settled on Ridge Racer and Pilotwings on the basis that they both belonged to genres I liked and represented a 3rd party game and a Nintendo franchise (albeit not one of the big ones).
Ridge Racer is more or less what you would expect - the series has been through enough iterations across enough platforms now that we know what we're getting with it. This is by no means a bad version - there's a good list of tracks and a reasonable career mode (though the series' trademark lack of depth does stand out after an hour or two). The 3d effect, as previously indicated, is very impressive indeed, though it does come at a cost. Graphics in 2d more are ok-ish, but certainly not spectacular. My recollection is that the PSP version was more impressive - though I would need to go back and check. This is a consistent risk in comparing the 3DS's graphics to the PSP's - the PSP is a mature platform and developers know how to use it, while the 3DS only has launch-titles. Direct comparisons may, therefore, currently be a little unfair on the 3DS (which on the basis of its launch titles comes out slightly behind the PSP).
Pilotwings is similarly unsurprising to anybody who's played previous installments. There's a familiar array of challenges, mostly constructed around the three main vehicles on offer - plane, hang-glider and rocket-belt - though with occasional forrays into more exotic territory. The challenges - as is somewhat traditional for the series, tend to flip over from "ludicrously easy" to "nightmarishly hard" fairly abruptly, but there's still a good bit of fun to be had. Unfortunately, the "free flight" mode turns out to be nothing of the sort (being instead a fairly frustrating time-trial), and it's disappointing not to have an option straight out of box to just jump into a plane and explore the (rather attractive - and familiar from Wii-Fit) environments.
The graphics are generally fairly good (though again, not as good as what we see from the PSP these days). The 3d effect is not quite as impressive as Ridge Racer's and it seemed to need a bit more effort to get my focus right. Indeed, on some occasions I could only see the 3d effect if I first forced myself to focus specifically on my plane, and then widened my view out to see more of the game-world.
The 3DS's centrepiece - the 3d effect - is very impressive indeed. I suspect they will have no problems selling the console on the basis of in-store demonstrations. However, at least some people (including myself and some of my colleagues) will have issues related to the effect, which might render it impractical in the long term.
In many respects, the machine is a big step forward from the 3DS. It looks and feels like a high end and desirable gadget and it brings graphical capabilities that are, at the very least, nearly on a par with the PSP (and which may surpass it once developers know the hardware better). However, the question that remains is whether this will be enough to secure the system's dominance once the NGP appears and shifts the boundaries at the end of this year.