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Nintendo 3DS: Seeing is believing

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Nintendo 3DS - Nintendo

According to people who make way more money than the rest of us, the future of entertainment will be presented in glorious 3D. I'm not sure consumers are entirely onboard with this yet, but apparently it's just a matter of time until we're all spilling the guacamole bowl because we refuse to take off our dorky glasses during Super Bowl L.

All of us, that is, except the folks at Nintendo.

The longtime handheld video game king releases its heavily-anticipated 3DS system on March 27, ending a wild year's worth of rumors, speculation, and hyperbolic praise. Boasting glasses-free 3D technology, it's the company's answer to the serious threat posed by Apple's various iOS devices, and a pre-emptive strike against old rival Sony and their Next Generation Portable due out later this year.

But more importantly, is it any good? Absolutely -- but not necessarily for the reason you think. Read on for some answers to what are likely your most pressing 3DS questions.

How much is it?

The system costs $250, though some retailers (like Target and Walmart) are offering trade-ins for older DS models to knock that price down a bit. Inside the box you'll get the unit itself, a stylus for the touchscreen, an AC adapter, a charging cradle, a set of 'AR' cards and a hefty instruction manual.

Order a 3DS from Amazon.com

How's the hardware?

Though its overall clamshell design and dual screens give it a similar look and feel to earlier DS systems, the 3DS is a notably sleeker, more elegant handheld. Even the stylus has been reworked, now sporting a chrome finish and a telescoping design to accommodate larger hands.

In addition to the familiar touchscreen, D-pad, face buttons and shoulder bumpers, the 3DS comes equipped with a new analog stick (dubbed the 'Circle Pad') as well as an accelerometer and a gyroscope. The pad is comfy and less tense than the analog nub on the PSP, though a second analog stick would have been nice for any upcoming first-person shooters (GoldenEye, please?) But consider your control bases well-covered.

The 3DS is also backwards compatible, so you'll be able to play all your old DS games on the system as well, though not in 3D.

So does the 3D really work?

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Pilotwings Resort - Nintendo

For the most part, yes. But it's going to work a little bit differently for everyone.

A 3D depth slider on the right side of the top screen lets users tweak the intensity of the effect to their liking; most folks around these parts prefer it at just around the halfway point, but it really boils down to the game. Pilotwings Resort, for instance, can be something of an eye strain when cranked to the higher 3D setting, while the less action-packed launch title Nintendogs + Cats offers milder 3D in general.

Get things just right, however, and the visuals lend an amazing sense of depth to the image. It's a bit like watching a diorama come to life, and you've absolutely never seen anything quite like it before in a handheld game machine. It's interesting, innovative, and unmistakably Nintendo.

But it's not without some flaws. The higher 3D settings significantly impact the viewing angle; tilt the device just a few degrees left or right and you'll lose the 3D effect -- and possibly gain a headache. Don't expect to show this off by having people watch over your shoulder. To really 'get' the 3D, you have to play the 3DS for yourself, preferably without moving around much.

And you'll probably want to be over the age of 7 to have that experience, as Nintendo warns against letting children 6 and under use the 3D tech for fear of vision damage. To that point, turning the slider off yields the same standard 2D look as other game devices, and the 3DS comes equipped with parental controls that lets users disable the 3D effect entirely.

View more images of the 3DS

How are the games?

Considering what Wii Sports did for the Wii, it's a real shame that the 3DS doesn't ship with a full game tailored to show off the new tech. And while the launch list might be long, it's not exactly brimming with blockbusters.

Super Street Fighter IV is the current must-have. Providing every ounce of content as its console-based kin, it's a real showpiece for the under-the-hood advances that make the 3DS a more powerful handheld than previous DS systems. What else is worth a look? Check here.

Of course, launch games typically fall a bit short. Big games are certainly coming: 3DS takes on Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda, Kid Icarus, Super Mario and more await gamers in the future.

What else does it do?

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Super Street Fighter IV 3D - Capcom

When you're not showing off Street Fighter to anyone within earshot, you'll make Miis, take low-res 3D photos (saved to an included 2GB SD card), and partake in a couple quirky timewasters. Face Raiders, which turns photos of any face into a formidable force of flying enemies, is the best of the bunch and more compelling than the gimmicky 'AR' cards.

The 3DS also doubles as a pedometer, tracking each step you take with the device in hand (or pocket). Better still, you'll earn 'play coins' for being active, which can then be spent on various goodies in different games. In the case of Nintendogs, the pedometer lets you take your virtual pet on a real-world walk. It's exactly the sort of clever, playful concept you'd expect from Nintendo.

What you wouldn't expect, however, is the handheld's improved networking features. While it still uses the awkward, 12-digit 'Friend Code' system to hook you up with fellow 3DS owners, it connects smoothly to Wifi hot spots and will even trade game data with nearby 3DS systems while in sleep mode. Nintendo has even announced a partnership that will give 3DS owners free access to over 10,000 AT&T Wifi Hot Spots.

Unfortunately, a few pieces of the puzzle are still MIA. An internet browser is not yet functional, nor is the "eShop" digital games store. Nintendo insists it just wants to make sure it does digital downloads correctly this time around -- it didn't exactly do a crack job with the disappointing DSiWare -- but for those of us who are now accustomed to buying at least a portion of our games digitally, the lack of this option out of the box is a bummer.

What about that dodgy battery?

If the 3DS has a soft underbelly, it's right here.

No doubt about it -- the battery life is woefully short. Fully-charged, expect only a tad over 3 hours of play time. That can be extended a bit by lowering the screen brightness and turning off the Wifi, but that's still only going to squeeze another hour or so out of it. To make matters worse, it also takes a solid 3 hours to fully charge the unit once it's been depleted.

The "good" news? Closing the lid will put the system in a standby state that will hold its current charge for much longer (I closed it mid-game overnight and found the battery level hadn't budged when I re-opened it in the morning), so at least you can conserve its limited life. Nintendo has also made it marginally less of a hassle to charge the 3DS by including a handy charging cradle, but that will offer little consolation to those greeted by the depressing "low power" red light in the middle of a cross-country flight. If you buy a 3DS, make sure to buy a little patience, too.

The Verdict

It comes as no surprise that Nintendo would spend the bulk of its marketing energy promoting the 3D aspect of the 3DS -- it's even baked into the name -- but as it turns out, it's the myriad of other upgrades that will likely wind up giving the system its real depth. From its improved control scheme and online functionality to its quirky set of built-in features, the 3DS has a lot going for it.

The 3D? When it clicks, it's a showstopper, turning the system into the sort of eye-catching, water-cooler gadget that helped make the Wii such a big hit back in the day. Plunging through the air in Pilotwings Resort is somehow made more interesting -- magical, even -- when viewed in 3D. Is it just a gimmick? Cynically, sure, but if memory serves, we said similar things about the Wii remote during the launch of that eventual game-changer.

And as any gamer knows, it's rarely wise to bet against Nintendo. The company has a knack for bucking trends while setting new ones, and we fully expect that to happen again courtesy this quite capable, occasionally captivating device. Worth a buy.

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