First impressions of Nintendo's 3DS XL

Our early thoughts on the beefed-up version of Nintendo's handheld

First impressions of Nintendo's 3DS XL

It might not be out until July 28th across Europe, but Nintendo was kind enough to ship out early units of its upcoming 3DS XL handheld to eager / spoilt rotten games journalists this week.

Considerate creatures that we are, we thought we'd open up the box of the 3DS's big brother, remove all the cellophane, and deliver our first impressions on Nintendo's latest piece of kit.

Aren't we kind.

Look and feel

The first thing that strikes you about the 3DS XL is how much nicer it actually feels. The effect is appreciable the moment you first get your hands on it, and it's down to two things: its soft silver sheen and the more rounded corners around its underside.

As a result, it rests more comfortably in the palm of your hands, and the curvier design extends all the way around the system, with smoothed-off shoulder buttons also a noteworthy improvement.

In terms of heft, the 3DS XL weighs just under 100 grams more than the original (339 vs 241 grams), but doesn't feel noticeably heftier once the lid's open and you're actually playing on it.

Remarkably, despite the increased dimensions and weight of the 3DS XL, the height of both systems is nigh-on identical, though the XL's rounded edges give it the illusion of being thinner when stood vertically side-by-side.

Cosmetic surgery

Once you open up the lid, the cosmetic differences of the XL become more apparent. Firstly, its innards are black - rather than silver. Secondly, the surface is coated with a rougher fingerprint-resistant film, similar to the one used on the DSi models.

The basic controls all feel largely identical to the original, although Nintendo has opted for an inferior, non-retracting plastic stylus - again, similar to the DS and DSi's, which doubtlessly means you'll eventually lose it when it no longer clips snugly into place. Irritatingly, there's no spare provided, either.

Elsewhere, the front three Select / Home / Start functions have been given distinct buttons, while the location of the XL's mic is now etched into the plastic - just to the left of the circular power button.

In terms of other minor design changes, the headphone socket can now be found on the front left - rather than the centre - while the SD flap has been switched from the left side to the right, just next to the relocated stylus housing. The 3D slider, volume, and wireless switches remain exactly where they were, but are now slightly more prominent than they were.

Screen test

The real star of the show, though, is the XL's expanded screens. The top one benefits from a 90 per cent hike in surface area, which is, unfortunately, not a uniformly positive upgrade.

On the plus side, having a bigger screen has the obvious effect of delivering a bigger impact. Given that you're holding the 3DS XL at the exact same range as previously, having a bigger image in front of your excitable mush automatically feels like a good thing.

The glasses-free 3D effect, in particular, is more convincing on a larger screen, with a discernibly wider viewing angle than was previously possible.

With an image less prone to refracting the minute you stop viewing the system dead-on, there's more of a temptation to play with the 3D settings on, safe in the knowledge that you won't end up with a confusing image - or worse, a splitting headache.

Bigger is better?

That said, bigger doesn't automatically mean better. As with the DSi XL, having a bigger screen merely exposes the limitations of the image. Jaggies that were previously not apparent suddenly stand out, while the screen reveals itself to be noticeably fuzzier than the one on the original 3DS.

Close-up, it's very easy to spot individual pixels, which in today's era of pin-sharp Retina displays feels like a retrograde step. That said, once you put away the microscope and start actually playing on the thing, it's something your eyes compensate for very quickly.

In terms of battery life, Nintendo is saying that the XL grants you an extra half an hour for 3DS titles (boosting it to 3.5 hours), and up to an extra hour for DS / DSi titles (boosting it to six hours). To be blunt, it's a minor improvement, nothing more, and the 3DS is still a relatively thirsty handheld compared to previous Nintendo models.

Audio-wise, it'll be no great shock to anyone to discover that the sound is pathetically tinny, with Nintendo doing nothing to enhance the notoriously weedy output from previous models. As ever, headphones are essential if you want to get the most out of the system.

Two thumbs, one pad

We couldn't conclude an assessment of the 3DS XL without rueing the lack of a built-in second Circle Pad Pro. Frankly, the console real estate is even less of an issue than it was before, and 'solving' the issue by releasing an even more comical XL version of the Circle Pad Pro is going to turn the already-chunky system into a plastic goliath.

Why Nintendo didn't just include the Circle Pad Pro XL on the 3DS XL by default will go down as one of the biggest mysteries in modern handheld gaming.

Perhaps even more of a mystery is why Nintendo saw fit to entirely dispense with an AC adaptor for the 3DS XL in Europe and Japan. If you're a games journalist or hardcore Nintendophile with an existing DSi and 3DS charger to hand, fair enough, it's no biggie, but for most customers it's a ridiculous oversight.

Opportunity knocked

In our Day One estimation, the 3DS XL represents something of a missed opportunity for Nintendo. On the one hand, it's a more desirable 3DS, with a superior finish and more comfortable feel. On the other, the wow factor of the larger screen and improved 3D soon gives way to disappointment over the image clarity.

After its alarming financial slump last year, Nintendo's current priority is returning to profit - and it shows. No doubt once the components are cheap enough, we'll eventually get a Nintendo handheld system with all the features we desire - but only when it's profitable for The Big N. For now, gamers will just have to settle for a few compromises.

Kristan Reed
Kristan Reed
There's no such thing as 'not enough time' in Kristan's world. Despite the former Eurogamer editor claiming the world record for the most number of game reviews written before going insane, he manages to continue to squeeze in parallel obsessions with obscure bands, Norwich City FC, and moody episodic TV shows. He might even read a book if threatened by his girlfriend.