The Nintendo 3DS has only been on the market for four years, but it already has a successor of sorts in the New Nintendo 3DS XL.
Confusing naming conventions aside — and trust me, we'll get to that — there's little doubt that the New Nintendo 3DS does count as a hardware upgrade. It has more buttons, a built-in second analog stick, impressive new facial tracking technology and, most importantly, a more powerful set of processors. And yet in other ways, Nintendo has very much presented the handheld as a sidegrade — another option like the original 3DS XL or the Nintendo 2DS, but not something where the company necessarily expects most of its consumers to make the switch.
While its problems are less apparent when we're playing it, Nintendo's recent difficulties in communicating its intentions with hardware haunt the New Nintendo 3DS XL. That it's the best iteration of the 3DS available is without question. But whether or not it's must-own right now is much more difficult to answer.
What we like
A Smart control layout that feels good
The New Nintendo 3DS XL has two important additions to the control scheme as compared to previous models. First, next to the "L" and "R" shoulder buttons are new "ZL" and "ZR" buttons. These seem like they could be poorly placed at first glance, but in practice they feel great. We found it natural to slip our fingers from one set of shoulder buttons to the other in the midst of gameplay without any problems.
An even bigger addition is the "c-stick" — a small nub above the buttons on the right side of the hardware that operates as a second analog stick. This tiny piece of rubber doesn't look or feel like a traditional analog stick. However, even in games that require strong control over the camera, like Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate and Code Name: STEAM, the c-stick worked perfectly.
Beyond the added control options, the New Nintendo 3DS XL also has some smart choices in how it has shifted around buttons from older models. The volume control slider is now on the top screen, opposite the 3D slider. We often found ourselves accidentally adjusting the volume on older 3DS models just from the way our hands gripped the 3DS; that's no longer an issue.
The start and select buttons are now smaller and tucked on the bottom right of the system rather than bigger buttons below the bottom screen. That area is now reserved for the "home" button, ensuring that you won't jump out into the 3DS menu when you just meant to pause your game.
One of the best gaming libraries on any device, period
The best thing going for the Nintendo 3DS family of products is the same best thing going for any Nintendo hardware, and that is Nintendo itself. Since its launch in 2011, the first-party software catalog for the Nintendo 3DS has snowballed into one of the best line-ups for any gaming device, handheld or otherwise.
If you've never owned any iteration of the Nintendo 3DS, you've got a staggering backlog waiting for you. The hardware sports three of the best Zelda games ever made, a charming and hopelessly addicting rural life sim, a deep and compelling strategy RPG, the two most recent, stellar Pokemon games, a Super Smash Bros. title that is impossible to put down and so, so much more.
The Nintendo 3DS library doesn't benefit from an overabundance of third-party developer support, though a handful of titles like Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, Bravely Default and the Monster Hunter series are all spectacular exceptions. It's also chock-full of wonderful indie titles and bite-size downloadables like Shovel Knight, Pushmo, Colors! 3D and Cave Story — an irresistible assortment of games you'll never want out of arm's reach.
An improved experience for original 3DS games
more powerful hardware has a strong beneficial impact on the software
While we have yet to get our hands on a game exclusive to the New Nintendo 3DS XL (there aren't any yet), our extensive testing has revealed just how well the hardware handles original 3DS games — which is to say, very well. With Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D, the two games launching on the same day as the New Nintendo 3DS XL, each title features faster loading compared to when played on older models.
This boost extends to older titles as well. We tested a range of games on both the New Nintendo 3DS XL and older models, including Bravely Default, Etrian Odyssey 4, Fantasy Life, Kid Icarus, Pokemon Y, Super Smash Bros. and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. All of these were improved with minor, one- or two-second boosts to loading.
In our testing, we discovered that the New Nintendo 3DS XL is also able to jump from a game out to the system's home menu faster and smoother than in previous models. It gives the impression that the more powerful hardware is having a strong beneficial impact on the software.
The 3D is significantly improved
While we're still split on if and when we prefer to use 3D effects while playing the system, Nintendo has made some big strides at improving its usefulness with the New Nintendo 3DS XL. The hardware features a camera that tracks the distance and angle of your face to the screen, adjusting the 3D as necessary. It's still not perfect, but it means you can now enjoy the 3D capabilities of the system without getting arm cramps from the necessity of holding it at the perfect position at all times.
It feels better
After upgrading from the Nintendo 3DS XL, we noticed a massive improvement in the build quality of the new model. The original 3DS XL feels poorly made in certain spots — its squishy triggers and Start, Select and Home buttons, as well as its bottom panel, which creaks and bends with even a moderate amount of pressure.
Across the board, the New Nintendo 3DS XL felt better in our hands. It's built of more solid stuff than the original 3DS XL, but managed to lose a few grams of weight in the process. Its triggers — all four of them — respond with a satisfying click, while the formerly afflicted face buttons don't leave any doubt they've been pressed.
And on top of those improvements, the hardware comes with a small but noticeable increase to battery life. Nintendo places the original 3DS XL's battery life between three and five-and-a-half hours, while the New 3DS XL can last anywhere from three-and-a-half to seven hours — though sleep mode drains the battery at the same fast rate.
What we don't like
"Upgrading" is a miserable process
If you haven't yet seen the absurd process for performing a system transfer from older 3DS models to the New Nintendo 3DS XL, it's something else.
First, the new hardware has moved from the SD cards used in the existing 3DS XL to Micro SD cards. Assuming the New Nintendo 3DS XL's included 4 GB Micro SD card doesn't provide enough room for games you own or plan to own in the future, you'll need to buy an upgrade. You can move content from one card to another by transferring over Wi-Fi between two systems, but that process moves at a snail's pace — the faster option is to manage the files on a computer, but it has to be able to read both SD and Micro SD cards.
Even if the data transfer is pulled off without a hitch, the New 3DS XL has some physical design quirks that make the process extra frustrating. The New 3DS' Micro SD slot is hidden underneath the back of the system — the back side is a panel that can be taken off, which requires a size 0 Phillips screwdriver. Even with one of those we found the screws easy to strip.
Part of the problem is that the screws don't actually come out completely. Once they're loose, you need to pry the back panel off, which includes a horrible cracking noise and the dreadful certainty that you're busting this shiny new piece of hardware. Against all odds, this is the process working as intended.
The New 3DS' Micro SD slot is hidden underneath the back of the system, a panel that can be taken off, which requires a size 0 Phillips screwdriver
We also ran into some strange errors when transferring data from an old 3DS XL to a MacBook, which required extra troubleshooting.
This process suggests that Nintendo doesn't expect many current 3DS owners to "upgrade" to a New Nintendo 3DS XL, which is of course absurd. It's just thoughtless design that needlessly punishes the system's biggest fans — as well as anyone hoping to trade in their older hardware to help pay for the new model. At least you'll only ever need to do it once.
No hardware-defining games
While the New Nintendo 3DS XL runs current 3DS games better than older models, it's still bizarre to see more powerful hardware without any games built to take specific advantage of that power. Xenoblade Chronicles 3D will launch in April as the first New Nintendo 3DS-exclusive title, and we're looking forward to it. But that's also the only game revealed so far where the upgrade is required.
On the one hand, we understand why Nintendo wouldn't want to split its audience too much on hardware that's still relatively young. On the other, this makes the New Nintendo 3DS XL seem largely unnecessary.
The same shitty friend code system
The hardware has changed with the New Nintendo 3DS XL, but the operating system has not. That means we're still stuck using Nintendo's outdated, clunky friend code system instead of a proper modern account setup.
It's not just not being able to have a simple, easy-to-remember username that's the problem here. The lack of a cloud-based user account is also a big part of why that clunky transfer process is required versus just putting your existing account onto a new system. We're not surprised that Nintendo hasn't changed this yet, but we are disappointed.
If the disappointing launch years of the Wii U weren't evidence enough, the New Nintendo 3DS XL further demonstrates that Nintendo doesn't have a clue how to name and market its hardware. We can't fathom the amount of bewilderment the New Nintendo 3DS XL may cause in a mainstream audience, particularly if Nintendo starts publishing a higher volume of games exclusive to the new hardware. Nintendo seems to want to take the Apple approach to naming, but a 3DS is not an iPad; this can only to lead to headaches.
It doesn't help matters that the New Nintendo 3DS XL looks more or less identical to the previous 3DS XL model, aside from additional inputs and a slightly rounder bevel. The smaller New Nintendo 3DS model avoids this sameyness with interchangeable faceplates — but that smaller version has not been announced for release in North America. And on top of everything else, the new hardware doesn't come with a charging cable, adding additional cost on for anyone who doesn't currently own a 3DS.
Worse yet, the unclear message behind the New Nintendo 3DS XL undermines the hardware. We don't have a firm sense of whether the system will be supported for long, whether it will divide the 3DS market, whether it's an upgrade that's going to be necessary in the long-term or not.
If you've never owned any member of the Nintendo 3DS family — or maybe haven't upgraded beyond the original model — it's clear the New Nintendo 3DS XL is the best possible purchasing decision of the whole line of 3DS hardware. Not only is it presumably more future-proofed, but it provides the best experience of any of Nintendo's handhelds.
For former Nintendo 3DS XL owners, the decision is a bit more complicated. For the price of admission and a headache of an upgrade process, you get a handheld that feels and performs markedly better than its predecessor.
If you're a heavy user of your current Nintendo 3DS — someone who fiendishly StreetPasses at every gaming event, or someone who's still doing their daily chores in Animal Crossing: New Leaf — getting the upgrade is a much easier recommendation to make. If your current 3DS has been dormant for months, this new hardware probably won't be transformational enough to get you back on board the Good Ship Nintendo.
The New 3DS is a reminder of the platform's strengths, but doesn't alleviate many of its weaknesses
It's hard to get a handle on the New Nintendo 3DS XL. More than anything, our time with it serves as a reminder of the 3DS line's many strengths. It's still the best dedicated gaming handheld out there, and the New Nintendo 3DS XL is as close as it's ever been to reaching the 3DS's full potential.
But it also underlines a handful of the platform's frustrating weaknesses, shortcomings that show obvious, missed opportunities for improvement. The New Nintendo 3DS XL is an undeniable improvement over its predecessors, but it feels like a half-step in the right direction rather than the full reinvention it could have been.