Nintendo 3DS XL Review

on Thursday, October 30, 2014
The $200 3DS XL is a very good gaming machine, possibly the best portable gaming device ever, which, yeah, maybe we said about February's PlayStation Vita, but back then we'd have only been talking about a piece of hardware and its gaming potential. The 3DS XL isn't just full of potential. It's a well-designed machine that plays an absurdly rich array of excellent video games.

The 3DS XL, set for release on August 19 in North America, is Nintendo's latest incremental upgrade. The company has been doing this kind of thing since before the iPod upgraded from the model with with the select wheel that moved to the one that didn't. Nintendo put out a Game Boy and then squeezed it down as a Game Boy Pocket (Game Boy Color, too, of course). They released a Game Boy Advance that was so ridiculously dim that, at gaming conventions, they'd put these silly miniature desk lamps over each one so you actually see the games on their screen. Then, a couple of years later, there were like, "oh, yeah, now we'll sell you a GBA that doesn't suck. It's called the GBA SP." They'd put out a hunk of plastic and call it a Nintendo DS and then, a couple of years later, kind of say, "whoops, here's a DS Lite that isn't hideous" and then, a couple of years after that put out a DSi (now with cameras and some storage so you can download games to it!) and then make a DSi XL because, hey, maybe someone wants their portable gaming system super-sized.
There is a 3DS in my left pocket; a 3DS XL in my right pocket. This really is the best way to show you this comparison, I think. Bonus fact: I sat down with a 3DS XL in my back pocket on a New York City subway and the console didn't break. In fact, I forgot it was there, much as I might forget that I have a wallet in my back pocket. But this is not ideal and I tend to carry the 3DS XL in a pouch in my bag.

This is what Nintendo does. Every year or two, they upgrade their handheld hardware. They just about always do it well, and they have done so again with the 3DS XL. The big selling point is the size boost. The screens are about 90% larger, the marketing copy says, which just about means that the 3DS games you might play on it will look double-large. The hitch is that the screen has the same resolution as the original 3DS, so all the 3DS XL is doing is stretching the graphics of 3DS games 90% bigger. Does this maybe sound unwise to you? You're not alone. Yet the good news is that polygonal, three-dimensional games like Resident Evil: Revelationssuffer very little from being blown up by 90% and actually look extremely good at a scale that has the graphics in the top screen almost as large, if not as high-resolution, as they'd appear on a PlayStation Vita. Graphics on 2D games, including New Super Mario Bros. 2 don't fare quite as well, as close observers may notice something of a screen door effect at first. You can see the grid of darkness interrupting the pixels that illuminate the game's graphics. When I swapped my New Super Mario Bros. 2 cartridge from my 3DS XL to my older 3DS, the difference was clear. On the older system, the graphics looked sharper. On the newer system, I could see rough edges. But let me tell you: bigger proves to be better with the 3DS XL. We're talking about going from looking at a top screen that is maybe as narrow as the width between the outer corners of your eyes to one that is broader than them; from a screen you are looking into to one that feels like it engulfs you; from one that does not fill your field of vision to one that blots out most of the outside world.

For the first week that I had the 3DS XL, I mostly played New Super Mario Bros 2, and even though the XL blows the game up enough that you can see each pixel, I found that I actually liked the effect. It felt, for lack of a better term, more gamey. I dabbled with some downloaded Game Boy games that I bought from the 3DS/XL's eShop and they looked enormous on the system's upper screen. I resumed playing Kid Icarus: Uprising, which, unlike Mario is a polygonal, three-dimensional game. It didn't just fare better when blown up; its flight levels, thanks to the size of the upper screen, felt just a bit like big-screen cinema. They were stunning on this bigger machine.
One good, if counter-intuitive way to show the consequences of the 3DS XL having larger screens than the 3DS but not better-resolution screens is to show how DS games look running on both machines. The image here shows DS games blown up on both handhelds..
but since both games allow DS games to be scrunched back down to their original resolutions, we can see that the more widely-spread pixels on the 3DS XL screens still keep the DS games pretty large, larger than they would have been on the DS.

I played the 3DS XL during a cross-country flight on Wednesday, and not only did the battery hold up like a champ, but I found myself able to juggle a spectacular barrel full of software. I was ostensibly comparing how games looked on the 3DS to the 3DS XL, but I was inadvertently rediscovering how incredibly well Nintendo has maintained a backwards-compatible software line-up for the 3DS/XL platforms. I popped old DS games into my 3DS XL, first Advance Wars: Dual Strike (save game circa 2005!) and an old favorite, Kirby Canvas Curse. Both looked huge and excellent when blown up on the 3DS XL; maybe a little jaggy because of the bigger screen but only in a hey-these-games-are-kind-of-old-and-look-cool-because-they-now-look-a-bit-chunky kind of way. I loaded up some old favorites from the downloadable line of DSiWare games. The vastly underrated two-toned Descent-a-like X-Scape from Q-Games looked sharp on the 3DS XL. So did the 3DS-only eShop game Pushmo (aka the best 3DS game of last year). GBA games hold up on the 3DS XL's upper screen as well.
The 3DS software line-up is not yet in its prime, but with games such as Super Mario 3D Landand Mario Kart 7 on it, it's not the faltering freshman the first 3DS was. (These are our favorite 3DS games.) It still doesn't have an original Zelda, a Metroid, an Animal Crossing or even aWarioWare. There is no breakout original hit the likes of Nintendogs or Brain Age on the DS. This doesn't mean that Nintendo isn't going to make a batch of strong games for the 3DS. Given its fantastic support of its Game Boy and DS lines, it's unfathomable to think they won't finish the 3DS era with anything other than a superb line-up. But it's still fairly early in the cycle, just late enough to get a good upgrade to the original gear.

The 3DS XL is a good size. It plays great games. Its battery lasts a cross-country flight. What's not to like? Avoid the system only if you can't deal with graphics meant for a 90% smaller screen being blown up, though, in my experience, that's an issue you forget as the games suck you in. Otherwise, the 3DS XL is the superior 3DS handheld. It's the one to get. It'll probably be good for a one or two year run before the next Nintendo upgrade. Maybe that one will include a phone.


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