There are a ton of unknowns still left for Nintendo to address when it comes to the upcoming 3DS handheld, and the hardware's operating system itself it was one of the least-accessible aspects of our time with the device in New York and Amsterdam on Jan. 19. While lovely Nintendo reps were able to walk us through a bit of it, we were able to wrestle away a few demo units to poke about.
We found the 3DS home screen to be very similar to the DSi's, only much more beefed up. To start with, the 3DS will have many more spaces than the DSi for what we'll call "channels," as in downloads, applications and anything else you'd want to boot right in to. The menu itself has learned a new trick since DSi's fairly static line of items: you're now able to zoom in and out in order to fit up to 64 items on-screen at once.
While we know that the eShop and Internet browser will be made available as a download at a later date, day-one buyers should see some standard channels pre-installed: Sound, which we gather is pretty much the same as it is on DSi; 3D Movie Viewer; Camera, which now supports 3D photography but is otherwise pretty much grainy as on DSi; Notifications, for StreetPass and checking up on your pedometer progress and coin count; Mii Plaza; Game Notes; Settings; Friend List; as well as Face Raiders and AR Games. These channels were only what we were able to gleam from our short time with the device and is by no means an exhaustive list of pre-installed software.
One of the more interesting opportunities the new Home button allows is for cross-app multitasking. In case you get stuck in, say, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, a quick hit of the button will pause the game and bring up a menu bar of four apps on the touchscreen: Notifications, Game Notes, Browser and Friend List. By tapping the Browser icon, which we were unfortunately unable to test, you're able to bring up the whole Internet to look up the solution to your problem. Once you've got it, you can tap Home again and jump in to Game Notes to scribble down the solution so you don't forget, and then jump back into your suspended game right where you left off. It's a degree of multitasking that consoles haven't really seen yet, and it's nice to see someone innovate in this field for portables.
Tapping Home also fills the bottom screen with your main menu options in case you want to change what you're doing or playing altogether.
Wii users should be pretty familiar with the setup of Miis built-in to the 3DS, as it looks and feels pretty much identical to its older sibling. The creation interface is virtually identical save for a few new customization options, and if you'd rather not toil for hours crafting a Mii in your likeness then the new Mii Maker should be right up your alley. After lining up your eyes and mouth for a photo, the 3DS takes the image of your face and creates a new Mii based on it. Our experience with it was a bit mixed; while on one hand it did in fact create a Mii based on us, the resemblance was hardly uncanny, mistaking our downward-angled face for a chubby, squinted version of ourselves.
You'll be able to see and prod all of the Miis created on your own handheld as well as any of those picked up via StreetPass in the Mii Parade. You're also able to import Miis from a Wii, but bear in mind that it's a one-way track (for now, at least): Miis on a 3DS are not transferable back to a Wii due to the new customization options on the handheld. Don't worry about losing your Wii Mii though, as it's not copied over to the handheld and then erased from your console: a copy is sent over in the transfer.
3D Movie Viewer
We were able to check out trailers for Yogi Bear and Born to be Wild using 3D Movie Viewer, and while pretty basic worked quite well. Up top played the movie and below were some nice and chunky controls for play, pause, fast-forward and rewind as well as a time bar scrubber. When a movie played on the top screen, the bottom screen darkened to avoid competing for your attention — an appreciated touch.
The 3D slider didn't seem to have the same granular role as it does on the games we had tried earlier, instead seeming to act as an on-off toggle for the stereoscopic effect. We noticed that the 3D effect looked to be set pretty low, but we were unable to find out whether viewers will be able to crank it up notably or if it's as binary as we found it to be.
A gyroscope-enabled game, the premise will be familiar to anyone who's played DSiWare's System Flaw Recruit, but with a facial twist. To begin the game you must snap a photo of a face, using either the internal or external camera, that is then placed onto a polygon model of a head. This isn't the strangest part either: your job is to move around in real life, using the 3DS's internal gyroscope to track your movement, and fire tennis balls at the faces to "save" them. Other people you've snapped appear in game, and you score extra points by plopping a tennis ball into someone's mouth, with a time limit tasking you to set your best score.
It's a very simplistic game, as you'd expect from a free piece of software that comes with the console, but it provided us with some decent entertainment. The gyroscope-driven motion control is sensitive enough for small motions and capable of keeping up with faster movements too, and proves far more reliable than the camera-based control of similar DSiWare games. It's very difficult, however, to move the 3DS around and stay within the 3D screen's "sweet spot", so players may want to have switch to 2D mode when playing this and other gyroscope games.
Inside the 3DS retail box you'll find six Augmented Reality, or AR, cards. These cards, when combined with the 3DS's external cameras, allow you to play games using a combination of real-life and computer-generated graphics. One such game was available for us to try out, and it proved surprisingly fun.
Placing a card bearing the image of a classic Super Mario question mark block on the table, pointing the camera at the card caused a transformation to occur: the box opened up and out came a series of targets to shoot. Moving the 3DS in any direction changes your view on-screen, making it possible to walk around the card and inspect it from all angles, something that soon becomes essential as new targets appear from all angles.
After destroying several targets a hefty monster – looking not unlike Steelix, Pokémon fans – emerges from the box, and the challenge is to shoot its individual segments enough times to send it packing. This requires lots of moving around the card, shooting it from above, behind and both sides, and even in a small space with several other players around this proved easy and responsive, as long as you don't mind bobbing around in real life.
As with Face Raiders, the combination of gyroscope play and 3D was not a flawless one, as the angles necessary to hit the targets will require a great deal of moving around, making it hard to stay inside the screen's sweet spot. It's not impossible, and with practice it may become easier, but players may struggle at first.
It's a smart move by Nintendo to package the console with Face Raiders and the Augmented Reality cards, allowing players to get a feel for some of the less traditional forms of gaming 3DS can offer. It's not hard to foresee similar titles hitting the eShop in future, or retail titles arriving with unique AR cards inside to offer new features and minigames.
For exciting 3DS hardware and game impressions spoken into your ear, be sure to check out the latest episode of the Nintendo Life Podcast!
—James Newton and Jonathan Wahlgren contributed to this report.