I’ve been playing on Nintendo handhelds for a long time. With the ubiquity of smartphones and the proliferation of free apps, younger gamers might not realize that back in the 90s, dedicated portable game consoles were a big deal. The ability to take Mario, Castlevania, Zelda and Metroid on the go was groundbreaking. What’s more, Nintendo and their third party developers often pulled off surprisingly faithful portable companions to their home console classics, and in the case of Link’s Awakening and Metroid II, robust new franchise entries in their own right. Portable gaming made tedious car and bus trips bearable, long days out shopping with mom went by faster, and a smuggled Game Boy Pocket made getting grounded a little less awful.
A Game Boy Advance SP was my constant school bus companion in high school, and a decade ago I used the first paycheck from my first college job to purchase the original chunky silver Nintendo DS. I’ve bought most of Nintendo’s incremental, in-between hardware iterations along the way, including the unfairly maligned Game Boy Micro. So I felt a little guilty turning my nose up at not only the DSi and DSi XL, but also the original model 3DS.
To be blunt I just couldn’t justify the expense anymore, especially when I knew something better was coming in 18-24 months per usual. I held out for a long while before buying the improved 3DS XL, and you can imagine my frustration when the New 3DS XL was announced only a year after I bought the old one. Granted the XL was a far sight better than the original 3DS’s weird beveled design, small fuzzy screens and pathetic battery life, but now that I have the New 3DS XL in-hand, it’s the clear winner. Simply put, the New 3DS XL is the portable gaming system we should have gotten in the first place. It’s the handheld the 3DS always should have been.
I don’t mean that as a knock against Nintendo but this four-year-old tech has finally come together in a slick, professional package. While the old 3DS and XL felt like somewhat fragile toys, the New XL looks and feels more like a Droid or Samsung Galaxy Note. The first thing that struck me when buying the new portable was just how tiny the box was compared to older Nintendo handhelds I’ve purchased. As reported this is a surprisingly barebones package, which is frankly a little disappointing. In the box you’ve got the New 3DS XL, the pre-installed 4GB micro SD card, a manual booklet and some AR cards and that’s it. No AC adapter, not even a spare stylus.
The lack of a wall charger is annoying but I understand Nintendo’s cost-saving logic. There are plenty of inexpensive third-party options and the official Nintendo AC adapter is easy enough to find. I’m not sure why certain websites are publishing clickbaity articles on how scarce the OEM charger is; I picked up a spare Nintendo brand AC adapter at Target when I was purchasing the New XL, $12 out the door, no hassle.
Upon removing the New XL from its smallish box, I got the impression of a sexier, more confident version of the old 3DS XL. Specifically I bought the black model, which Nintendo is calling “New Black” style, but to be honest it looks more like a charcoal gray; reminiscent of the Graphite GBA SP Mark 2 with the brighter screen from back in 2005. The New XL’s top case is less rounded on the edges than the old XL, sort of like the DSi, and it has a gloss finish. The surface isn’t textured but has a very slick looking pattern of miniscule diagonal lines running over the whole thing, again making me think of a Samsung Galaxy phone.
The downside to this glossy surface is that it takes fingerprints like crazy, much like the DS Lite. The old 3DS XL had a matte, metallic paint finish that almost looked like brushed aluminum up close, but the old red and blue XL’s had a distinctly toy-like appearance from a distance. Conversely, even the cherry red finish of the “New Red” XL is stylish and attractive, reminding me of an old hotrod or 70’s vintage Stratocaster. The New XL is the first 3DS model that you won’t be embarrassed to play with in public. I know there have been many complaints about how America isn’t getting the standard sized New 3DS, or how the special edition Majora’s Mask and Monster Hunter models are in ludicrously limited quantities (that’s a whole ‘nother article right there), but I think America is getting an okay deal, for now. There will be innumerable custom decals for the New XL in the coming months, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we get the regular-sized model before too long. For now, the New XL is a slick and dignified piece of gaming tech.
As Nintendo is wont to do on its hardware revisions everything is moved around on the New XL, and this was a little disorienting for someone like me, who has owned a DS since the first one. The biggest change is the game card slot moving to the bottom left edge of the unit. The card slot has always been on the top middle, ever since the original DS, so the move is a little puzzling. The power button has moved from the bottom right inside panel down to the bottom right surface edge, making it less awkward to push and harder to hit by accident. The stylus slot is right next to it, moving from a left-horizontal position on to the old XL to a bottom edge vertical port. Of special note is that the New XL has a new, different stylus that is just a little shorter than the old XL’s stylus; keep that in mind when buying extras/replacements.
Another thing to remember is that the New 3DS models are switching from standard sized SD cards down to Micro SD; the New XL comes with a 4GB Micro SD card already installed. I always buy Micro SD anyway and swap in and out of adapters as needed, but it is something to consider if you have a lot of downloaded games and thus need more than 4GB of storage. The New XL also doesn’t have a cute little flip door on the side for storing the SD card; rather, the Micro SD slot is located on the back of the unit, next to the battery, under the plastic backplate. You’ll need a small Phillips screwdriver to loosen the plate, and I recommend lifting it gently so as not to snap the small plastic tabs on the bottom edge.
Again, I’m not sure why so many mainstream gaming blogs are making this out to be a huge, inconvenient hassle. Swapping the Micro SD card out for something with more space was relatively straightforward, like putting a new SD card in my phone. After numerous smartphone refreshes, who doesn’t have a few spare 16GB Micro SD’s lying around on their desk? But I digress.
Once you flip open the New XL things are largely the same, with a few important exceptions. The Start and Select buttons have been moved back to the lower right surface below the ABXY face buttons, exactly where they used to be on the DS Lite and DSi/XL. This is a much more comfortable place for them compared to their prior awkward placement right below the touch screen, first as flaky membrane switches on the original 3DS and then as big chunky rectangular buttons on the old XL. Frankly I have no idea why they moved them there in the first place. The Home button is now a smaller dedicated button, but it’s still where it’s always been, right at the center bottom of the touch screen.
The most noteworthy addition to the interior controls is of course the C-stick. This little gray rubber nubbin is very similar to the TrackPoint pointing stick on ThinkPad laptops. It’s placed just above and left of the face buttons. It has no play whatsoever and is entirely pressure-sensitive. It works with all of the games compatible with the Circle Pad Pro peripheral, and so far I’ve found its use to be a mixed bag. It works just fine as a camera stick in games like Majora’s Mask, Snake Eater 3D, and Monster Hunter 4 but it just isn’t comfortable or responsive enough in a true first-person-shooter like Moon Chronicles. This isn’t Moon Chronicles’ fault at all, because the C-stick clearly isn’t designed to make the New 3DS a true dual-analog device.
Nintendo has been actively resistant to putting a second analog stick on the 3DS from the beginning, and there’s only one reason they eventually capitulated: Monster Hunter. The Monster Hunter series might be relatively cult in America, but in Japan it prints money. As players of the old PSP entries will tell you, without an analog camera control it’s easy to develop the dreaded, cramp-inducing “Monster Hunter claw” hand position. I’m sure Capcom pressured Nintendo into releasing a stopgap peripheral and eventually integrating it into the New 3DS models. Why else would Nintendo produce an add-on as comically cumbersome as the Circle Pad Pro, not just for the old 3DS but also for the old XL, if there wasn’t serious money riding on it?
I really wish Nintendo would’ve added a second true analog circle pad below the face buttons. With some re-arranging there’s certainly enough room. As it stands, the C-stick nub is a welcome addition but it is merely functional, not exceptional—almost like a backhanded compliment. It only works in 14 games so far, so I don’t expect to see a Nintendo handheld with two actual circle pads until they release their next generation portable.
Rounding out the New XL’s hardware suite is a number of long-overdue improvements. The volume slider has been moved from the bottom left to the left side of the top screen, mirroring the placement of the 3D slider. Speaking of volume, the speakers on the New XL are noticeably more robust than the rather soft, anemic ones on the old XL. Even in a relatively quiet room, I often found myself straining to hear the sound coming out of my old XL (or reaching for some earbuds). That is no longer an issue with the New XL. The Wifi slider, which I always considered a mildly superfluous feature, has been removed entirely and replaced with a software-based toggle in the OS, but more on that later.
The new model also has two additional shoulder buttons—ZL and ZR—but they aren’t stacked vertically like on a traditional gamepad (or the Circle Pad Pro). Rather they are arranged horizontally, with the two new buttons on the interior sides of the shoulder triggers. If you played with the old Wii Classic Controller—the SNES style one released with the console in 2006—this placement will be very familiar. The new buttons stick out just a little farther than the triggers, so they’re comfortable and easy to press even in games like Snake Eater 3D, where they serve a primary function.
The hardware feels like a far more complete design now, but what about the software? Well, after a slightly convoluted data transfer process, I booted the New XL to discover…it’s largely the same as the old one. The firmware is almost identical, but it does run quite a bit faster. The New XL’s CPU and VFP coprocessor have both seen a huge hardware bump, going from dual core to quad core. The system RAM has been doubled, and the VRAM has gone from 6BM to 10. It’s not exactly a beastly little machine, but there’s a lot more breathing room for the OS and various apps. Most games load up at least twice as fast as they used to, and more strenuous software like Super Smash Bros won’t force the OS to reboot anymore when you quit them. The browser and store apps are also much swifter; downloading Ace Combat Assault Horizon Legacy + only took a few minutes. The web browser is a workable option now instead of a slog, but naturally it can’t compete with the speed of a dedicated tablet or laptop.
The biggest addition to the OS is definitely NFC functionality. The New models have a near-field-communication sensor located right beneath the bottom screen. This means you can eventually scan credit cards, gift cards and other NFC-compatible items right over the touch screen and they’ll register automatically. The most visible use of this tech is Nintendo’s Amiibo toys-to-life figurines, which have been enabled in Super Smash Bros in a recent update. Naturally I scanned in all of my Amiibo and the interface is nearly identical to the setup screen on the Wii U, which cuts down on confusion. Several more games coming out this year are slated to interact with the little figures, so this was one feature I was pretty excited about. An NFC scanner is a long overdue addition to the 3DS hardware.
Of course, there are firmware options for a few of the other New 3DS features, like the light-sensitive screen brightness that adjusts itself based on ambient light picked up by the cameras, and Nintendo’s so-called “Super Stable” 3D. With the older 3DS models you had to hold the unit at a pretty precise distance and angle from your face for the 3D effect to resolve, and you had to maintain that position or the two slightly different angles projected by the screen would blur out of focus. That isn’t an issue anymore on the New XL.
Above the top screen, to the right of the interior camera, is a small infrared sensor. This little guy tracks your face position and adjusts the angle of the 3D projection accordingly. This means you can move and tilt the New XL within a surprisingly wide range of motion without losing the 3D effect; you really have to shake or twist the unit quite a bit to get the 3D to blur out. This makes viewing games in 3D a lot more comfortable and relaxed, and I didn’t experience the weird, creeping eye strain that I often encountered with the old XL’s 3D. The new Super Stable 3D works so well, in fact, that I’m tempted to keep the 3D slider cranked all the way up most of them time, when previously I would only use it occasionally or when the gameplay called for it. Of course the 3D effect eats battery power like popcorn, which leads to the New XL’s only serious flaw.
The New XL still has a pretty disappointing battery life. It has the same 1750 mAh Lithium ion battery as the old XL, and while the new model’s software and hardware streamlining will give you about half an hour more life than the old XL had, it’s still well short of what I’d like. With the 3D effect on full and the brightness at about half level you can expect at most 4 hours of life, probably closer to 3.5. With the 3D off you’ll get closer to 6, maybe 7 if you’re really lucky. Playing old DS games will stretch that life out to 10 or 12 hours. Leaving Wifi on is another minor, consistent drain under any of those circumstances. Nintendo handhelds have always been renowned for their battery longevity; the Game Boy’s stamina is what killed the technologically superior but power hungry Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear back in the 90s. It’s a shame that this is still the one area where the 3DS falls down.
With the vastly more powerful Samsung Galaxy note packing a 3220 mAh battery that lasts a whole day under moderate to heavy use—including gaming—Nintendo could easily cram a much higher capacity battery into the New XL. Advances in smartphone technology have made batteries smaller, more efficient and capable of holding a much bigger charge. There’s no good reason for the New XL to not have at least a 2200 mAh battery under the hood. What makes it worse is the 3DS has a library full of huge, deep games that take considerable time investments, with more on the way. It’s currently host to three big Zelda games, two gigantic Monster Hunter titles, and massive RPGs like Bravely Default and Fire Emblem Awakening. There’s another Fire Emblem coming out this year, Bravely Second is on the way and let’s not forget the April 10th launch of Xenoblade Chronicles 3D, one of the deepest RPGs ever made, clocking in at around 250 hours for 100% completion. You don’t want the battery crapping out when you’re in the middle of any of those games.
Last Sunday I decided to do a marathon session of Majora’s Mask, and it was pretty disheartening to see that angry red low battery light staring at me after just three hours. Hopefully Nintendo will alleviate this problem with a higher capacity replacement battery; they offered something similar for the Wii U’s power-eating GamePad, with a stronger battery that nevertheless is the same physical size and stretches the GamePad’s life from 5 hours to 8.
Outside of this one, admittedly significant area, the New 3DS XL is arguably the best dedicated portable gaming system on the market now. The breadth and variety of its game library easily beats the PS Vita, even if the New XL still pales in comparison from a technology standpoint. I’ve seen many critics complain that the New XL still isn’t the best for browsing, or that it doesn’t have 4G internet, or it doesn’t have the myriad features of even the most basic smartphone. I think these critics are missing the point. Everyone already has a smartphone, and while smart devices do offer a variety of gaming experiences, few of them can compete with the depth and quality of the 3DS library.
The New 3DS XL is a gaming machine, first and foremost, and it fulfills this purpose exceptionally. It plays a gigantic collection of amazing games, and supplements them with the Virtual Console, download-only titles and a wealth of fun little apps like Streetpass, Miiverse and Flipnote Studio 3D. The New model fixes most of the problems with the old models, I just wish it had happened sooner. There is no reason to believe that most of this technology didn’t exist affordably back in 2011, which is too bad because this is likely to be Nintendo’s last major revision of the 3DS hardware. We’ll probably have to wait for Nintendo’s next-gen portable before we get HD gaming, true dual analog controls and a return to legendary battery life from them. Nintendo should have started the 3DS lifespan with the New 3DS XL, instead of closing it out.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.
I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Columbus, Ohio with my fiancee and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do.View Profile