It Lives!!


The holidays are a time for love, joy, even an occasional miracle. I should know. Such a miracle unfolded before my eyes this past Christmas, in full view of family and friends: I fell in love with my Nintendo 3DS.

You heard me right. A long-forgotten aqua blue device with a depleted battery suddenly sprang to life and filled my holiday with 3D reveling. Joy to the virtual world! A handheld immaculate conception! How did it happen? Most unexpectedly.

When the 3DS first appeared, I wrote about it and expressed dismay at the dismal launch lineup, high price, and befuddling absence of an online store for apps and games. I patiently waited for Ocarina of Time 3D to arrive, played it for a week, then proceeded to shelve my 3DS and forget all about it. A few months later Nintendo dropped the price by a third, angering many of us early adopters. Pundits wondered if Nintendo had finally lost its portable mojo, after 20+ years of market dominance. Meanwhile the iOS/Android market exploded, and a slew of sub-$5 games signaled the end one-trick-pony game devices.

No company responds to being pressed into a corner better than Nintendo. History suggests that the company tends to narrow its vision when it leads (“Who needs optical discs?!”), but when Nintendo senses a whiff of its own irrelevance, it springs to creative action (“Who needs motion controls?!”).

I fell in love with my 3DS for four reasons, all converging this holiday season. The usual YMMV caveats apply, but if you’ve been on the 3DS sidelines, or if you can’t say for sure which drawer you stored that overpriced gadget in, now may be a good time for you to take another autostereoscopic look at the 3DS.

Reason 1: Games!

The 3DS launch lineup was disappointing, but it’s worth remembering that the most successful gaming device in history, the Nintendo DS, launched with even fewer games, none of them notable…Ping Pals anyone? The Urbz?

It’s taken awhile (too long, for many), but the 3DS now has a growing library of games that easily justifies purchasing the system. Here are my favorites in no particular order, with snapshot descriptions of each. I’ll talk in more detail about these games in my upcoming podcast.

  • Super Mario 3D Land - The best portable Mario game ever made. It’s gorgeous, beautifully balanced, and a terrific example of judiciously implemented 3D. EAD Tokyo managed to marry its floating Galaxy game universe with older side-scrolling Mario games, and the result is a platformer that sparkles with fun and imagination.
  • Mario Kart 7 - If you’re a close observer of the dev scene, you may know that Retro Studio has played a major role in designing top-tier Nintendo games like the Metroid Prime trilogy and the criminally under-appreciated Donkey Kong Country Returns. Last month’s Nintendo Power revealed that the studio quietly collaborated with EAD Tokyo on course and character design for Mario Kart 7, and the effort shows in the game’s immaculate fit and finish. It’s Mario Kart in 3D with hang gliding, underwater racing, and rock-solid online competition. What’s not to like?
  • Pushmo - a cuddly gem of a puzzle-platformer, and the best title to emerge so far from Nintendo’s revamped eShop. The video below describes the game better than I can in words. Pushmo is called Pullblox in Europe.
  • Mighty Switch Force - another stylish puzzle-platformer by Wayforward (A Boy and His Blob), the player controls a fembot named Officer Patricia Wagon, a “cybernetic cop send forth by the Galactic Penal Squad to put the Hooligan Sisters back behind bars.” You must turn translucent blocks solid, often in midair, while navigating environmental hazards and enemies. The game uses 3D to enhance the puzzles…and provoke gleeful giggles you vanquish baddies with blocks that suddenly materialize to crunch them.

  • Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked - one of my favorite DS titles has been revamped for the 3DS, but it’s mostly the same tactical JRPG that too many players missed in its original incarnation. I wrote about the game back in 2009, and I love the game no less fervently now. If you can overlook some gratingly effusive voice acting, Devil Survivor will bring you many hours of smart, well designed role-playing fun.
  • Cave Story 3D - The definitive indie game gets a loving 3D makeover that honors the core spirit of the game, yet also manages to enrich it. Rich Stanton at Eurogamer described it as a “chibi pop-up book with the 3D effects…and it looks wonderful, both faithful and surprising.” I can’t think of a better way of describing it. Despite what you may have heard, Cave Story 3D isn't just a re-release with a new coat of paint. There's artistry here that's more about intepretation than reiteration. I wrote about Cave Story in detail back in April of 2010.

Reason 2: Nintendo Love

3dsLet's face it, Nintendo screwed up, and they're trying hard to fix it. The eShop is finally worth visiting because it now includes news, games, apps, and preview videos in 3D. In other words, it's actually begun to resemble a shop where you might buy something.

The "Ambassador Program," aka, "The Great Iwata Guilt-Trip Giveaway" was an effort to "show appreciation" to consumers who bought a 3DS in the first months of its availability. I was initially skeptical of this maneuver, but when I saw the final list of 20 free games - 10 classic NES and 10 GBA titles - I whistled a different tune. It's hard to dismiss some of the best games in the catalogs of both systems, including franchise launchers Super Mario Bros., Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda; and other terrific games like Yoshi's Island, The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, Fire Emblem, Metroid Fusion, Wario Land 4, among others.

Finally, Club Nintendo at long last looks like a club worth joining. In addition to nerd-cool trinkets for frequent buyers, players can now trade in coins earned from registering games to purchase new games in the eShop.

Reason 3: It's a Zelda machine!

Zelda (1)If you're a Zelda fan, the 3DS is a good way to go. In addition to being backwards-compatible for DS Zelda titles Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, seven other games are also available for the system:

  • The Legend of Zelda
  • Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
  • The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX
  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
  • The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Anniversary Edition (free via eShop until Feb. 20, 2012)
  • The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
  • Four Swords Anniversary Edition is especially worth noting. It includes new levels that pay sonic and visual homage to previous Zelda games, and, unlike the cumbersome 2002 version, this is multiplayer Zelda without the crazy GBA-to-Gamecube connectivity issues. Even if you don't own a 3DS, pick this one up for your DSi or borrow one from a friend. It's a blast.

    Reason 4: It's still a pretty cool device

    Despite the 3DS being on the market since last March, lots of people have yet to lay eyes on it, as I discovered spending time with family and friends over the holidays. I still get a kick out of showing it off. Unfortunately, now that more quality games are available, few people hand it back to me quickly. Mario Kart 7 and Pushmo, in particular, make my 3DS disappear for mysteriously long periods of time. 

    I should also mention it's sturdy. Like most Nintendo hardware I've owned over the years, it can take a licking and keep on ticking. Good thing, too, because I've got a 4-year-old gamer girl with butterfingers.

    At the risk of filling this "glass half-full" cup to the brim, I'll also note that I'm excited about some 3DS games on the horizon, especially Resident Evil Revelations (which I've briefly played); Luigi's Mansion 2 (be sure to check out the 3D video for this one in the eShop); and new Paper Mario and Animal Crossing games. I'm also a big fan of Monster Hunter Tri for the Wii, so an enhanced version of that game, Monster Hunter 3G, has me pretty excited too.

    So maybe the 3DS got off to a rocky start, but 4 million unit sales in the U.S. (more than the Wii in its first nine months), suggest things may not be as dire as some of us thought. Who knows how smartphones and tablets will continue to impact Nintendo's gameplan, but for now I'm happy to say my 3DS was a welcome part of our holiday festivities.

    Happy New Year, everyone!



    The goal of innovation is to serve every player. The new platform will provide deeper game experiences than what even the most passionate gamer has realized before... It can satisfy all tastes.
                                                                           --Satoru Iwata 

    It seems like Nintendo heard the voice of the hardcore gamer. 
                                                                           --Ken Levine

    Nintendo is at a crossroads. Again. Despite the extraordinary success of the Wii (86 million units) and DS (146 million units), the company finds itself on shaky ground facing an uncertain future. Its stock fell 5% on the day it unveiled the Wii U and dropped another 7% the following day. Its share price is now the lowest it has been in more than five years.

    Want more gloom? Profits at Nintendo have dropped by more than 66%. The company has sold 5 million fewer Wiis and 10 million fewer DSs than the previous year. Nintendo also fell short of its 4 million target for 3DS, selling only 3.61 million units by the end of March - a figure president Satoru Iwata acknowledged as disappointing.

    Contrast Nintendo’s trajectory to Microsoft’s. In the seventh year of its lifecycle, the Xbox 360 is on pace to sell more units than in any year of its history - a feat unmatched by any previous console. May marked its seventeenth month of year-over-year hardware sales increases.

    It’s not just about hardware. Video game spending is down 13% year-over-year, and physical game sales have plummeted 19%, their lowest level since October 2006. This figure is especially damaging to Nintendo, which derives little benefit from the growing DLC market. Perhaps most telling of all: not a single Nintendo-published title appears on the most recent NPD list of Top 10 best-selling games. 

    And so along comes E3 and Nintendo's recent press briefing, a convergence of timing and careful messaging. And weirdness.

    The event opened strong with Shigeru Miyamoto hosting a lovely 25th-anniversary Legend of Zelda retrospective, accompanied by a live orchestra that could have used a little more rehearsal. An oddly humorless Reggie Fils-Aime presented a showcase of forthcoming 3DS games, followed by the Wii U reveal and a segment featuring developers promising to support it. 

    Then, with no transitional intro, attendees were jolted by an incongruous tonal shift that collided with the briefing’s other 87 minutes. Nintendo brought the mayhem. A sizzle reel of guns, chain saws, explosions, and splattering blood. One FPS after another. “A Whole New Future,” proclaimed Nintendo. “See?” Reggie seemed to say, “We can sever limbs and blow stuff up too! The Wii U is for everyone!”

    Baffling as it was, Nintendo’s E3 briefing makes sense as a mixture of hope and desperation. The company has big news to trumpet, but it's also losing ground and battling competitors (iOS, Android, Zynga, et al) that didn't exist when its newest hardware was being designed. Nintendo can be an arrogant frontrunner, but when it plays underdog, nobody is scrappier or more tenacious.

    As an entertainment company, Nintendo has always balanced conservative preservation of its characters and history with audacious (and risky) innovation. History shows that when Nintendo has its back against the wall, it dreams up something new, and bets the farm on it. They did it with the Wii, and they’re at it again with its successor. This strategy hasn’t always succeeded, but Nintendo’s failures often function as first drafts for future successes (e.g. Power Pad, Virtual Boy).

    Nintendo wobbles when it plays me-too. The Gamecube was a me-too device, and it never had a chance. The company also tends to stumble by clinging to old ideas. It built a better machine with the Nintendo 64, but ignoring the advantages of optical media doomed it from the start. More recently, dismissing online connectivity as "unnecessary" suggested the folks at Nintendo were out of touch with contemporary gamers.

    All of this makes prognosticating about the Wii U tricky business. On one hand, I’m excited by the possibilities of a game system designed to exploit the fact that LAN parties are the most fun you can possibly have playing video games. I love the idea of asynchronous play, and I’m crazy for the simple notion that I can continue playing Zelda uninterrupted when my wife turns the TV to Project Runway. I’m not entirely convinced by Tadhg Kelly's case for the Wii U as “The Ultimate Machine,” but I do see terrific possibilities for interfacing with games in exciting new ways. 

    We hear you
    Unfortunately, Nintendo appears to be positioning the Wii U as a device to finally bridge the gap between ‘casuals’ and ‘hardcores.’ Iwata and Fils-Aime each hammered home the new system’s attractiveness to developers who currently ignore the Wii. Rather than focusing on game design possibilities unleashed by a touchscreen-enabled controller, the company seemed intent on repeating its mantra to serious gamers: “We hear you.” One could easily walk away from Nintendo's press briefing with the impression that the biggest advantage offered by the Wii U is the possibility of playing Assassin’s Creed on it. 

    As always, time will tell about the marketplace response to Nintendo’s new console. I suspect players who currently enjoy playing FPS games on their Xbox 360s will see little reason to abandon that system (and, importantly, their online friends and achievements) for a Nintendo system that may offer compelling UI advantages, but not compelling enough to jump ship. 

    If Nintendo and a slew of clever 3rd-party developers capitalize on the Wii U’s blend of touchscreen interface and motion-control, the future looks bright for Nintendo. Until it dims again. Which it will. And Nintendo will bet the farm on another big idea. That's what they do, and it's why I always root for them a little more than the others.

    Look Ma! It's autostereoscopic!


    I don't typically do hardware reviews, but after a few days with Nintendo's crazy/brilliant 3DS device, I feel compelled to share my impressions. If you're wondering whether or not to take the $250 leap into 3D handheld gaming, maybe I can be helpful. 

    When I say "crazy/brilliant," I mean both. In releasing the 3DS, Nintendo has made a series of befuddling "what were they thinking?" choices that seem crazy to me. On the other hand, the device packs a brilliant wow-factor punch that turns every new owner into an uncompensated sales rep for Nintendo. Since the 3DS can't be adequately demonstrated on TV or in print, new owners of the device become walking demo kiosks. Your friends will see it and be amazed. Seriously.

    So, for what it's worth, here's the crazy:

    The launch-day lineup of games is embarrassingly weak. Reggie and the PR gang at Nintendo have touted the number of release games (sixteen) as proof that the 3DS is the best-supported system launch in Nintendo history. At the risk of being a contrarian, I would argue the Nintendo 64's pitiful selection at launch (two games) easily bests the 3DS's. One Super Mario 64 puts sixteen mediocre games to shame, in my book.

    It's hard to understand why Nintendo didn't develop a first-class showcase game to lead the way for other developers to exploit the power of the new hardware. They did it with SM64, and they did it again with Wii Sports. The pack-in AR Games point in that direction (and genuine jaw-droppers they are), but they're more proof-of-concept demos than fleshed out games.

    Should have bought Super Street Fighter IV 3D.
    I've played all three 1st-party games (Pilotwings Resort, Steel Diver, and Nintendogs + Cats) and several 3rd-party titles (Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars, Ridge Racer 3D, and Super Monkey Ball 3D), and I can't find a single good thing to say about any of them. For the most part, they're thin (Steel Diver), shallow (Monkey Ball), 3D-after-thought (Lego Star Wars) games - or in the case of Nintendogs + Cats, a $40 re-release of a DS game with mostly cosmetic updates.

    Pilotwings is fun, and it nicely showcases the system's 3D visuals, but after an hour or so the fun tank runs empty. As with all of these games, it feels like the developers grew so enamored of their games' 3D-ness that they forgot to finish making them. 

    Which brings me to the value question. In a market full of iOS games that run circles around these launch titles, is it realistic to expect consumers to pay $40 for a 3DS game? Launch games are notoriously immature, and I'm sure developers will eventually dream up all sorts of wonderful ways to leverage the 3DS's power. But will the 3D value-add cover the $30-35 price difference? As much as I hope this slick little aqua device will succeed, I fear Nintendo's pricing model isn't sustainable. Some have suggested the unit itself is too pricey at $250, and that may be true; but I see the current price of its games as a bigger hurdle.

    The 3DS includes a web browser...but it won't be available for month or two. Owners can download new 3DS games, as well as DSiWare and retro Gameboy games...but the new eShop isn't ready yet. Nintendo's inability to have a robust download service up and running at launch suggests their struggle to implement a coherent online strategy continues.

    They want to get it right, and that makes sense, but releasing a ballyhooed new system with major announced features missing is inexcusable. Imagine if Apple had released the iPad with its app store "coming soon." With its new connectivity-enhanced online-enabled device, Nintendo's priority remains boxed hard media, even as every industry trend moves in the opposite direction.


    Now for the brilliant stuff
    The 3DS delivers on its promise of amazing 3D visuals, sans glasses. This fact alone nearly overcomes all the negatives. In my first few hours with the device, I couldn't help turning it on every few minutes, just to be sure I wasn't fooling myself. 

    It literally draws a crowd. I brought my 3DS to class with me this morning, and before I knew it five students were hunched over the shoulder of one playing FaceRaiders. The 3D camera blew them away. I sold half a dozen units today. Easy. Kiosk.

    The AR cards are incredibly ripe for imaginative game design. Place a card on a table, train your 3DS cameras on it, and up sprouts a 3-dimensional character or place. So many possibilities, especially as items to trade or to augment other games. If you've heard people describe the 3DS as jaw-dropping, it's likely they were talking about the pack-in AR Games.

    The 3D slider is quite useful for finding your own sweet spot. The 3D effect may initially disorient you, but adjusting the slider and your viewing angle will bring everything into focus. I find that when I wear my glasses, I prefer to set it a little higher than when I wear my contact lenses. The device is light and feels comfortable in my hands. Nintendo finally wised up and moved the headphone jack to the front center of the unit. You may decide not to use it, however, because the 3DS produces surprisingly rich, resonant sound through its speakers.

    Built-in fun
    Mii Studio, 3D photos, the FaceRaders game, the StreetPass mode that exchanges Miis with other 3DS owners as you walk past them (among other game-specific functionality) - all are fun, distinctive features built into the system. Nintendo still insists on Friend Codes, but trading Miis is easy because you can export them as QR Codes, square-shaped barcodes that can be read by scanners and the 3DS camera.

    I hope these early impressions of the 3DS are helpful. I don't know if it's a must-buy, a maybe-buy, or a wait-and-see system. Those sorts of recommendations aren't my bag. I do know I'm excited about the 3DS's possibilities, and I'm savoring its novelty-cool. We'll see how long that lasts. In the end it won't be about the device anyway. It's always about the games.

    Addendum: When I wrote this post I hadn't yet played a standard DS game on the 3DS. This morning I popped Pokémon White into the system for a look. My advice: hold on to your DS Lite or DSi. The 3DS's 800x240 top screen display (400x240 for each eye, basically) is significantly greater than the DSi's 256x192. To compensate, the 3DS defaults to upscaling, which produces some fairly nasty fuzziness on both screens. If you hold down start+select when loading a DS game, you can run it at what Nintendo calls "native resolution," but the images on both screens are shrunk significantly. Destructoid posted a photo that shows what this shrinkage looks like.

    iPad got game

    Duct-tape-ipad Last year I wrote about my disillusionment with the iPhone as a gaming platform. Since then, I've tried dozens more games, and my impression of the device hasn't changed much. I continue to find using my finger as an input device problematic at best, and I continue to find holding the iPhone uncomfortable after 15 minutes or so of gaming.  

    With notable exceptions like Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, most iPhone games leave me cold after a period of fleeting enchantment. If I can't enjoy a game as perfectly wonderful as Plants vs. Zombies on my iPhone, then something is wrong with me or the hardware I'm playing it on. Since it can't possibly be me, it's got to be the iPhone. :-)

    Okay, I know what you're thinking, iPhone game aficionado. I'm stubbornly dismissing the iPhone as a gaming platform because it doesn't match my personal gaming preferences. Well, yes I am. I can't get past the fact that its primary input device (my finger attached to my hand) obscures the game I'm trying to hold and control. Lots of people have no problem with that, but I do. Can't help it.

    But here's the thing. It's not really a matter of user input; it's a matter of size. A week ago I was prepared to dismiss games on a touchscreen device with no external controls, but that was before a shiny new overpriced Apple toy entered my gaming life. Hello super-sized iPhone gaming device. Hello device I never thought I'd want (see photo above). Hello iPad.

    Two iPad games have put my doubts to rest. The new iPad version of Pac-Man, and the iPad edition of Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor

    Pac-Man on the iPad isn't perfect. Its virtual joystick makes the game virtually unplayable, but its swipe input option more than makes up for it. Simply swipe up, down, right, or left anywhere on the screen, and your little pill addict chomps in that direction. It works flawlessly, and the size of the screen makes it possible to experience the game in all its old-school arcade glory. 

    I wouldn't cite a Pac-Man port for the iPad as a shining example of the platform's potential, but as an example of a control scheme well-suited to the hardware's capabilities, it shines far brighter than Namco's iPhone version of the game.

    Spider-iPad If you admired the hand-drawn art in Spider: TSBM on the iPhone, you owe it to yourself to check out the iPad version. It's still arresting, but on the iPad's big bright screen Spider's sumptuous visuals have room to breathe. 

    This matters because Spider tells its story primarily through its environments. The player explores the visual aftermath of events that occurred long ago, and the enhanced HD visuals in this version make that detective work even more satisfying. The iPad version adds a co-op 'Sidekick mode' for two players and additional 'Director's Cut' levels.

    I'm making my way through a slew of other iPad games that make especially good use of the hardware (Osmos, Little Things, Shot Shot Shoot), and I'm enjoying some terrific titles for kids with my daughter. I'll report on those in my next post. Also, David Carlton at Malvasia Bianca recently alerted me to the iPad version of Frotz, so Planetfall, here I come!

    If you have other iPad games you'd like to recommend, let me know. If you'd like to counter my "iPhone = bad gaming device" contention, by all means fire away. Given the number of iPhone games sold on Apple's app store, I have a feeling my opinion is a minority one.

    The waggle wanes


    My left index finger hurts like the dickens. Yesterday I played Sin & Punishment: Star Successor into the wee hours (the Wii hours?), and my poor digit took quite a beating. I've mapped the 'dodge' button to the left bumper on my controller, and this game has me dodging ninjas, frogs, missiles, lasers, fireballs, and any number of other projectiles with my name on them. 

    If you're a fan of the genre, Treasure's new bullet-hell shoot-em-up on rails is everything you could hope for. It's an an old-school game re-tooled for a modern audience, with a difficulty spectrum broader than any I've seen in other games. Played on Easy with a Wiimote and nunchuck (and a co-op partner helping you), this beast is positively tamable. Played on Hard, however, the game delivers a seismic beat-down the likes of which I haven't seen since Ikaruga, the only game to provoke me into an apoplectic fit of digital media disc destruction. Ah, the Dreamcast days. But I digress.

    I'm playing S&P with Nintendo's new Classic Controller Pro, which ought to come with a 'scratch and sniff the irony' sticker on the box. Here we are 4 years and 71 million units into the life of the Wii, and Nintendo finally devises a gamepad properly suited for its Virtual Console catalog of SNES, Genesis, N64, et al games - but it only works if you tether it to the wireless motion-control remote that made such gamepads 'obsolete.' Sadly, despite the Wii's backward compatibility with Gamecube games, the new gamepad won't work as a Gamecube controller, even though it matches all its buttons, triggers, and d-pad. Grrr.

    Taking nothing away from Nintendo's elegant implementation of motion-control in games like Super Mario Galaxy 1&2, it seems to me developers (especially 3rd-party) have finally embraced the notion that waggling the Wiimote may not always be the best or even necessary option. Looking over the list of Wii games I've played over the last 6 months, I see lots of terrific games that made little or no use of motion-control (or rendered it purely optional), and none suffered for the loss.

    Sin & Punishment aside, the two Wii games I've spent the most time with in 2010 are Monster Hunter Tri and Cave Story, both exceptionally fine games that simply have no use for motion-control. I can imagine that someone at Capcom must have briefly considered the possibility of whacking monsters by waving the Wiimote around, but mercifully abandoned the idea. In years 1-3 of the Wii's existence, I'll wager those waggle chops would have made it into the game.

    An Art Style game like Orbient could easily have tacked on pointing or tilt control, but the designers wisely kept things simple. If you haven't tried any of the Art Style games available on WiiWare, I encourage you to give them a look. I especially like Orbient and Rotozoa, but they're all graceful games with simple, intuitive controls.

    And then there's the forthcoming Metroid: Other M. Here's what Team Ninja's Yosuke Hayashi had to say recently about his team's decision not to use MotionPlus:

    "It [Metroid] is not compatible with the Wii MotionPlus. One of our major goals with this game is beautiful game design and as we were progressing through development we discovered that it [MotionPlus] was actually not working with what we were shooting for."[1]

    "Beautiful game design" may be enhanced by smooth, smartly implemented motion-control (Metroid Prime 3: Corruption), or it may undermine an otherwise wonderful concept. Consider the case of Max & the Magic Marker

    Max & the Magic Marker's core mechanic is based on drawing with the Wiimote. The goal of the game is to get Max to the end of each level, and the player draws objects onscreen to enable Max's progress. Unfortunately, the imprecise nature of the Wiimote renders what might have been an inspired design into an exercise in frustration. 

    But let's say those controls worked perfectly and I could easily draw whatever Max needed. The real problem with Max & the Magic Marker is a lack of imagination in its most basic element: level design. A platformer that requires the player to draw items on-screen sounds like an ideal twist on the genre for the Wii...but if nobody bothers to design interesting levels, you're left with tiresome derivative gameplay based on a gimmick, and gimmicks wear thin quickly.

    It took awhile, but maybe we've finally turned the corner designing games for the Wii with control schemes that suit them. We'll see what happens next with Kinect and Move. Something tells me I'll be waving my arms again soon.

    A bigger small


    I don't generally write about hardware, but today I can't help myself. Last week I bought a Nintendo DSi XL, and after a week of putting this PhatBoy through its paces, an unexpected love affair has blossomed between me and this marvelous piece of kit. Read on for all the smoochy details.

    First, let me say that I won't recommend you abandon a perfectly good DSi for the new super-sized XL - even though that's exactly what I did. In terms of functionality, it brings almost nothing new to the table. Same control layout; same screen resolution; same processor; same twin cameras. The XL has a larger battery than the DSi (1050 mAh vs 840 mAh), which translated into approximately 15 hours of continuous operation for me.

    The XL is bigger, and that's pretty much the whole story. But, for me, that difference makes all the difference. This is the best handheld game system I've ever played, and I've played just about all of them. (Sorry Watara Supervision, I never got around to you.) If you're an original DS or DS Lite owner considering an upgrade, you should definitely give the XL a look.

    When I say 'give it a look' I mean get your hands on it and play it. I had no interest whatsover in this device until I saw one in the store. Even then, seeing a stack of XL boxes inside a locked case failed to break my stride. What finally piqued my curiosity was a salesperson asking me if I'd like to have a look at "the new GameBoy." I said yes, and he pulled a shiny burgundy XL out of his vest pocket. I flipped open the lid, turned on the unit, loaded up Zelda Spirit Tracks...and within 30 seconds I was sold.

    I'm probably not the average DS owner. Portability (i.e. tucking a handheld in my pocket and playing on-the-go, on the bus, plane or train) isn't very important to me. At least 90% of my time playing handheld games, dating back to the original GameBoy in 1989, has been spent in a chair or on a sofa. I've never been interested in carrying a handheld on my person. If it fits in my shoulder bag, that's portable enough for me.

    The DSi XL hits a perfect ergonomic sweet spot for me: small enough, but now big enough too. At 6.3-inches long and 3.6-inches wide, the device is taller and wider than previous DS models, but it's still less than an inch thin. More importantly, its 4.2-inch screen is 93 percent larger than the DS Lite's, and this is the difference you must see to appreciate. In recent days I've shown my XL to various friends and students, and their reactions typically arrive in two stages. First they see the device closed: "Hm"; then they open it and discover the two bright screens: "Wow!" 

    Rhythm Heaven is exactly 52.3 percent easier to play on the XL thanks to the bigger screens. Okay, I'm just making up numbers, but certain games that require writing (Brain Age), note-taking (Spirit Tracks) or precision jumping (New Super Mario Bros) all similarly benefit from the extra real estate. Cell-shaded games like Chinatown Wars and The World Ends With You look better and brighter than ever.

    Other games, like Nintendogs and Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, appear slightly pixelated, and that's because the XL's screen runs at the same 256 x 192 resolution of previous DS models. Nintendo has increased the size of each pixel, so games that rely on antialiasing suffer a bit on the XL. The difference is slight, however, and most games show no degradation at all, as far as I can tell.

    Audio volume and clarity are greatly improved on the XL. The pen-sized stylus feels far more comfortable, and the unit feels impressively solid in my hands. The screen is a bit brighter than the DSi's; but it's no iPhone, and the device is still essentially unplayable in sunlight. Wi-Fi remains wonky, as it has been throughout the DS life cycle, and some will consider the system overpriced ($20 more than the DSi).

    But if you're a devoted Nintendo handheld gamer with a library of DS games you still enjoy playing, you should give the DSi XL a look. Or, better yet, a grip. Of course, you may wish to hold out for the recently-announced Nintendo 3DS, due to appear in North America a year from now. I'm curious about that one, but I expect by the time it appears, I won't regret my year-long romance with this little big sweetie.