The Nintendo 3DS XL: The Kotaku Review

Who are you?

Are you a person who has a 3DS? You should think about upgrading to the 3DS XL.

Are you a person who does not have a 3DS at all? You should get one.

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.

The Nintendo 3DS XL: The Kotaku Review
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: Revelations suffer 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.

The Nintendo 3DS XL: The Kotaku Review

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...

The Nintendo 3DS XL: The Kotaku Review

...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.

Review Notes: This is what I jotted down while comparing a few games on the 3DS and 3DS XL …

Comparing New Super Mario Bros. 2
3DS - you can see beyond the machine. The graphics are crisper. It now looks small. Feels small, hands clamping around it
3DS XL – you don't see beyond the machine. The graphics are rougher-edged. It doesn't feel too big, but it fills your hands.

For Resident Evil Revelations, I had a tough time noticing a difference, presumably because the game was polygonal and dark. The 3DSXL felt less like looking through a keyhole and more like looking at a movie screen (broader than my eyes?)

But with Mario Kart 7 I could tell that the 3DS was crisper. The 3D also felt deeper, maybe related. 3DSXL was good, but missing something – I think it's a little bit like looking through a screen door.

The 3DS XL doesn't deserve the credit for the stacked lineup of games that can be played on it. Any game you can play on the 3DS XL, you can play on the 3DS. This goes for the rising number of good 3DS games, the incredible full library of DS games, a batch of downloadable Game Boy, Game Boy Advance and Nintendo Entertainment System games, a smattering of Sega Game Gear games and a slew of download-only eShop games made for the DSi or 3DS. What the 3DS XL does deserve credit for is displaying all of those games at a more impressive size.

What the 3DS XL does deserve credit for is for having a way larger lower screen than the original 3DS. It too is 90% bigger, and while the upper screen's size boost felt like a luxury enhancement, the bottom screen's boost feels like a necessity. The lower screen is the system's touch screen. On the 3DS it felt cramped and secondary and therefore made any games that required attention on the lower screen feel scrunched down. The 3DS XL's screen is not only properly big but it's so big as to make one's fingers a worthwhile stylus-replacement for a lot of touch-sensitive controls. It's a grand improvement and improves the device's backwards compatibility to DS games, which usually focused player's attention on the lower screen.

The selling point of the original 3DS had been its glasses-free 3D. That's still a nice feature here, though the use of that 3D tech is mostly being improved in the programming of the games for it. See, for example, the subtle depth-of-field blur introduced by activating the system's 3D slider in New Super Mario Bros. 2. Most of the original 3DS games simply had too wide a range of available 3D effects; their max settings were usually head-hurtingly strong. Newer games are programmed better, with 3D effects that are more pleasing, but that's more of a software story and underscores how less and less impactful the hardware itself is on the efficacy of 3D in Nintendo's 3DS gaming era.

The Nintendo 3DS XL: The Kotaku Review
3DS XL vs. 3DS. For more of this comparison, we've got a video showing the same Mario game running on both systems, side-by-side.

The 3DS XL does not upgrade any of the basic tech that the 3DS had. The system still supports those glasses-free 3D graphics and does so within a fairly narrow field of view (you will lose the 3D effect if you move your head or the system much off a center line). The bottom screen is still not multi-touch. The internal and external cameras are still not too hot. And video playback through various streaming services is still far below the quality you'd get on higher-resolution portables like the Vita or iPhone. The only upgrade the 3DS XL gets you is the bigger screen real estate (oh, and a 4GB card instead of a 3GB 2GB one and the stylus is chunkier and therefore better). There is no second analog circle pad, which means games like Kid Icarus: Uprising will still have a loony control scheme that begs for the second pad. But the system pretty much has what it needs. Don't get too hung up on the lack of a second circle pad, which is the upgrade that many people expected a new 3DS to have. While it would be nice, it's not remotely necessary for the majority of games that can play on the platform, most of which do fine using the touchscreen as a secondary analog input, if they need a secondary analog input at all.

The Nintendo 3DS XL: The Kotaku Review
The 3DS XL, on the right, has bigger screens that Nintendo's previous super-sized handheld, the DSi XL. But, overall, smaller.

The 3DS software line-up is not yet in its prime, but with games such as Super Mario 3D Land and 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 a WarioWare. 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.