Tag Archives: hardware

Why the 3DS XL has no second Circle Pad

Today it was revealed that a new version of the Circle Pad Pro for the 3DS XL is in the works. This has caused some consternation, with the comments sections of many sites filled with people criticising Nintendo for their apparent stupidity and/or avarice. But I don’t agree with these criticisms – there are actually valid reasons for having a new Circle Pad Pro attachment instead of a built-in second Circle Pad.

Space

One of the things that people never take into account when considering why Nintendo didn’t give the 3DS a second Circle Pad from the start is that there simply isn’t room for one. When you look at the innards of the 3DS, you can see that the gubbins for the Circle Pad cut down right into the bottom of the console.

Here’s an image of the main circuit board for the 3DS. You can see the large hole that has been cut out of it to fit the components for the Circle Pad.

Here’s another image, showing the back frame of the console.

Look at the bottom right. You can see that the Circle Pad affects the design of the console right the way through. Note that there is a large hole on the other side to fit the battery – there is no space on the other side of the console for a Circle Pad. The middle section of the console is filled with the game card slot and the electronic components that allow the 3DS to function. There is simply no room in the original 3DS console for another Circle Pad. It is full.

Now you might be saying, “Oh, but the 3DS XL is larger while using the same technology, perhaps there is extra space.” But that isn’t necessarily so. Many of the components will have grown with the console; we know the battery has more capacity and will perhaps be physically larger. It is easy to suggest that Nintendo add a second Circle Pad, but it is perhaps not physically possible.

Fracturing of the user base

A common argument against adding a second Circle Pad to the 3DS XL is that it will split the user base into two groups, people who have only an original 3DS, and people who have a 3DS plus a Circle Pad Pro or a 3DS XL, causing various problems. This is incorrect. Adding a second Circle Pad to the 3DS XL would split the user base into three. The Circle Pad Pro does not simply add a second Circle Pad to the 3DS, it adds a second set of shoulder buttons too, bringing the 3DS into line with the control configurations of home consoles. It would not be possible to add a second set of shoulder buttons to the 3DS XL, so adding merely a second Circle Pad would produce three possible control schemes for 3DS games: original 3DS, original 3DS with Circle Pad Pro and 3DS XL. This would be something akin to madness.

People forget the Circle Pad Pro includes these

Incompatibility

The current set of games that support the Circle Pad Pro would not natively support an internal second Circle Pad in the 3DS XL. This is because these games are programmed to receive the input from the extra controls from the infra-red transceiver built into the Circle Pad Pro. These games would not be able to recognise an internal second Circle Pad even if it was present. Not only would all existing Circle Pad Pro-compatible games need to be patched to support an internal second Circle Pad, they would need to be amended to support a control scheme featuring a second Circle Pad but not the extra shoulder buttons of the Circle Pad Pro. This would be a bit of a faff to say the least.

In conclusion, there are valid practical reasons why the original 3DS does not include a second Circle Pad. This has led to there being valid practical reasons for not including a second Circle Pad in subsequent reiterations of the console. The original Circle Pad Pro wasn’t very aesthetically pleasing, and I hope its successor is more attractively designed. It is worth remembering, however, that it will not just add a second Circle Pad ‘that should have been there in the first place’. It will also add extra buttons to replicate the home console controller experience perfectly, and perhaps developers will design games that will make that experience worth the extra bulk and expense.

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Some Nintendo 3DS XL questions answered

The big news of the latest Nintendo Direct presentation was the announcement of the Nintendo 3DS XL. A new larger version of the Nintendo 3DS, similar to the DSi XL, is ready and waiting in Nintendo’s European warehouses, ready to be released next month. I had a few questions about the device, but it’s actually possible to try and answer many of them, even with the sparse information available. Here’s a short Q&A.

You’re supposed to carry around the 3DS so you can StreetPass. What will carrying around the 3DS XL in my trouser pocket be like?

The dimensions and weight of the 3DS are very similar to those of the previously released Nintendo DSi XL. You can actually a feel for what carrying the 3DS XL will be like just by placing the older device in your trouser pocket. The DSi XL is fairly comfortable to hold in the pocket, but it does leave a much more pronounced bulky oblong outline than the original 3DS. The outer edges of the 3DS XL are curved, and I suspect the purpose of this may be to avoid leaving this strong outline when placed in a pocket.

The 3DS XL doesn’t come with a charger in Europe because I’m already meant to have one. Does that mean it won’t come with the set of AR cards that were included with the original 3DS either?

The Japanese website says a set of AR cards are included, so if you want to sell or trade in your original 3DS you should be able to include the cards that came with it.

The original 3DS had a problem where the raised bezel of the touchscreen damaged the top screen. Will this happen with the 3DS XL?

The original 3DS had a raised bezel around the touchscreen and bumpers around the edges that were meant to prevent the bezel from coming into contact with the top screen. These bumpers were completely inadequate to prevent the bezel from resting on the top screen in earlier models, and even later models left so little space that residue could build up between the bezel and the screen – a small piece of lint on the touchscreen bezel even damaged the screen protector over my top screen recently. Unlike the original model, which had a plastic sheet covering the whole of the top panel, it appears the 3DS XL uses a proper glass screen. This should be more hardy. Instead of bumpers, the 3DS has two bumps protruding from the top panel. Looking at promotional images of a flat 3DS XL, it appears these bumps actually rest on the bezel itself, on either side of the buttons below the touchscreen. It seems it will be more difficult for the bezel to damage to top screen now, since the design seems to make it impossible for it to come into contact with the top screen.

When playing Kid Icarus: Uprising, I like to use the 3DS stand to make playing more comfortable. Will I be able to use it with the 3DS XL?

It’ll be very hard to give a definitive answer to this until the console actually comes out. The details of the design may make it more prone to sliding off the stand. As I said above, the dimensions of the 3DS XL are very similar to the DSi XL. When I placed my DSi XL on the stand, the stand seemed able to accommodate the increased depth satisfactorily – in fact there is some surplus depth when using the original 3DS. While the headphone slot has been moved on the 3DS XL, it appears to be placed so that it will not be covered by the ledge of the stand. I’d say it’s likely that it’ll be possible to use the 3DS stand with the new console.

Do you have any questions about the Nintendo 3DS XL? Leave a comment and I’ll either add it to the post or update it when the information becomes available.

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Hands-on with the Playstation Vita, part two

Here’s the second part of my Playstation Vita hands-on. I’m going to take a look at the other games I played at the Vita Rooms in Manchester and then give my overall impressions on this new gaming platform.

Gravity Rush

I only had a quick go on this third-person adventure game, but it was enough to pique my interest. It has a lovely-looking art style, which I’d describe as a more detailed manga-style version of the cel-shaded graphics from games like Okami. Videos and screenshots don’t really do it justice, it looks much nicer ‘in the flesh’ on the Vita’s screen. I didn’t experience too much of the gameplay, but the gravity-shifting elements control very intuitively. I did notice that some awkward-shaped objects in the sky can leave you to slip off and hurtle into the air if you land in the wrong place, but I doubt that this something that will crop up frequently during gameplay.

A screenshot of Gravity Rush

Rayman Origins

I haven’t played any of the home-console versions of this, but the game looks absolutely spectacular on the Vita. This comes across a totally full-fat experience and is perhaps the best example of the Vita’s ability to provide home-console games on the go so far.

A screenshot of Rayman Origins

Virtua Tennis 4

Like Uncharted and Wipeout, this felt like it was trying to utilise the full power of the Vita, and it looked quite nice. I haven’t played Virtua Tennis since the Dreamcast days, but I got back into it quite easily. I’d read about a new control gimmick where you swipe across the touchscreen to move your player to the ball, so decided to give that a go. I was surprised how well it worked – it was nice and intuitive. Virtua Tennis 4 recived fairly middling reviews when it was released on other formats, so we’ll have to see how this fares when it comes out.

A screenshot of Virtua Tennis

Super Stardust Delta

This was the first game I tried on the Vita and I only had a quick go as I was eager to test out the likes of Wipeout and Uncharted. It looks and plays similarly to the PS3 game, with some extra touch control gimmickry. You can use the rear touchpad to drop a black hole weapon but this felt very awkward to me.

A screenshot of Super Stardust Delta

MotorStorm: RC

This is a spin-off from the MotorStorm series featuring remote-control cars. I initially struggled to get to grips with this as there didn’t seem to be an explanation of the controls, but I eventually figured out that you use the two analogue sticks in the same way you would for an actual remote-control car. Even once I’d worked this out I didn’t find the game particularly intuitive or fun, and while the graphics looked petty solid they weren’t particularly memorable.

A screenshot of MotorStorm: RC

ModNation Racers: Road Trip

I never bought ModNation Racers for the PS3 because the demo didn’t particularly grab me. I found this fairly enjoyable though – the racing seems solid, although like most kart racers that aren’t Mario Kart there’s a weird generic-ness about it. If you’re not going to be investing in a 3DS then this might be worth a look.

A screenshot of ModNation Racers: Road Trip

Frobisher Says

This is a quirky microgame title in the vein of WarioWare. It acts as a nice demonstration of the Vita’s various features and has you fighting bears and drawing faces on eggs, among other things. It’s also a nice demonstration of the Vita’s ability to carry off Locoroco-style 2D graphics – despite being a modest, quirky title it can look quite lovely in its own way. I had to stop playing it when it asked me to smile for the camera though – I wasn’t willing to do a big toothy grin in the middle of a room of actual human beings. So while I did like it, it’s perhaps not one for the bus.

A screenshot of Frobisher Says

Conclusion

I was playing LittleBigPlanet when the novelty of the Vita suddenly wore off. I realised that, despite Sony throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the Vita in terms of controls, there’s actually nothing particularly extraordinary about the new control methods. While the Vita would have felt very mundane without its range of controls, there’s no single element that’s startlingly innovative. That’s not to say I think Sony’s gone down the wrong path with Vita – there are lots of possibilities here and the buttons-and-touchscreen combo could work quite well (I’ve said in the past that I think Minecraft would work well with this combination of controls). But when it comes down to it, we’ve had buttons and analogue sticks before, we’ve had touchscreens before, we’ve had cameras before, and while the rear touchpad is pretty novel, it’s also the least-practical item in the Vita’s arsenal. I think the Vita’s a nice solid piece of kit, too expensive really, but nice. It’s got a nice combination of controls – but it’s not really going where no console has gone before.

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Hands-on with the Playstation Vita, part one

I popped in at the Playstation Vita Rooms in Manchester today to have go with Sony’s latest handheld effort. I thought I’d share my experiences. This is part one of two. I’ll cover the console itself and a trio of the biggest games today, and then I’ll recount my experiences with a selection of games and provide a final conclusion in part two.

The console

The Vita looks pretty large in photographs, but in the flesh its size doesn’t leap out. The analogue sticks are quite significantly raised, and the screen isn’t protected by a clamshell design like the 3DS, so it isn’t ideal for shoving in a pocket anyway – and a case will add significant bulk when transporting it around. The screen is nice and big, with good black levels (when it’s dark you can barely distinguish it from the console’s black casing). The front of the console is quite plasticy though – I wondered if they’d added some kind of protective plastic shield to stop the demo units from getting damaged when I first saw it. That said, I didn’t see any scratching on the demo units, which must have had some significant mauling (I visited Vita Rooms on its last day in Manchester) and the use of plastic perhaps contributes to the console’s low weight. The Vita is very, very light and while it’s much larger than a iPhone it probably weighs less than one.

An image of the Playstation Vita displaying the home menu

The analogue sticks are actual analogue sticks this time. I’m not sure whether I really like the 3DS’s Circle Pad so I prefer these. The face buttons are very small, and while I didn’t have any problems with controlling games, I would have preferred them to be a little bigger.

From the little use I made of it, the console’s basic interface was smooth and easy to use. Changing software on the home menu was a very fluid experience, more so than on the 3DS. I wish I’d checked to see how it controlled without touchscreen use – if there were a graphically intense title that didn’t make use of the touchscreen, I’ll probably want to clean the screen then start it up with the buttons to avoid playing with fingerprints all over the place.

Wipeout 2048

This was one of the first games I tried. The Wipeout formula worked well on the PSP and it seems to work well here too. Unlike the PSP games, thrust is allocated to the right shoulder button. This would have been an unmitigated disaster on the 3DS but the control scheme feels very comfortable on Vita. The graphics are nice, although the framerate on the demo version I played was lower than I would expect on a home console, so in that small respect Vita fails to match the home console experience.

A screenshot of Wipeout 2048

Uncharted: Golden Abyss

The goal of the Vita is to provide a console-quality gaming experience on the go. But I’ve heard a few people questioning whether it’s appropriate to put console-oriented experiences onto a portable device, and my experience with Uncharted: Golden Abyss might provide them with a bit of vindication. There was actually a little headphone-equipped area for people to play Uncharted, but I was a little rebel and just played it on one of the headphone-less units on the big table. There was fairly loud music playing and various consoles making noise, so I couldn’t hear the game very well. I I found I couldn’t tell what was going on and didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. It’s hardly new for it to be preferable to wear headphones while playing a portable game, but I can’t think of many where the absence of sound significantly hinders the experience. They’ve taken an experience that’s consumed in close-to-ideal conditions and put it on a console that you might not use in ideal conditions, without making any significant changes during the translation. I’m sure I’ll enjoy Uncharted when I eventually end up playing it, and it may even have subtitle options, but perhaps it’s a little bit of a fish out of water.

A screenshot of Uncharted: Golden Abyss

Getting back to the actual meat of the dish, the graphics are lovely, the soundtrack (or at least what I could hear of it) is lush, and the gunplay seems to work quite well (I played a little sniper section and found it easy to aim accurately). I used the touchscreen to climb up some pipes – controlling with the touchscreen felt pretty fluid and exceeded my expectations. As with Wipeout, the framerate in the demo version I played was appreciably lower than in the console games, but it didn’t really detract from the experience.

LittleBigPlanet

This looked lovely and played very similarly to its console counterparts. The demo only seemed to contain one platforming level, but it was an enjoyable one that introduced all the new interactions. The mechanic of manipulating objects with the front touchscreen worked well and has a lot of potential. Manipulation using the rear touchpad seemed a bit tacked on. I think the touchpad will probably work best in situations where you hold your finger on it and slide it around so that you’re being given constant onscreen feedback on the location of your fingers. In the demo I was jabbing at things and I struggled to co-ordinate my fingers with the objects on screen. The other levels in the demo were little minigames. They were quite clever I suppose, if a bit gimmicky. The game’s shaping up to be more satisfactory than LittleBigPlanet on PSP and it should hopefully develop a healthier community.

A screenshot of LittleBigPlanet for Vita

That’s all for today. Part two, with my impressions on a variety of Vita games and a final conclusion, is coming soon.

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Battle of the system updates

This week has seen the release of substantial system updates for both the Xbox 360 and the Nintendo 3DS. When it comes to these updates for two very different, utterly incomparable consoles, there is obviously only one question in people’s minds. Which is better?

Xbox 360 Dashboard version 2.0.14699.0

We’ll start with the Dashboard update. The look has been completely refreshed, and now uses Microsoft’s Metro interface, which will eventually tie together the Dashboard, Windows 8 and Windows Phone. It’s pleasing on the eye – the default grey colour-scheme is much nicer to look at than the bright green of the previous default scheme. All the functions of the console are arranged into tabs. You have easy access to the last few games you’ve played on the Home tab, but to buy games or access your full collection you have to wade across to the middle of the menu, as for some reason Microsoft have deemed it more important that you be able to access social, TV, and video apps than the gaming functions.

A screenshot of the new Dashboard interface, showing the Home tab

Waiter, waiter, there's an advert in my interface

The new interface and the various apps (which will be added to over time – services like 4oD will be added soon) are an improvement in terms of accessing secondary media functions like video and music, but the update feels like a retrograde step in terms of accessing gaming content. The Game Marketplace feels more difficult to access and is harder to use – access to the basic game categories (Arcade, Games on Demand, Indie Games and Xbox Originals) feels buried. Oh, and it’s a cock-tease, displaying Sonic CD in the ‘New Releases’ section despite it apparently not being out yet. While the new interface is generally an improvement, I’ll be disappointed if it isn’t tweaked a bit.

There’s a welcome video that explains some of the new features (if you can stomach the young man’s horrible cardigan and ‘zany’ ear adornments). The video apps I’m interested in aren’t out yet, so this system update doesn’t contain a great deal that’s of interest to me. Moving on to the 3DS…

Nintendo 3DS system update version 3.0.0-5

Nintendo’s system update for the 3DS doesn’t drastically change the console’s interface (which is unfortunate in the case of the online store). But it does add extra content to the console’s selection of built-in software.

The most well-publicised addition is to the Nintendo 3DS Camera app. You can now capture 3D video footage with the built-in 3D camera. I gave this a quick go, capturing a short video of me waving my hand in front of the camera. The 3D effect of the resulting footage was vastly more pronounced than anything I’ve seen on the Nintendo Video channel, albeit eye-wateringly so. Apparently you can create time-lapse footage and stop-motion footage using this new feature, although I would have thought the former would only be useful if the 3DS had the extra hinge position of the DSi XL, which allows it to sit on a surface. I doubt I’ll use the video function much but, given that there is an appreciable 3D effect on the footage it produces, I can’t complain about its addition.

A frame of footage of a hand from the 3DS Camera software.

Whoo, it's my HAND and it's right in your FACE

StreetPass Mii Plaza has some new content, and it can now use SpotPass as well as StreetPass (although I’m not sure what affect this has). I can’t say I use StreetPass that much (I don’t use the console much at all, if I’m being honest) so this new stuff doesn’t hold much appeal for me.

You can now transfer content between 3DS systems and the store’s been improved. Some of the improvements to the store sound pretty neat, for example there’s now an option to add just enough money to your account to meet the cost of your current purchase, meaning you don’t end up with weird bits of money stuck on your account. Seems like a pretty progressive step to me. The store should now be able to provide demos for 3DS software as well, although disappointingly there don’t seem to be any available at the moment. This means, as with the Xbox update, I ran out of stuff to play with pretty quickly.

The result

So we have two updates, both pretty major in the scheme of things but, ultimately, just boring old system updates. Which one is the victor in this pointless, absurd contest? I think the 3DS update just tips it for me, but only because it’s maybe a bit more content-oriented. And it doesn’t feature a twat in a cardigan.

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3DS vs smartphones

The 3DS has had to have a price cut because it’s been selling badly, which has led people to wonder whether Nintendo can continue to make a success of dedicated portable gaming hardware in a world of shiny smartphones. The thing is, it’s not quite as simple as smartphones rendering proper portable consoles obsolete.

Smartphones have certainly changed the world of portable gaming – people now have a new alternative, and cheap, way of gaming on the go. But smartphones can’t claim to have a monopoly on portable gaming yet – they’ve just increased the amount of competition that portable consoles like the 3DS face. And that’s where the problem lies: Nintendo simply have not raised their game to face this new threat.

Let’s start with the 3DS’s main selling point, the screen. It gives people headaches and it can kill small children dead if they catch the slightest glance of it. It’s like a greedy attention-hogging pig – it snatches all the attention away, leaving none for the other features like the improved graphical capabilities and accelerometers. And it’s not that big. In fact it’s suspiciously smartphone-sized. Nintendo’s probably used the same type of screen as a 3D smartphone, and it does make you wonder how Nintendo can successfully compete against smartphones when the main feature of their new console basically just reuses an existing smartphone component.

Moving from output to input, one of the main advantages of dedicated gaming hardware is buttons. Portable consoles have d-pads, shoulder buttons, face buttons and analogue thingamabobs, and they all help to provide experiences that simply aren’t possible on smartphones. In the past Nintendo have been the king of the buttons – the DSi XL features wonderfully clicky buttons and a super-duper d-pad, it’s only flaw a lack of analogue control. And you’d think that with buttons being the great differentiator between smartphones and dedicated portables, Nintendo would have placed a big priority on making sure that the 3DS’s buttons were the best darn buttons in the whole of Super Button Land. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. The buttons are one of the greatest disappointments of the 3DS (the build quality is generally a bit mediocre), with an uncomfortable floppy d-pad and a dreadful selection of buttons placed awkwardly below the bottom screen. Pausing a game has rarely been so horribly awkward. It really feels like Nintendo have missed an open goal – they’re good with buttons, they have patents that allow them to make the best d-pads. How could they have got it so wrong with such an important product?

A Nintendo 3DS console

Those buttons aren't as good as they look

It’s not just the hardware that’s been problematic, it’s the software too. The quality software just isn’t there. Look at the all-time list of 3DS software on Metacritic and you’ll see a head of green topping of a pint of yellow (with some red sediment at the bottom). Nintendo have been moaning about cheap gaming apps on smartphones reducing the perceived value of portable games, but then release slight experiences like Pilotwings Resort and expect people to pay £30+ for them. Instead of responding to a new trend of low-content, low-price titles by packing their games with content to justify the asking price, Nintendo have been releasing games with perhaps the lowest levels of content they’ve ever provided with the highest prices they’ve ever asked for portable titles. It’s just not a recipe for success.

A screenshot of the 3DS game Pilotwings Resort

Over too soon – launch title Pilotwings Resort

Finally, there’s a general issue with the 3DS – with its build quality and design it feels like a first draft, an original model that will inevitably be replaced by new and better ones. It feels like Nintendo have gone back to the days of 2004 and the original DS, rather than creating a console that can compete with the new exciting devices of 2011. It’s hard to shake the feeling Nintendo held back, rather than creating the best console they could. Perhaps higher-quality hardware would have cost more to produce, but then maybe the console could have held on to its high initial price-point if it had been a better product. The 3DS doesn’t feel like an exciting new device for 2011, in some respects it comes across as a throwback to a bygone era.

Smartphones have certainly made things more difficult for Nintendo, but some of the things that have prevented the 3DS from being a success have come from within Nintendo, not just from without. Nintendo could still make a success of the 3DS, but with smartphones showing no signs of waning and Sony’s Vita on the horizon they’ll have to raise their game to thrive in the new, more competitive, portable gaming environment of 2011.

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