The New Nintendo 3DS XL deserves a spot in your laptop bag

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It's bigger and shinier than any Nintendo handheld ever made. Photo: Evan Killham/Cult of Mac
It's bigger and shinier than any Nintendo handheld ever made. Photo: Evan Killham/Cult of Mac

Your iPhone and iPad are decent options for gaming on the go, but they can’t do everything. Sometimes touch controls work, and sometimes they don’t.

If you’re a dedicated gamer who wants something that combines the simplicity of touch controls with the precision of actual buttons, I recommend Nintendo’s newest handheld gaming device.

The latest incarnation of the 3DS handheld system is appropriately named the New Nintendo 3DS XL (North America didn’t get the smaller version, but my massive man hands and I are not complaining). It offers a wider viewing angle for its glasses-free stereoscopic 3D graphics, a faster processor and even more buttons than the old one. And if you can swing the $200 price, you’ll be buying a lot of fun. But as commenters love to point out to me, this is Cult of Mac and not Cult of Whatever I’m Writing About, so we’ll skip to the big question:

Will this replace your iPhone or iPad for gaming?

Hey, look! Buttons! Photo: Evan Killham/Cult of Mac
Hey, look! Buttons! Photo: Evan Killham/Cult of Mac

Let’s get this out up front: The New Nintendo 3DS is for gaming. It connects to the internet, so you can technically use it to check your e-mail and social media, but it’s not going to replace your phone or tablet for everyday tasks.

What it will do, however, is give you access to a library of some of the best games ever made and some newer ones that take full advantage of the hardware’s cool features. And while the New 3DS has its own versions of mobile classics like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope, it also includes big adventures like The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and sprawling role-playing games like Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, which can take well over 100 hours of steady progression to complete.

Maybe you’ve put 100 hours into Bejeweled, but that’s a different kind of time, really.

True to its name, the New 3DS has an autostereoscopic (i.e. glasses-free) 3-D display built into its top screen. It also includes a tracking camera that lets you view these cool graphics from a wider angle, unlike the last version, which required you to always look at it head-on.

The top screen is 4.88 inches diagonally, which is slightly bigger than the display on an iPhone 6. The bottom, resistive touch-sensitive display is only a bit smaller at 4.18 inches. The system has a stylus for the touch controls that slides right into the housing for storage, and it works well because games typically use the bottom screen for menus and item management.

The 3-D graphics are admittedly a gimmick, and you can turn them off if you don’t care about looking into the screen. But they add a little flash, and it’s definitely impressive technology.

As for games, the New 3DS is compatible with both 3DS titles and older DS software for Nintendo’s previous handheld. You can’t play regular DS games in 3-D, but they make full use of the two screens. And if you’re feeling old-school, Nintendo’s online Virtual Console store offers more than 150 games from Nintendo’s earlier handhelds and even a few from the Nintendo Entertainment System home console and rival Sega’s Game Gear handheld. A few of them have been remastered to play in 3-D.

These games start at around $5 each, which is higher than most offerings in the App Store, but you have a lot of cool titles to choose from, including classic franchises like The Legend of Zelda, Metroid and F-Zero. And for my money, they’re probably going to be deeper and more involved than anything Nintendo will develop from its new mobile deal with DeNA.

Nintendo likes to port older games to the 3DS, including Majora's Mask, which is one of the best games in the Legend of Zelda series. Photo: Nintendo
Nintendo likes to port older games to the 3DS, including Majora’s Mask, which is one of the best games in the Legend of Zelda series. Photo: Nintendo

The hallmarks of portable gaming are convenience and “stop-and-go” experiences: Can you play a given game for a couple minutes and then put it aside to pick back up later? Phone apps almost pride themselves on providing 30 to 60 seconds of play at a time. You’ll play a round and then get off the elevator. Or you’ll sneak in a couple minutes at your desk without affecting your work productivity too much.

Even non-round-based iPhone titles like Apple’s 2014 game of the year, Monument Valley, consist of discreet, self-contained levels that only take a minute or two to get through. Most handheld games aren’t quite built that way, but you can always close them or put them to sleep and then pick them up later.

It all comes down to what you use games for. If you play them while waiting for other things to happen, I don’t expect you to shell out three figures for a dedicated machine. But for anyone looking to fill more of their free time in the pursuit of virtual glory, the New 3DS delivers some fantastic games and some great-looking graphics. It’s earned a place next to your iPad.

New-Nintendo-3DS-Red-250x150New Nintendo 3DS XL by Nintendo ($199.99)
The good: Great 3-D graphics on the go and plenty of games at a variety of prices.
The bad: New, colored face buttons might be hard to see in lower light.
The verdict: If you have the money to spend on a dedicated gaming device, this one will definitely keep you busy and happy for a long time.