The 3D capability of the Nintendo 3DS always felt like a gimmick to me. It looked neat, sure, but it also required me to align my head just so to maintain the effect, and I've always found that my eyes hurt after playing too much. Really, the payoff wasn't worth the effort, and I pretty much only play 3DS games with the 3D slider down all the way — and I'm likely not the only one, since Nintendo released the 3D-free 2DS back in 2013. In fact, over the past few months, the 2DS has been my handheld of choice.
But lately I've found myself swayed by the lure of the third dimension. With the New Nintendo 3DS XL (which launched in Japan last year), Nintendo seems to have finally perfected the concept: new face-tracking tech means that you no longer have to sit perfectly still while playing to maintain the 3D effect, and I've been able to play for long stretches of time without it bothering my eyes at all. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that a 15-year-old game makes the best use of 3D on a portable machine that I've ever seen: The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask.
First released on the Nintendo 64 way back in 2000, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is one of the oddballs of the Zelda franchise. The sequel to the groundbreaking Ocarina of Time — a game that helped shape the way we move around big, three-dimensional worlds — it was much smaller and a lot weirder than its predecessor. It's sort of like a video game version of Groundhog Day: you play the same three days over and over again, in an attempt to stop a giant moon from destroying a town. While it's not the most revered Zelda game, Majora's Mask has developed a cult following. The new 3DS version is largely the same as the original, but like the best video game remakes, it also improves on its predecessor in some significant ways.
This game looks great in 3D
For one thing, it's a game that looks great in 3D. There's something about older, chunkier games from the N64 era that makes them work well with Nintendo's glasses-free 3D tech, and Majora's Mask is a prime example. With a plethora of straight lines and flat surfaces, it feels almost like a pop-up book brought to life. The distinctive N64-style polygonal world has an added depth that really makes you want to explore Clocktown and its surrounding areas, and the new, wider viewing angles only add to that. It's also a game that you'll want to play over relatively long stretches — the three-day in-game cycle is about an hour in real-world time — and I never once found myself wanting to turn the 3D effect down to spare my eyes. There's a brief moment of blurriness when you look away from the screen and then look back, but otherwise it works great.
It's more than just the way the game looks, though — the New 3DS also changes how it plays. 2000 was a simpler time, a time when the in-game cameras for 3D games were a source of frustration, and a time before most designers realized a second analog stick could let you control those cameras.
The New 3DS adds a tiny nub on the right side that is functionally similar to that second stick, letting you move the in-game camera around so that you can see whatever is around you. It's not quite as nice as a proper analog stick, as it's tiny and doesn't actually move, offering nothing in the way of feedback. It's also almost exactly the same size as the face buttons, and on more than one occasion I hit the X button when I was trying to adjust the camera. Still, even with these minor problems, it's a long overdue addition, and it makes navigating the world of Majora's Mask much easier than it was 15 years ago.
Nintendo did a smart thing by pairing the New Nintendo 3DS XL with Majora's Mask: both will launch on February 13th, and a 3D Zelda serves as an ideal showcase for the handheld's new capabilities. But there are plenty of other games that are significantly improved on the new machine as well. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is a role playing game from Capcom that also launches on the 13th. The series is hugely popular in Japan, and its debut on the 3DS with Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate necessitated an entire peripheral, the goofy Circle Pad Pro, which added a second stick and a lot of bulk to the 3DS. Now, that functionality is baked in so you don't have to worry about buying a weird add-on just to play. Plus, those towering, dinosaur-like monsters look all the more impressive with the great new 3D effects.
Likewise, the upcoming Code Name Steam — a strange steampunk strategy game where Abraham Lincoln helps fight off an alien invasion — is so much better thanks to that little nub. In the game, you take turns with enemy forces, trading attacks as you make your way through dense urban environments. Skittish aliens hide behind walls, and helpful goodies are tucked away in hard-to-see spots. Being able to move the camera around with the nub gives you a much better view of the battlefield, which is paramount to getting through unscathed. (There's the option to use the touchscreen to control the camera as well, but it's cumbersome and doesn't feel as natural.)
And when it comes to just revelling in the significantly improved 3D, there isn't really a better showcase than Sega's wonderful 3D Classics series, which takes old arcade games and revamps them with added three-dimensional depth. I played a bunch of 3D After Burner II, the latest in the series, and it almost singlehandedly makes a case for Nintendo's glasses-free 3D tech: the grungy, pixelated arcade graphics pop off the screen in exciting ways, breathing new life into an old game. And I can finally play through a fast-paced action game without worrying that moving around too much will ruin the 3D effect.
This is the best version of the 3DS yet
There are some issues, however. The New Nintendo 3DS XL bizarrely doesn't come with an AC adaptor (you'll need to buy one or use one from an old 3DS), and the Micro SD card is hidden underneath a screwed-down battery plate, which can be a pain if you regularly download a lot of games and need to swap cards. And if you already own an older 3DS model, the process of transferring content to the new device is still as painful as ever (it's actually slightly more painful now that it requires a screwdriver). You can also only buy the much larger XL version at present, as Nintendo has elected not to launch the smaller New 3DS in North America.
But it's still the best version of the 3DS yet. The new analog nub makes it possible to control modern games the way you should be able to on a modern console, and the improved 3D tech finally turns it into a feature you'll want to use. One of the biggest questions surrounding the New 3DS is whether games would support the new features to make it worth an upgrade, and early releases like Majora's Mask, Monster Hunter, and Code Name Steam are all good examples of how even seemingly small changes like camera control and better 3D can make a big difference.
Even if you're not sold on the idea, all it takes is a few minutes in Hyrule to change your mind.
The New Nintendo 3DS XL and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask launch in North America on February 13th.