After a shaky start, Nintendo is doing all it can to turn its 3DS into a success. The Kyoto-based company has reduced the price of the system and improved the software lineup, but you'd think that the controls at least would have to stay the same for a while... right? Wrong. Nintendo's pushing back hard against Sony's hardcore dual-analog PlayStation Vita this week with the Circle Pad Pro: an inexpensive (1,500 yen, or $19.99 in the U.S.), jury-rigged attachment that outfits the 3DS with a second analog slider and two more shoulder buttons. It comes out in the U.S. on February 7th but launched in Japan a few days ago alongside Monster Hunter 3 (tri-) G, and we've put both the peripheral and the game through their paces. Is it an essential accessory for 3DS owners, or are we looking at another Power Glove? Let's find out.
Hardware and design
Chunky but comfortable
While it won't be winning any beauty contests, the Circle Pad Pro feels good in the hands, with very little weight added to the 3DS — I actually found that the system was a lot more comfortable to hold with it attached. The 3DS is a small, squarish unit that doesn't give your fingers much to hold onto, but the ergonomics of the Circle Pad Pro make it feel much more like a traditional game controller. However, I can't emphasize enough how bulky the combination is: the Circle Pad Pro itself measures 93 x 173 x 42mm, turning the system from an easily pocketable gadget into something you'll have trouble fitting into a small bag. Let's just say I don't expect to see many of these out and about in public.
The additional analog slider sits at the same height as the one on the 3DS and puts up a little more resistance — this might be because it hasn't been worn-in as much as the pad on my launch 3DS, but in any case it feels good. I felt the 3DS's analog slider was a happy medium between the compact PSP nub and the larger sticks on a PS3 or Xbox 360 controller, and the same holds true here. There are also three buttons on the top of the unit, labelled R, ZR and ZL. R is simply a proxy for the R button already on the 3DS, which is pretty difficult to reach when the Circle Pad Pro is fitted, but it doesn’t line up perfectly with the existing L button or feel quite as springy. Nintendo’s made enough asymmetrical controllers in its time for this to not feel too jarring, though. Meanwhile, ZR and ZL are all-new buttons that give the system a full four-shoulder-button configuration in line with the Wii's Classic Controller Pro. These two buttons have quite a lot of give to them, despite being digital inputs, and could function well as triggers in any future games that might require them.
The Circle Pad Pro communicates with the 3DS by way of the IR ports on both devices, and I actually managed to get it working from around 5cm away. Fitting the system to the peripheral is simply a matter of squeezing it in, with little rubber pads holding it in place. Once attached, you still have access to the headphone socket, volume control and charging port (of course, you can't use the charging dock supplied with the 3DS, but a cable will be fine), and all the lights remain visible. However, you won't be able to get to the stylus or game card slot while the Circle Pad Pro is in place, as they're both blocked by a plastic bar along the top of the unit that houses the IR port.
Forget about switching game cards with the Circle Pad Pro in place
You'll need a single AAA battery to power the Circle Pad Pro, and there's one included in the package. According to the manual it should last for around 480 hours depending on usage, so you'll have to forgive us for not running the Verge Battery Test this time around. The battery is hidden behind a door that you'll need a coin or screwdriver to open, but if Nintendo's claims about the endurance are true, we guess that's not likely to be a big deal for many. Though I appreciate Nintendo keeping the price and weight of the Circle Pad Pro down, I also feel the 3DS's meager battery life is more of a pressing concern — it's puzzling that the company didn't take the opportunity to provide external power in the Circle Pad Pro.
Getting the Circle Pad Pro up and running is as easy as starting a game. Setup is handled on a game-by-game basis, with no reference to the device to be found in the 3DS's system software (even after this month's firmware overhaul). When I first started Monster Hunter tri-G, I was asked if I wanted to use the extension, and after selecting "yes" everything was handled automatically. Monster Hunter tri-G’s main menu also includes a right-pad version of the same analog calibration screen that’s found in the 3DS’s main menu, though I doubt you’ll ever need to use it. I found that occasionally the system would lose its connection to the device upon waking from sleep, requiring a return to the main menu to reconnect — tri-G's in-game options screen doesn't have an on / off switch for the Circle Pad Pro, and neither does the peripheral itself.
Monster Hunter 3 (tri-) G
Like Pocari Sweat and flip phones with TV tuners, Capcom's Monster Hunter series is one of those things that just doesn't seem to travel so well outside Japan, despite having tapped into the domestic cultural zeitgeist like nothing else around. For those of you not in the loop, it's an addictive co-op multiplayer-focused action game series where players hunt monsters (yes, really) for loot and armor, allowing them to take on progressively larger monsters in later quests — think Phantasy Star Online with Capcom-style action gameplay and a dash of Diablo. Its PSP incarnations in particular have been wildly successful, mostly due to their local wireless multiplayer that lets friends play together everywhere from school to McDonalds, so the release of a new portable entry on 3DS is definitely a big deal.
Monster Hunter 3 (tri-) G, to use its full name, is not exactly a new game — it's an expanded port of a Wii sequel that already got a portable version of sorts on the PSP in the shape of Monster Hunter Portable 3rd. This version brings much of the content from those two games together, with the odd new monster species here and there and reshuffled quests (including the titular G-rank) to form a "greatest hits" with enough content to keep you going for a long time. It's a seriously beautiful game on 3DS, surpassing its Wii predecessor with a handful of added effects like HDR lighting and, of course, 3D support. The game also looks great in 2D, with anti-aliasing that makes for a much cleaner picture, and whether you push that 3D slider up or down the game will run at a rock-solid framerate throughout. Overall, I feel that tri-G is the definitive version of the series' current generation. To use a Capcom metaphor, if Monster Hunter were Street Fighter, tri-G would be Third Strike — it’s a major coup for Nintendo to have it on the 3DS.
That said, in many ways it's an unusual choice for Nintendo to use as a flagship release for the Circle Pad Pro. After all, the lack of a second analog stick on the PSP didn't seem to cause too much harm to the series's popularity — players instead adopted a "claw" position with the thumb on the analog stick and the forefinger on the D-pad for camera control. These finger calisthenics aren't really possible on the 3DS due to the circle pad and D-pad being in reverse positions, so Capcom has implemented two solutions.
Monster Hunter is a really, really big deal in Japan
The first, of course, is to map the camera controls to the additional circle pad, allowing you to move your character and look around simultaneously. (This control scheme should be familiar to anyone who’s played a first-person shooter in the last decade.) Comfort aside, though, this doesn't really give you any advantage — like every other Monster Hunter game, you don't actually get analog control over the camera, so your field of vision moves at the same speed no matter how far you push the pad. It's a similar situation to Monster Hunter 3 on Wii, which launched with the Classic Controller Pro but ended up playing just as well (if not better) with digital camera control on the remote and nunchuk. The extra buttons don't add much functionality, either, with the default configuration simply mirroring the standard shoulder buttons, another option assigning them to camera height, and the final alternative rotating the camera left or right. I'd recommend leaving it in default mode — the ZL and ZR buttons are more comfortable than L and R, at least, and camera control is best handled with the stick.
One mitigating addition is the ability to swing your field of vision over to the currently targeted monster with a single tap of the L button — it's not a full Zelda-style lock-on system, but it's probably the biggest control change that tri-G makes, whether you're with or without the Circle Pad Pro. Those without get manual camera control via an on-screen, touch-controlled D-pad that can be resized and repositioned at will. This works well enough and is certainly more comfortable than playing on PSP, but the lack of tactile feedback means you're likely to make mistakes.
I'll definitely be playing with the Circle Pad Pro whenever I can, though, despite it not really adding all that much to the basic game. As mentioned before, it makes the 3DS a lot more comfortable to hold, but there's one area where it offers a demonstrable gameplay advantage — underwater quests. These are a nightmare with the on-screen D-pad as the extra dimension brings the need to use it almost constantly to orient your character, but using the extra slider feels very natural. Underwater quests were one of the main innovations brought by Monster Hunter 3 on Wii but didn't make it over to the most recent PSP entry, Monster Hunter Portable 3rd. The Circle Pad Pro lets the 3DS handle them in much the same way as the Wii game did, and it's great to finally see them work well in portable format. Overall, the combination of the Circle Pad Pro and L-button targeting makes tri-G control at least as well as its Wii edition, and its portable nature means I'm comfortable calling it the best all-round Monster Hunter to date — if you live in Japan, that is. There’s no Western release date announced for tri-G as of yet, and Portable 3rd never made it over. Also, while tri-G’s lack of online isn’t much of a problem in a densely-populated country like Japan where a lot of people play games in public, it would mean players in the US and Europe had less of an opportunity to see where the series really shines — in multiplayer.
The Circle Pad Pro works well enough, but it needs more games to work with
The Circle Pad Pro might be a hatchet job, but it's a well-made, reasonably-priced hatchet job that has the potential to add a lot to the games that need it. The 3DS can be a powerful little system when it wants to be, as Monster Hunter tri-G demonstrates, and offering a full control system could open the door to more ports from PlayStation Vita or even home consoles like PS3 and Xbox 360. Our major concerns are twofold; it significantly detracts from the portability of the 3DS, and software support isn't guaranteed. While there are some games on the horizon that may benefit from the attachment (Metal Gear Solid 3D Snake Eater springs to mind, a game which clearly benefited from dual stick controls in its Subsistence edition on PS2), neither Monster Hunter tri-G or the launch tie-in for the West, Resident Evil Revelations, are particularly in need of it. The latter is arguably an even stranger choice than Monster Hunter, seeing as the series has already seen a release on 3DS that controlled just fine, with its bigger brothers on home consoles mostly ignoring the right analog stick.
Still, the Circle Pad Pro represents an option, and a low-priced one at that. From where I'm sitting, it improves the Monster Hunter experience enough to justify the price, even if the lack of future support could make it another Wii MotionPlus. And, just as the MotionPlus eventually became a standard by being integrated into the Wii Remote Plus, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this second circle pad show up on a future 3DS revision.