If every new piece of gaming tech has to first pass a whoa! factor test, then I'll give the new Nintendo 3DS high marks: From the moment the setup tutorial calls on you to adjust the 3D slider and make the company logo leap off the upper screen to hover in the air before your eyes, you know you're clutching a compact package of cool. And unlike those poor slobs who've carpet-bombed their bank accounts to own the latest and largest 3D television, I don't have to hide my lovin' eyes behind a heavy set of Men-in-Black 3D glasses to enjoy it.
I do, however, have to cough up a whopping $250 dollars for the privilege, and that's no small thing for gamers in a struggling economy -- in fact, the 3DS is only $50 less than an entry-level Xbox 360. By kicking out yet another handheld less than a year after supersizing the lineup with the popular DSi, Nintendo's clearly banking to cash in on our long-running obsession with the third dimension.
The wallet sting is offset somewhat by the fact that, like a new car that unexpectedly comes standard with satellite radio, a Jacuzzi and a gigantic platinum hood ornament, the 3DS packs in a surprising amount of onboard entertainment options. And no, I'm not talking PictoChat Plus: Whether it's the delightfully loopy Face Raiders, a minigame that distorts your facial photos into creepy flying invaders, or the promising alternative-reality game cards that force you to use the 3DS' onboard cameras and online functions in intriguing ways, the 3DS feels like a device whose functions push the envelope and make sense. Even the new analog stick -- a major design departure for D-pad-obsessed Nintendo -- feels like a natural improvement.
The question isn't really whether buying a 3DS is a good idea, but when. Despite Nintendo's initial claims that their new gadget would have a rock-solid launch lineup, only a handful of the launch titles are really worth scoring, starting with Capcom's first-rate Super Street Fighter IV and Ubisoft's Ghost Recon. Many of the rest -- we're looking at you, Sims 3 and Super Monkey Ball -- use the handheld's 3D effects to either gussy up an otherwise ugly looking game or slap a thin coat of cool on something we've seen and played a million times before. In games as in movies, the edict stands: Just because you can make something 3D doesn't mean you should.
So it is with most new platform launches. I have much higher hopes for some of the 3DS games we'll see later this year -- the 3D updates/remakes of Zelda and Kid Icarus, the real Madden 12 (instead of the slapdash Madden football that's available now). By the end of the year, the 3DS will have really hit its 3D style.