After the DS Lite, the DSi and the DSi XL, it was a no-brainer that Nintendo wasn’t going to leave the 3DS alone for long. The first generation of any new Nintendo handheld is never the definitive article – remember the hideously clunky first DS? – and later versions always bring enhancements, whether bigger, better screens, new features or just a more solid and usable design, as was the case with the DS Lite or the Game Boy Advance SP.
No prizes for guessing which route Nintendo has taken with the 3DS XL. This is the extra-large version of the 3DS, bumping up the dimensions from 134mm by 74mm by 21mm to 156 x 93 x 22mm. It’s no longer pocket-sized, unless we’re talking combat trouser pockets, while the weight goes up by nearly 100g, from 241g to 339g. However, this brings with it a range of benefits, the most obvious being a dramatic increase in screen size. Where the existing 3DS had a 3.58-inch 16:9 3D top screen and a 3.02-inch touch-sensitive bottom screen, the 3DS XL goes to 4.88 inches and 4.18 inches respectively.
This upsizing has two major good effects and one, well, not quite so good one. The screens are bright and sharp with rich colours, and those extra inches makes gaming on the 3DS XL as immersive as it is on the PS Vita, which goes slightly bigger with its 5-inch OLED touchscreen. Just as importantly, it also makes the 3DS’s USP – 3D – that bit more practical. The problem with the 3DS’s 3D screen has always been keeping your head and the 3DS in the right position in relation to each other. Shift either by half an inch, and you found yourself in the land of double vision.
The 3DS XL doesn’t alleviate this problem entirely, but there’s a little more margin for error, and the result is that you’re more inclined to play 3DS games with – shock, horror! – the 3D slider turned up. If this is an improvement in games like Super Mario 3D Land, it’s a revelation in Kid Icarus: Uprising, which finally seems like the widescreen blockbuster we were always promised. And once again, size matters. 3D always seemed slightly wasted on the 3DS’s cramped screen. On the 3DS XL, it’s given room to breathe.
Bigger = Better?
However, there is one downside. While the screen size has increased radically, the pixel count hasn’t. The 3DS XL’s screens have the same 800 x 240 and 320 x 240 resolutions as the original 3DS, with the top screen resolution halved to 400 x 240 pixels per eye in 3D games. This doesn’t compare well with the 960 x 544 resolution of the PS Vita, let alone the 960 x 640 resolution of the 3.5-inch retina display in the iPhone 4, iPhone 4S and iPod Touch. You can see every pixel in the average 3DS game, and it can’t match PS Vita for contrast, clarity or detail.
Up to a point, this doesn’t matter. The best-looking games on the 3DS, like Super Mario 3D Land and Resident Evil: Revelations still look great on the bigger screen. What’s more, the handheld’s ARM processor and DMP PICA200 GPU probably aren’t capable of delivering graphics with the kinds of surface effects and detail that would make the most of a higher resolution, which is where PS Vita’s ARM Cortex A9 and quad-core PowerVR SGX543MP4 GPU come in.
Nintendo could arguably have upgraded processors and used the overhead to either render 3DS graphics to a higher resolution or upscale, but here there would have been cost implications. All the same, that screen can be merciless in exposing the shortcomings of some 3DS titles, and with the PS Vita and iOS and Android devices getting more graphically intensive titles, games on the 3DS XL just don’t look that cutting edge.