By Adam B. Vary
Updated March 28, 2011 at 01:00 PM EDT

First things first: Yes, the glasses-free 3-D screen of the Nintendo 3DS — the central new feature on the venerable gaming company’s latest handheld salvo for total domination of our free time — is a wonder to behold. The experience of watching your games play out in three-dimensions with just your own eyeballs, whether it’s a furry puppy running away from you in Nintendogs + Cats or a wide-receiver racing for a Hail Mary pass in Madden Football, is all kinds of uncanny. When the sleek, slim device first arrived at my office, I took it around to several of my non-gamer colleagues to gauge their reaction, and to a person, they all lit up with the kind of giddy fascination I imagine kids in the early 1980s felt when they stepped into their very first arcade. For the first five minutes, anyway.

Because here’s the inescapable thing about the Nintendo 3DS: It is a sure-fire headache machine. In order to view the screen properly, you must keep your eyes within an unforgiving sweet spot roughly 9 to 12 inches away. If your head or the 3DS itself tilt to either side much past half of an inch, the screen’s image begins to double-up, and your eyes pretty well freak out trying to make sense of what they’re seeing. And that’s if you fall out of the sweet spot; even viewing the screen properly challenges the brain to interpret visual information in a way it never really has before, i.e. looking at a relatively small two-dimensional surface and seeing it expand along the Z-axis into a virtual space your mind knows isn’t really there. The initial time I really played with the 3DS — about a 40 minute-long demo — I spent the rest of the day with a nagging pain in my cranium, and a slight unsettled feeling in my stomach.

That kind of reaction is probably why the system reminds you, repeatedly, to take a 10 minute break for every 30 minutes of play. The very first button within the 3DS’s home screen is for the “Health and Safety Information”; the very first section within that info is labeled “3D Precautions”; and the very first thing you see when you click on “3D Precautions” is this: “WARNING — 3D FEATURE ONLY FOR CHILDREN 7 AND OVER. Viewing of 3D images by children 6 and under may cause vision damage.” Well, okay then. Do I really want to play something that could literally harm the eyesight of a child?

Of course I do, silly. Because here is the other inescapable thing about the Nintendo 3DS: It is the best handheld device Nintendo has ever made, improving (even if just slightly) on previous DS systems on almost every score: The analog controller is simply long overdue, as is the refined, Nintendo Wii-like “Home” hub. (The 3DS even builds your Nintendo “Mii” avatar for you after you snap a shot of your face with its inner 2-D camera.) Then there’s the unavoidable suite of social media offerings, like “Street Pass,” a system that allows for automatic data exchange between otherwise unacquainted handhelds, which encourages carrying your 3DS with you at all times and only makes me feel like the world is just becoming evermore like one giant singles bar. The stereo speakers project a surprisingly enveloping soundscape, and the touch-sensitive (and still 2-D) second screen still works like a charm, with a telescoping stylus that’s a bit tricky to open with one hand. The system even comes with a handy charging cradle — which you’ll use often, given the 3-5 hour battery life when playing 3-D games.

The real standout, though, is the 3-D camera. When paired with the internal motion and gyro sensors, it enables players to partake of some wickedly enchanting “augmented reality” games that transform your desk into an archery range or sci-fi battlefield. For one game, I warded off a fire-ball spewing dragon threatening my car keys by physically moving my 3DS around my office; for another, I fought back an army of disembodied versions of my own head that appeared to be crashing through the walls. It’s a kind of interactive, personalized fun that feels entirely, addictively new.

But is all of that gaming goodness worth the 3-D headaches and $250 price? In a word: probably. For one, you can adjust the depth of the 3-D experience with a slider just to the right of the screen, which allows you to find a level of dimensionality that works for you. Of course, that also means you can turn the 3-D effect off entirely, and I reckon many players will do just that, especially at first. But the 3-D actually does imbue games like Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition and Bust-a-Move Universe with a feeling of tactile play that’s lost when you switch back to 2-D. After spending a week with the system, my eyes began to adjust, and the headaches morphed to a mild feeling of discombobulation after my gaze finally broke away from the virtual 3-D world and back to the real one. I can live with that, and I reckon many, many players will too. Grade: B+