Nintendo's latest handheld isn't a revolution, but it introduces many improvements

By Jonathon Dornbush
February 13, 2015 at 08:41 PM EST

Nintendo is no stranger to releasing updated pieces of its handheld systems. While the company doesn’t unveil new products yearly, a la Apple, the New Nintendo 3DS XL—the latest version of the 3DS handheld family—feels very much in line with Apple’s mode of releases. It’s an incremental step, not a revolutionary one—the New 3DS XL is to the iPhone 5S as the 3DS XL is to the iPhone 5.

Still, there are a number of helpful improvements—saddled with a couple of unfortunate drawbacks—that will determine whether the new system is a must-have for players, or something that can be skipped until Nintendo releases a true successor.

The 3D: While the 3D fad has come and gone, there’s no denying that the New 3DS XL delivers a much more comfortable 3D gaming experience. Using the original 3DS and 3DS XL’s 3D component meant keeping the system in a rigid, straight line with your face. Even the smallest movement could disrupt the view and make the game appear fuzzy—and induce a headache or two.

Thankfully, the New 3DS XL’s 3D goes to greater lengths to prevent such an experience. The system tracks the movement of the player’s eyes and head while also keeping the 3D effect working properly for a larger window. I could comfortably tilt my head without The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D turning into a jagged mess before my eyes. And the 3D effect looks gorgeous on the new screen—particularly with Majora, but also with the full catalog of already-released 3DS games. 3D on the system honestly used to feel like a nuisance. But though my eyesight can still only take so much, 3D has become a much more regular component of my 3DS experience. Which is a good thing, considering it’s in the system’s name.

The System: The New 3DS XL will feel familiar to anyone who’s played with a DS or 3DS, with a few minor adjustments. A couple of additional buttons have been added—giving the system virtually the same layout as Nintendo’s home console, the Wii U, for those who want to speculate about the possibilities of Nintendo unifying its home and handheld systems.

The most noticeable new feature is a small numb on the right side of the page—it looks like a pencil eraser or those horrible little mouse nubs that laptop manufacturers once thought was a good idea. Nintendo’s nub, the C-Stick, works much better, essentially giving players a second analog stick without making the system any bulkier. The button doesn’t quite respond to touch in a tactile way, but its effects are easily visible in-game. And it’s a welcome addition to have that added functionality in games that require it, like when you’re controlling a camera in Majora’s Mask.

The Charging Cable—or Lack Thereof: Nintendo opted not to include a charging cable with the New 3DS XL. This absence won’t be an issue for those who have extras lying around the house, but if you haven’t been buying each DS and 3DS, this exclusion is bizarre. Those trading in their previous Nintendo handheld to purchase this new one will also have to trade in the charging cable in most instances, leaving them with a few hours of play on the New 3DS XL before they’re out of luck. Purchasing a cable isn’t a huge financial burden—Nintendo’s official option runs about $10—but for such an integral component, its exclusion is an unnecessary hurdle for the consumer.

The Experience: It’s worth pointing out that those who are upgrading from an old system will want to set aside some time for transferring their data. Depending on the method players use, the process could take anywhere from a few minutes to overnight. Nintendo even released a video explaining it:

Only users who have spent plenty of time with old 3DS systems will be affected by this point, but the New 3DS XL simply runs better. It’s amazing to compare how quickly the system boots up to its home page with how slowly the original 3DS performs the same action. Certain games are altered more significantly than others, but the time it takes to actually start playing can be dramatically improved. The process, from starting the New 3DS XL to playing a game, has fewer pauses and hitches—and though this technical upgrade won’t register for new or occasional users, it’s maybe the best addition worth mentioning, if not exactly the sexiest.

The GamesThe New 3DS XL isn’t actually required to play any games just yet. For now, Nintendo isn’t splitting the user base of New 3DS XL and original 3DS players. It’s a sensible business move—there’s no reason to alienate players by denying them the ability to play dozens of great 3DS games, but it also doesn’t create a content incentive to purchase the system. Players, for the moment, won’t miss out on any major releases; only one has been officially announced, the new Xenoblade Chronicles. That’s a relief for those who can’t afford the new system, but leaves players without a major reason to rush out and buy it immediately.

And that’s largely what the New 3DS XL’s worth will come down to. Buying the New 3DS XL is in no way required for enjoying Nintendo’s library just yet, and it remains to be seen if it ever truly will. The alterations Nintendo has made to the system undoubtedly improve the experience, but nothing makes the New 3DS XL itself essential.

If you can still make due with an iPhone that’s more than a year old, you can also make due with a previous 3DS. But if you were lined up days in advance to buy the iPhone 6? The New 3DS XL delivers in more than enough ways to scratch that itch for the latest and greatest piece of hardware.