A Brief Review of the Nintendo 2DS

Sunday afternoon was the first time I had stepped into a GameStop in years. The store was surprisingly packed, with people trading in old iPod nanos and an iPhone 4S, while others were purchasing 3DS games. Pokémon X and Y were the hot items, with kids and parents (who could probably think of more productive things to do) waiting their turn in line. On a whim I asked about trade-in values, went home, erased the data off my Xbox 360, and returned to GameStop to trade it in for around forty bucks, with an extra thirty percent earned on top since I turned around and bought a game off of GameStop's "trade offers" list. I hadn't touched my 360 since my early college days, and I determined I wasn't going to get a better deal on eBay or Craigslist, nor was it worth the hassle. Might as well get rid of it now before it's worth next to nothing once the next generation of consoles arrive.

I walked out with one of three 2DS systems that were left and a couple of games. Considering that I was trading in other items, I really didn't have to spend a whole lot of money to gain access to a large library of fun titles. As an adult, I purchased a system that the press has written off as "cheap" and "just for kids."

The Nintendo 2DS reminds me of the iPhone 5c in a lot of ways. The press asked, "Why introduce a model that's not top of the line?" Then they began to write and repeat a flawed narrative around the product, using words like "cheap" to describe solid, budget friendly devices. Because the product doesn't fit their wishes or desires, they start to write off the product by coming up with unappealing factoids and comparing feature lists with other products that might have more stuff, but aren't necessarily better. It's dishonest and unhelpful to describe products, like the 5c or the 2DS, as cheap. They are anything but.

The Nintendo 2DS was misunderstood from the start, with it being characterize as a misstep from a company that's losing money on the Wii U, and isn't competing well against Microsoft and Sony who have and are introducing more powerful consoles. The press seems eager to kick Nintendo while they're down, exclaiming that Nintendo should give up on hardware and make games for other platforms like iOS. Yet, the Nintendo 2DS is solidly constructed, lightweight, and sleek. For old technology, the touch screen is responsive, and Nintendo's software has a charm that other companies can't replicate or match. It was derided for not being pocketable, but are reporters really walking around with a 3DS in their jeans? It's a family accessible handheld in a redesigned form factor, enabling Nintendo to sell it at a more affordable price thanks to a lack of moving parts and unneeded features.

Having had the device for a couple of weeks, the thing the strikes me about the 2DS is that it's just like holding a tablet. The plastic is textured and somewhat fingerprint resistant in comparison to the 3DS and 3DS XL, with primary controls fitted around the top display. Despite having those controls towards the top of the device, your hands can wrap easily around the sides, with big shoulder buttons (which you often don't have to rest your index fingers on) being comfortably ample. It doesn't feel awkward to hold despite its uncharacteristic shape, nor does it look like a children's toy. It's a Nintendo product through and through.

What I appreciate about the 2DS is that it moves the Start and Select buttons from the bottom of the display to the right side underneath the action buttons, where they should be. The central home button makes getting back to the main menu obvious, mimicking the button found on the Wii U GamePad. Instead of relegating the notification light to a hinge, Nintendo created a big round light in the top right corner that's fun and attention grabbing. And unlike the 3DS, the power button isn't raised, sitting flush with the chassis as on the 3DS XL.

You're missing out on three (minor?) things when you purchase a 2DS over its 3DS counterparts. The first would be the obvious hinge, which protects the screens from dust and the elements when the top lid is closed. The second would be the 3D slider, which Nintendo is going to fully utilize for this generation of games until they move on (lots of elements across games like Super Mario 3D Land, the upcoming Legend of Zelda, and next year's Kirby, use 3D for puzzles and platforming and not just for visual effect). Fortunately games are still playable in 2D. The last would be dual speakers, where the 2DS has a single mono speaker. With headphones you notice a lot more sound, like the sub bass when the Capcom logo flies into view when starting up Monster Hunter, that's absent with the 2DS speaker.

When Nintendo gets around to making their next generation of handhelds, they really need to add a second analog stick. Design it like the Wii U GamePad, and keep the second display. The touchscreen is useful, not for main gameplay mechanics, but doing simple things like managing inventory, typing out messages, swiping across menus, zooming in on maps, etc. It's a secondary display that makes great use of secondary information, and it's the single most feature I've enjoyed about the Nintendo DS lineup of products. If Nintendo does decide to build main gameplay mechanics around the touchscreen, it needs to feel obvious and necessary (how some of the touchscreen controls were handled in games like The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass are tiring and bad).

Improve the obvious pitfalls of the 3DS lineup. Double the resolution and up battery life. Battery life is remarkably short on the 2DS (about five hours), so I spend half of my time tethered to my office chair. Personally this doesn't bother me so much since the cord is long, but you'll run of battery quick on road trips and flights if you're not careful. The short battery life these devices expect is also kind of crazy considering that these devices are always passively pinging for nearby devices to share info with, while receiving notifications and counting steps as a part of its activity features. The 3DS XL gets more battery life, around six and a half hours, but it's a substantially larger device whose bigger screen has no better resolution than its smaller siblings.

Despite lacking what some deem as critical features, such as a high resolution display, games on the Nintendo 2DS look absolutely fine. Granted, you're reading thoughts from a guy who has no complaints playing the original Half Life, but these games aren't full of polygons from the old PC and gray Playstation days. In comparison, games on smartphones look pretty, but what are they actually achieving above flexing visual muscle? It's an achievement that mobile processors can push out such detailed graphics for sure, but the result is games that look good but aren't terribly fun to play. Show me something that looks like Infinity Blade, but with more substance, and you'll pique my interest.

While I have certain expectations, I care a lot more about ecosystem and experiences than I do top of the line graphics. Obviously it's time for Nintendo to start bumping up their hardware specs, but I don't think they're at a major disadvantage. I look at a handheld like the PlayStation Vita, and I just can't say there's a terrible number of games on it that are great. To Sony's credit, they've been reaching out to independent developers and have made great strides there, and that's where that system starts to look interesting with games like Spelunky showing up. Currently, in comparison, Nintendo has a library full of great titles and must plays from Fire Emblem to quirky experiences like Professor Layton to eShop titles like Pushmo. It's hard to sell an experience in a screenshot or magazine ad when display something as clearly obvious as realistic looking graphics, but experiences are the thing Nintendo excels at.

The press constantly chastises Nintendo for not doing enough (with high hopes!) and yet they have the potential to make an iPad competitor. Their software ecosystem is close to being a straight up consumer operating system on its own, complete with an Internet browser, activity log that shows you how many steps you walked and when throughout the day, its own eShop for downloading software, and a camera function. Granted the cameras aren't very good, yet (and they don't really have to be), but the features are there. While all of the stuff that Nintendo includes on the software side is geared towards gaming, if you can imagine this with added apps, you can see how Nintendo could do such a thing.

Keep in mind that the original Nintendo DS came out in 2004. Throughout the DS' lifespan, it's had a feature called Download Play, which lets nearby DS systems talk to one another and join in on a multiplayer session. It's impressive that Nintendo had a p2p-ish connection feature so others could play games like Mario Kart with you without having to own or have the game cartridge in their DS, a forward thinking capability that others haven't emulated. It's magic.

That kind of communication has been expanded on. As mentioned in this fantastic Kotaku article, Nintendo uses the passive sharing abilities of the 3DS lineup to do all kinds of stellar things with avatars called Miis and multiplayer games, without requiring other people to be physically present. Nintendo has been creating a new kind of social experience and nobody has been paying attention.

I digress.

The 2DS has become a thing I pick up and play when I'm drinking coffee in the morning, Animal Crossing being the game I casually play to check for new items in local shops, to add to the museum, etc. Monster Hunter and Pokémon X become the thing I get to in the evening when all is quiet, as I fumble my way through a Great Jaggi fight (to think I'm not even fighting BIG monsters yet) or attempt to catch another critter in the grass. It's become my go-to gaming console, with a Steam library full of games perhaps waiting for my return. Isaac has been left in the basement, Tomb Raider left mid adventure, and Deus Ex's second play through remains unfinished. All because of this thing that's convenient to just pick up and play.

The 2DS prompts an interesting question: I think it's either this or the 3DS XL if you're considering buying one. You either want the entry level Nintendo handheld or the best of the best, and I'm not sure why you'd choose the one in the middle. Given the nice size and more handsome looks of the extra large 3DS, or the slim and flat but still completely portable 2DS, the base 3DS kinda feels like the odd man out.

Nintendo's 2DS is a charming, entry-level handheld for those who just want to pick up and play. Europeans get the super nice looking white and red color, while Americans get black with red or blue, but maybe Nintendo will give us some more color options soon. I'm afraid to show you what Japan is getting for the 3DS XL line, because that's the thing that's gonna make you go, "OMG I want this!" And a sharp looking website from Nintendo? Whoa.

The 2DS is $129.99 in the United States, and some places are offering it for even less. If you're looking for something to pick up this holiday... well, you know what to do.