Can the Nintendo 3DS XL find a special place in the heart of the smartphone game-playing masses after the slow start of its predecessor?
When the Nintendo 3DS gaming portable was released in March 2011, it wowed us with its glasses-free, autostereoscopic 3D technology (read review here), but an over-inflated price, lack of games and confusing marketing saw it fail to capture the imagination of a public swept away by their cheap, easy and plentiful iOS and Android fun supply.
However, a hefty price cut, its novel social tech and some truly killer fare such as Kid Icarus: Uprising and Resident Evil: Revelations saw it gain a second wind and not quite die the hideous commercial death many predicted.
Yet with the brilliant but bulky – in size and cost – Sony PS Vita suffering similar teething problems in the face of ever-powerful and more heavily subsidised smartphones, is releasing a bigger, more expensive version of any portable game system really the way to go?
Nintendo 3DS XL review: design and build quality
The 3DS XL's buttons, connectivity and innards – bar the inclusion of a 4GB rather than 2GB SD card – are the same as the 3DS, so read our previous review for an in-depth lowdown of its features and what it's capable of – this is a predominantly aesthetic overhaul.
In short: it's a very good, Wi-Fi enabled games system with the full gamut of dedicated action buttons, motion-sensing inputs, social-tech tidbits and AR functionality with added glasses-free 3D. But where once it was bite-sized and brick-like, it's now curved and biiiiiiig.
The squared-off build of old is replaced with a smooth, rounded-off exterior – ours is a kind of dull silver in colour, but it also comes in red and blue – that has divided the office on its merits.
There's no denying, it's absolutely massive now and not the 'slip in your back pocket' proposition that the 3DS just about pulled off. That said, its rounded edges are more comfortable gamefellows than its stylised, aggressively pointy predecessor.
However, with a change in form comes a change in function. The 3DS XL's new shape makes it far more comfortable to hold than the 3DS's palm-bruiser, although the 46 per cent increase in weight means it can be a drain for long sessions, and virtually impossible on more involved fare (Kid Icarus, we're looking at you in particular).
While still solid and rugged, the XL also lacks the reassuring build quality of its predecessor, the D-pad, 3D slider and interior plastic in particular cheap and clicky, the enormous 'Select', 'Home' and 'Start' buttons looking like something you'd get in a knock-off Nintari 'multi-game' portable on the Costa del Sol.
There are also a couple of contentious changes. Firstly, you'll notice the 3DS XL comes in a very snazzy, slim box – this is because it doesn't come packaged with an AC adaptor; not even a proprietary port-to-USB cable. Now, if we were searching for things to remove to keep costs down and packaging sleek, power wouldn't be something we'd consider.
Apparently research suggests most Nintendo customers already have the proprietary power pack at home, and obviously you can buy one easily enough, but it does seem a bizarre omission.
The second, more integral point is Nintendo hasn't incorporated the supplementary Circle Pad Pro add-on into the design, so the 3DS XL is still a strictly one-stick guy for the foreseeable future.
This is probably fair enough as there are few games that actually make use of it – raising the question why it was released in the first place – but meaning that once the upcoming second control disc peripheral is welded on, the 3DS XL will give the Wii U GamePad a run in the size stakes.
Nintendo 3DS XL review: screen and 3D effect
Nintendo says the 3DS XL screen real estate is 90% bigger and we're not going to argue. Both of the new displays are massive and look great. More impressive visual fare like Resident Evil: Revelations or Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D shine, the 3D's much larger sweet spot meaning you're saved from that constant head realigning you have to do when playing the original 3DS on bumpy public transport.
It's all just far more immersive – the opening of Super Mario 3D Land, for one, where the storm roughs up the trees, becomes a dramatic, cinematic vista – and we found ourselves leaving the 3D slider well alone, rather than easing it down after a while like we usually do.
At 4.88 inches the new screen's pushing the PlayStation Vita for size, although obviously is nowhere near the quality of that OLED dynamo. That said, it doesn't have the graphical fidelity or game library to need such a high-definition display and, with the screen the main reason for this console reworking, to say it was anything but an unqualified success would be untrue.
In fact, it's almost like a new machine and this is certainly the 3DS we'll be testing games on from now on. We wonder whether this could encourage more media and film companies to get involved and convert their wares? Probably not, but it's a nice thought.
Nintendo 3DS XL review: games and ecosystem
Where once software was an issue for Nintendo's portable, it now has a raft of classic reinterpretations, such as Super Mario 3D Land, Mario Kart 7 and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, which you can't get anywhere else.
As ever, the non-Nintendo output is less stellar, though Resident Evil: Revelations and Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D show it can be done, even if neither reaches the heights of our favourite 3DS title, Nintendo's fantastic Kid Icarus: Uprising.
On the horizon there's yet more titles from Mario's world – New Super Mario Bros 2 and Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon – as well as some cutesie third-party fare such as Harvest Moon: A New Beginning and a host of Lego titles.
It's a case of the same old, same old with Nintendo – excellent but few and far between cutesie first-party titles, with more frequent but less excellent third-party efforts plugging the gaps – and its hardcore refocusing for the Wii U is rarely reflected in its 3DS output. There's undeniably plenty of quality here, though.
However, Nintendo, just like Sony and its PS Vita offering, has been dreadfully slow on the cheap, downloadable games front and this is still an issue that needs addressing.
With the company's focus predominantly on £30, full-fat titles, the Nintendo eShop, just like PlayStation Network, remains a pricey ghetto – typically £7-£10 compared to similar quality on the App Store for £2-£5 – and not updated with must-buy titles, old or new, on a regular enough basis.
This is still the battle to be fought with smartphones, and we're not sure bigger, more expensive hardware is where Nintendo's focus should lie necessarily.
Nintendo 3DS XL review: battery life
The larger casing has allowed Nintendo to expand the battery and, in turn, its life. The big N's quoting an 86 per cent increase – up to six and a half hours of 3D fun and up to eight hours of 2D scrapes – which was much needed (not to mention expected from such a hefty machine).
Just like with the original 3DS, our experience didn't quite reach these heady quoted heights – we conked out more around the five-and-a-bit front for 3D – but there's a tangible difference and it comes off well in comparisons to both the Vita and smartphones, the latter capable of excellent stand-by times but struggling typically with anything graphic intensive for too long.
Nintendo 3DS XL review: verdict
The 3DS XL is a portable gaming professional with much to recommend about it, a whopping great screen and a decent raft of games being high among them. While smartphones reign the masses, the 3DS has proven there is still a market for dedicated gaming handhelds for at least the near future.
At £47 more than the old 3DS – once you've included that AC adaptor – the XL just about reigns as the model newbies should go for, as the far improved gaming experience that comes with that bigger display offsets most cons.
That said, upgrading from a 3DS to a 3DS XL would be a step too far, as, bar the screen, it's exactly the same product but bulkier and with blander styling. For most, like with any iPad launch, we suspect this could be the ideal chance to get an original 3DS on the cheap…