The Nintendo 3DS launches in North America this weekend, and we thought it would be a good time to compare its features with Sony’s upcoming NGP. It has been almost 7 years since the launch of Nintendo’s innovative Dual-screen handheld in November 2004, and nearly as long since Sony introduced its very first portable gaming system, the PSP. This year is shaping up to be another heated showdown between the two manufacturers, as both are preparing next-generation versions of their existing hardware. It is fair to say that Nintendo’s 3DS and Sony’s NGP are evolutions, rather than revolutions, in terms of handheld design. While both devices offer some exciting and cutting edge technology, in terms of basic design they don’t wander too far from the successful ground already covered by their predecessors. Sony’s NGP will feature a landscape-oriented 16:9 screen just like the trusty PSP. The Nintendo 3DS is still a dual-screen handheld with touch-input enabled on the bottom screen. Both devices add an analogue stick (with Sony’s total now reaching two), but the face buttons from previous hardware remain mostly unchanged. In terms of price, the Nintendo 3DS costs $250 at launch, while rumors suggest that the NGP could be more expensive, at around $300.
Everybody knows that a video game console can only be as successful as its games, and this is especially true at launch. Last time, the handhelds both launched with a relatively small number of titles. But now that the handheld marketplace has proven to be a lucrative growth area for publishers, they have been much more eager to develop titles for the 3DS and NGP.
The 3DS launch lineup is impressive, not only for its first-party games which include a new Pilotwings experience, Mario Kart, Kid Icarus and Zelda re-make, but also for its third-party support. No less than a dozen third party games will hit the 3DS platform over the next month or so, including a cracking version of Street Fighter IV, a Metal Gear Solid title and a new entry in the Ridge Racer series of arcade drifting games. If the hardware really gains momentum with consumers, as we expect it will, there will be no shortage of 3DS games to satisfy almost any taste in genre.
Pilotwings Resort for the 3DS features colorful graphics and a fun array of challenges.
The NGP is still many months away, but we already have some tantalizing details on its list of launch games, which include exclusive Sony franchises like Uncharted, Killzone, and Resistance. There is also a very cool looking Hot Shots Golf title as well as some quirky puzzlers that will take advantage of the device’s unique control and motion-sensing capabilities. Last time, the problem with Sony’s hardware was a lack of handheld-specific games, as well as a problem with the price-to-quality ratio. Whay pay nearly $40 for a handheld game that isn’t nearly as good as a full-blown PS3 version? Hopefully Sony and publishers will get this balance right with the new hardware.
Sony’s unique selling proposition with recent PSP marketing has been the traditional gaming input, and this looks set to continue with the NGP. Not only does it have two analog sticks and a raft of face and shoulder buttons, but it also comes with Sixaxis-like motion sensors and a touch-sensitive panel on the back of the device. First-person shooters and strategy games are going to dominate on this machine. We definitely won’t be hurting for ways to control our favorite games this time around.
Nintendo has stepped up its game with the 3DS as well, adding a much-needed analog nub for camera control. Hardcore gamers might still find this inadequate, based on our experience with the PSP.
Based on our experience playing with the 3DS, the lower screen in likely to be far less useful for certain games when playing in 3D mode. That’s because your eyes must ‘lock’ into the 3D effect on the top screen in order to make it work properly. This makes it difficult to quickly glance between screens, as your eyes must adjust every time you look away from the top screen. Unless of course you become permanently cross-eyed, in which case everything will be fine.
Sony’s solution is far more elegant. By placing touch controls on the back of the device, it means that even our sausage-like fingers won’t get in the way of the action on screen, while enabling wicked-sensitive control of games (RTS anyone?).
The Sony NGP is straight-up awesome.
Battery life could continue to rear its ugly head on both platforms. Sony says that due to the extra power of the NGP, its expected batter life will be comparable to the 4 hours currently experienced during steady gameplay on the PSP. Nintendo will do a bit better, claiming between 3-5 hours of gameplay on the 3DS. Both of these numbers are far below ideal, and limit the true ‘portability’ of these gaming units.
Graphics on the 3DS are a bit too cartoon-like for our tastes. While there is no denying that the 3D viewing capability is a cool addition for some games, we’ve also noticed some jarring frame-rate problems when playing titles like Pilotwings in 3D. The screen resolution is also lower than what we’ve come to expect in devices such as the iPhone 4. In the long run, the modest but capable processors in the 3DS might struggle to keep up with the expectations of gamers, particularly since the emphasis seems to be on immersive 3D experiences this time around.
Meanwhile, the NGP will contain a quad-core ARM CPU and next-generation SGX GPU, which means that it should be able to deliver PS3-level graphics and experiences (albeit on a smaller scale). Its ultra-high resolution OLED screen means that visuals will be rich and vibrant (See full NGP specifications here). While lacking the cool 3D effect of the 3DS, the NGP screen will also be viewable from a wider angle, meaning that friends can join in on a single device.
Homebrew / Hacking / Piracy
The ease with which hackers managed to gain access to the firmware of both the DS and PSP proved to be somewhat of an Achilles heel from the perspective of game developers. Early in the life of the PSP, piracy proved a major problem, forcing some developers to abandon the device altogether. Linker cartridges such as the R4 enabled mass piracy on the DS, although this didn’t seem to stop publishers from releasing games for the system. This time around, both companies claim that they have got the piracy problem well under control. We are more inclined to believe Sony in this respect – the PSP Go and recent hardware revisions of the PSP have proven very difficult to hack. The fact that the battery is inaccessible in the new design is another sign that Sony is taking the threat from piracy seriously. We predict that the 3DS could fall victim to the bootleg linker threat sooner than hackers get a ‘Hello World’ app to run on the NGP.
Once again, both machines are sufficiently different that they can happily coexist in the marketplace. Nintendo has been accused of adopting ‘gimmicks’ such as touch and motion controls in previous consoles, but it has consistently proved critics wrong. We are tempted to make the same accusation about 3D after having spent a small amount of time playing with the new 3DS device and worrying that it won’t add much to all game experiences. However, given Nintendo’s track record of innovation, it would surely be premature to cry ‘gimmick’ here. That said, the 3DS is clearly aimed at a younger audience (8-17), judging by its feature set and lineup of launch games. Younger gamers might not care much about technical hiccups like frame rate and screen resolution. But for more demanding gamers who want to take a current-generation console experience on the go, once again Sony’s device appears well-positioned to respond to their tastes. Launch games like Resistance and Killzone demonstrate that Sony appears set to continue with this strategy. The main risk, as with the PSP, is that the NGP could end up being a dumping-ground for poorly conceived PS3 ports. Hopefully third-party developers have been sufficiently educated on the unique requirements of portable gaming by now that they won’t make the same mistakes this time around.
Our final verdict? Don’t be afraid to grab a 3DS while you wait for the NGP to come out. Just make sure to try a demo unit in the shop first to make sure you can deal with the grainy graphics and eye strain in 3D mode.