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Veteran Member - Level 12
After the holiday dust settled, I found myself with enough money to add a Nintendo 3DS XL to my gaming collection. A few weeks, and about 100 hours of gaming, later I'm ready to share how my experience with the 3DS stacks up with the Vita. (I'd also like to counter some of Michael Pachter's misinformation from earlier in the week.)
PlayStation Vita: The Vita is a gorgeous machine. There's no wasted bulk to the system, and its design really accentuates the display. Everything that you don't need to be staring at on the Vita is neatly tucked away. It's as close to sci-fi reality as the gaming industry has from an appearance standpoint. The white version is nicer looking than it's black counterpart, but neither is lacking in style.
Despite its space-age presentation, the Vita is fairly utilitarian in design. With Sony's newest hardware revision not yet available, the system lacks in variety - only offering black and "Crystal White" color options. The glossy surfaces that make the Vita seem to glow in brightly lit rooms also collect finger prints and smudges at an outstanding rate. Cleaning the system is difficult, more often resulting in smears than a clean surface.
Nintendo 3DS XL: The Mario and Luigi themed 3DS that came bundled with "Mario & Luigi: Dream Team" is great looking. What it lacks in flashiness it makes up for with old-school Nintendo charm. The 3DS offers buyers an impressive selection of different units, both in solid-color and collectable variations. The store I was browsing in had four different 3DS XL options available, as well as several different standard alternatives.
Even with all the design options, the 3DS still looks strikingly iterative. Nothing stands out as significantly different from the other entries in a handheld line that will be a decade old come November. I also have some significant concerns about the durability of the system's matte interior finish. Most similar finishes get polished smooth and shiny with heavy use, and often look cheap as a result. I like the way it looks now, but I can't see it lasting.
I love my white Vita, it's legitimately great looking, but as a product the system doesn't offer much variety. Nintendo has been great at making tie-in versions of their systems since the DS line launched, and Sony is missing out by not capitalizing on the same. The chance to get a unique looking system probably has a bigger impact on sales than most people realize. I would consider buying a second Vita if Sony released a "Persona 4 Golden" themed version, and it couldn't hurt the system's overall sales to offer more variety. I have concerns about wear on the the 3DS XL, but it's not enough to offset Nintendo's robust array of unique designs.
Use and Portability
Playstation Vita: The Vita's biggest advantage from a use perspective is it's console like control scheme. People who have played an Xbox or PlayStation shouldn't have any trouble jumping into a game on the Vita. The buttons feel responsive and the screen is large enough to make touch controls effective, as well as close enough that reaching it isn't difficult. Size could be a problem for those with bigger hands - the system is very vertically compact - but I haven't personally had any issues and actually found the width of the system fairly comfortable. I also haven't found the back touch-pad to be a great replacement for a second set of shoulder buttons. In most cases its implementation is inoffensive, but "Tearaway" is the only game that does anything interesting enough to justify its existence.
Most of the Vita's use issues come in the form of its portability. If I didn't have a hard case for mine I'd think twice about taking it anywhere for fear of damaging the analog sticks. The structure around the two all-important inputs feels extremely sturdy, though. The charger is also massive, I didn't find a case that included enough space for it and it's hard to fit into the smaller pouches of my backpack. Length is the cable's only redeeming quality, giving players enough distance to plug into a nearby outlet and keep gaming - provided they even feel comfortable holding it in that situation thanks to a charging port that faces the user.
Nintendo 3DS XL: The buttons and touchscreen of the 3DS are really responsive, and the face buttons in particular have a really nice throw to them. I was surprised by just how tight and accurate the circle pad feels, and I wish they had more games that took advantage of how pinpoint precise it seems to be. The system's clam-shell design means I wouldn't worry about carrying the system unprotected in a bag, even if I didn't have a case. The charger is a bit too short to be useful while playing, but has the advantage of fitting into just about any pouch or pocket.
Where the 3DS begins to falter is in how its controls are utilized. The touchscreen doesn't live up to the promise of providing easy access to things like inventory. In most games, using the bottom screen freezes the top, meaning all it really does is remove a single button press. In the case of "Pokemon X" a couple button-presses/taps are still required to get to any items, settings, or party menus. The XL variation of the system is also fairly heavy, and I found my wrist aching during gameplay sessions in which I used the touchscreen often. A mysteriously absent second circle pad limits the types of games that can be played on the system, and the placement of the d-pad is a little bit too low to comfortably reach from where my hands naturally came to rest. The biggest hurdle for me is the default mapping of the 3DS' face buttons though. I understand that the layout is the same one Nintendo has used since the SNES, but I found myself still fumbling through menus in "Pokemon X" after 60 hours. Outside of the controls, I'm worried by how much force it requires to close the 3DS XL and how long the hinge on the clam shell will last before wearing out.
The 3DS XL is a bulkier system when not folded, and it's a system whose controls I'm only loosely familiar with. None of them are bad, but I feel they could have been better utilized. The Vita is significantly easier to jump into, since all of the inputs require interactions that will be familiar to most players. If you don't plan on running the battery dry on a Vita the charger's bulk is irrelevant because it can be left behind - I rarely take my Vita or 3DS XL chargers with me. If I was carrying both without cases, the Vita's analog sticks would be enough to flip this decision around; however, there's no reason to avoid spending another $20 on a case to protect portable devices that cost upwards of $200. With cases in the mix, the 3DS loses out thanks to the negative impact its weight has on my wrists and a default control scheme that I've had more trouble adapting to.
PlayStation Vita: The Vita is one of the most outstanding pieces of technology I've ever owned. The OLED display is magnificent, and easily the nicest I've ever come across on a mobile device. Games like "Tearaway" are super crisp and rarely experience any frame-rate issues. The system's suspended mode is an absolute marvel. To test the system's battery life while I was messing around with my new 3DS, I left my Vita in suspended mode for a prolonged period of time. After a week it still had enough charge to resume my game, and didn't die entirely for another couple days. Upon charging the system I was able to pick back up where I left off without losing progress - though that might be something specific to the game I was playing at the time. I also spent time trying to make games crash using suspend, but even suspending a game in the middle of a loading screen couldn't disrupt the system.
The only downside I could find to the Vita's hardware performance is the lack of storage. While its standard 4GBs is the same as the 3DS XL, the system's games regularly top 1GB and proprietary replacement cards are unacceptably priced. Sony is selling $20 worth of storage for a mind-numbing $100, or about half the price of the Vita itself.
Nintendo 3DS XL: The big selling point for the 3DS is its 3D capabilities, unfortunately the 3D is little more than a novelty. After playing with it on for a few minutes, I promptly turned it off to save battery life and my eyes. The system's screen is fine, but relatively unimpressive. "Pokemon X" seemed to stretch the 3DS' capabilities, with noticeable dips in frame-rate during battles. One shot of both pokemon showed up often, and seemed to bog down the system each time. Frame-rate rarely dipped in an area that hindered gameplay though. The 3DS' suspend feature also works well, but caused some disruption with the internet connection in "Pokemon X" that forced me to reconnect every time I resumed. I was also disappointed to see that I lost progress when my 3DS died after being left in suspend mode overnight.
There's nothing wrong with the 3DS. It's a perfectly serviceable piece of hardware that does exactly what it needs to do. It's just not anywhere near as impressive as the Vita. The OLED HD screen of the Vita presents amazingly vibrant colors, and the system rarely sees frame-rate dips despite rendering more intense scenes at a significantly higher resolution. Suspend mode on the Vita is also absurdly low power, and even with StreetPass turned off the 3DS can't sneak into the same ballpark. When I say the Vita is one of the most outstanding pieces of technology I've ever owned, I mean it. Sony's ability to pack that much power into such a small device is astounding.
Games and Network
PlayStation Vita: The Vita has stealthily amassed a pretty impressive collection of games, bolstered by a strong back catalog of Sony titles from the PlayStation, PSP, and even the PS2. Classics like "Chrono Trigger", "Xenogears", and most of the "Final Fantasy" and "Persona" series are readily available through the online marketplace. The system has also grown into a nice little bastion of indie games and, with Sony putting more emphasis on that portion of the market, that selection can only continue to grow. Where the system falls short is in system specific retail releases. You won't walk into a store and find a dizzying array of Vita games, because a good portion of them opt to release as exclusively digital products. Still, Cross Play and Cross Buy, along with PlayStation Plus, make it easy to amass a decent collection of games for almost nothing. The PlayStation Network features of the Vita aren't mind blowing, but they get the job done. Setting up a connection, even with my college campus' finicky network, was super easy and downloads didn't take too long. Updates are pain free, and all the apps seemed to work fine even if they would never be my first choice.
Nintendo 3DS: The 3DS is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to games. Even as someone only mildly interested in Nintendo titles, there isn't much to find fault with in the 3DS' library. The system's lack of power and control scheme means the back catalog is limited to older games; when so many of those games are legendary pillars of the industry, and the back catalog draws from two of the most beloved consoles of all time along with four previous handheld generations, its hard to complain. The retail offering of the 3DS is substantial, but the signal-to-noise ratio is also pretty high. For every "Fire Emblem: Awakening" there are three games like "Horses 3D."
Unfortunately the network supporting the 3DS' games isn't even remotely impressive. The service is a skeleton at best. There's no subscription plan to keep new games in the hands of players and little more than basic functionality elsewhere. The 3DS' wireless network management is so obtuse that I outright gave up connecting to my college's network, and hallmarks of online gaming like adding friends are similarly wonky. Nintendo's online infrastructure is one step up from a complete mess. It works, and that's the only nice thing there is to say about it.
Contrary to Michael Pachter's hyperbolic nonsense, the game divide between the 3DS and the Vita isn't actually that large. There's a lot of great game's in Sony's currently available backlog. If Playstation Now ever gets off the ground the Vita could play host to games from every generation of Sony systems and easily leapfrog the 3DS' hardware limited offering. A strong push in the indie game market could also see a similar software surge. Until, or perhaps unless, that happens the Vita's catalog won't be able to match what the 3DS can offer. Nintendo is stagnating though, and the 3DS will never be able to offer GameCube or Wii games because of its control scheme, so don't be surprised if Sony sits on the Vita in the same way it did the PSP and ends up with a surprisingly successful handheld.