After a shaky start, Nintendo is doing all it can to turn its 3DS into a success. The Kyoto-based company has reduced the price of the system and improved the software lineup, but you'd think that the controls at least would have to stay the same for a while... right? Wrong. Nintendo's pushing back hard against Sony's hardcore dual-analog PlayStation Vita this week with the Circle Pad Pro: an inexpensive (1,500 yen, or $19.99 in the U.S.), jury-rigged attachment that outfits the 3DS with a second analog slider and two more shoulder buttons. It comes out in the U.S. on February 7th but launched in Japan a few days ago alongside Monster Hunter 3 (tri-) G, and we've put both the peripheral and the game through their paces. Is it an essential accessory for 3DS owners, or are we looking at another Power Glove? Let's find out.
HardwareHardware and design Chunky but comfortable Grid View While it won't be winning any beauty contests, the Circle Pad Pro feels good in the hands, with very little weight added to the 3DS — I actually found that the system was a lot more comfortable to hold with it attached. The 3DS is a small, squarish unit that doesn't give your fingers much to hold onto, but the ergonomics of the Circle Pad Pro make it feel much more like a traditional game controller. However, I can't emphasize enough how bulky the combination is: the Circle Pad Pro itself measures 93 x 173 x 42mm, turning the system from an easily pocketable gadget into something you'll have trouble fitting into a small bag. Let's just say I don't expect to see many of these out and about in public. The additional analog slider sits at the same height as the one on the 3DS and puts up a little more resistance — this might be because it hasn't been worn-in as much as the pad on my launch 3DS, but in any case it feels good. I felt the 3DS's analog slider was a happy medium between the compact PSP nub and the larger sticks on a PS3 or Xbox 360 controller, and the same holds true here. There are also three buttons on the top of the unit, labelled R, ZR and ZL. R is simply a proxy for the R button already on the 3DS, which is pretty difficult to reach when the Circle Pad Pro is fitted, but it doesn’t line up perfectly with the existing L button or feel quite as springy. Nintendo’s made enough asymmetrical controllers in its time for this to not feel too jarring, though. Meanwhile, ZR and ZL are all-new buttons that give the system a full four-shoulder-button configuration in line with the Wii's Classic Controller Pro. These two buttons have quite a lot of give to them, despite being digital inputs, and could function well as triggers in any future games that might require them. The Circle Pad Pro communicates with the 3DS by way of the IR ports on both devices, and I actually managed to get it working from around 5cm away. Fitting the system to the peripheral is simply a matter of squeezing it in, with little rubber pads holding it in place. Once attached, you still have access to the headphone socket, volume control and charging port (of course, you can't use the charging dock supplied with the 3DS, but a cable will be fine), and all the lights remain visible. However, you won't be able to get to the stylus or game card slot while the Circle Pad Pro is in place, as they're both blocked by a plastic bar along the top of the unit that houses the IR port. Forget about switching game cards with the Circle Pad Pro in placeYou'll need a single AAA battery to power the Circle Pad Pro, and there's one included in the package. According to the manual it should last for around 480 hours depending on usage, so you'll have to forgive us for not running the Verge Battery Test this time around. The battery is hidden behind a door that you'll need a coin or screwdriver to open, but if Nintendo's claims about the endurance are true, we guess that's not likely to be a big deal for many. Though I appreciate Nintendo keeping the price and weight of the Circle Pad Pro down, I also feel the 3DS's meager battery life is more of a pressing concern — it's puzzling that the company didn't take the opportunity to provide external power in the Circle Pad Pro. Getting the Circle Pad Pro up and running is as easy as starting a game. Setup is handled on a game-by-game basis, with no reference to the device to be found in the 3DS's system software (even after this month's firmware overhaul). When I first started Monster Hunter tri-G, I was asked if I wanted to use the extension, and after selecting "yes" everything was handled automatically. Monster Hunter tri-G’s main menu also includes a right-pad version of the same analog calibration screen that’s found in the 3DS’s main menu, though I doubt you’ll ever need to use it. I found that occasionally the system would lose its connection to the device upon waking from sleep, requiring a return to the main menu to reconnect — tri-G's in-game options screen doesn't have an on / off switch for the Circle Pad Pro, and neither does the peripheral itself.