New 2DS XL review: What a way to go

This may be the end of the line for Nintendo's handheld legacy, but they've saved the best for last.

Speaking as someone who has been an enthusiastic handheld-focused gamer since the launch of Game Boy Color and Neo Geo Pocket nearly 20 years ago, and as someone who has taken it upon himself to document the chronological history of portable gaming beginning with the original Game Boy's launch in 1989, I don't say this lightly, but: Nintendo's New 2DS XL is easily the finest dedicated portable console the company has ever produced.

For years — decades, really — Nintendo has had a maddening habit of including some sort of nagging compromise in every single portable system to come off their assembly line. It began with the original Game Boy's muddy, sometimes indecipherable passive-matrix LCD screen and arguably reached its peak form with the Game Boy Advance SP's ridiculous requirement to plug in a proprietary dongle in order to use standard headphones. Even Switch, a demi-portable system if you will, does that thing where the D-pad is replaced by separate action buttons in order to support JoyCon play. Nintendo giveth, and they taketh away.

The New 2DS XL and packaging. The compact box is a bit thicker than the New 3DS XL box because Nintendo actually included an AC adapter with this system, unlike its big brother.

Not with New 2DS XL, though. For the first time, I've been able to take a Nintendo portable out of the box and feel that, yes, this is exactly what I want. The New 2DS is a lean, filler-free device that keeps all the essential features and jettisons the excess. Yes, I'm calling 3D visualization "excess" — it was a needless gimmick back in 2011, and now that the rest of the industry has given up on 3D support outside of VR, the 3DS's original defining trait has increasingly felt like a relic... especially when the most ambitious games on the system have to skip over 3D support in order to maintain playable frame rates. The fact that a device marketed around something as faddish as 3D has managed to thrive for six years speaks more to Nintendo's determination to make it a success than to the intrinsic appeal of 3D.

The New 2DS XL is the beneficiary of that determination. The entire 3DS library runs on this system every bit as well as it does on a New 3DS, including New-exclusive games like Xenoblade Chronicles and Virtual Console's Super NES selections. All the buttons and elements of the New 3DS appear here, too, including the weirdly effective little chiclet right analog nub. All the 2DS loses is its 3D screen... not to mention a few millimeters of circumference and a bit of weight.

New 2DS XL vs. New 3DS XL

The New 2DS feels surprisingly light compared to its 3D-capable counterpart, but not in a flimsy or insubstantial sense. It also doesn't sacrifice battery life that I've been able to tell, which suggests the weight loss comes entirely from the removal of the sandwiched, multi-screen technology. Likewise, the New 2DS appears to be just a tiny amount smaller on every axis than the New 3DS XL... until you notice that the hinge assembly juts out from the back of the system rather than sitting flush on the console. The lower portion of the system is actually quite a bit more compact than the New 3DS when held in the hands, and it feels like Nintendo has hit a sweet spot. I can't actually speak for people with child-sized hands, or for the giants who pine for the original Xbox's "Duke" controller, but my impression of the New 2DS is that it's compact enough for young hands but still has sufficient surface area not to cause finger cramping in anyone but, say, a basketball player.

The size difference between the two models is best showcased in profile.

In any case, the reduced weight and size of the New 2DS XL makes it a genuinely portable device in a way that the XL line hasn't been to this point, beginning from the DSi XL. They've always been just a little too large and bulky to fit comfortably into a pocket, but I find the 2DS XL to be a lot more portable when it comes to actual day-to-day use. Despite this, the system sacrifices nothing in terms of screen real estate or comfort: Its screens are the same size as the 3DS XL, and so are its buttons and analog sliders. Meanwhile, unlike the standard 2DS, the XL maintains the DS line's clamshell design, minimizing scratches and wear on the screens. Nintendo has finally found a perfect physical balance for the system's layout, and it's great.

The stylus is barely visible as the almost-imperceptible tab sticking out right next to the headphone jack.

The New 2DS XL includes other physical improvements as well. The stylus is so precisely engineered for its storage slot that I had to give the system a thorough examination to find it the first time I used it — a few seconds of confusion seems like a good tradeoff for having the stylus sit flush, tight, and secure inside the system. More importantly, both the cartridge slot and the SD Micro card slot sit next to one another in a covered compartment along the system's lower edge. This represents a marked improvement over the New 3DS XL in two respects. First, it does away with the baffling need to unscrew the system's back plate in order to insert additional storage, one of the most inane features of the New 3DS and XL. Secondly, it prevents accidental ejection of the game cart, a problem that plagued the New 3DS XL thanks to its combination of a spring-loaded eject mechanism and a cartridge slot situated precisely where most people gripped the system to help support its weight. This hinged door could admittedly prove to be somewhat fragile in the long run, but it solves two of the biggest design issues with the New 3DS XL.

This pop-open assembly houses (and protects) both the micro SD card slot and the 3DS/DS game cart slot.

Really, there's only one thing I dislike about the New 2DS XL. The black plastic shell, despite having a finish somewhere between matte and satin, somehow manages to pick up fingerprints and oil discolorations like it was auditioning to replace the Piano Black models of the PlayStation Portable. That's probably not an issue with non-black plastics, but the white/orange New 2DS XL is only available outside the U.S. due to Nintendo of America's bizarre (and publicly stated) aversion to white handhelds. 

How does a matte-black console smudge so easily? And where are the color options? I owned a pair of shoes in this same black/electric blue combo circa 1992, but I can't say neon skater aesthetics are a retro trend I'm keen to revisit.

This is a minor complaint at worst, though. After decades of accepting that a new Nintendo handheld system represents a two steps forward/two steps back sort of compromise, the New 2DS XL offers a refreshing change of pace. The only "compromise" here is a deliberate design choice, one included in the name of the system. Without the dated 3D screen assembly, this presumably final iteration of the 3DS family sheds its predecessors' weight, size, and sticker price to present the ideal 3DS experience. Just, you know, without the 3D. I suppose if you still cling to your 3D visuals (and I know some people do), the New 2DS XL is a no-go. For everyone else, though, this is the model to own as your archival 3DS device as the system nears retirement.

It's hard not to imagine the Switch represents the end of the line for Nintendo's dedicated portable business. Of course, Nintendo delights in doing the thing gamers least expect... but if indeed this model represents the end of a 28-year legacy of handheld systems, it's a perfect send-off.