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Face-Off: Nintendo 3DS vs New 3DS

Hyrule Warriors arrived on Nintendo 3DS this week, around 18 months after its Wii debut – and it’s something of a rare breed of title. It’s one of the few 3DS titles that exercises the additional power of the New 3DS, which in turn represents something in the way of unfinished business for Digital Foundry. We know that Nintendo’s refreshed handheld boasts a significant increase in power compared to the launch model, but just how much more capable is it?

Getting a firm idea of the performance differential between the two handhelds has been something we’ve been eager to test for a long time now, and while we have access to an older 3DS ‘Nitro’ kit, which allows for capture, we don’t have a New 3DS equivalent. However, capture kits and hardware mods are available to get the job done, using the same core technology found in our modified PlayStation Vita. YouTuber Tilmendomination owns such a device, and provided the captures that made this article possible.

But first, let’s talk core specifications. It’s safe to say that the 3DS isn’t exactly the most powerful piece of gaming hardware on the block. Based on specs found on 3DBrew, derived from hacking and reverse-engineering the hardware, the initial iteration of the 3DS featured a dual-core ARM11 CPU clocked at 268MHz, along with a second ARM core running at 134MHz.

Graphics duties are taken care of using a DMP PICA processor, again clocked at 268MHz. It was a remarkably old GPU, even for its time, lacking the kind of programmable pixel shaders we’ve seen since the launch of Xbox 360. However, it does have a number of fixed function blocks capable of handling per-fragment lighting, hard and soft shadowing, bump-mapping, procedural textures and even the rendering of ‘gaseous objects’. Additionally, custom hardware also accelerates geometry processing.

It’s something of a hardware lightweight though, and its library is effectively a triumph of software design overcoming some brutal limitations. Nintendo in particular has extracted magic from this meagre spec, to the point where titles like Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros compare favourably to their Wii U counterparts.

However, the New 3DS represents a significant leap forward – unfortunately, the GPU offers no improvement in any way whatsoever, but the main ARM processor is upgraded to a quad-core model, CPU frequency can increase to 804MHz, plus there’s much more memory, opening the door to advantages such as shorter loading times, and higher detail textures. Specifically, system RAM doubles to 256MB, the GPU receives an extra 4MB of VRAM, while there’s also some extra L2 cache on the CPU.