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Nintendo 3DS: Is the Circle Pad Pro really that bad?

A sticky situation...

Nintendo call it the 3DS Kakachou Slide Pad. Everyone else drops the 'achou' bit.

In English it's called 3DS Expansion Slide Pad or the Circle Pad Pro, though bullies call it worse. Since its reveal in Famitsu magazine's Monster Hunter Tri G preview the second analogue slider has received a barrage of criticism.

Pundits have taken umbrage at its pocket-destroying size, the tacky plastic shell and the underlying concept. If 3DS needed a second pad so soon after launch, why didn't it launch with one? Bolting it on like a makeshift limb has earned it the unflattering nickname 'Frankenstick'.

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Here, sneering colleagues compared it to everything from an "orthopaedic shoe" to "an awful free gift." In the past it's been the job of lumbering third parties to cram slick hardware into gross plastic cladding. Watching Nintendo dull its own edges is strangely disheartening. But while we're agreed the Expansion Pad is ugly, is it as awful as people say?

Nintendo's official pre-Tokyo Game Show reveal cast light on the situation. For one, it's cheap: 1,500 (£12.50) for what is a substantial hardware alteration. Secondly, it's not some distant pipedream: it's got a 10 December release date (in Japan) to coincide with Monster Hunter Tri G. Thirdly, and most importantly, it has all the third-party support you'd hope for.

While Metal Gear, Kingdom Hearts and Resident Evil play fine on one pad (so far the expansion pad is optional in every game), taking them back to their dual analogue origins should see them in their element.

At TGS the pad was available to fondle on the Capcom stand. Our findings? The obvious bulk is counter-balanced by Nintendo's keen eye for comfort. A curved base sits neatly in the hands, with rounded ends echoing the prongs of a Classic Controller.

If anything, thumbs feel less bunched up than they normally would. With its weighty centre - y'know, the 3DS - it closely resembles the Wii U controller. And like Nintendo's upcoming tablet, it feels solidly made without resorting to unwieldy density.

The button placement is suspect. Stretching over the second stick to reach the face buttons isn't as instinctive as darting a thumb upwards on a regular pad. And while the machine gains two swanky, if squishy, shoulder buttons - a chunky ZR and ZL to rival the Classic Controller's - they cramp L and R's style. L is all but lost behind the shell at the other end.

If no game requires the device, why the need for two new buttons? Monster Hunter producer Ryozo Tsujimoto calls the pad a "secret weapon" for Wii players, but our hands-on (see page 36) found it perfectly playable without.

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Of course, Capcom are bound to give the pad the thumbs-up. In fact, some industry figures think the virtual monster wranglers were integral in its conception.

Talking to Game Informer, Shuhei Yoshida (president of Sony Computer Entertainment's Worldwide Studios) said, "It's clear that they didn't believe a second analogue was necessary when they designed the 3DS, so I can only guess it was requested by Capcom's side. Maybe a Capcom producer told Nintendo that to play Monster Hunter we need two sticks." With a surprise shift to 3DS for Monster Hunter 4, the notion is all too plausible.

Other voices don't care where it came from, only that they hate it. Alex Neuse, lead designer on the Bit.Trip games, told Tiny Cartridge, "I think it's total crap. It seems obvious to me that it's only a matter of time until Nintendo releases a new 3DS with a second circle pad on it, and then what am I going to do? I'm going to give them more of my money."

As alarming as it is to consumers, Neuse also raises a danger to developers. "It's very risky. If your game requires it, that means you're forcing the player to have that hardware. And not all consumers will have bought the new device."

Divided audiences are kryptonite to developers. Think of the DS/DSi split. Bar the odd bonus camera mode, creators won't touch DSi exclusivity for fear of alienating millions of DS owners. Or look at MotionPlus: Nintendo created two tiers of control and - surprise, surprise - third-party bottom feeders lurk in the MotionMinus comfort zone.

Could it be that 3DS doesn't have an audience big enough to split? If Nintendo did regret the single analogue pad, wouldn't you rather they rectified it this early before a bigger audience fences them in?

To use a previous example, MotionPlus should be the standard for Wii gaming, but isn't, and will never be, because it came too late. There's no easy answer in all of this. Should we crucify the 3DS Expansion Slide Pad for daring to offer one?

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