Developer: Nintendo (web site)
I love the launch of a new system. I really do. It's always fun to open it up for the first time, and to see how the games are packaged and how the controller feels. Even after the industry shows, the demos, the pitches, and the marketing I never really know how I feel about a system until I can sit down with it in my apartment and give it a whirl myself.
So I didn't know what to think when I hit the town looking for a Nintendo DS. Like most of us I was skeptical of the unit at first, the idea of a handheld with two screens and touch capabilities seemed too gimmicky, almost as if Nintendo was getting into the PDA market. Sony seemed ready to take the handheld crown from Nintendo with specs that were more initially impressive.
The tune was changed when we were able to get a closer look at the system. The screens were a good size, and had a clear picture. What was even better was the tech demos, the touch sensitive screen was being used in so many interesting ways. We saw people drawing images on the screen only to have them enter the game world as an item, we heard Nintendo talk about wireless play, and unlike Sony Nintendo seemed to be stressing the games. Then they released the price at a very attractive $150 and people began to really take it seriously as a console.
So for you, my readers, I ventured out this Sunday and tried to buy a unit. This proved a lot harder in practice than it was in theory. It seems as if Nintendo was barely able to stock preorders, and many of the major video game chains claimed to be sold out through the holidays. I finally tracked down a unit at a Circuit City (I got the second to last one) and bought some software to go with it. After calling around and asking a few questions it seems as if finding one of these before Christmas may be a chore. Several sites are reporting that the DS is selling a lot higher than expected in Japan, and that Nintendo is considering opening a new factory to pump up production. Before that happens though, good luck and happy hunting.
I had mine in hand though, and I sped home to spend some time with it and my two software purchases: Nintendo's Mario 64 DS and Sonic Team's Feel the Magic. How does it stack up? Is it worth upgrading from the Game Boy Advance? Are you better off waiting for the PSP? Well, dear reader, grab a stylus and let's find out.
Is there makeup in here?
The box is in the classic Nintendo style, with a large graphic assuring us it does in fact come with a Metroid Hunters demo inside. To be honest, this is a pretty good spread for a system. While most console manufacturers try to cut every corner to get the cost of systems down Nintendo went the extra mile here to give us a good initial package. In the box you get the Nintendo DS system itself, the AC adaptor so you can charge up the battery, a wrist strap/stylus (more on that later), one regular stylus in the unit along with a backup stylus in the packaging, and the Metroid Hunter demo in a nice cardboard case.
It's a really slick little bundle of stuff, and I love the fact that you have a playable demo right out of the gate. It helps also that the Metroid demo shows off so many of the features of the DS. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The system is large for a handheld, but it fits easily into my coat pocket. It's larger than the SP but not so large as to be unwieldy. The exact dimensions are 3.3in x 5.8in x 1.1in, and it weighs in at 9.7 oz. The system is powered by two processors, an Arm9 and an Arm7. The developers can choose which processor powers which screen, although the obvious choice is to use the weaker processor for the touch screen.
The DS system closed
It feels solid and well put together in your hand, even if it does bare a striking resemblance to a woman's compact. The system has good tension on the hinges and can click open at two angles.
The DS system opened
There's actually a lengthy set-up process upon first power up. You have to give it your name, your favorite color, your birthday, set the date and the time. The name is used to identify you in multiplayer games and in chat. The date and time are shown every time you turn on the unit, before you pick your game. The interface is actually stylish, and while I normally hate not having a system go straight into the game upon power on it makes sense in this case.
The DS has a slot for both DS games and GBA games. You put the DS games on the top, the GBA game goes on the bottom. When you turn on the system you get a clean, easy-to-read screen that has a clock, a calendar, and it lists the games you have in the side. You can either tap the name of either game to play it, or choose to enter PictoChat or a multiplayer game. Easy to use, and very functional. It would have been interesting if they had added a date book function in there as well, since the calendar is already displayed. I'd be surprised if we don't see a third party PDA app soon.
I found out later that if you want to go directly to your game you can adjust that setting in the options menu, so that's a nonissue. I still prefer the menu upon startup though.
I have no mouth and I must screen
The screen is the best thing I've seen on a portable gaming system. The display is truly backlit, not like the bottom lighting the SP has, and there's no dark spots on the display at all. The colors are bright and text is easy to read. The screen is a respectable 256X192 resolution, up from the SP's 240X160. That means that while playing GBA games you'll see a slight border around the screen, but the added clarity and sharpness more than makes up for it. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon has always been my benchmark to test third party lights and GBA displays due to it's incredibly dark nature, and it looks better than it ever has when played on a DS. The backlit screen makes all the difference. However, while the system is backwards compatible. you won't be able to play your old black and white or Game Boy Color games; this unit plays DS and GBA games only.
Sound is top notch as well, with two speakers meaning you can finally hear your GBA games in stereo. The DS seems to be able to handle voice and complex music with ease, and this is the first handheld system where I actually listened to the music. Everything from the SP on down was just beeps and boops to me, and I kept the volume down most of the time. The speakers even do a passable fake of surround sound, due to some clever audio trickery. It's very impressive, although the speakers do have some crackle when the volume it turned all the way up.
I've only had the unit for a day but the battery life seems about what it was on the SP, maybe a little shorter. I got about eight hours out of it after my first full charge, and it took me about another two hours to get the unit to a full charge. Like the SPs before, you can play the unit while it charges. I said it with the SP and I'll say it again now, the inclusion of a battery pack instead of double A batteries is a godsend in this kind of system, and eight hours should be more than enough time for most car/plane/train rides or lines at the DMV.
Mario DS 64 in action
Another subtle little feature is sleep mode. Yeah, I know, nothing new in the PC world, but I think every portable console should handle it this well. At any point in the game, just close the unit and it goes straight to sleep. Open it and resume right where you left off. This is perfect for gaming on the go, and yet another thing that Nintendo did right.
The games themselves come on small chips that look very much like the type of memory card your digital camera or PDA might use. While the GBA carts were pretty rugged and could be carried loose in your pocket that seems like a bad idea with the DS carts. Luckily the games come in DVD style cases, which is a nice change from the old cardboard boxes GameBoy games used to come in. Now the games are easier to store and carry with you.
The size of the media is much smaller than GBA games
Speaking of games, the first wave of software is rather weak. Mario 64 DS is a great game and worth replaying with a ton of new features, but it's still a remake. Feel the Magic is a novel use of the hardware but it's a pretty short experience.
For the DS launch, you also have a lackluster driving game, a mediocre Spiderman 2 cash-in, and the expected Madden port (and the player models left me cold â everyone has tiny waists and huge shoulders). Not exactly a blockbuster opening salvo. Luckily, Rayman, Ridge Racer, Final Fantasy, Mario Kart, and Goldeneye are all coming to the system, but how long will we have to wait?
Is that a LAN party in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?
Here's one of the features that has me really excited. The DS actually has a fairly robust set of wireless features. Built in. This is a lot more important than it may at first seem. A lot of people see this as evolutionary, after all you get a wireless adaptor with the new Pokemon game, so this is nothing new, right? Wrong.
This can be a killer app for this system. Think about it, fully 3D games like Metroid, Mario 64, and even Goldeneye are easily made for the DS, and with wireless built in you're carrying a LAN party in your pocket. You just turn on your DS, put in the game, and you're playing against up to 16 other people in a network (the range is listed at 100 feet, but in my experience anything past 30 can get touchy) and there is no split screen, everyone has their own monitor.
The idea of multiplayer Goldeneye on the go has me salivating. Kids at recess don't need wires, they just start playing against each other. Many games will only need one cartridge for multiplayer gaming. This opens up a whole new world of multiplayer gaming, and is a big step forward for handheld consoles as a whole.
I had a chance to play some Mario 64 multiplayer in my apartment with three friends and it was great, everyone just found a seat and started playing. Nothing to set up, no cables to hook in, they didn't have to bring a TV. It's truly a LAN party whenever you want one, and I would kill someone in front of their mother for a Doom 2 port on this thing. Think of it: a 16-player Doom 2 deathmatch you can carry with you.
DVD style case for the games.
The DS also has a good amount of internal memory to allow wireless play with only one game cart, such as Mario 64. Some games require multiple game carts, but I hope companies will embrace this feature to make multiplay more accessible.
When you choose to download games from the front end menu the DS opens up and looks for signals to begin downloading the game. The interesting thing is that this also gives retailers and wireless hotspots the ability to provide game demos and tournaments on wireless networks in the stores. Interesting. Will we start to see demos downloaded from wireless networks in EBGames and Gamestops? The possibilities are intriguing.
The other nifty feature is the PictoChat program built into every DS. It's a rudimentary chat/drawing feature that lets you talk or draw with up to 16 people at a time wirelessly. The drawing is limited, and there's no color selection, but with a little practice I got good with the software and was texting people around my apartment to test the system out.
I have no real use for it, but I did have a good chuckle when I went into the kitchen and heard my DS beep. Looking down, I saw a picture of a man with a small glass in his hand from one of my friends in the other room. I brought him a shot of vodka and we both cracked up.
While it's just a novelty for us older folks, PictoChat could be another killer app for kids in Middle School or High School, being able to send wireless electronic notes in class or recess would be pretty neat, and once one person has one at the lunch table I can see it catching on rather quickly. How soon until someone looks at their DS to see a "'Do you like me? Check yes or no.' note from CuteGrrrl9 across the lunchroom?"
I wonder if it has a demo? Nintendo has a clear style for their boxes, and doesn't stray too far here
Come on, now touch me baby. Can't you see that I am not afraid?
So now it seems like we've talked about everything but the most important new aspect of the DS, the touch screen. This is going to either open the door to new gameplay ideas and mechanics, or be utterly wasted. So what's the verdict so far?
Well, it depends on the game. The amazing thing is that in Metroid it's able to emulate a mouse and keyboard amazingly well. Your left hand works the digital pad just like the WASD keys on the keyboard and on your right hand you wear this strap on the lanyard that has a small bit of hard plastic for your thumb. Your thumb rests on the touch screen and with slight movements you can mouselook.
It felt uncomfortable at first, but after a little bit of practice it became second nature, and was amazingly precise. It felt a lot like using a mouse and keyboard in fact, and is a lot more useful than even the controller from any of the other consoles. It seems like good FPS controls have finally come to something other than the PC, and it's amusing that a portable Nintendo product was the first to do it well.
You can also use the thumb stylus to control movement in Mario 64, turning the touch screen into a sort of analogue controller. Again, it takes getting used to, but it works a lot better than you'd think.
The thumbstrap/stylus apparatus. It looks goofy, but is surprisingly effective
That's just for movement though, there are loads of other ways the touch screen is used, and the mini games in Mario 64 show a lot of them. There's a fun slingshot game where you pull back on the slingshot with the stylus and let it go to shoot and falling bomb-ombs. There's a game with falling Marios where you have to quickly draw trampolines to catch them. There's a Where's Waldo like game where you have to find Mario characters in a huge mess of faces. Feel the Magic is even crazier. You haven't lived until you have use a stylus to make a man to throw up goldfish. You heard me.
From these minigames and novel uses of the touch screen, we see how it can in fact lead to new ways of interacting with the game. Feel the Magic is full of fun twitch games that force you to have a steady hand and quicker reflexes. When the two screens are used together intelligently the whole experience is refreshing.
There's even a minigame in Feel the Magic that has you blowing out candles by blowing on the touch screen (which had me amazed until I realized it was just using the sound of air moving over the microphone to know when you "blew," but the illusion is pretty convincing).
Hopefully we'll get games using voice recognition in the future as well. The interesting and innovative thing about the DS is just how much the developers can do by using the two screens, the touch sensitivity of the bottom screen, the wireless functions and the built in microphone. With that much to play with, there's a lot of stuff you can try with this system from a creative standpoint.
I've heard rumors there was even a rudimentary phone system being developed for it. It opens the door to a lot of new gameplay ideas, and hopefully the developers will catch on and show us some new interesting things.
Unfortunately, too many of the launch games just use the bottom screen for maps or pictures and have no use for the touch capabilities. There's a very real danger of developers putting GBA games on the DS without using any of the system's advanced features, but we'll have to wait and see if that happens. Nintendo has done their job, giving developers a powerful platform with a lot of features they can play around with.
The graphics are very impressive for a handheld, with full 3D with a very smooth framerate. Mario 64 looks better than the N64, and it's hard to tell if it's just the smaller screen instead of the TV or better hardware, but it feels like you're playing a prettied up Mario 64 on the go. Feel the Magic is an amazing looking game. While not technically impressive, the art style and music are well put together. Both games use the touch screen well, and have incredible sound and music.
Overall, it's an impressive experience when the touch screen is used intelligently. The screen itself feels good, and seems to me after a few hours of use to be even more precise than many palm pilot-type products I've used.