Nintendo DS Hardware review
Nintendo Proves Why They're The Dominant Handheld Company
When it comes to the handheld market the name Nintendo tends to crop up quite easily. As far back as the original Gameboy they’ve had a stranglehold on things and have been involved even before that. With countless opponents soundly defeated they’re clearly doing something right. The Nintendo DS is the first time since the original Gameboy that they’ve moved away from that system name, and along with it come a collection of features to really set it apart from what has come before. As for whether this newest one is worth your money... well, that is what we’re here to see. This review will not only cover the original DS handheld but also the improved Lite version as well. If no specific distinction is made, assume the content refers to both versions.
Obviously the DS makes a hardware leap in terms of standard capabilities and the visual difference is immediately noticeable. Super Mario 64 DS is a key title to showcase this, with the power of the DS able to give it an appearance laying somewhere between the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube, although at a much lower resolution (256 x 192, to be precise) in order to fit nicely onto the handheld screens. Even despite that, having played the original game on the Nintendo 64 and then playing this remake was great to see that the very crude polygons have been replaced with more textured graphics. In terms of current gen capabilities this is indeed lower than what Sony’s PSP is able to pull out, especially as a certainly blockiness can become apparent when objects draw close to the "camera" in 3D games, but the leap is still good.
Well developed games also seem quite possible to maintain a steady frame rate while throwing a lot around both screens. The World Ends With You demonstrates this by having a lot of NPCs wandering around the field when exploring Shibuya while the onscreen action continues along as normal.
The original DS suffers a minor issue here of the “dead pixel”. Literally this means there is one pixel on the top screen that might fail and won’t display anything except a single solid colour when turned on. From what I’ve since this doesn’t appear much, if at all, in the Lite models. That said, it isn’t distracting so the effect is minimal.
Unlike past handhelds the DS makes use of two screens on the system laid out vertically, powered by two processors. The bottom screen also incorporates touch screen technology, which forms one of the biggest selling points of the system.
In terms of basic performance the touch screen is a solid input device. When tapping on any given area of the screen the system seemed to recognise where I was. The included stylus pens proved to be useful although perhaps not the most accurate options in that the ends seemed a bit too chubby. However, it is accurate enough for solid gameplay.
The main issue is more game dependant rather than any hardware failing. The effectiveness of the touch screen largely depends on how the developers make use of it. Sometimes it is great, like being able to pinpoint select units in a strategy game and tell them where to go, tapping into an onscreen keyboard when needing text input or using an item you can trace the path of quickly and easily. However, there are times where the controls don’t work so well, like some developers don’t seem to understand that trying to use the touchscreen as a substitute for an analogue stick does not work.
The original DS in all its chunky glory.
This does lead onto 3D games requiring precise inputs to not work quite as well on the DS. The touch screen is never implemented in such a way as to be a proper input method and the D-Pad, while a lot more accurate and safe to use, still suffers from the problem of trying to invoke 360 degree movement with a 8 way directional input. The impact of this varies depending on game design. The effect is minimal in games like Super Mario 64 DS where you have a large enough margin of error for digital input to work, whereas Super Monkey Ball becomes frustrating as split second reactions along narrow paths just does not work with such imprecise methods. Fortunately, situations of little to no impact far outweigh those titles that suffer greatly.
As well as the aforementioned touch screen the DS takes the control layout of the Gameboy Advance (D-Pad, shoulder buttons, select, start, A and B), adds a couple of extra face buttons and maintains a familiar layout that makes it easy and comfortable to use. The layout feels better on the original system purely for the position of the start and select buttons. For some reason they chose to move these buttons from the top-right of the original DS (where they are easy to access) to the bottom-right of the Lite and shrank their size significantly (making them harder to access quickly). Thankfully these buttons are rarely used extensively for gameplay so this is a minor niggle.
In an effort to offer even more options for input methods there is the built-in microphone that is used to pick up audio cues from the player for whatever developers put into their games. Unlike the other aspects of the system this feature just flat out fails. It is technically sound but the whole concept tends to make the player look silly (who really wants to be sitting on a bus desperately blowing onto their DS?) and no games so far have really managed to make good use of it. Either the microphone is merely tacked on for no real value or it is implemented poorly and negatively affects the game.
The system uses WiFi for communication. This can be used at a local level for playing against nearby players on selected software. Some games will even support single card gameplay, where only a single player needs the game in question, although this may involve a cut down multiplayer depending on the game. The DS even includes a little Pictochat program where you can chat to other nearby DS owners by scribbling in notes and pictures. Some games do also support worldwide WiFi connection for online gaming. The interface for this is somewhat clumsy though as in order to play a specific person you need to use their friend code, which is different from game to game. Random matches do exist with some games, although the quality of this is questionable. Not so much the actual feature but rather all the games using this don’t seem capable of defending against cheats or ragequitters. Going wireless is definitely a great move though and there appears to be a lot of support for various routers. Unfortunately, only unsecured or WEP encryption is supported, meaning those using higher end security (such as WPA) will either have to set up a WEP guest network or disable security entirely if they wish to use the DS online. Nintendo did have an official WiFI connector released specifically designed to plug into a PC and allow a DS (and Wii) to connect to the net, although sadly they have since stopped having them produced and are thus no longer supported.
DS went on a diet, just for you!
DS games make use of a proprietary game card format, which can be seen as a slimmer version of the game cartridges used in past consoles. This format allows for fast access times which tends to reduce the amount of loading the player is faced with but this does mean developers don't appear to have quite as much room to play with as the PSP's UMD format. Diagaea is a good example of this, where the PSP release had all the voice work intact but the DS version was forced to drop most of it. Fortunately, developers do seem quite able to squeeze a lot of content into these cards and the inclusion of flash memory that allows for saving directly to them makes them ideal.
As well as DS games the system is also backwards compatible with Gameboy Advance games as well, neatly going into the second slot on the bottom of the handheld. Gamers can specify which of the two screens the game will appear on and this feature is amazing as it opens up a massive collection of games from the start, meaning you really have no excuse for missing such classics as Golden Sun and Fire Emblem. On the Lite version any inserting GBA game sticks out from the console but otherwise there are no feature differences between the two. Sadly, GBA games are not able to use the wireless link so multiplayer gaming on the system isn’t possible even if all players have a copy of the game.
Players will be pleased to note that the DS is completely region free, meaning games from one region will play on a DS from a different region. This means anyone who can't wait for a game to be released in their own region, or perhaps games that will never be released there, are not left out in the cold. This region free aspect extends to both the DS and GBA software.
The second slot can be used for more than just GBA games, although that is its biggest selling point. A Rumble Pack was one of the first accessories released that plugs into here and responds to onscreen feedback. The Guitar Hero games include an instrument attachment that plugs into here for gameplay. Other devices, including a web browser and MP3 player, were also released that made use of this slot to enable their functions, some of which give the DS features that the PSP has from the start just in case you want your handheld to do more than just play games.
The DS includes two speakers set either side of the upper screen designed for stereo support, which previously in Nintendo's handhelds had only been possible through the headphone option. Speaking of which, the DS does also allow you to just plug headphones straight in should you wish to keep the music to yourself.
The DS comes in a clamshell design that opens up to display the screens and buttons. This is an excellent choice that helps to protect some of the important parts and allows the system to make it easier to slip into pockets when closed up. Of course, you'd need fairly big pockets for the original DS. The Lite still doesn't compare to something like the GBA SP but doesn't decrease the size significantly enough to make it easier for this.
Power is supplier via an included rechargeable battery pack. From a full charge you can expect quite a few hours of gameplay - Nintendo themselves state up to 10 hours approximately but this does vary depending on how much of the system's resources are in use. Things like wireless communication and the backlight will serve to decrease this. The system comes with an adapter for recharging and you can play it while it charges. Sadly, while it does seem possible to replace the battery with another one should the need arise, it seems using conventional batteries "in an emergency" isn't much of an option.
When no game is being played the user can opt to alter certain system settings. The backlight is the biggest one, allowing players to adjust the brightness of it. Other things are here as well, like a clock that carries on even when the system is off.
Overall if you’re looking for a handheld to kill time with and enjoy some clearly epic titles then the DS is a great option to go for. Though it may lack the pure power and non-gaming features of the PSP it does come with some rather unique features that can provide gaming experiences you likely haven’t come across before. In terms of choosing between the original and Lite there’s really nothing between them. Though the Lite has some improvements to it I wouldn’t consider them enough to go out of your way for it and especially not worth upgrading from the original if you have it already.
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