Review by The Vic Viper

"Great hardware and a lot of upcoming games that look to be great"

The Nintendo Dual Screen (DS) handheld is Nintendo's latest creation and their third product line (the other two being the Game Boy Advance and Gamecube/Revolution consoles). While Nintendo claims that the DS is not supposed to compete with (or replace) the GBA, your wallet might disagree. Unlike the PlayStation Portable, Nokia N-Gage, or Tapwave Zodiac, the DS is a gaming-only system (like all of Nintendo's products). What the DS has that separates it from the competition (aside from a lack of multimedia playback functionality) is two screens, one of which is touch sensitive.

The DS has a clamshell design, much like the GBA SP – in fact it's basically a wide GBA SP in terms of size. There is one screen on top and one on the bottom, with the controls on the right and left of the bottom screen, like the PSP, GameGear, and pretty much every non-Nintendo handheld. Not only are there two screen, but the touch-sensitive (you tap the screen with a stylus since it has a much finer point than your finger) one adds a lot more variety to how you can play games. While not an innovation (all PDAs have been doing this for years, and the system was touch sensitive) it is certainly an uncommon feature, and the only current gaming system to use it.

While it might seem that the DS's lack of multimedia playback is a huge drawback, there is one major advantage to keeping it simple. The DS retails for $150, opposed to the $250 for the PSP, the $350 for the Zodiac 2, and $200 for the N-Gage. So if you already have a media player such as a Palm, Pocket PC, or PSP, and all you need is a[nother] gaming system, then the DS is a good deal. However if you want both a gaming and media system, then buying a DS would mean having to buy a separate media player as well, which would be costly.

To be technical, you can play media files on the DS, however it requires buying additional hardware that is only produced in Japan (but can be imported). It is an adapter that was originally designed for the GBA, and since the DS is compatible with GBA cartridges, it can use it as well. The $50 adapter plugs into the cartridge slot and can read mp3 and mpeg files off of a Secure Digital flash card. Nintendo does not make SD cards, however since they are more or less the standard flash card for everything nowadays, so you can get them very cheaply at any store that sells computer equipment.

Surprisingly, Nintendo did not make the hardware able to play old Game Boy (classic and GB Color) games on the DS. There are two cartridge slots – one for DS games and one for GBA games. It may seem odd that the DS can play GBA games but not classic or Color games when the GBA could. The reason for this is because GBA and older GBs games used a different chip architecture (the GBA had both GB and GBA chipsets), and the DS only has the GBA and DS chipsets. However, all single player GBA games will work perfectly on the DS, so there is a degree of backwards compatibility. One thing that can't be done is multiplayer GBA games since there is no link cable. Like wise, GBA-GC connectivity is not possible with the DS, however Nintendo has promised DS-Revolution connectivity. Since the Revolution is supposedly compatible with Cube games, there might be GBA-GC connectivity in the end.

Since GBA games aren't enhanced at all by the DS, the real question is should you spend an extra $50 - $80 to get the DS or just buy a GBA. The answer depends on how much you like the DS games. At this point it is a little hard to rate DS games as a whole since it has only been around seven months since the DS launched (in North America anyway). In that time, twenty-six DS games have been released, with few noteworthy titles. So far the best game has been Mario 64 DS, which is just a port of the N64 game. WarioWare and Yoshi are also pretty good, and PictoChat is fun (but not a game). While the launch has been rather disappointing (but then again, how many systems don't have crappy first years?) there is a good chance that the next year will redeem the DS.

While we can only guess at the quality of future titles, games such as Metroid Prime Hunters, Kirby: Canvas Curse, Nintendogs, a new Dragon Warrior, Secret of Mana, and Final Fantasy, and Animal Crossing all look like they have the potential to be great titles. Also, more and more games will be using the DS's online features, adding even more variety.

Like all of Nintendo's products, the DS hardware is very well designed. The clamshell design does a great job of keeping both screen protected as well as keeping the size down to a minimum. When collapsed, the DS is about the same width and length as a PSP or the original GBA, and about the same height. The stylus tucks away in a slot on top, as with most PDAs.

The screens are fairly small, at only three inches apiece they are smaller than the PSP's screen, but the 256 x 192 resolutions make it possible to have detailed graphics. The screens are basically the same as the GBA's, and like the GBA, the DS screens have a separate side light which can be turned off to save battery power. While the screens haven't really changed since the GBA, the graphical processor has. Games can now be in true 3D (meaning 3D objects are created by using polygons rather than manipulating 2D bitmaps).

Since you will have to be touching the screen there is the possibility of the one screen becoming scratched, even if you only use the stylus. All touch screens have this problem, not just the DS, however there are ways to prevent damaging the screen. Screen protectors for PDAs are available almost anywhere and aren't too expensive. You may have to trim down the protector to fit the DS screen, but it will help preserve the screen.

Aside from the stylus the DS has standard controller buttons, modeled after the SNES controller. The connected 4-way d-pad is on the left and four input buttons are on the right in a diamond pattern. The L and R shoulder buttons from the GBA and SNES remain as well. The stylus adds the most in terms of control; however it does take the most getting used to. It can be rather awkward in the beginning since it takes time to get used to having to switch between the stylus and buttons. However once you adjust to it you will not have any problems playing the games.

Audio is lagging behind the PSP, however it is still improved over the GBA. The DS has stereo speakers that support up to sixteen channels of input. However, since games are still cartridge based, there is not enough storage space to have the same level of audio quality that optical discs can.

There aren't too many accessories available for the DS at this point (aside from the GBA media player), but you really don't need that many. The system comes bundled with a microphone which can be used for communication and (theoretically) voice control of the system and games, though no developer has implemented voice control in a DS game yet. Nintendo has suggested that there are countless accessories possible for the DS including TV tuners, GPS units, motion and light sensors, and force feedback. Nintendo has yet to clarify if they plan on making these or if they are just possible ideas for third party hardware manufacturers, so don't count on them being widely used, if they ever exist.

The most potentially useful tool is the integrated WiFi adapter, which will allow linking numerous systems for multiplayer games. Aside from not having a mess of cables and limiting mobility, the wireless connections will allow for many more players than then old link-cables did. The WiFi adapter has a range of 30 – 100 feet, which is pretty standard for a low-power wireless card. Nintendo is planning on creating WiFi hotspots in commercial locations, however it isn't currently known where, when, or how many there will be. The hotspots would be interconnected through the internet, allowing players to compete with others around the world (once again, in theory) or download game demos from Nintendo. Unfortunately the DS does not use standard IP for networking like computers, consoles, and the PSP, so it will not be possible to use the DS to access networks outside of Nintendo's, including the worldwide web.

In theory, the DS can be used to network to other DS to share game save files, as well as play demos of other people's games. Supposedly games can be designed in a way that playing multiplayer games will only require one copy of the game. While it would be nice and save consumers a lot of money, I wouldn't count on it becoming a widespread practice. However, it is almost certain that we can expect games to allow more than the standard 2 – 4 players, and even a handful of MMORPGs. A lot of online games have been announced, so it is guaranteed that the networking features won't go to waste, unlike on the Gamecube.

All of these features are accessed via the operating system's user interface, which is another first for Nintendo (with all of the previous handhelds once you turned it on it started playing whatever was in the cartridge slot). Aside from the options for playing DS or GBA games, using PictoChat, and accessing the DS network, there are also options for system configuration. The interface is pretty easy to use, since there aren't too many options and everything is laid out well enough.

The Nintendo DS does have the potential to be a great system, however it has not come even close to reaching that state yet. If you are looking for a portable system only the GBA is really worth buying. However, since the DS can play GBA games you may want to spend the extra money to get a DS so you can play the few good DS games now, as well as future DS games. It's a slight gamble that the DS will have a good library soon, but putting up the extra cash now will probably pay off in the end.

Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 06/12/05, Updated 09/26/05

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