Review by doktorsquidd

Reviewed: 12/13/04

The future of gaming is here. You just have to wait for it.

To save you time: The Nintendo DS is totally sweet. It's fully worth $150. Should you get it now? Only if you don't mind waiting out the launch frenzy for some games that really grab your attention. If you buy it now, you'll have enough games to keep you entertained, but like any system (especially ones that launch in November) you're going to have to wait a few more months for the really mind-blowing stuff.

Wireless multiplayer. Two screens. Touch-sensitive. Backward-compatable. Built-in microphone. Are you ready?

It looks like a gimmick. Is it? Could it be? This is what I first thought. I opened the box and plugged it in (obviously handheld systems need to be charged when you first get them) and was touched (sorry) by the classic Nintendo charm that makes some people build arcane shrines to Shigeru Miyamoto in their basements, replete with blood-stained altarpieces. It impresses on every level. For $150 you get a Nintendo DS with battery and charger, a carrying strap, two stylus(es?) and a multiplayer demo of Metroid Prime: Hunters.

The aesthetics of the system are sleek and elegant and not chunky or toyish like some publications would make you believe. Half platinum matte and half black, it's a real modern piece of kit with a sleek folding clamshell design ala GBA SP. The screens are about the same size as that of the GBA SP, but at a higher resolution and back-lit (not front-lit) for extraordinary vivid color. Because it's backlit, it has some minor viewing angle issues, but these only affect the people who wish they owned a NDS who are hovering over your shoulder, not you. The bottom screen has some sort of a treatment to it that gives it a light texture, but its image quality is almost identical to the top screen.

Functionally, I think the system could have used a little more work. There seems to be a bit of excess plastic to the unit, and what I mean is that they could definitely bring the weight down. It doesn't seem that bad initially, but for something you're going to be holding for hours at a time, every ounce counts. It feels good in your hand, but a little off-balance when using the stylus. Fortunately for lefties like myself, the system feels good in either hand. Not perfect but forgivable.

The touch-screen would appear at first to be a real scratch-magnet, but the Nintendo Stylus only scuffs the screen (as opposed to scratching). The screen is so bright that you really only notice scuffs when the system is turned off. PROTIP: If the screen gets scuffed from the stylus, just play a few games using a Q-tip instead and it clears right up, as if you'd just bought it.

GRAPHICS: I have played Feel the Magic, Super Mario 64 DS, and the included Metroid Hunters demo. You may have a bad impression of the games judging by screenshots online, but I felt the same way and I was actually impressed with the graphics of the actual system once I got it. Even though the poly count is N64-caliber, the high res screens of the DS make everything look crisp and razor-sharp. Also, of the games that I played, they moved with a fluidity I can't assign a number to. I'm thinking somewhere between 40 and 60 frames per second. It's extremely crisp and impressive. And, keep in mind, first-gen. There's no texture filtering or antialiasing to speak of, but here's the thing--on a three-inch screen, who's going to notice? The graphics look great in motion and that's where it matters. Sure, a few thousand more polys would have been nice, but this is still a landmark for handheld gaming.

SOUND: A little tinny and compressesd (Mario 64 DS sounds funky with headphones on) on certain games, but the stereo speakers project pretty well, Did I mention? STEREO. And another thing that should impress GBA SP owners: BUILT-IN HEADPHONE JACK. There's also a built-in microphone, which I guess should go in the SOUND section, although so far only Feel the Magic uses it to any extent. This is a cool addition, but as I forewarned, we're going to have to wait a few months for games that really take advantage.

INTERFACE: Slick as all hell. You thought the Gamecube's OS was cool looking? The DS triumphs with smart minimalism and neat features like the wireless Pictochat utility, a built-in clock/calendar/alarm, and the ability to boot to the OS so you can select either a DS game or a GBA game from the get-go. Navigating can be a chore at first (the options menu is done as a series of pictographs with no text, what we in the design industry refer to as 'mystery meat' navigation) but it quickly becomes intuitive.

One minor sticking point is that you have to turn the thing off a lot. When you change anything in the options menu, the system has to power down to save the changes. When you exit Pictochat, you have to power down the system (although logically if you're leaving Pictochat, you're probably arranging to start a game with somebody, which you can't do unless the system is off anyway). When you want to insert or remove a GBA or DS game, you have to turn it off. It is however an extremely minor complaint that won't bother you if you actually use this thing to play games.

CONTROL: Here's where we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg. It depends on the game and the person playing it, but everyone will play with the DS differently. You have the D-pad (no analog stick, let's all cry about it) and ABXY buttons in an effective D-pad shape so the thing can be used ambidexterously. The triggers mush a little like the original GBA, but everything has the overall high level of sensitivity found in the GBA SP.

The touch screen is a neat thing that you may have heard of. It's bright and sensitive, almost to the very edge. Unfortunately, touching it with your finger is almost out-of-the-question. Anyone who ones one will attest that the screens are just too pretty to muck up with fingerprints, and furthermore, any time you actually need to 'touch' the screen, your finger covers up the playing area. Design flaw. But a forgiveable one. The 'thumbshoe' on the included carrying strap is a stupid idea, but it works almost as well as an analog stick. This again varies from game to game. The stylus works really well, once again, depending on the game. I however dropped mine under the oven on the first day I got it, so I had to fish it out. Must say, they clean up rather nicely.

Hand cramps do become an issue while playing, but then again, this is a VIDEO GAME SYSTEM so I assume you're not unfamiliar with the concept. The great thing about the DS is that every game has different control setups that feel radically different, so do what I do: switch control setups every hour or so to avoid fatigue.

MULTIPLAYER: Can't speak from experience here. When I played an in-store demo I set up a Metroid Hunters two-player game with this one kid, and it was quick and intuitive. They say 802.11b for wireless multiplayer plus a proprietary Nintendo wireless standard, which sounds great, and the DS has enough memory to allow multiplayer with only one game card, but I don't know anyone else who owns one. It's hell being an early adopter.

BATTERY LIFE: Nintendo says 8-12 hours. I'm not entirely sure, but it seems to be around 8-9 in my experience. The hardware sleep mode is however a really impressive feature nobody talks about: When you close the clamshell, games go to sleep. The GBA had this in software mode, so SOME games could be put to sleep (keeping the system 'alive' with the bare minimum battery current so you can pick it up and play it hours or even DAYS later from where you left off without saving) but not all. For the DS, it seems compulsory, forced by the hardware. You close it, it sleeps. You open it hours later, it comes back to life. When you run the built-in DS alarm clock, you are required to keep it in 'sleep' mode for the alarm to be active. I did this for eight hours, using it as my primary alarm clock, and it woke me from a pleasant night's slumber, after which I immediately resumed playing with my NDS. I'm very fond of this built-in feature.

POTENTIAL: An instant ten. How can you not see it? The minigames in Feel the Magic and Mario 64 DS give you a glimpse of what kind of interactivity game developers will be able to put into games of the future, and titles like Animal Crossing DS, Tendo Dokuta and Daigasso! Band Brothers will push the envelope of how you think of games. So the best launch title is a port. So what??? At least it's a port of the best launch title ever. So there are a lot of ports on the system. So what??? The PSP is no different and the plague of ports and sequels is affecting the whole industry, not just the handhelds and not just Nintendo. The launch was not terribly impressive from a software standpoint, but the sheer possibilities presented by what many assume to be 'gimmicks' (the touch screen, the microphone, etc) will bring us unthinkable game possibilities in the future.

Do I love mine? Yes. Is it fun? Definitely. Worth $150? Without hesitation. Should you buy one now? Hard to say. I mean, I wouldn't mind having someone else to play against, but the software lineup at present is too thin to justify it to everybody. I took mine out in front of a group of friends and suddenly everyone just had to play with it (my DS I mean) so the gadget definitely has the "yes! musy buy" appeal going for it, but when you consider that a lot of people just took advantage of the GBA SP price drop, it becomes a bit excessive. If you love to game and have no inclination to purchase a PSP, or you have a reserve of patience, you should buy one now. Everyone else can afford to wait, as the really mind-blowing software is just around the corner.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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