What a difference a year makes. When Nintendo announced the DS handheld to mixed reviews in January 2004, all we knew was that it had two screens. Over the next six months, reports of a touch screen, a stylus, 802.11b wireless capabilities, a post-E3 redesign, and Voice over IP compatibility trickled out from Nintendo, culminating in the announcement of the DS's easy-to-swallow £100 price. There are more expensive Swiss Army knives that do less, but at times, it seemed like Nintendo was adding features for the sake of features. So how does the final product measure up to the hype?
Though the Nintendo DS is roughly the size of the original Game Boy Advance, its clamshell design makes it a bit chunkier -- picture two GBA SPs sitting side by side. In sum: it's big. Unlike the SP, which fits in almost any pocket and is the most portable gaming system since the Tamagotchi, the DS will likely travel in your backpack or shoulder bag. Despite its increased size, the DS isn't too heavy -- it tips the scales at 275g. Since using either the directional pad or the thumb stylus requires that you hold the unit in two hands, the added weight is easily managed.
From left to right, the DS's volume control, GBA cartridge slot, microphone, and headphone connectors occupy the front of the unit, and its shoulder buttons, DS game slot, and AC adapter slot reside in the back. The dual-slot design means the unit is fully compatible with all your existing GBA games but can also accept the newer, smaller DS game cards. Opening the DS, the top panel houses stereo speakers and the main LCD screen, while the bottom piece contains the directional pad, power button, touch screen, and six (A, B, X, Y, Select, and Start) function buttons. The DS package includes a demo version of Metroid Prime: Hunters, the full version of Nintendo's PictoChat software, two pen-shaped styluses (one slides into the DS body, PDA-style), a wrist strap that doubles as a thumb stylus, and the same AC adapter that came with the GBA SP. Though the pen stylus works best for drawing and writing messages in PictoChat, we found that the thumb stylus offered immeasurably better performance during gameplay.
Visually, we achieved our most glare-free results by pivoting the top screen back as far as it would go, though the two displays seem to work together most seamlessly when the upper screen is tilted slightly. Both screens look terrific: there's none of the ghostly white glow that emanated from the GBA SP's front-lit display system, and the DS's backlighting really makes its graphics stand out. Metroid Prime: Hunters' beautiful full-motion video sequences take full advantage of both screens, each with 256x192 resolution and 260,000 colours. One benefit of the DS's elongated form factor is that its stereo speakers work tremendously well; we could clearly note separation between the left and right sound channels in Metroid Prime: Hunters, and the DS even surprised us with some well-done surround effects (for example, doors closing behind you).
Though it may be at best a distraction for some gamers, PictoChat has some interesting features that fuse the DS's wireless and touch-screen capabilities. When you start the program, you'll see a list of available rooms; we'd like to have seen which specific users were in range, although if someone joins the room you're in, the software will announce it. Typing with the stylus is fairly natural using the virtual keyboard at the bottom of the touch screen. The tip of the pen stylus is broad enough to make intricate drawings impossible, but it's fairly easy to get your point across.
We used the multiplayer mode on Metroid Prime: Hunters to test the DS's wireless gameplay performance. In an open area, we more than surpassed the DS's rated range of 9m; in fact, we got more than 45m away from each other before one of us dropped out of the game. Through walls, the range was predictably shorter, cutting out at about 9m. In Metroid as well as in PictoChat, a small cell phone-like signal indicator tells you what kind of connection you're getting. Even with only one signal bar, multiplayer Metroid was seamless and completely lag-free. Things bogged down beyond that point, but all in all, wireless gaming was nothing short of a home run. Our one disappointment: older GBA multiplayer games won't play head-to-head over the wireless connection, and the lack of a link cable port means you can't have a wired bond to older GBAs or Nintendo's GameCube.
With the Sony PSP on the horizon, the Nintendo DS's battery life takes on particular importance; though Sony's handheld has video and music playback capabilities that the DS does not, the PSP's battery performance remains a question mark. We logged 6 hours and 40 minutes of gameplay before the DS ran out of juice, with the low battery light coming on at the 6-hour mark.
In the DS, Nintendo has finally created a piece of hardware to match the quirky production aesthetic that has characterised its long line of games. Crammed with everything short of a tiny Konga drum, the Nintendo DS will challenge developers to take full advantage of its dual display, touch screen, wireless, and microphone capabilities. Sure, it's a bit on the large side and looks a little funky. But if every useful device with a crazy design got nixed in development, we wouldn't have helicopters or beer hats. It has been years since anyone opened up a new frontier in gaming: the DS has opened several all by itself. With the DS's first volley of titles looking as promising as they do, it's only a matter of time before Nintendo shows us something else we've never seen before.
Additional editing by Guy Cocker