Nintendo DS

Having spent nearly a week in its company, we consider everything the DS has to offer. And it's touching just how much there is.

We'd like to thank Sony for helping to bring you this feature.

No, we're haven't been chewing on the DS battery; we're just being realistic. Were it not for the fact that Sony is launching PlayStation Portable in Japan on December 12th, we have a feeling that Nintendo wouldn't be in quite such a hurry to hand out DS units to British journalists. Certainly not to coincide with the US launch, anyway. After all, this is the company that regularly threatens to do unspeakable things to people who sell American Nintendo products overseas. The notion that everyone crowded into a bar in London's Cavendish Square three days after the US launch might be given a console and a copy of Super Mario 64 DS is almost unthinkable.

Behind the screens

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Fortunately for us and you, however, it's true. And having spent the weekend tinkering with it and playing with Mario, and the demo of Metroid Prime Hunters that ships with the DS hardware, we've had a chance to flesh out last week's initial observations. First though, let's recap just what it is we're dealing with when we talk about the Nintendo DS.

Announced in vague terms and in the face of much scepticism in January of this year, it wasn't until the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles this May that Nintendo unveiled its curious oddity, the Nintendo DS, in any detail. From that day forth the console became one of the most sought after pieces of gaming equipment since Samba's maracas. And, unusually given the current climate, much of its appeal was borne of its versatility and invention.

The most striking thing about the DS is unquestionably the two-screened approach. Some may have experienced dual screen gaming in various guises before, but never to this sort of degree, and certainly never with a touch-screen interface on the bottom of the two panels. Between the stylus and the split video output, games designers already find themselves presented with a unique challenge.

But while your attention is immediately drawn to the dual screens, it's easy to overlook the sheer volume of things going on beneath the silver and black contours of the console's exterior. The internal rechargeable battery pack lasts for around ten hours - something that we can happily confirm - on around a four-hour recharge time; the new "game card" format is smaller than a Game Boy Advance cartridge and yet holds around twice as much data as the biggest GBA title; both screens are backlit rather than front-lit like the GBA, meaning that games are much brighter and the illumination is much more consistent all over the screen; the DS wirelessly networks itself with other units within a range of between 30 and 100 feet with absolutely no set-up required, and will be able to connect to domestic wireless networks when the time comes; it features backwards compatibility with GBA games thanks to a dedicated cartridge port; and to cap it all off it outputs stereo sound, sports the headphone socket missing from the GBA SP as one of the near side panel of connectors, and even features a microphone which can be used to drive in-game controls.

And while we're on the 'even's, the DS even breaks with Nintendo's age old tradition of releasing its handheld games in rubbish cardboard boxes, which seem to crumble like the Mary-Rose at a Termite convention even when we leave them stacked neatly on the shelf and resist the urge to sleep in them. DS games come in two-thirds-height DVD-style cases with a neat manual slot and moulded plastic holders for both DS game cards and GBA cartridges. Potential new packaging for future GBA games? We bloody well hope so.

Control points

All of which, fancy packaging included, was in place for the US launch, which happened last Sunday, November 21st - the first time a major Nintendo console has launched in the States before it's appeared in Japan - and saw the console go on sale for $149 in a package containing the console, an AC adapter, an extra stylus, a wrist strap featuring a thumb pointer which can be used in place of the stylus, a pre-loaded version of wireless instant messaging software PictoChat, and a demo of Metroid Prime Hunters: First Hunt, featuring three single-player tutorial levels and three multiplayer arenas for wireless first-person shooter combat.

In terms of the software launch line-up, the DS is available in the States alongside only one Nintendo-made title - a remake of Mario's classic N64 outing featuring new challenges, characters and mini-games, redubbed Super Mario 64 DS - and five third party games: Madden NFL 2005 and The Urbz: Sims in the City from EA, Asphalt Urban GT from Ubisoft, Spider-Man 2 from Activision, and dating sim oddity Feel the Magic: XY/XX from SEGA.

Toying with the DS over the weekend gave us plenty of opportunity to test a few theories and examine the console's functionality in greater detail. For example, confirming that it does work with the Game Boy Advance battery charger, which is good news for anybody who wants to be able to make use of the handheld ahead of its as-yet unsighted European launch in "Q1 2005". And, while we knew that the DS was not region-locked and thus capable of playing games from any area of the world, we didn't realise that its backwards compatibility with the Game Boy was limited to Advance titles. Game Boy Color and old school monochrome Game Boy games simply don't work. Tetris literally will not fit in the GBA slot on the DS' underside. Likewise, we didn't realise that the GBA link cable, GameCube connector cable and eReader peripherals were also incompatible. In other words, you're going to have to hang on to your Game Boy Advance for some things - although we haven't shifted our conviction that GBA games look better than they ever have done before when played through the Nintendo DS.

As Eurogamer's resident lefty, this writer also had the chance to see how Nintendo has catered to the southpaws among us. After all, the pen-like stylus is always going to go into the gamer's writing hand, and it's important that developers acknowledge that, even if the thumb pointer offers an alternative. Early signs here are good. Metroid Prime's First Hunt default controls see directional movement and strafing set up on both the D-pad and the diamond of face buttons on the opposite side of the screen, with the left and right shoulder buttons bound to fire Samus's gun so that you can play it properly whether you're gripping the base with your left or your right hand. It'll take a little adjustment - after all, we may be lefties, but we have spent our gaming lives relying on our left thumbs for directional movement all the same - but it's another example of the DS making sure it covers every base.

Stroke play

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In general, the physical design of the unit and the build quality of it is good, although the final choice of aesthetic may leave a little to be desired for some. Rob got stuck on the fact that it's surprisingly big; in hindsight, it may not be that much bigger than the prototype shell we encountered in Los Angeles in May, but back then it was glued to a display unit or standing in the shadow of Nintendo's Reggie Fils-Aime, so it was a little harder to judge the proportions in context. What perhaps hurts its looks in our eyes is the way the size and curvature of the foldable top screen creates the illusion that it's somehow flimsy; the reality is the hinge feels just as rugged as the GBA SP's.

Once you actually hold and use the unit, however, any doubts over its physical attributes are quickly relegated to the back of your mind. Initially you're struck by the brightness of the two three-inch screens, which use a resolution of 256x192 compared to the 240x160 of the Game Boy Advance (which is the reason why GBA games are letterboxed on the DS), while you simultaneously appreciate the comfortable directional pad, which is better than that of both GBA models and even the GameCube controller, the chunky and easily gripped shoulder buttons, and the long overdue return of the classic diamond button formation to a Nintendo console.

The stylus, plucked from a built-in holster in the back of the DS unit, glides smoothly over the touch screen, which is extremely responsive and accurate. A lot of the early software is subtly geared towards just letting you admire the new toys; Metroid Prime's menu screen is a sea of linked red hexagons, which throb blue as you guide the stylus around in circles watching them react. And, as it turns out, you don't even have to use the stylus all the time; there's another control option in the box in the shape of the thumb pointer attached to the wrist strap. Using this enables you to point with your thumb, which gives you another, arguably less crippling option if the pen-style tapping sounds uncomfortable.

Touch type

Turning on the DS for the first time introduces another first for a Nintendo handheld - a home console-style admin screen. After pinging like a sonar over the sight of a stylish DS logo on the top screen and a less stylish safety warning on the bottom, the DS takes you into the main menu where it takes your name, the time and date, which it then displays in a red taskbar across the top of the top screen - with larger clock face and calendar graphics filling the gap between those details and the hinge below. The lower screen, meanwhile, has launch buttons for the currently loaded DS game which it identifies for you, PictoChat, the DS Download system, and the GBA game currently in the slot - although unlike DS titles the console won't be able to tell you what's in the slot without your loading it up or having a quick look first. You can also use the options menu to determine whether the DS should automatically load a game where present when it's turned on, and which screen you want GBA games to output to, amongst other things.

PictoChat was our first port of call. Even after a long night of stealing Nintendo DS branded napkins from the launch event, excitement over the new toy gripped us enough to sit on opposite sides of the house sending each other crudely fashioned freehand drawings of the sexual act - as well as enthusiastic messages of explanation using the on-screen keyboard. Loading up PictoChat gives you a choice of four chat rooms, each of which has a capacity for 16 users, and the connection when you find a fellow user is immediate and responsive. Data pings between handhelds without additional configuration, and no amount of walls, poorly shielded speakers or stacked DVD cases can stand between the two units. Remember Starship Troopers? Casper Van Dien sending colourful love notes to Denise Richards at school using overblown networked tablet PCs? We're there. Except ours are cooler. The DS could very soon become the most significant electronic communicator in a young person's life - superseding even the mobile phone with its short range instant messaging and drawing facilities. At least until somebody bans it from schools, anyway.

Obviously we haven't been given 16 DS units, so we can't officially confirm that it's as practical and simple to master with more than a couple of correspondents - and in actual fact we can imagine the screen becoming quite cluttered in the face of 16 streams of rudely drawn images and leetspeak - but PictoChat certainly demonstrates the DS' capabilities, and we do wonder how long it'll be before somebody takes advantage of the combination of speakers, microphone and wi-fi to turn out some sort of Voice Over IP vocal comms.

For the moment, however, PictoChat is going to be best utilised by groups of like-minded users in places like out of town shopping centres, school yards and potentially the workplace. However the system's reliance on having other users in the vicinity with their machines turned on - on the PictoChat screen, no less - is less conducive to random encounters than we'd imagined, and for the moment we can't work out if it's possible for the DS to wake up when it detects wireless LAN activity, something which would ultimately prove most useful in this context.

It's got no strings

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We're already aware of some other benefits of the wireless connection, of course. The We're told to expect game and other data downloads, including Internet compatibility, in the DS' future, and even now the prominently placed DS Download button on the system's main interface can be used to download necessary multiplayer game data for titles like Mario 64 DS - allowing standard multiplayer to work on a single game card. It takes around a minute to download the data. Which gives pause for reflection: given Nintendo's propensity for limiting single-cartridge multiplayer to a fraction of what's available to people with two copies of the game, we can't help wondering, once again, whether the impending launch of the PlayStation Portable was somehow influential in the decision to set things up this way, just as we reckon it was in putting the units into our hands in the first place. Indeed, if the PSP didn't exist, one has to wonder what sort of handheld we'd be writing about today instead. Or if we'd even be writing about one at all.

There are some minor drawbacks and quirks to the main user interface of the Nintendo DS, then, but for the moment at least they are just that: minor. Setting the handheld up is simple, and everything about it is very straightforward, and satisfyingly just works without prompting. If we had to level a serious complaint it might be that the DS likes to shut itself down rather more often than you'd imagine - enter the options configuration menu, for example, and you'll find you can't get back without cycling the power - but next to the enormous volume of potential stumbling blocks that stood between Nintendo's initially-derided vision in January and the accomplished, well-supported hardware we have in our hands this November, the inconvenience of having to reboot when you want to set up the alarm clock seems fairly insignificant.

Hunting season

The big question, though, is how the system feels overall at the moment, and the answer can only stem from its games - of which for the moment we only have the Metroid Prime Hunters demo and Super Mario 64 DS. The other launch titles (quick reminder: Madden 2005, Asphalt Urban GT, Spider-Man 2, The Urbz, Feel the Magic) we'll have to try and round up in the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can expect extensive impressions of Metroid on the DS and a full review of Super Mario 64 DS in the next few days. But our lack of the full line-up shouldn't prevent us from giving you a decent appreciation of the DS' merits; after all, who's honestly going to buy more than a couple of games alongside the hardware?

With the hardware and games finally in a rounded state, it's interesting to see how the system has been put to use. The demos we saw at E3 filled us with hope, but the real crunch time is now here and developers who seemed so enamoured with the whole thing now have to demonstrate what they've achieved. For the moment, however, we can't escape the feeling that developers are merely flirting with the machine's capabilities, translating old genres onto the system and producing sideshow mini-games that draw on some of the unproven weapons in the handheld's arsenal. Playing Mario 64 with a stylus, for example, is surprisingly intuitive - you just point Mario with the stylus and off he runs, while you jump and butt-stomp around with the face and shoulder buttons - but ultimately you are still playing a regular 3D platform game, albeit one of the best.

That's also true of Metroid Prime Hunters to a certain extent. The FPS sections can be played with a number of control schemes (including the suspect E3 version), but the new default control scheme sees the action on the top screen, a map on the bottom, and you moving with the D-pad, directing the sights with the stylus, and firing with the shoulder button. It's still a first-person shooter. But it's quite novel.

Relying on novelty is a dangerous ploy though, as Sony will tell you from its experiences with the much-vaunted EyeToy PS2 peripheral. Where the DS needs to excel is in its development off the beaten track. One aspect of Metroid Prime, control of Samus's morph ball form, gives us a glimpse of where the handheld can break new ground; playing the demo with the stylus or thumb pointer is like using the tip of your finger to roll a marble around. Handheld games, even those using rudimentary 3D engines, have rarely managed to capture the physicality of movement like this so convincingly (compare Super Monkey Ball Jr. on the GBA to this one day and you'll see what we mean), and it's a theme that also pervades all the best examples of mini-games in Super Mario 64 DS.

Head banging

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In our favourite of those additions - of which there appear to be eight, accessed from the a sub-menu off the main title screen - the idea is to guide Mario's head down vertical lines that stand the full height of both screens tall, so that his journey finishes on a shine star at the bottom and not in the jaws of a piranha plant. This becomes a problem because the lines on the top half of the screen are joined by horizontal struts, and whenever Mario's head encounters one of these branching paths it veers off in the direction of the next line across. As it gently descends and you plot its course in your head, the idea is to draw horizontal lines on the bottom screen that connect the vertical lines in such a manner that Mario winds up shining. It's a simple, brilliant idea, which gradually gets more and more intense as more, faster-moving Mario heads come into play and your own lines start to clutter the screen. It's also one of the few games that justifies both screens and the stylus control. The main Metroid and Mario games could get away with working on a single screen and a laptop-style touchpad.

Another inventive Mario mini-game involves rolling a snowball very fast by lashing the stylus in upward strokes on the screen, dodging boulders and not bouncing off the sides. All against the clock. And while the snowball appears on the bottom screen (growing and growing), having the top screen as well means that you stand a much better chance of seeing what's coming, and allows the game to work at a decent pace.

In other words, overall there are promising signs from the software we've been privy to. Until we've assessed the full extent of the DS launch line-up we can't really say with full conviction whether the machine has proven Nintendo's point about the DS bringing out the best in developers and inspiring new ideas, but judging by the critical response to the other games on the system it's yet to find its killer application. We hope it turns out to be Wario Ware.

We're touched

In the meantime, though, the DS makes a very strong first impression. Having spent so long considering the GBA the peak of mobile gaming, the DS's visuals - N64-like, but without the associated blur - feel like a massive step forward, and the fact that the handheld's loaded with all the features we can actually imagine wanting from a handheld device also stands very strongly in its favour. That the visuals aren't quite up there with what the PSP is promising will have a certain impact on its popularity, but in the US the pre-Thanksgiving launch will have helped sales considerably, and the PSP is some way off there. Whether Nintendo will be so fortunate in Japan where the DS and PSP launches are closer together, or in Europe where their futures have yet to be set in stone, is impossible to say.

What it is possible to say though is that the DS is already inspiring a lot of creative thinking from games developers. Even we've had ideas. Sitting on the couch watching the football this weekend, trying to will our players into passing the ball around by pointing feverishly where we'd kick the bloody thing, we imagined Subbuteo working on the DS, and went to bed dreaming of how we might adapt other ideas to work using a stylus, a pair of screens and a microphone. And surely somebody at LucasArts must be thinking about resurrecting all those old point-and-clickers. Come on you bastards! Take advantage of us! Already the machine feels like more than another Virtual Boy - with so much support and so many of the features we want, and Nintendo pointing to better than expected launch sales. By the time the European launch rolls around, we should know for sure whether Nintendo and its widespread third party support (there's a sentence we don't find much use for around here) have more than mere novelty in their creative canon.

And that, more than big name franchises, price cuts and marketing pressure, will be what makes or breaks the DS in the eyes of the critics and, hopefully, the consumer. The day that somebody delivers a serious, enduring concept that draws on the DS's key features and sustains itself over the runtime of a 'normal' game, that'll be the proof. What's impressive for now is just how much fun we're having with the early crop of half-breeds. Perhaps the biggest compliment we can pay the DS is that it's already accomplishing so much and it hasn't even hit top gear yet.

We await the arrival of the PSP and the two consoles' impending rivalry with great interest and optimism. Oh, and while we're here we'd like to thank Nintendo. After all, without them Sony probably wouldn't send us a PSP either.

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About the author

Tom Bramwell

Tom Bramwell

Contributor  |  tombramwell

Tom worked at Eurogamer from early 2000 to late 2014, including seven years as Editor-in-Chief.

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