Nintendo's mystery game hardware has been unveiled after months of speculation, with the Kyoto-based giant planning to bring out a radically different type of portable game system at the same time as the PSP next Christmas.
Codenamed 'Nintendo DS', the Big N is promising yet more "innovative advancements in game interaction" with the launch of a dual screen handheld console, and will be showing off the 'revolutionary' games machine for the first time at this year's E3, with a worldwide release confirmed "before the end of 2004".
"We have developed Nintendo DS based upon a completely different concept from existing game devices in order to provide players with a unique entertainment experience for the 21st century," said Nintendo president Satoru Iwata in a statement.
The DS will feature two separate, three-inch TFT LCD display panels powered by two separate processors - some reports state an ARM9 main processor with ARM7 sub processor, which would make sense given Nintendo's previous use of these power-efficient processors in its handhelds. Furthermore, according to the Nintendo Japan website the two screens will be backlit, and the system will be playable at E3 and not just part of a presentation.
The system will play games off semiconductor memory of "up to 1 Gigabit" - which probably means "cartridges" to you and I, with the DS apparently passing up the opportunity to move into optical media (as the PSP does) in favour of Nintendo's beloved solid-state technology.
Veterans of the 8-bit era will recall that this isn't the first time Nintendo has used the dual screen concept, with many of its Game & Watch consoles of the early 1980s adopting the popular clam shell design - although in those days it was only utilised as a screen to progress to, rather than as a tactical aid as the big N appears to be pitching it as.
Nintendo's ill-fated Virtual Boy also relied on dual screens to create the illusion of 3D in a headset, although there's no suggestion that the dual screens of the Nintendo DS will be suitable for such functionality at the moment.
According to the press statement issued yesterday "players can look forward to being able to manage their game progress from two different perspectives, enhancing both the speed and strategy of the challenge."
Using the example of a football game (or soccer as NoA predictably referred to it) users can "view the whole game on one screen while simultaneously focusing on an individual soccer player's tackle or goal on the other screen". Sounds interesting, but more of a gimmick than an essential gameplay element. We're sure game designers will work out more useful and innovative ways to utilise the second screen.
And so the press statement went on: "Players will no longer be forced to interrupt game play to shift perspective, such as moving from a wide shot to a close up, or alternating between a character's ongoing battle and a map of the environment. Nintendo DS makes it possible to perform the tasks in real time by simply glancing from one screen to the other."
No images of the console were made available, but the press statement issued by Nintendo will certainly have those of an artistic nature working overtime trying to imagine what the machine will look like. We're imagining that Nintendo will carry forward the sleek aesthetics and portability of the SP, but ape its Game & Watch system with a slightly wider clam shell design with room for the buttons and D-pad on either side of the lower screen, with the mini-speakers either side of the top screen.
It's also feasible that Nintendo has devised an ultra thin dual clam shell design that folds out twice to maintain the sleek design of the SP, although this would be less durable, with more hinges to break. Either way, it'll be interesting to get see how its battery performance stacks up with two backlit screens. It's not known whether the DS will take normal AA batteries or continue to use the rechargeable Lithium Ion system of the SP - we're assuming the latter.
No pricing information was given out, nor any details on games or development partners (except to say it is "in discussion with third parties"), nor potential backward compatibility or link up potential, or roughly how powerful it will be as a games system. As they said, all will be revealed at E3...
Although Nintendo didn't say much, at least the announcement brings to an end months of speculation - sparked off by Nintendo itself which on two separate occasions said it would be launching innovative new hardware at E3 2004, without ever committing to what it was, except that it wasn't a successor to the Cube. One theory was that it was plotting to release a handheld Cube to steal Sony's PSP thunder, while others suggested it would be an external peripheral. At least now we can divert our speculation elsewhere.
But one thing that is certain is that Nintendo is staying true to its roots of producing gaming systems - there's no 'kitchen sink' approach here, with no talk of being able to play audio or video files on the machine, or combining functionality. For now, this is a games machine first and foremost. If that changes after E3, it'll be far bigger news than anything else.
More news on the Nintendo DS as we get it.