Editors’ Note: The 2004 version of the Nintendo DS reviewed here has effectively been discontinued and replaced by the Nintendo DS Lite, which offers all of the same functionality as the original DS, but with brighter screens and a smaller, sleeker body.
Riding high on the success of the mega-popular Game Boy Advance (GBA) line of portables, Nintendo decided to take a risk when it released the Nintendo DS–short for dual screen. Forcing a second visual output and a touch screen on a generation of gamers weaned on controllers could have resulted in a disaster of Virtual Boy proportions. It faces some tough competition in form of Sony’s graphically superior PSP, which also features movie and music playback, but fortunately for Nintendo, the system has been a breakout success, due in no small part to the uniqueness of its titles.
The Nintendo DS is a portable gaming system with two vertically tiered screens. On the bottom is a touch screen that allows you to use a stylus or a finger for anything from selecting options to moving characters. There’s also a normal face-button layout that allows a more standard method of control. The system plays its own proprietary cartridges (which are somewhere between SD and CompactFlash cards in size), in addition to its near-full backward compatibility with GBA titles. While DS cartridges are much smaller in capacity than the PSP’s UMDs, they play without the often unbearable load times of Sony’s proprietary format. The system currently retails for $130 and is available in two colors: Titanium and Electric Blue. Nintendo also often releases special higher-priced DS bundles that include a game. With the DS Lite–a slimmer, brighter, and more stylish version of the DS–also available for $130, expect a price drop, more bundling, or discontinuation of this iteration of the system.
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, the DS will likely travel in your backpack or your shoulder bag. Despite its increased size, the DS isn’t too heavy, tipping the scales at 9.7 ounces. 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. Opening the DS, the top panel houses stereo speakers and the main LCD screen, while the bottom piece contains the directional pad, the power button, the touch screen, and six (A, B, X, Y, Select, and Start) function buttons. The DS package includes Nintendo’s PictoChat software, two pen-shaped styli (one slides into the DS body, PDA-style), a wrist strap that doubles as a thumb stylus, and the same AC adapter that comes with the GBA SP. Though the pen stylus works best for drawing and writing messages in PictoChat, we found that the thumb stylus offers 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 emanates from the GBA SP’s front-lit display system, and the DS’s backlighting makes its graphics stand out. Metroid Prime: Hunters’ beautiful full-motion video sequences take full advantage of both screens, each with 256×192 resolution and 260,000 colors. 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 specific users in range, although if someone joins your room, the software announces 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 30 feet; in fact, we got more than 150 feet away from each other before one of us dropped out of the game. Through walls, the range was predictably shorter, cutting out at about 30 feet. 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.
Introduced about a year after the system launched, Wi-Fi compatibility on the DS is surprisingly solid for a free service hosted by a company known for its aversion to online gaming. Whether on the original DS or the DS Lite, the Wi-Fi setup is simple, as the system can spot most wireless connections. If there are none nearby, you can create one from a broadband-connected PC by attaching the Nintendo USB Wi-Fi Connector to it. Without an external online network such as Xbox Live, finding friends is a bit unwieldy–you have to enter 12-digit “friend codes” for each game for which you wish to create a buddy list. Playing against nonfriends is hit-and-miss; you won’t find a pickup game as fast as you will on a console, but as long as you’re on a popular game during a reasonable hour, you should be able to locate competition. Over the course of an early evening, we were able to find several opponents in Tetris DS. The microphone lends itself to voice chat, but as of right now, only Metroid Prime: Hunters employs between-match chatter.
With the Sony PSP’s power issues well known, 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. We logged 6 hours, 40 minutes of gameplay before the DS ran out of juice, with the low-battery light coming on at the 6-hour mark. As a point of comparison, the PSP’s battery can run as short as 3 hours if playing a Wi-Fi multiplayer game or as long as 11 if listening to MP3s, while the DS Lite runs for about 5 hours on the highest brightness setting.
The games for the Nintendo DS are of decent graphical quality–a bit better than the PS1/N64 but nowhere near Xbox/PS2/GameCube standards. They also pales in comparison to PSP games. Where the Nintendo DS earns its stripes is the innovative quality of its titles. Whereas PSP games feel much like their console cousins, the DS dual- and touch-screen setup allows for some truly unique gameplay, whether it’s drawing your own Pac-Man in Namco’s Pac Pix or performing surgery via stylus in Atlus’s Trauma Center: Under the Knife. That said, not many of the other third-party software developers are up to the challenge of taking full advantage of the DS’s capabilities. For every Nintendo-produced hit such as Nintendogs or Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time, there are several barely updated GBA ports or slightly downgraded PSP ports–neither of which makes much use of the touch- and dual-screen technology.
The DS systems lack the video and audio playback and Web-surfing functions of the PSP, at least in the United States. Nintendo-supported solutions for both–the Play-Yan media player and the Opera Web browser, respectively–have or will soon appear in Japan, though the U.S. release status of both products are currently unknown. We will update this review accordingly when and if the products hit Stateside.
Until the release of the Nintendo Wii, the company seems intent on focusing its creative juices on the DS rather than the near-dead GameCube. There’s also multimedia functionality down the pike, with Web browsing and TV tuner add-ons promised by the end of the year. If you still haven’t picked a portable gaming system, Nintendo DS is definitely worth a look if its growing list of quirky, original titles is appealing to you. The DS Lite, however, has a much more attractive styling and brighter screens and is available for the same price the significantly bulkier version is selling for now. If you’re in the market for a portable system with more mature–albeit less original–titles and decent media playback capabilities, then the PSP may be worth picking up for $70 more.