I'd originally submitted this to Certis and Ely but it looks like it won't be front page material. (Way to go Fletch!) Anyway, here is the review I submitted for the DS, criticism accepted. I haven't been able to test the wireless connection yet, and seeing as they are all sold out I won't be able to pick up another until Jan. Enjoy!
[size=14]Touching is Good[/size]
Touching is good. On November 21st Nintendo released their latest handheld, the much anticipated Nintendo DS. Designed not as a replacement to the wildly successful Gameboy Advance, the DS was touted to be the mysterious "Third Pillar", and part of a much larger "Revolutionary" plan for Nintendo.
In the months leading up to E3, the Internet was buzzing with rumours and speculation on this device. It was a combination of both excitement and confusion. Is this the new Gameboy? Will it be like a PDA? A retro Game and Watch? Even the Sony fanboys sat on the edge of their seats in bewilderment, wondering what the big "N" had up it's sleeve.
After a somewhat mediocre showing at E3, Nintendo realized that while people responded well to the fresh innovation the machine offered, it was very boring and plain to look at. The sexy design of Sony's PSP was hard to beat. Nintendo thankfully went back to the drawing board, and gave the DS a sharper edged and bolder design.
I picked up my pre-order at EB on November 22nd. I heard some reports of shortages, but I had that warm and fuzzy feeling that only a pre-order can provide. The last thing I wanted was to have to resort to clawing and kicking my way through hordes of non-gamers to grab the last one on display. Oddly enough I walked into the local Future Shop the next day and saw stacks of them on display.
My first impression of the DS packaging was "That's it?" I was expecting a larger package. The DS packaging had me thinking, "Wow, this little thing costs as much as that Xbox bundle over there"
I was honestly expecting the DS to be larger than it was. It's a little larger than two SPs side by side. The silver finishing has a more textured feeling than the shiny, smooth SP. It has a decent weight - not as light as the SP, but it has a solid, more "expensive" feel to it. The underside is a nice deep black, with a tiny slot that holds the stylus.
When opened, both the top and bottom half snap firmly in place. I'd heard that there was a bit of looseness to the earlier model, but the DS I had was fine. When opened, it reveals a somewhat modest design. Unlike the PSP, which seems to have more going on per square inch, the top half of the DS is a bit plain. The bottom half has a bit more to it, with the touchable LCD, standard D-Pad and 4 face buttons. One LED for power, the other shows as a blinking burst for wireless activity. A small slot for the built in microphone, and thankfully the headphone jack is now standard, which was the SP's only real design flaw. Start, Select and Power buttons seem a little awkward, but I'm sure they will feel normal with time. The shoulder buttons have a nice, smooth and tight feel to them. The D-Pad feels very nice, and has a slightly harder feel than the SP's.
One complaint I have with the DS is the 4 face buttons. They are noticeably smaller than the SP's – good if you are a small child, bad if you have big adult hands. Playing games that require heavy button usage (i.e. all GBA games) I found my hand cramping after a while because of awkward positioning.
Holding the unit itself is different than holding an SP. It's a bit heavier, so I find myself playing with it resting on my leg, or another surface. If you suspend it in the air for long you will probably get cramped quickly. The beauty of the SP's design allows me to play FFTA with one hand and be sipping my coffee with the other. The DS requires a little more effort when getting down to the gaming.
The included thumb/wrist strap is very intriguing. At first I was wondering how it could possibly be comfortable to strap this device to my thumb – but after many hours of Mario and Metroid, I can't imagine not having it.
Now that we have the feel for the system out of the way, I'd like to talk about the dual LCD screens. Both are slightly larger than the SP's screen. Moving from the side-lit SP to a back-lit LCD with the DS was a great idea. GBA games now look more colorful and defined on the DS, and it makes the SP seem a bit washed out in comparison. Overall the light appears to be more evenly distributed on the screens.
The touch screen is slightly different than the top LCD. It's a little dimmer, and has a "sparkly" look – no doubt from the protective coating on the screen. Depending on the angle you play at, one screen always appears slightly dimmer – but not enough to be a problem. Those watching you play will have a harder time seeing the action, as the DS isn't as easily viewed as the SP from an off-angle.
To test the durability of the touch screen I let my 7-year-old son loose with the system and the Mario DS mini-games – many of which required frequent tapping, sliding and scraping with the stylus. After a day of playing, I wiped the touch screen off with a cloth, and didn't notice a single mark. I'm sure that some kids will end up losing their stylus and improvising with metal objects, but the DS stylus is quite nice to the screen.
When booting up the system you are presented with a simple menu. You can enter your name, set the time and alarms, search for networked games in progress, and even allow the wireless connection to search for free downloadable games. Pictochat is a great feature to have built in; it makes electronic note passing fun with a very easy to use interface. Right about now, all us older guys are probably going "Well, back in our day we did it the old fashioned way, nothing like you little punks have now!" Let's just hope they don't start arming the teachers with packet sniffers, eh junior?
The quality sound is improved over the SP. As soon as you start Mario DS, a star appears on the bottom screen, floats up to the top and bounces around – making good use of the simulated positional audio. It's also noticeably louder than the SP when the volume is cranked – just like Spinal Tap, I'm quite sure it goes to 11.
The DS games are very small compared to GBA games, the same size as a standard SD card. They snap firmly into place with a nice springy feeling. Regular GBA games can be inserted as well; it's a nice touch to have two games ready for action without swapping.
Metroid Prime: Hunters is a free demo that is a pack-in with the DS. The opening FMV of Samus is gorgeous and makes good use of the dual screens. When using the thumb strap it controls very naturally and is as close to PC mouselook as any console has come. However, the game (read: tech demo) is unfortunately very uninspired. Some ugly texturing and bland environments really stand out – it's your typical old school corridor shooter. It does however move along at a crisp frame-rate, and the controls are tight. There's definitely some work to be done, but the potential is there.
Mario 64 DS is a lot of fun. I won't go extremely in-depth, but let's just say that without this title on launch day, there's little reason to pick up a DS. It's more colorful, sharper, and has many more features than the original N64 game. The included mini-games range from lots of fun to kind-of-lame, but they will keep you going for hours, and make excellent use of the touch-screen. As soon as you boot up you have the option of drawing your own picture or manipulating Mario and Yoshi via the touch screen – and I'm not kidding when I say it's quite entertaining to draw something and have it come to life. And for those of you with dirty minds, yes you can draw whatever you like. Even though some negativity has been expressed toward the lack of the analog stick, I found myself getting quite used to it after a while. But yes, the learning curve was a bit of a bitch.
So now comes the real question. "Is it worth it?" "Should I chuck away my SP and embrace the DS?" Definitely not. The SP is great in it's own merits, and is a testament to excellent hardware design. Now that the price has dropped there's really no reason not to pick one up for some old-school action on the road. The DS however, is an excellent "compliment" to the GBA. The jump to N64 quality 3D is also quite impressive. It's not as "toss in your pocket" portable as the SP, but it has an amazing amount of cool gadgetry built in. The DS is the Swiss-army knife of handheld consoles. There's a developer already working on an RTS game utilizing the features, words can't express how great it would be to have Warcraft on the go.
Unfortunately, just like any other console launch, there are only one or two titles worth picking up right away. There won't be a lot worth owning until early next year, and I hope Nintendo realizes past failures and pushes hard for the third party support this round. In the end though, I am very impressed with the DS - the future is looking great for this little pocketknife.