• Nintendo DS Hardware Review

    For Nintendo to release a new piece of hardware in the US before Japan must mean something isn't quite right in the state of Denmark. Regardless, American fans must be rubbing their stylus-toting hands in glee at their week (or so's) worth of good fortune.
    The US launch consisted of six games, which was less than most store owners were expecting, having been led to believe there would be around 10-12 titles available from day one. These six titles were as follows: Super Mario 64 DS, Feel the Magic, The Urbz, Asphalt GT, Madden 2005 and Spiderman 2. With three DS versions of existing GBA games, a reworking of an eight-year-old N64 game and two new franchises it wasn't the strongest set of titles ever, but then again, neither the weakest.
    But with the formalities out of the way, what did you get for your $150 outlay? First you must wait for the initial three-hour charge. For those in the UK importing a DS, a normal SP charger will suffice; the DS uses exactly the same charging unit. Patience is a virtue here. Opening the unit reveals a compact design with the trademark single area D-pad on the left and four buttons (labelled A, B, X and Y) on the right in the style of a SNES pad. Size-wise it is about the same as a regular GBA, but slightly thicker due to the two-screen design. On the bottom screen are the Power, Select and Start buttons, leaving the top screen solely to house the twin speakers that allow true stereo sound (without the need for headphones) for the first time in a Nintendo handheld.
    Holding it in your hands is somewhat unusual to begin with. You aren't too sure about the correct or best way to use the device. Everyone will have their own way, be it round the side, or the need to rest it slightly. The DS is a little bit heavier than an original GBA, which means it shouldn't be that uncomfortable to hold for long periods. Whilst the D-pad is larger than the SP pad, the buttons are quite a bit smaller than the GBA ones. Anyone with largish hands could possibly have a problem using them in all honesty. Aside from that, it is similar to using a regular GBA, and the shoulder buttons are as accessible and responsive as before. Some people will get cramp in their thumbs from using the D-pad for longer periods of time; that is inevitable and happened with all Nintendo's handhelds so far. But for games also requiring the stylus, resting it on a knee or similar will be the best way of using it.
    Anyone worried about the unit getting damaged should not be so after handling it. This is a Nintendo piece of hardware, and they are known for designing equipment that is meant to last. No sneezing on it and having it break like certain other contemporary gaming electronics. The screen is pivoted in such a way that you can open it the full 180 degrees, but then it would take some force to bend it further and actually snap the unit in half. The design is impressive, large to accommodate the two screens but not overly bulky. The DS should definitely not be a problem carried around in a pocket.
    Careful examination of the screens reveals that the top one is incredibly sharp in definition, whilst the lower one appears slightly fuzzy, but that is due to the need to have the pressure sensitive dots within the surface. Indeed, testing the top screen out with a GBA game on it shows that due to the back-lighting and other improvements, it gives an absolutely terrific pin-sharp picture. Because of this quality of image, if you only ever use your GBA for single-player gaming of Advance titles, it is of no further use in the scheme of things. Brightness on both screens is greater than that of the SP, which makes the fact the battery lifespan is roughly similar even more impressive. Even better is that Nintendo have taken the whole software sleep state feature and turned it into a function; closing the DS mid game will put the unit into sleep mode regardless of what DS software is running (it doesn't sleep for GBA games).
    The only fly in the ointment so far regarding the screens has been the ranging reports regarding dead pixels on either screen. This is an inherent problem with LCD screens to begin with, that some manufacturing flaws will occur from time to time. Needless to say, it seems to be occuring slightly more than usual, possibly a result of Nintendo having to ramp up their production schedule in the last few weeks. Dead pixels per se aren't massively serious; only when they are glaringly obvious or in the middle of the screen do they become a nuisance, especially to the observant or hardened gamer.
    Switching on the DS for the first time means inputting a few vital pieces of information including the user name (which games can detect and label their own save files and hiscore tables with), date, time and whether games will boot up automatically if a cart is in either slot. Most of this is done simply and efficiently through the stylus and anyone who has used a PDA before will find this second nature. Anyone new to this will see that it doesn't take very long to adjust to the touch-screen input.
    The DS games are inserted backwards in the top of the unit and GBA games go in the bottom. Whereas the GBA slot is the traditional "pull it out when you're finished" style, the DS slot is spring-loaded. Insert the game card and push down to lock into place; once finished, press down slightly and the card will pop back up ready for retrieval. Next to the DS slot is the holder for the stylus. It's a little cheap-looking but it does the job well enough and different stylus types may well be available to buy in the future. Nintendo also include a replacement stylus as default because let's face it, people will lose them over time.
    Included with the DS are two pieces of software: Pictochat and a demo of the forthcoming Metroid Hunters. Pictochat is software to take advantage of the wireless communication function by allowing the transmitting of words and pictures across the airwaves. How useful it is and how many uses it can be put to will be discovered in time, but there is also the weird possibility of random strangers finding themselves within range (about 100 feet) and chatting without ever seeing each other.
    Metroid Hunters is a preview of the game coming next year. Within the demo there is either a practice session or multiplayer, which is where, I suspect, most of the play will be situated. As the DS has no true analogue control ostensibly a compromise has been made, and particular games will have to be accommodated around this "shortcoming". You can either have the D-pad as the movement and the four buttons on the right as strafe and look up/down; or use the D-pad or buttons for movement with the stylus guiding the looking (in a similar way to how a mouse would work for a PC FPS) instead. R button is always fire regardless.

    It takes a little getting used to the sensitivity of the controls and how much pressure it takes to register properly on the screen, but there shouldn't be too many problems after that. Left-handers get the slightly shorter end of the stick, as guiding the movement using the buttons rather than the pad is harder, but as a left-hander myself, it hasn't been too hard to make it work. Anyone who used to play Goldeneye on the N64 will recall similar familiarity was needed to work the thumb over the four C buttons. This is how it works in this instance.

    Given the power of the two ARM processors involved and the constant comparisons to the N64, just where does the DS stack in terms of raw grunt? Happy to report here that in general (from the launch games) the 3D engines used are improved on those of the N64. Mario DS is smoothed out, there are no obvious jagged lines or rips, though that may also be down to the fact you are looking at a much smaller screen output. Asphalt's racing engine is also smooth, detailed and impressive, though the road effect does look partly Mode 7-style from the SNES days.

    The other major issue of concern would be just how easy the stylus it to use. It will really depend on the game in question here. For any games that actually use the touch screen and have action going on there (such as Feel the Magic and the upcoming Wario Ware), a little bit of manipulation and angling of the hand will be required to make sure you can still see most of the screen during play. For games having it as a map (such as Mario DS) then there are no intrusive problems. The bottom screen here, aside from displaying said map, functions as a replacement analogue control; by moving the stylus or thumb strap further away from the centre of the screen, the character moves quicker. This does work in many situations as a better method than the D-pad alone, and in some cases not. For Mario DS, using both depending on the situation may be the way to go.

    And then there's the thumb strap included with the handheld. Essentially a nub of hardwearing rubber on a strap that attaches itself to your thumb (or in other words, a thumbstrap), it is an alternative control method to the stylus for activating the pseudo analogue control on the bottom screen. Admitedly it could cramp your thumb as quickly as using the D-pad itself. When controlling Mario, it is more accurate than trying to the use the stylus, but naturally you will cover up a lot more of the map than before. Given Nintendo were reluctant to add an analogue controller to the DS, this compromise might be the closest we get.

    It will be up to the individual user to decide which is easier and better to use. There are no problems with the sensitivity of the screen, it is responsive and does not require much pressure to register contact. It is also hard-wearing and despite all the use on it so far, there is no visible clue left to indicate that it's actually been used at all. Included in the settings available is the option to recalibrate the screen should detection be a little off.

    So what's the overall impression of the DS? It's not a radical departure from the norm despite the addition of the second screen. It still fulfils Nintendo's aim that it primarily just plays games. It doesn't play music. It doesn't play film. It doesn't make the tea (well not just yet, until some enterprising people knock software together for it). Yet it might support them in the future if the demand is there...

    For now, embrace the touch-screen technology and have fun. That's what Nintendo hopes you get out of it.