Nintendo has been king of the handheld jungle since the birth of The GameBoy. Over the years the little guy evolved into the perfect portable console. The GBA SP was small, light, had a great front lit screen and lasted for ages on one battery charge. It sold by the truckload, and still sells incredibly well today. So, when Nintendo announced their next handheld wasn't to be the next GameBoy, people were confused. When they announced it was to feature two screens, one of which using-touch screen technology, people pondered how it could work on a handheld device.
The Nintendo DS has divided opinion more than any other console that has gone before it. Is the touch-screen a gimmick or a way for developers to create truly original games? Does the unit itself look stylishly retro or plain old fashioned? Many more questions have been asked and argued over between gamers all over the world, but the console is now out in all major territories, bar Europe, and answers are starting to come in.
The console has undeniably been a big success at retail, selling huge numbers in North America and Japan, but the true test will come over the next year. It will have to continue to sell well to stand a chance against Sony's PSP, and the machine will have to deliver on the new gameplay promises that Nintendo has made. So, for the time being, things are looking good at camp Nintendo. Let's take a look at the console itself, hopefully giving you a good overview of what to expect should you purchase this console oddity.
Upon first viewing the console in the flesh, my first impressions were very good; the unit looks much better than I thought it would. While it is quite large and bulky, it looks pretty smart, and is certainly not the eyesore that the first design looked to be.
However, picking up the unit reveals the first potential problem. It is very heavy for a handheld, particularly a handheld that you are expected to hold in one hand for vast amounts of time. Casting worries aside, I turned on the unit (the power button is worryingly close to the D-pad) and was presented with a number of mandatory user options that needed configuring. Name, Age, Language, Time and favourite colour can all be entered, but more interesting are the boot options. You can decide whether you want the unit to boot straight into a game or always go to the system menu, and the screen you want to play GBA games on can also be selected.
Included with every DS, built into the system, is PictoChat. This is a fairly simple visual chat program that lets you type messages and draw pictures. It is obviously intended for talking to friends, but with no one in the local area showing as using the system, I was left to make a number of humorous storyboard style drawings. Entertaining for a few minutes, but would probably have infinite appeal to doodlers with friends. Even with its limited function, PictoChat shows off the quality of the touch screen to good effect. Having said that, how it's used in games is what really matters.
Nintendo have been kind enough to bundle a demo of Metroid Prime Hunters with the console, and out of all the games currently available, this is the one that really shows the true potential of the touch-screen control. You are given an assortment of control options, but standard stylus control seems to work very well indeed.
The setup sounds pretty awkward, but takes very little time to get used to. Your left hand is used to hold the system, move Samus (D-Pad), and fire (L shoulder button), while your right hand uses the stylus to aim, jump (by double tapping the screen) and make selections on the touch-screen. As I said, this sounds uncomfortable, but the game plays remarkably well for a handheld FPS. The demo only lasts for ten minutes, with a survival mode and morph ball mode (which also controls well with the stylus) not providing much more gameplay. A deathmatch mode with three arenas is also available, but testing that will have to wait until the machine is in more people's hands.
Hunters also demonstrates the console's graphical muscle. It is no secret that the PSP will be able to push more polygons, but the DS is no slouch. Hunters runs smoothly and shows a level of graphical polish that can only spell good things for the future of the console. Comparisons have been made to the N64, but if anything, this demo shows that the console is more capable than the old great Nintendo console.
Both screens are ultra sharp, but the top screen (which is where most of the gaming will take place) has a wider viewing angle. A good demonstration of this comes when playing an old GBA game on the DS. Whether it is the backlit screen, or just better screen technology, I don't know, but GBA games look considerably better on the DS.
So, the DS must be the best handheld ever created? Well, it is too early to tell, but there are a few problems that could really affect how you play games. The unit is very wide. Anyone accustomed to the GBA SP may well have a hard time switching to the new layout of the buttons, in particular the L + R shoulder buttons. It might just be that I have strange hands, but they don't sit as comfortably on them as I would have liked.
The other problem is scratches. I have played with the unit for a number of hours over a few days, and there is already a fairly large scratch on the touch-screen. To be fair, when the unit is powered on, it is very hard to see, and you are usually too focussed on the game to notice it. However, this is after only a few day's play, and if more appear, it could affect visibility on the bottom screen.
The console will eventually be judged on the quality of games that appear on it, and we will have impressions of a number of launch games soon, but Nintendo certainly seem to have pulled off another successful handheld console launch. Six months ago I didn't think that was possible.