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June 6, 2005

Filed under: gaming»impressions»hardware»nds

Nintendo DS Review

I've owned a Nintendo DS, the Big N's new handheld system, for about a month now. Handhelds are really much more personal than home consoles are--they're used at different times to fill different roles, and demand more compromises than a set-top box. I bought a Gameboy Advance my junior year in college, upgrading last year to a GBA SP, which is a really nice piece of hardware. The SP is small (made smaller by its folding case), powerful enough to play fantastic 2D games equivalent to about an SNES (and I love 2D), and it lasts forever on its internal battery. I didn't trade in the SP, but I did loan it to the Nerdlet and I haven't missed it yet, which is a pretty good endorsement of the DS.

The Hardware

I'm mixed on the DS as a hardware platform. This is mainly because I see the unrealized potential in a very good package, which is common to just about every Nintendo offering. Soothing worries that the designers had completely left reality, the two-screen concept turns out to be passable at worst and brilliant at best, and it will be more exploited as programmers figure out the potentials. Likewise for the touch-screen: it not only creates new possibilities for games that could not be realized on any other console (save something like a Zodiac or PocketPC), but it adds special value to the second screen, even if it is only used for virtual keys.

The physical controls are good, particularly for a portable. The face buttons are small, useful in that they can double as a second d-pad for lefties or shooters. Compared to the SP, they're not as comfortable, but you get used to them. The L and R buttons are surprisingly good, easy to hit and a good compromise between the original GBA's large but carpal tunnel-inducing ergonomics and the SP's comfortable nubs. What's really surprising is the d-pad--it may be the best I've used on a console to date. It's not mushy like the Dreamcast or the GBA, shallow like the SP, or stiff like the SNES. Switching back to the SP for complicated fighting games and platformers feels sloppy and lacking in feedback. For a 2D hack like myself, the DS controls are wonderful.

It helps that the DS can play GBA games in addition to its own, SD card-sized media. The beautiful screens make later titles like Metroid Fusion and Metal Slug something to behold. The backlighting is more even, and you can choose which screen to use for GBA carts. Here's my first caveat, however: the buttons in GBA mode can't be remapped. I'm sure that it might have been a pain to add that ability to the legacy titles, but games like Street Fighter Alpha III Upper would really benefit from moving the L and R functions to the X and Y buttons. When playing normal platformers, it'd be nice to move the A and B up a row, because it's easier for my thumbs to reach them there. I understand why Nintendo didn't want users messing with the mappings and then confusing themselves during new games, but it's a missed opportunity for advanced gamers.

It is also too bad that Nintendo didn't wrap the GBA multiplayer protocol with the DS WiFi--I don't necessarily need to be able to interface with a GBA, but playing Four Swords wirelessly would have been a nice treat. Instead, there's no multiplayer at all for GBA titles. Most DS games do offer wireless one-cart play, which is a nice evolution from the underutilized GBA one-cart mode. I don't play a lot of multiplayer anyway, because few of my friends own a handheld, but I'm looking forward to the Internet play to be offered later this year. It should be very exciting.

Oh, and the biggest reason to buy the DS over an SP? Headphone jack. Removing an audio jack from the GBA was lunacy, and it's good to see a standard interface return, so I can finally listen to my games hassle-free. Battery life is also great, equal to the SP in GBA mode and not much shorter for the DS. A long battery is one reason why I can't see myself buying a PSP--I remember the Game Gear, and if I have to think about charging it, I'm not interested. I plug the DS into the wall about once a week, better than my cell phone and my PocketPC. A PSP would have me charging it every night, and that's just not something I feel like I should have to do in 2005.

So all in all, it's good hardware, and its liabilities may be fixed in the future, as the DS goes online and new firmware is released through homebrew or Nintendo itself. Still, any console is only as good as its games. Although the DS technically has access to a fine library of GBA games, the hardware can only be exploited with new software. A few impressions:

Metroid Hunters: First Hunt

This is just a demo that comes with every system, but nevertheless it was the game that convinced me to buy a DS. I'm a huge fan of first-person shooters like Unreal Tournament and Halo, but I don't really like playing them on gamepad--although I got pretty good at Quake 3 for Dreamcast. The only real way to own an FPS is with a keyboard and mouse, something not really offered on a home gaming system so far. That has changed with the DS--using the "S-type" control setup, the touch screen acts like a mousepad, and your thumb becomes the mouse. It works very, very well. It looks like Goldeneye will be the first to really exploit this in June, but once it gets out I expect ports of lots of classic shooters, either official or through the homebrew circuit. A WiFi Quake deathmatch on the go is just about my idea of heaven.

Feel the Magic

Feel the Magic is an oddball launch title. It's like WarioWare crossed with a dating game, and uses the touch screen exclusively. I liked it, but there's not much replay value here, and most of the minigames aren't terribly engaging. I sold it back for...

Yoshi Touch and Go

Touch and Go is another oddball--a score-based arcade game, not quite a platformer and not quite a puzzler. This is another game that could only be done on the DS hardware. I've read a lot of reviews that are disappointed because it's not a sequel to Yoshi's Adventure, which was probably the best platformer ever made. And the game is, on its own, pretty limited--the levels are semi-random chunks linked together to form one long scroll, and there's no immediate progression of abilities or challenges. On the other hand, it's terribly addictive. The real challenge is in refining your technique. As you play, you'll start to figure out new strategies that help you pass the same obstacles more efficiently or safely. That makes Touch and Go more like classic shooters (Ikaruga, Life Force, R-Type) than its obvious Mario heritage. End verdict: I like it a lot, and I'm looking forward to Kirby and the Cursed Canvas, which should combine the stylus-based gameplay with a more platformer feel.

Super Mario 64 DS

The flagship game of the DS, Mario 64 is pretty much a port of the N64 classic. I never played the original, so it's entirely new to me. I like it, but I don't think I'd have missed it if I hadn't gotten it free with my barely-used DS. I haven't had a chance to get into the mini-games, but I hear they're very good and addictive. What I will say is that the much-maligned touch screen control is not nearly as bad as it has been made out by the gaming media--basically, it provides a virtual analog onscreen, which can be dragged around with the thumb-strap. I'm doing about as well with it as I usually did with analog sticks. It's no Jet Grind Radio or Prince of Persia, but it works just fine. I think the time has come to point out that analog sticks do not a perfect 3D platformer make--if you think they do, try handing Super Mario Sunshine to a relative neophyte and see how they do. Most people will be very frustrated. The ability to control a character in 3D using one of these is an acquired skill, and most of the gaming press seems to have forgotten that.

All in all, the launch titles have been a little sparse, but respectable. Anyone who remembers the PS1 launch knows that there's still plenty of room to recover, and I'm genuinely excited about several titles. Kirby looks great, Band Brothers and Electroplankton are revolutionary, and the multiplayer possibilities of Metroid, Goldeneye, and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles (among others) have me giddy. This will be a good year for my Metro rides.

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