Nintendo DS Nintendo DS Hardware Review
Nintendo last year continued their long running tradition of keeping the gaming world on its toes and in a state of wonder and curiosity. Nintendo had announced, shortly after Sony’s announcement of the PSP, they were, in fact, under development of a brand new handheld that would boast new features. Not only this, but at the time of announcement, Nintendo stated that developers around the globe already had dev kits! Along with this interesting, but detail thin information was one specific; the new device would utilise two screens. Along the path to E3 2004, new details slowly collected like condensing droplets of water. It was code named Nitro for a time, it would have touch screen input, it might have as many functioning buttons as the Super Nintendo controller.
The system soon was given the nick-name DS, for Dual Screens, which eventuated to the final product name. As well as being able to play GBA games, the system received a facelift shortly after E3 and incorporated a second speaker, for stereo sound, larger shoulder buttons and a sleeker design. With a host of new features and new games on the horizon, what is the system like that will play host to them? How does it handle? What is the quality of its build? Lucky for Australians, the DS has launched in the first PAL territory. Has Nintendo truly laid the first brick on the road to the Revolution?
The design of Nintendo’s new handheld is very unique and creative. Obviously utilising two screens, the DS is surprisingly easy to adjust to in terms of screen coordination. The many comments about its excessive weight seem to be unfounded. It does weigh more than the Game Boy Advance and SP, but that’s understandable when there is an additional screen and flip top. After playing Super Mario 64, Metroid Prime Hunters: First Hunt and Asphalt Urban GT for around 4 hours, my hands had only just begun to hurt, where as in a game of Super Smash Bros. Melee, it can take just six or so matches. The unit tends to appear larger than what’s portrayed in photos, but somewhat slimmer. It fits the hands snugly, much like the older version of the Game Boy Advance did.
The Nintendo DS has the same button setup as the SNES. The interface is also interchangeable, if games are compatible. The A, B, X, Y buttons form a ‘D’ pad that is similar in size to the actual D pad. If developers wish to, the button configuration in a games’ setup could be flipped to allow gamers who wish to change the setting for their comfort. The Left and Right buttons also perform well, with large surface areas that ensure ease of use. Each of the face buttons has a nice, distinct ‘click’ feel, signalling their full depression. If, however, you wish to use the touch screen rather than the D pad, for games that allow, the DS comes packed with the wrist strap, of which has a little ‘nub’ on it, that fits in a loop to form a ‘thumb strap’. This little nub can be used to provide pin-point accuracy for analogue control. The touch screen is very responsive, and really is a unique way to control a game.
The build of the unit is quite solid. It feels as if you could throw it at a wall and it would switch on like new, although that’s not recommended. The actual clamshell design is much more well built than the SP’s, with a more sturdy hinge as well as two ‘lock’ positions that either align each screen to a 180° angle or a 160-170° angle. The screens are of excellent quality, with uniformly backlit displays that provide clear, crisp images. The touch sensitive screen is especially durable, with a highly scratch resistant film, obviously for protection from the stylus and people’s fingers. However, the stylus feels a little on the light side. It practically is a thin sliver of plastic that appears to be bent easily. It is a little awkward at first to hold a light writing apparatus after being exceedingly used to using a meaty pencil or pen. Nonetheless, with a little practice, adaptation takes a hold.
Overall, the design of the Nintendo DS is very intuitive and creative. The units’ touch screen is extremely responsive, while the feel of the system is amazingly robust. The buttons all fall in the correct place, with the possibilities to allow for configuration reversal. The microphone has been a little neglected with launch titles, but wireless features are demonstrated well with Metroid Prime Hunters: First Hunt and the built in Pictochat, each providing exceptional service, with nil lag at up to 18 metres. Really, the DS is the high quality that has come to be expected from Nintendo.
Then there are the features. With a list as long as your arm, and then some, developers will take a long time to exhaust their ideas to intuitively incorporate each and every one of them to produce a game that will be like no other. Among them is the built in microphone, for future use in voice recognition and perhaps even voice communication, along with the microphone jack. There is the touch screen, allowing for analogue-like control in games, as well as the ability to be used for PC mouse like control in first person shooters. Not only this, but mouse like precision would be an excellent advantage for real time strategy type games.
The wireless features incorporate the 802.11 radio frequency band and Nintendo’s own proprietary wireless format. Up to 16 people can join in one connection, in a range of around thirty metres, depending on the game, and not always requiring a copy to participate. The DS utilises a download capacity that expands on the GBA’s single cart link operation. If someone is in the vicinity, but don’t have a copy of the game, you can invite them to join in and download the multiplayer aspect. The built in Pictochat is a good use of the systems’ wireless link. If you happen to leave your DS in standby while Pictochat is booted up, it will notify you when another person has come within range that also has Pictochat operating.
To add to the features, along with the ability to play Game Boy Advance games in single player mode, the Nintendo DS is also capable of stereo sound, with dual speakers. Even Game Boy Advance games broadcast in stereo. To further enhance the choice of play, you can calibrate which screen you would like the game to be displayed on, or, if you are still living in the dark ages, turn the screen backlights off which adds up to 4 additional hours of battery life. Unfortunately, only the single player mode of gameplay is available for Game Boy Advance titles.
Power wise, I left my DS on for a further 4 hours after playing for the straight 4. Shortly thereafter it died. That was just from the charge the battery had out of the box. For energy conservation, the backlights can be switched off and closing the top will set the system in standby, so is not to interrupt your game by having to turn it off then find your way back again.
The sound capabilities are very impressive. Stereo sound is amazing, and quite distinguishable, even with the very small separation between speakers. For games that support it, the DS is also capable of virtual surround sound. Further more, Nintendo has thankfully included the standard size headphone jack. Not to disappoint, however, the GBA SP headphone adaptor is also compatible with the Nintendo DS, plugging into the power input jack. Volume is quite good, marginally higher than the broadcast of the GBA and SP, using a similar adjustment tab that is used for the GBA SP.
The clarity and quality of the sound is also vastly improved. Sounds from Mario, Yoshi, engine roars and tires skidding sound much more analogue than digital and are a lot less midi like. The GBA was a leap up from the Game Boy (Golden Sun, Pokemon, The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap) and the DS is that leap up again, this time over the GBA. The sound is just that more pretty to listen to. Headphones also work a treat, especially on that crowded bus trip or in the backseat of a car with little brothers and sisters nagging ‘are we there yet?’. The DS is such a gem to listen to.
Graphics wise, the DS is amazing. Yes, it does have Nintendo 64 power, with a lot of tweaking and hardware improvements. This is largely due to the addition of the second ARM processor. It can push more polygons (I was actually surprised that the coin sprites in Super Mario 64 where given the polygon treatment) and the display is much clearer. The Nintendo 64 had very ‘muddy’ graphics. Take a look at Ocarina of Time on the 64, then its GameCube re-release counterparts. The DS makes this same improvement. The resolution appears much higher also, due in part to the small screen, and tiny pixels, but also to the additional processing power of the DS.
The draw distance also appears to be much higher, with trees and enemies appearing sooner than later. The textures on the other hand appear over sized and blurred or pixelated. This could be because of the tiny screens, or perhaps because of the fact these are first generation games, and developers haven’t quite perfected the ability to incorporate higher detailed textures. However, there are plenty of colours, on screen items and polygons. The Nintendo DS is a very capable system graphically.
It is true that only one screen can display 3D at a time, but there will be ways around this to be found later on. The GBA isn’t a 3D machine, but then there are games like Top Gear Rally that really push the limits of the GBA hardware. Most likely developers will achieve the same with the Nintendo DS.
The DS really is the ‘Developers System’ with multiple new capabilities and functions. Developers will have a lot of fun designing games on it with new features and control mechanics, no longer limited to digital interface buttons. The second screen appears a little gimmicky at the moment, with few titles using it effectively, only placing maps on it. However, often stats and figures are placed on the none-action screen rather than the action screen, which gets rid of a lot of clutter from the gameplay screen, which is a relief when they are the size they are. It is a little disappointing that Nintendo has used the same sized screens from a previous handheld for a new one. The PSP’s screen is like a picture theatre in comparison. Even if Nintendo had made the system slightly wider and included 4″ screens rather than the 3″ ones, it would have made the DS that little more attractive.
The software line up is a little thin at the moment, with only 7 or so titles available on day one here in Australia. But by the European launch, there will be ten to 15 games available on day one. No game is a clear cut system seller, and there fails to be one on the horizon of releases. Sure Crystal Chronicles and Four Swords will finally receive full support, having been heavily burdened by their hardware requirements, but it remains to be seen what the full extent of the system is. If the DS, and in turn, the Revolution are to succeed, the DS of which is a ‘window’ of sorts into what the Revolution will be, will need to have stronger support. Nintendo also needs to ensure that the Revolution launches with a game that will sell it, that uses the allegedly new and unique capabilities of the console, something the DS was lacking. All in all, fresh new ground for exploiting, nothing like it anywhere else.