Joeblade

Nintendo DS

It’s often been noted that Nintendo appears to hate the general public, in particular that part of the general public that actually buys its products. It can be difficult to be a Nintendo fan, relying almost entirely upon them for your drip-feed of games and always ending up with strangely featureless hardware.

It’s not as if the consumer hasn’t been vocal in what they wanted, but Nintendo never seem to listen. Customers — particularly European ones — are treated as a necessary evil, and you get the impression that Nintendo would be far happier if they could just get on with things without having to fuss over the details. It’s quite understandable the way the fans have reacted to the DS — OMFG, a Nintendo console with a headphone socket!!!1 — because we’re just not used to Nintendo treating its fans like loyal customers.

Admittedly, the PSP probably gave Nintendo a swift kick up the arse. The Gameboy has never had any serious competition before, but suddenly here was a handheld machine with a sleek body and a giant colour screen with PS2-quality graphics and sound. Mmph. I suspect we would have seen the DS released regardless, given how quickly they brought it to market (about a year between the first announcement and the store release, I think), but perhaps we wouldn’t have seen it quite as soon, and perhaps it would have been called the next Gameboy. Perhaps perhaps perhaps.

Perhaps.

So, the DS has launched in Europe only a few months after the US/Japanese releases and it’s not been grossly overpriced by just changing the $ to a £. The boxed console comes with a wrist/thumb strap, a spare stylus, and a Metroid Prime demo, just like the US/Japanese releases. We even get the nice sturdy plastic game packaging instead of flimsy cardboard boxes! What’s going on? It’s as if Nintendo likes us all of a sudden, and that’s quite a strange feeling. People — by which I mean ‘nerds on the internet’ — were quite sceptical about the machine at first, and it sounded like a desperate attempt by Nintendo to steal some of the PSP thunder. Well, it worked — the console and games have been flying off the shelves, developers are excited about all the different features the console has, and while Nintendo bask in the glow of success, Sony are dogged by hardware design problems, low battery life and no firm release date for Europe. Nyer Sony.

The DS is smaller, sleeker and heavier than I’d expected it to be. It’s not attractive, in the way of the iPod, the PSP, or even the GBA SP. The plastic case is robust if cheap, but does the job — you could drop it and not mind, chuck it in your bag when you realise it’s time to get off the bus, and toss it aside when you notice that Jamie’s School Dinners has just started. It’s Nintendo, so it’s a toy, not a fashion statement. It actually feels a bit anonymous; the Nintendo logo is a near-invisible grey on the front of the case, whereas the GBA SP has a bold black logo — do Nintendo not want people to cotton on to the fact that it’s a Nintendo product?

The dual screens are great — bigger may have been better, but they’re bright and colourful and have (finally) a proper backlight — something the GBA should have had from the start. Playing GBA games on the DS really does hammer home how flawed the GBA SP was, and how we were all willing to settle for half-measures. GBA games are displayed in lovely, bright colours and crisp, clean feel to them. While the DS lacks the SP’s stylish form factor, it makes up for it with the screen quality and stereo sound.

You can touch me if you want to. Down there.

The dual/touch screen work well, but this is going to be more down to the implementation of the game than the technology itself; some games will choose to just use one screen as a map or inventory screen, some games will use both screens all the time. You can use a stylus or a thumb strap (a strap which hooks to the back of the DS, then wraps underneath. You put your thumb in a loop at the end with a small plastic nubbin on it.), depending on which works best for you and the game.

My, ah, ‘test suite’ of games consists of Super Mario 64 DS, Project Rub and Metroid Prime: Hunters [First Hunt] (which is a demo). Project Rub has received the most attention so far because it’s quirky and feels Japanese. Ostensibly some sort of surreal dating game, it’s actually a series of mini-games controlled almost entirely via the touch screen (some games use the built-in microphone). It’s a good advert for the DS, showing off how versatile the machine can be, though it’s not an ideal travel game as some of the levels require you to blow furiously on the touch screen (fnar) or shout into the mic.

Super Mario 64 DS was initially disappointing but has grown on me. The original Super Mario 64 was as much a demo of the N64’s analogue controller as it was a game in its own right. Repackaged here with the addition of three new playable characters and about a hundred unlockable (and addictive) minigames, and using a touch screen instead of a joypad, it doesn’t feel immediately natural in the way the original game did — it’s taken me a couple of sessions to work out which control mode I work best with, finding it at first to be a bit of a pain in the arse. I’d also have preferred an original Mario game that had been designed specifically for the DS; it’s particularly jarring when you consider that the whole point of the console is to introduce new genres and styles to the videogame market.

Finally, there’s Metroid Prime: Hunters [First Hunt], which is a first-person shooter so, meh. These things just don’t do it for me, though I’ll be trying out the wireless multiplayer mode next week so that should be interesting, despite my previous forays into gaming with real people.

Do you wi-fi?

The wireless connectivity is interesting, representing Nintendo’s first serious moves into online gaming. Though a broadband adaptor and a modem were available for the Gamecube, they were useful for perhaps three games at most, and Nintendo wanted nothing to do with it (which is fair enough, really).

Aside from local wireless connectivity between nearby DSs, it’s recently been announced that you’ll be able to play online as the DS is wifi-enabled. The fact that I’ll be able to play Animal Crossing DS online fills me with joy.

The DS is basically a great little bit of kit. Real thought has gone into it, and you can see this in the details, such as an automatic sleep mode when you close the console without switching it off first. Whether developers can get to grip with the range of features and produce entertaining games, and avoid just re-releasing DS versions that feature some perfunctory stylus action remains to be seen.

By Paul Haine, in