Nintendo unveiled its mysterious dual-screen portable system today during its E3 press conference. Prior to the event we had the chance to get some quality time with the hardware to see what it's all about.
While the units we tried were obviously playable, Nintendo reps noted that the design wasn't quite final as yet and would likely still undergo a few cosmetic tweaks--perhaps even a name change--before the device ships this fall.
The rectangular system is slightly larger than a standard PDA and features a clamshell design similar to the GBA SP and the old school Game-in-Watch systems from back in the day. The system uses two backlit screens that are each roughly the size of the GBA screen. The DS features a total of six buttons, in a configuration reminiscent of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System controller. You've got buttons A, B, X, and Y on the face as well as left and right shoulder buttons. The twist to the system's control inputs is the lower screen's functionality as a touch screen. The screen will respond to input from the included stylus, or your finger instead.
The system will be backward compatible with the Game Boy Advance (and, therefore, with other, earlier Game Boy models). The GBA cartridges fit in a slot in the front of the system, and the DS cartridges fit in the back. The DS cartridges will be noticeably smaller than the GBA carts, and while we weren't able to see one, they were described as being roughly the same size as a standard SD media card used for devices such as Pocket PCs and digital cameras. The system will use a rechargeable battery that's estimated to last roughly 10 hours. In addition, the system includes a few extra perks such as a built-in headphone jack and a microphone input, which suggests that voice support of some kind will be in some games. The most impressive extra built into the system is its wireless connectivity, which is composed of Nintendo's own wireless technology as well as standard Wi-Fi. Of note, it was hard to get a sense for how heavy the system was, as the units were firmly bolted into their respective kiosks, and we'd left our industrial strength bolt cutters at home.
As far as the system's graphical muscle goes, there was plenty of evidence of the DS' versatility. In addition to a selection of first- and third-party offerings, there was also an assortment of eight technology demos to show off the hardware's potential. The most notable demo starred Sega's own Sonic the Hedgehog. The demo proper was displayed in the top DS screen and featured Sonic running through a familiar island setting. You could control Sonic's movements by using the stylus on the lower touch screen. Tapping the screen made Sonic jump, while sliding the stylus across the power meter style image on the lower screen let you build up Sonic's speed. The more you slid the stylus, the faster an onscreen meter built up. Every time the meter filled, Sonic's speed would bump up to a higher level. Another component of the demo let you manipulate the camera on Sonic--you could switch between different angles on the fly by tapping icons on the touchscreen. The graphics in the demo looked good and ran at a smooth clip. Texture detail and polygon count were respectable but didn't quite match the quality of console hardware. The effects used as Sonic's speed leveled up were pretty slick and made use of a wide variety of color and particle effects.
Balloon Trip is a demo starring Mario's lovable baby incarnation from Yoshi's Island, and it finds you guiding him to safety as he falls to the ground. At the start of the demo Baby Mario is dropped by a stork and starts a free fall to the ground. You'll use the stylus to create cloud trails that will gently guide his descent to the ground and steer him to collect coins and avoid enemies that will kidnap him and end the demo. You'll be able to take out certain enemies by quickly drawing a circle around them, trapping them in bubbles that Baby Mario will collect along with coins. The demo forces you to make use of both screens--Baby Mario is falling in the upper screen while you draw his path in the lower one. The trick is to plan ahead and go about arranging the clouds so that they reach the baby, and then line him up for the next set you send his way. The ultimate goal of the demo is to get the little guy to the ground where Yoshi awaits to ferry him off to safety. The graphics in the game mimic the Yoshi's Island style of graphics, with some extra flourishes such as the clouds to keep it looking fresh.
The carving demo is a cool little bit of tech showing off the sensitivity of the touch screen and the graphics speed of the unit. Basically, the demo lets you choose from one of four materials: watermelon, wood, chrome, and Mario clay. Once your material is selected and on the screen, you'll be able to run your stylus over it and carve a design much like working on a pottery wheel. After you've finished you can choose to destroy your creation or display it. You'll be able to use the stylus on the screen to manipulate your work of art by turning it any way you like. The graphics in the demo weren't exactly mind-boggling, although the chrome looked quite sharp. The eye-catching aspect of the presentation is how the stylus interacts with and affects the graphics.
The Mario face demo was just that, a demo that had Mario's and Wario's mugs in the lower screen. The demo was much like the tech demo in Mario 64 that let you manipulate Mario's face. You'll use the stylus to grab the characters' faces and stretch them in a number of ways. Whose face you'll be tugging at is determined by which of the pair's 2D versions jumps down the warp pipe in a rolling guide that plays out on the upper screen. In it, the two characters are running around underneath blocks that correspond to the four buttons on the lower screen, which you can select with the touch pad to get brief explanations of what they do. Basically the buttons affect what your manipulation of the face does. One lets you stretch various parts of the face anyway you like and sends whatever piece you had hold of ricocheting back to normal once you lift the stylus. The second button forces the face to hold whatever ungodly stretched form you drag it in even if you remove the stylus and "let go." The third lets you rotate the image anyway you want with the stylus. The fourth lets you switch from normal or toon-shaded graphics. Finally the last button lets you choose to play with either Mario's or Wario's face by calling down the appropriate guinea pig from up top.
The table hockey demo was a simple version of table hockey that you played with the stylus. The top screen displayed the area around your opponent's goal, while the lower touch screen displayed yours and let you control your paddle with the stylus. The game had a slightly space-age feel to it, since your goal and that of your opponent featured energy shields that had to be hit with the puck once in order to give you a clear shot. The demo featured sparse graphics that pretty much re-created the basic look of an air hockey table. However, the demo's big draw was naturally its simple but addictive gameplay. Once you get the handle of using the stylus, it's possible to pull off some fancy blocks that give the puck some spin.
The special-effects demo offered three modes of effects, selected by hitting one of three icons on the lower touch screen, which displayed various special effects in the upper screen on the fly based on your actions. The first option let you mess around with an assortment of cubes that displayed erratic light patterns as you jostled them every which way. The second option let you push around circles that would yield different patterns of effects. The third option let you select one special effect by tapping any circle in a grid--which took up much of the lower screen--and waving around your stylus, repeating the effect. The effects included everything from clouds and fireworks to spinning batons.
The Pikachu demo offered a virtual Pikachu to love or abuse with your stylus. The hopelessly peppy critter alternated between the two screens. You're only able to interact with him when he's on the lower screen. In addition to following his whims, you'll see onscreen text will let you know when he wants some attention. You can also call up a menu that lets you play with him in a variety of ways. You can use musical instruments, such as a xylophone, or even draw (well trace, really) over him with the stylus. The graphics in the demo surpassed their nearest cousin, the Pikachu in Nintendo 64's Hey You Pikachu!, but they weren't quite as crisp as the Pikachu in the GameCube's Pokémon Channel.
The last demo we tried, the submarine demo, was said to be Miyamoto's favorite. The simple game, featuring a submarine, took place on the upper screen, while the sub's controls appeared on the bottom. The goal of the demo is to get your submarine across a stretch of ocean. The trip will force you to raise and submerge your sub as well as deal with obstacles such as rocks and enemy ships that block your way. The controls consist of dials that you'll manipulate with the stylus. You'll be able to adjust the craft's depth, pitch, and speed on the fly and fire off torpedoes as the need arises. The mechanics, while simple, took some getting used to. They offered a fun "lunar lander"-style challenge as you tried to beat the clock. The graphics in the game were simple but clean, and there were some nice effects for water bubbles and the sub.
All told, the Nintendo DS is an interesting piece of hardware, and it's the most versatile piece of hardware the company has ever put out. The design is unusual--we're a little iffy on the stylus considering how easy it is to lose those things, but the number of features crammed into it is certainly impressive. Compatibility with the GBA is a good thing, and the tech behind the hardware is certainly sound. The tech demos we saw made a case for why the DS is a platform that may offer some truly unique experiences. However, that's just part of the story. In addition to the demos, there were several games on display for the system that we checked out. Namco's Pac-Pix and Pac'n Roll, Konami's Yu-Gi-Oh!: Nightmare Troubador, Bandai's Mobile Suit Gundam Seed, Square Enix's Egg Monster Hero, Hudson's Bomberman, and Nintendo's own DS Picto Chat, WarioWare Inc. DS, Super Mario 64 4x4, and Metroid Prime Hunters all showed off some unique and interesting ways to use Nintendo's new hardware. The Nintendo DS is currently slated to ship this fall. Look for more on the system from the E3 show floor and in the coming months.