Nintendo DS Hands-On

We get our mitts on the latest revision of Nintendo's upcoming portable system.


Super Mario 64

SEATTLE--While Nintendo's Gamer's Summit marks the debut of the software for Nintendo's upcoming DS hardware, the summit is also the debut of the latest iteration of the hardware, which looked tubby and brickline when we last saw it at E3. While the systems Nintendo is showing here in Seattle still aren't the final design, they are pretty close to the unit that will hit next month when the system sees a wide release in the US on November 21.

There have been a number of tweaks made to the machine since its E3 unveiling, and several of them have given the machine a far less clunky appearance. The slimmer, trimmer DS is now closer in appearance to a PDA, although it's still a little too thick to pass for one. The system's cartridge port for DS games is at the top of the unit along the spine. Although it was said at E3 that the cartridges were expected to be smaller than standard GBA carts, the final media used in the DS is closer to the size of the SD media used for digital cameras and other similar portable devices, though they're a little broader and longer. This is ultimately for the better, as, considering how easy it is to actually lose an SD card, the extra heft to the cartridges should make them a little tougher to misplace. Nintendo is officially referring to them as "game cards."

The secondary cartridge slot for Game Boy Advance games is on the front of the unit. The buttons and switches on the unit are all discreetly laid out on the system. The power button is now on the left side of the unit, near the D pad, while the select and start buttons are on the right, next to the four face buttons. The machine also has two shoulder buttons, on the top of the unit, bookending the cartridge slot. The stylus will slip into the body of the unit from the spine, with the small pointer fitting into the system and remaining flush with it, making it a little tough to pull out. Beyond these major elements, on the body of the unit are the expected power port and volume slider. Unlike the GBA, the unit we've seen will not have a button to turn off the light on the dual screens if needed to conserve battery life. To be fair, the screen lighting is adjustable in the options menus in many of the games on hand.

Speaking of the screens, the handheld's two lit screens offer good image quality. Seeing the action on them can get a little tricky, though, depending on the angle you're holding the system at and how many of your hands are in use. The clamshell design makes it possible to adjust your viewing angle depending on the situation, which is helpful, but also potentially troublesome, as the hinges on the units Nintendo is displaying are a little loose when opened. When you power up the system, you'll be rewarded by a zippy boot sequence that's simple and along the same lines as the GBA's, although with a new logo and sound effect. Games come up pretty quickly after you get through the welcome screen and set some personal information to tie the unit to you and your geographical region. Overall, we're pretty pleased by the look of this near-final incarnation of the hardware. We'll admit to not being huge fans of the stylus, which seems to be made for the very small-handed people. However, the system is loaded with features and has an attractive price point.

Now, as far as how this version of the DS stacks up to our time with work-in-progress versions of the PSP, we'll start out by saying that, in many ways, we're talking apples and oranges here. The DS is definitely a game system, whereas the PSP is poised to do quite a bit more. Obviously one of the biggest sticking points is battery life, and, while the DS has announced a life similar to the GBA SP, Sony's been pretty mum on PSP specifics. All manner of speculation emerged from Japan after the Tokyo Game Show that has clocked the PSP battery life at a variety of low-end lengths of time, which is something Nintendo has gleefully taken the PSP to task on publicly. From a design perspective, both units have a pretty comfy fit, although there a few DS games that made it difficult to hold the unit and use the stylus at the same time. As far as weight goes, the non-final DS units feel pretty light.

As far as performance goes, there are just a handful of titles that are poised to be top tier on the DS this year. The basic level of quality in the games we've seen bodes well for the future of the software library. More importantly, the experimental feel of several of the titles will be an interesting sell to consumers. But even though some of the games might not be universally appealing, the launch lineup also has several mainstream anchors that should please anyone once they get going. We've been surprised but cautiously optimistic over about the DS and PSP are going to be welcomed, and we think they'll both garner their fair share of attention leading up to and following their launch. Since neither of the units we've seen have been the 100-percent-final designs, we have to say that it's not possible to make a final declaration on either. Ultimately, the DS hardware is a solid-looking platform from a feature-set perspective. For more updates on the Nintendo DS and other impressions and media, check out GameSpot's coverage of the Nintendo's Gamer's Summit.

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