Gear Review: Nintendo DS: Impressions [NDS]
But it's also fair and justified for Nintendo to want to be protective of its designs. So I bit my tongue and, after a month, resigned to just waiting it out and hoping that this "gimmick" would turn into something extraordinary.
Then came the Touch Screen announcement.
The built-in mic.
The Wi-Fi and proprietary wireless.
The final straw was E3, when Reginald Fils-Aime pulled the unit out and we were treated to footage of Metroid Prime: Hunters running at 60 frames a second, and later when the game sites released a massive horde of innovative tech demos that would later become full-fledged, polished products.
I had gone from hater to sold. And on November 21st, I picked up the boxy little critter from Gamestop.
The mirror shot clearly inverts the position of the D-Pad and the Buttons, so please kindly ignore the discrepancy.
Bear with the text -- pictures will follow when I go back home and have access to my camera.
To get a good idea of the DS's size, imagine the old Gameboy Advance (pre-SP). Now, stack two of them. Then square out the corners so that they're more rectangular. This is basically how large the DS is when open, although because there is less to stuff in the top screen's portion, this is slightly thinner.
The weight is pretty close to 1.5 old-style GBAs, so holding it traditionally is not at all a problem. Playing games without using the stylus will feel totally natural. However, as has been reported elsewhere, it does indeed get a little bit weighty when you play a stylus-oriented game for awhile. It's certainly not as unmanageable as people have tried to make it out to be, but if I had a choice between resting it on my leg or a table as opposed to holding it in the air closer to my line of sight, I'd have to go with resting it.
The unit is indeed a bit boxy, but it's not Neo-Geo Pocket Color boxy. In fact, it's even elegant. While I don't think it's as pretty to look at as the Sony PSP (and this knowledge is only from screenshots), it is still a classy-looking unit. More importantly, it is by far better-looking than the clunker unveiled at E3.
The E3 model had funky rounded edges and a uniformly rectangular look all around, making it look like a silver duck bill. The retail model has a sleek, angular top portion to give it a bit of sharpness, and the black buttons on the inside (not to mention the black backside of the bottom) give a nice color contrast that is pleasing to the eye.
The DS fits easily into a breast coat pocket, and if you wear baggy jeans, it can slide easily into those pockets as well. Remember, it's only slightly thicker than a GBA SP when closed, and the length and width of the old GBA. If you managed those units in your pockets, there's a good chance you'll be fine with the DS in your pocket.
The screens are bright and display rich color. The bluish washed-out coloring I saw in the GBA SP were nowhere to be found. However, and I'm sure you've heard this, the viewing angle is still a bit tough to manage. It's noticeably worse than that of an old laptop, but it's not as unbearable as the GBA SP's strange "reflective" effect. The touch screen accumulates fingerprints and oils relatively quickly, but I challenge you to actually notice this while a game is on. I never was able to at all.
Size wise, the screens are just slightly bigger than GBA screens. Personally I am fine with this. I'm sure to be wowed by the nicely sized PSP screen when I see it in person, but this is mitigated by the fact that I'm looking at two screens here. Understand though that this doesn't necessarily mean you get gameplay on the big, beautiful dual screens. I could imagine a vertical shooter like Ikaruga utilizing the real estate especially well, though.
Thank goodness Nintendo decided to increase the size of the D-Pad from the E3 model. It's slightly bigger than the GBA SP / Gamecube D-pad as well, nearing SNES size in terms of length. The buttons, however, are curiously small. This does not bother me one iota, but it might bother Bob Bobson. The L and R buttons are perfect, slightly bigger than those found on the old GBA but perfectly responsive.
The stylus is the star of the show, however. It is one four reasons for the DS' entire existence (the other three being the second screen, the wireless capabilities, and the built-in mic of course). I have never owned a PDA so I don't know how big a regular stylus is. An easy way to estimate the length would be to measure a closed DS or an old GBA from the top of the cartridge slot to the bottom. The stylus slips into the back of the unit vertically. I don't particularly find it uncomfortable to hold at all.
The combination of the stylus and the touch screen is heaven. Many sites claim that the combo is "very responsive and precise." I wouldn't have expected otherwise, but when you think about it you can almost taste how Nintendo may have messed it up. Chunky response area, lag between when you touch the screen and when it actually reacts... something that I take for granted could have easily been messed up. I suppose it's because I have never seen a laggy, chunky touch screen before. I'm glad that as of yet I still have not. Your drawings are very accurate and follow your hand, but most likely they'll suck at first, because it's very hard to draw unless your arm is resting on a table. At least, I find it difficult to draw or write that way.
The thumb pad that sits on the end of the wrist strap, or the thumb "shoe" as IGN DS calls it, is... well, I don't know. I have played Super Mario 64 DS and Metroid Prime: Hunters - First Hunt, and the results are different for both. The thumb pad is as accurate as the stylus for its purposes and works beautifully for Metroid in terms of accuracy, but I find it clumsy for Mario 64 DS. More detail will be found in the games section below. Thankfully, at the very least it's very easy to slip on. Just loop it around your thumb, and pull the rest of the wrist strap to tighted it -- just like a seat belt.
Here and There
The battery has lasted me for a while thus far. I've only seen the dreaded red light once, and I believe it took about 7 to 8 hours to get to that point. Considering I keep the light on during all play, there are TWO screens to keep lit, and it's backlighting at that, this is impressive. I wish, of course, that there existed a light on / off button as there is on the DS. You can set this as an option in, for example, Super Mario 64 DS in a menu... but a quick click button would have been better.
The system setup is very rudimentary. It takes the date, time, your name, your birthday, your "favorite color", language, and that's it. There is no calendar scheduling function, and while this would have been a cool tool, this is what cellular phones can do. I highly doubt I'd want to enter a meeting in my Nintendo DS and have to bring it to work with me, and then open the thing in the office when it rings, and have everyone think I'm slacking off.
One thing of note is that the setup forces a system shutdown to save settings. People have complained about wanting it to reset itself. No. Stop complaining. Numerous times I have gone into system setup to turn on my alarm. After it goes off and does its job, I'm happy to have it simply shut down. I wouldn't want it to reset itself on without my consent. Perhaps they wanted an option that said, "Shut Down or Reset?" This is more understandable. But still, I would rather have it shut off instead of automatically turn on without me wanting it to.
Regarding Pictochat... I have not really used Pictochat to its full potential, as I have had no one to chat with. End of story.
Thus far I own the included Metroid Prime: Hunters - First Hunt demo, and Super Mario 64 DS. The demo is obviously a small piece of software, and I never expected it to contain more than a simple level. Mario 64 DS, by contrast, is massive. It's essentially a re-worked version of Mario 64's world, which as we all know wasn't too small itself. But there are also more than two dozen unlockable minigames, all of which use the stylus, to pass the time while resting between intense platforming sessions on Mario or waiting for a flight to take off.
Metroid Prime: Hunters - Furst hunt
Metroid Prime: Hunters - First Hunt is actually what I fear will become the real Metroid Prime: Hunters game. Metroid Prime: Hunters - First Hunt is essentially a true first person shooter in terms of mechanics. You run around, and shoot. That's it. Sure you have your morph ball and bombs, but it's still more shooting and less thinking.
Don't get me wrong, the demo itself is entertaining, and is very demonstrative of what the DS has to offer. But I like my Metroid games to be just like Metroid: explorative adventures. As long as Hunters is a great game regardless of construction, I'll be happy, but I can't help but feel upset that they'll be introducing Metroid to a whole slew of new gamers in this "incorrect" form. No doubt they will pick up Prime or Prime 2 on Cube and say, "This isn't Metroid." Oh, the shame.
The default configuration mimics the Mouse-and-Keyboard setup of a PC FPS (HALLELUJAH!) and it controls like a dream... once you get used to sliding around with your thumb "shoe". It really, really feels as natural as a mouse does to control movement. There is no waiting while you make a slow 180 degree turn. Two quick slides and you're there. There is no lagging while you look up with an analog stick -- just flip your thumb up and you're looking at what you need to be. My personal beef is that Nintendo did not include an "invert view" mode. I like my pilot mode. Up is down and down is up. I'm weird like that. So naturally the demo took getting used to from me.
That's why, as awesome as this thumb control is, I actually prefer the E3 demo mode. You cover the screen, you complain. It's clunky and goofy, you whine. Complain and whine all you like, for the above method will suit you. But me? I will kick your a$$ using the touch-where-you-want-to-shoot mode. That's all there is to it -- you touch where you want to shoot. You drag the stylus to look around. This is where most people complained about not being able to see because your hand was in the way, but I honestly found no problem with it. The way I angle my stylus, it directly overlaps Samus' arm cannon. And honestly I wouldn't really miss seeing her arm cannon, but it's really not that intrusive in the first place! It looks just fine.
Secondly, the complaint that it is clumsy... I suppose that's up to you to decide, but I find it easy to get used to and the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. Yes, you shoot every time you tap the screen, so unless you keep your stylus down anytime after you fire, you're going to "waste" a shot of ammo. And yes, this also means that you can't shoot around while looking around. I accept this because the ability to simply fire at exactly what you touch makes up for it in spades. I wouldn't need to aim more while firing because I'd simply only need to touch anything else in my range of view. Yes, this takes a bit of the skill away in aiming in an FPS, but I can only answer that by saying that obliterating enemies this way is just so fun. It's so refreshingly simple and it feels -- get this like a light-gun game. Now we can have a true combination of a light-gun game and first person, free form movement! Let that sink in for a second.
As for the game modes, I only have knowledge of single player. Again, I am a loser without DS friends. The single player is completable in about 3 to 5 minutes and is a simple long stage where you blast green baddies and roll through one single morphball puzzle, ending the stage in a battle against a Samus twin. The morphball race mode, where you simply collect dots on a set track, is almost pointless until you realize it really is a "training" mission -- it's training us humans to get used to using the touch screen. The "Survivor" mode is a basic fight-till-you-drop stage against constantly regenerating enemies.
All in all, a great demo for a pack-in. A full game would have been appreciated though, just like in the old days.
Super Mario 64 DS
As I said before, this game is pretty big. It's big enough that I am going to save most of the impressions for a FIMP later on. But a little taste for now. If you've played Mario 64 before, you will be familiar with most of the game. But, there is an extra star per course, and the ability to play through each course as Yoshi, Mario, Luigi and even Wario. They all control differently and have different abilities, so it's not just a simple port, but it does kind of qualify as a "Director's Cut."
What really makes me love this title is the bevy of minigames. They're incredibly addictive and great time wasters. One is a "Where's Waldo" - Mario style. The top screen shows the Mario character face you must find (Mario, Luigi, Wario, Yoshi -- Luigi is the toughest to find in my opinion). The bottom screen shows a horde of faces, from which you must find the one face on top. It starts out really easy on stage 1, a little harder on stage 2, harder still on stage 3, then stage 4 makes you want to throw your new DS out the window. It continues at that difficulty level for as long as you can keep up. A timer goes down consistently, and you gain 5 seconds for every successful match. If you hit the wrong face, you lose 10 seconds.
Another great minigame is a touch twist on the old game Missile Command. You have a sling shot at your disposal, which you pull on with the stylus. It's too intuitive to even explain -- the farther down you pull, the faster it'll launch your ammo. If you pull down-left, it'll launch up-right. (Duh.) Your mission is to keep the parachuting Bob-ombs from plastering the field of flowers behind the castle wall. As expected, as you succeed the frequency of Bob-ombs increases until you basically admit to yourself that you suck and should just give up. If four Bob-ombs reach the flower bed, your game is over.
I could go on and on about the minigames but let me stop here and talk about the much talked-about touch-screen analog control. As you well know, a D-pad is no substitute for an analog stick in a platformer, but the D-pad works remarkably well with this game. You will get a feel for it and it will end up working pretty well, trust me. It's just, of course, not as good as having the analog. Thus, Nintendo's substitute was to use the touch screen and the thumb shoe.
The idea? Great, in my opinion.
The execution? Lacking, in my opinion.
When you touch the screen, a little bullseye opens up on the screen. The farther out to the circumference of the bulls eye you touch, the faster your character goes. If you hit dead center, that's the neutral zone of the analog stick. It sounds like a great idea, and it could have been. Although it doesn't make up for tactile feedback, it's a solution to the analog problem. However, the bullseye to me is a bit too small, and jumps around too much for my tastes. This is where not being able to see what your thumb is sitting on really gets complaint-worthy, NOT in Metroid. If you're left handed though, you're in luck -- I'd be willing to be that using the stylus with your left hand to move around the bulleye would be much more suitable than me using my left hand or even my left thumb to do the same.
All in all, the lack of an analog joystick does hurt the title a little bit but thus far I've found little reason to complain too much about it except for a few rough spots here and there.
The Nintendo DS was worth every single penny of the $150 + tax I paid for it. If you are a hardcore gamer who wants to have the technology to open up avenues to NEW styles of playing old games and NEW styles of playing NEW games, then I don't think you can afford to pass this up, much as you might like to stamp on Nintendo's unfair "kiddie" label. I believe you will marvel at the ideas this machine has. If you just want to play the same old games on the go at a high quality, then I have to be honest and recommend that you stick with your GBA and wait for the DS library to flesh out with stuff you might "need". The DS is not "for" everyone yet, but I believe it should be at least tried by everyone. It's the first really "new" thing I've seen, that brings worthy stuff to the table and does it well, since the Sega Dreamcast.
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