Editors' Note: The 2004 version of the Nintendo DS reviewed here has effectively been discontinued and replaced by the Nintendo DS Lite, which offers all of the same functionality as the original DS, but with brighter screens and a smaller, sleeker body.
Riding high on the success of the mega-popular Game Boy Advance (GBA) line of portables, Nintendo decided to take a risk when it released the Nintendo DS--short for dual screen. Forcing a second visual output and a touch screen on a generation of gamers weaned on controllers could have resulted in a disaster of Virtual Boy proportions. It faces some tough competition in form of Sony's graphically superior , which also features movie and music playback, but fortunately for Nintendo, the system has been a breakout success, due in no small part to the uniqueness of its titles.
The Nintendo DS is a portable gaming system with two vertically tiered screens. On the bottom is a touch screen that allows you to use a stylus or a finger for anything from selecting options to moving characters. There's also a normal face-button layout that allows a more standard method of control. The system plays its own proprietary cartridges (which are somewhere between SD and CompactFlash cards in size), in addition to its near-full backward compatibility with GBA titles. While DS cartridges are much smaller in capacity than the PSP's UMDs, they play without the often unbearable load times of Sony's proprietary format. The system currently retails for $130 and is available in two colors: Titanium and Electric Blue. Nintendo also often releases special higher-priced DS bundles that include a game. With the DS Lite--a slimmer, brighter, and more stylish version of the DS--also available for $130, expect a price drop, more bundling, or discontinuation of this iteration of the system.
Though the Nintendo DS is roughly the size of the original Game Boy Advance, its clamshell design makes it a bit chunkier--picture two GBA SPs sitting side by side. In sum: it's big. Unlike the SP, which fits in almost any pocket, the DS will likely travel in your backpack or your shoulder bag. Despite its increased size, the DS isn't too heavy, tipping the scales at 9.7 ounces. Since using either the directional pad or the thumb stylus requires that you hold the unit in two hands, the added weight is easily managed.
From left to right, the DS's volume control, GBA cartridge slot, microphone, and headphone connectors occupy the front of the unit, and its shoulder buttons, DS game slot, and AC adapter slot reside in the back. Opening the DS, the top panel houses stereo speakers and the main LCD screen, while the bottom piece contains the directional pad, the power button, the touch screen, and six (A, B, X, Y, Select, and Start) function buttons. The DS package includes Nintendo's PictoChat software, two pen-shaped styli (one slides into the DS body, PDA-style), a wrist strap that doubles as a thumb stylus, and the same AC adapter that comes with the GBA SP. Though the pen stylus works best for drawing and writing messages in PictoChat, we found that the thumb stylus offers immeasurably better performance during gameplay.
Visually, we achieved our most glare-free results by pivoting the top screen back as far as it would go, though the two displays seem to work together most seamlessly when the upper screen is tilted slightly. Both screens look terrific; there's none of the ghostly white glow that emanates from the GBA SP's front-lit display system, and the DS's backlighting makes its graphics stand out. Metroid Prime: Hunters' beautiful full-motion video sequences take full advantage of both screens, each with 256x192 resolution and 260,000 colors. One benefit of the DS's elongated form factor is that its stereo speakers work tremendously well; we could clearly note separation between the left and right sound channels in Metroid Prime: Hunters, and the DS even surprised us with some well-done surround effects (for example, doors closing behind you).
Though it may be at best a distraction for some gamers, PictoChat has some interesting features that fuse the DS's wireless and touch-screen capabilities. When you start the program, you'll see a list of available rooms; we'd like to have seen specific users in range, although if someone joins your room, the software announces it. Typing with the stylus is fairly natural using the virtual keyboard at the bottom of the touch screen. The tip of the pen stylus is broad enough to make intricate drawings impossible, but it's fairly easy to get your point across.
We used the multiplayer mode on Metroid Prime: Hunters to test the DS's wireless gameplay performance. In an open area, we more than surpassed the DS's rated range of 30 feet; in fact, we got more than 150 feet away from each other before one of us dropped out of the game. Through walls, the range was predictably shorter, cutting out at about 30 feet. In Metroid as well as in PictoChat, a small cell phone-like signal indicator tells you what kind of connection you're getting. Even with only one signal bar, multiplayer Metroid was seamless and completely lag-free. Things bogged down beyond that point, but all in all, wireless gaming was nothing short of a home run. Our one disappointment: older GBA multiplayer games won't play head-to-head over the wireless connection, and the lack of a link cable port means you can't have a wired bond to older GBAs or Nintendo's GameCube.