Ok, I've had a week with my new Nintendo DS and I can tell you it's been a battle. I've struggled with the basic question, "Do I like the Nintendo DS?" Short answer, I hate the device. Yes, hate. Long answer, I'm enjoying the games for the very same reason I loathe the hardware. Yeah, yeah. Just stay with me…
When a new console comes out, you can't help but take a look at the device itself. We'll have plenty of time to argue the merits of the games in the coming months; but, for now, the product undergoes well-deserved scrutiny. The Nintendo DS doesn't even get close to meeting the basic criteria of good design. Why? The two screens. The thing that was supposed to make the Nintendo DS so revolutionary is the same thing that makes it the anti-portable handheld.
More grumpy old man, with a dash of optimism, after the fold…
The DS is too heavy to play in bed or on the subway ó so right off the bat it failed my usability test. Try holding
the DS up for more than fifteen minutes without getting a cramp. You will eventually need to lean your elbows on
something. A workmate pointed out that it reminded him of an old Polaroid camera. The ones that fold up ó you remember
them if youíre over 30. Heís absolutely right. The Nintendo DS is called a handheld console. That may be so. But
Nintendo really dropped the ball if they were trying to build a portable handheld console. The sucker wonít fit in any
pocket Iíve ever seen.
Now that Iíve gotten my hands on it, Iím more convinced than ever that Nintendo will have a lot of returns on its hands. The stylus control (a wonderful idea) will result in thousands of run-down screens within months. I already notice scrape marks from using the Nintendo stylus. I can only imagine what my nephewís DS looks like. My guess is something between a 1989 polaroid camera and a ten cent whore.
Another downside to the design is the overall build quality. The DS is certainly heavy but that doesnít translate into a feeling of sturdiness. The thumbpad and buttons are a flimsy, black plastic that donít look or feel like they should be a part of the DS. This can be excused as a first-generation oversight, of course. As the price of making the console drops, Iím sure Nintendo will up the quality of the buttons.
In the ďsplitting hairsĒ department, the two screens seem to offer a different resolution and contrast, which can be distracting in bright, happy games like Super Mario DS.
So the design of the DS makes it cumbersome to play and carry around. But thatís not where the experience ends, thank goodness. Itís only fair that we get into why the console is such a failure in the usability department. The short answer is, because itís been designed to offer us some amazing games.
While Iíve cursed the hell out of the thing from the moment I shoved it open (like the two huge iron doors that Aragorn pushed through in The Two Towers film), I also enjoyed Super Mario DS from the start. A good part of the reason I enjoyed it is due to the same details Iíve been blasting, above.
One, sound. The sound on this bugger is unbelievable. Nintendo did not scrimp on the aural stuff. You can set the games to surround sound, and it bloody well works, if you can believe it. The waterfall and chirping birds in Marioland surround you. Beeps and woops tumble from the DS like it was a high-end stereo component. My guess is that a good part of the heft is the speaker/sound hardware.
Two, dual-screen. While the stylus-control pad combo of Super Mario DS is next to impossible to get down within a few days (a big minus), the controls also show the potential of the DS to offer up unique titles. The Super Mario DS minigames reveal the stylusí potential better than the main game. Each character (Mario, Wario, Yoshi and Luigi) get a couple of their own distractions, all of which are nifty and fun due to the stylus screen. For example, Warioís slingshot cannonball is a great time-sucker, where you pull the sling back and let it loose upon falling bombs.
Three, graphics. The processor in the DS is more powerful than I thought. I bet it adds to the heft, too. The graphics are crisp and clear. The boot-up times are short. There are no dropped frames at any point in Mario, or the Metroid demo. The DS delivers the eye candy, and I ate it up.
Four, backward compatibility. I can play my GBA SP games in the DS. While this will take a while to get used to (should I decide to keep the DS) it is a very welcome feature. I certainly wouldnít want to discourage it in future Nintendo products. But, once again, feature-rich seems to mean extra tonnage and gargantuan size. Insert heavy sigh here.
If you take a look at the upcoming titles for the DS you can see the obvious ó developers are creaming over this piece of hardware. They love the idea of split-screen. They love the idea of stylus input. And they love the processing power. So, once again, the biggest deficiencies of the DSís usability and design ends up contributing to its biggest strength. Go figure.
As you can probably see, my experience with the DS has been confusing. I genuinely dislike the deviceís design and feel. In my opinion, Nintendo has dropped the ball on making a portable handheld that I can whip out and play at a momentís notice. But the DS is also going to do exactly what Nintendo said it would doÖchange gaming forever. I guess, to be revolutionary you have to make some sacrifices. As long as I donít have to sacrifice my lower back to the DSís sheer heft, Iíll be happy to overlook its weaknesses.
After all is said and done, I look forward to the next round of DS games in early December. At which point my love-hate relationship with Nintendoís latest baby will, no doubt, continue. In the meantime, I will defintely be playing my GBA SP games in the best handheld console ever made, the GBA SP.