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Since the introduction of the Game Boy, Nintendo dominated the portable gaming market for reasons that go way beyond the fact that they don’t really have much competition in that front. Let’s face it, folks, who wouldn’t want to whip out a gaming system that fits in your pocket and play a game of Super Mario Bros. or even a portable version of Metroid any time you want? Yet times change and the Nintendo went from the Game Boy to the Game Boy Advance SP, but now it’s not alone. Along comes Nokia, bringing wireless communication and gaming with the N-Gage QD and now Sony is jumping into the fray with the Sony PSP. What’s a beloved portable gaming system to do now? How about launch a system called the Nintendo DS and make it one of the coolest things to come out this holiday. So is the Nintendo DS worth your hard-earned cash? Let’s just say that I can’t keep my hands off of it.

The first thing you’ll notice right off the bat is the fact that the system has dual screens that are both bigger than the Game Boy Advance SP screen. Having learned its lesson when Game Boy Advance owners complained that it was hard to see the games in action, both screens are backlit and thus can be played in any lighting condition. Yet here’s the interesting part, the bottom screen uses touch-screen technology and uses this technology consistently since the Nintendo DS allows you to use the system much like a PDA. Yet it doesn’t stop there, you’ll be using the touch screen in various DS games (we’ll get into that a bit later). Using your finger or the Stylus that comes with the system, the touch screen responds quickly and perfectly.

The system’s design is sleek a noticeable bigger than the average GBA (or Game Boy Advance SP, for that matter) so you’ll find it just a tad more difficult to stuff in the pocket of your jeans but it’s light enough that it won’t seem too bothersome while folded. The button layout is similar to that of the Super Nintendo seeing as you’ll find A, B, X and Y buttons along with a Select, Start and two shoulder buttons. There’s a jack for headphones and even a microphone (we’ll get to that a bit later, too) and a directional pad that’s less pronounced than the one the GBA SP possesses. The speakers on both sides of the hardware are powerful.

Here’s another great feature; the Nintendo DS boasts wireless communication, all of that can have you and a friend communicating with each another within a 100-foot radius. What does this mean for gaming? Unlike the GBA you won’t need Link Cables to play multiplayer games – it’s all completely wireless gaming. Depending on the game, you can have multiplayer matches with up to 16 players, all of which are yet to be tested out, but seeing as how smoothly the communication between two DS owners was thanks to the embedded PictoChat feature that allows you to write messages to other DS systems, it’s looking great. PictoChat is basically a communication tool that allows you to draw images and write messages via a virtual keyword. Using your Stylus you can write messages and send them to other DS systems within the range. This is a great addition for those who want to challenge other Nintendo DS owners to multiplayer matches.

At launch time, you’ll find enough games DS games and the good news is that you won’t only find first-party titles but third-party games as well. The Nintendo DS is backward compatible so you’ll be able to play all of your GBA SP games (there’s a slot in the front that fits your old games) but, unfortunately, you won’t get to play any of your old Game Boy or Game Boy Color games. You’ll also have to say goodbye to the multiplayer mode so while you’ll get to play your old games on the system it’s strictly all single-player modes. The slot in the back is strictly for the DS games with a cartridge slot much smaller than the normal GBA cartridge and hold up to one gigabit (it‘s not bad but then again it‘s not great either).

Remember when I said that the touch-screen technology is used during gameplay, well, each game makes full use of the bottom screen in various unique ways. We’ll take Metroid Prime Hunters (since a demo is packaged with the system) as an example of how the touch-screen is used. The top screen depicts the action while the second screen offers vital information like a useful map but with the touch of a button you can switch the controls on the fly and use the touch-screen much like a mouse if that suits you better. Spider-Man 2 uses the screen in a unique way as well. When Doctor Octopus tosses things as Spidey, you can catch them with the touch of your screen. The microphone is also implemented in games, for example, Feel the Magic: XY/XX uses the microphone for voice recognition and you can blow into the microphone when you’re asked to blow out candles in the game. Ah, Nintendo DS, you had me at “touch me.”

How about the graphics, you might ask? Well thanks to the nice size of the LCD screens you’ll get to see lots of details in each game’s graphics. Speaking of graphics, I’ve tested many of the initial launch titles and its hard not to notice how each of the current lineup of titles looks slightly better than the average N64 games. For those who are picky about their graphics, this might be a turn-off, but games like Super Mario DS shows us that the system has much potential and, in the right hands, we might just see developers push the system’s graphical capabilities to its maximum. Sound-wise, the system is capable of showcasing various sound effects and music. What about the battery life, you might ask? Like the Game Boy Advance SP, the DS has a rechargeable battery that lasts up to ten hours per charge via an AC Adaptor.

Having released the system in time for the holiday season, Nintendo is confident that this will be the gift every gamer would love to have. Seeing as it has a number of unique features, and an already interesting lineup of titles to look forward to, the Nintendo DS has all the goods to give Sony a run for its money. The few downsides really don’t hold this portable back from being the coolest piece of hardware you’ll be glad to own so pick this one up.

Pros:

Nintendo managed to release the DS just in time for the holiday season.
The dual screens are big and backlit.
The touch-screen technology is used creatively.
It has a microphone, which opens up new ideas.
It’s wireless, so bid a fond farewell to Link Cables.
The launch games are plentiful and decent.
Third-party support from the get-go.
The battery lasts up to ten hours per recharge.
Lots of potential for some really interesting games.
The $149.99 retail price tag.

Cons:

The bulky package isn’t as stylish as the Sony PSP and it won’t fit in your pocket.
Nintendo 64 graphics can be an eyesore for those who expected GameCube-like graphics.
The side buttons might seem small for those of us with big hands.
Too early to tell if heavy use of the Stylus will scratch the surface of the touch-screen.

Verdict: 9.0
So far the Nintendo DS shows a lot of potential and based on all the ultra-cool features it already possesses, this is one hot portable gamers will be proud to own. With its wireless capabilities, touch-screen technology, backward compatibility, there’s loads of potential here . . . all of which spells portable gaming nirvana for those who like to take their games on the go.

Review Video:


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