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North America

Nintendo DS

by Jonathan Metts - November 5, 2004, 3:49 pm EST

Hands-on with the final hardware, including the built-in PictoChat software.

Holding the production version of the Nintendo DS (and I couldn’t be more literal; we watched NOA reps open up a retail package and pull the system out) presented a few surprises, mostly positive. The system is very light, about the same weight as the GBA SP, or at least it feels that way. It’s certainly not as heavy as I expected from the size, which is slightly larger than the original GBA model. When unfolded, the DS is also surprisingly thin, so much that I worry it may become uncomfortable to hold over a long period of time. Fortunately, using the touchscreen usually means that you’re holding the system in one hand and holding the stylus in the other, which makes the thinness easier to handle, and manages to be fairly practical due to the aforementioned lightness.

The screens look oddly small, probably due to how much extra casing there is on the unit. On the GBA, the screen takes up that entire half of the system, which makes it look bigger than it is. Both screens are sharp, as you would expect from Sharp. (Sorry.) The casing is the same Platinum color used on the special edition GameCubes and GBAs, and it looks great. The stereo speakers can get fairly loud at max. volume, but I wasn’t able to hear any significant channel separation, due either to the software being presented or the often noisy venue.

Both the D-pad and face buttons are identical in size and layout, and both are a bit small for my taste. The layout is quite smart, since left-handed players can use the face buttons as a substitute for the D-pad while holding the stylus in their left hands. Or, in the case of Metroid Prime Hunters, one control scheme lets you use the D-pad and face buttons at the same time in a weird analogue to dual-joystick controls. The new shoulder buttons feel much, much better than the ones at E3. These are quite similar to the GBA SP triggers, except longer. They should be comfortable for either knuckles or fingertips. The touchscreen is capable of being very sensitive, though the effective sensitivity depends largely on the software being played. Some of the pre-production games I played were erratic at best when using the touchscreen, but hopefully things will be tightened up before they are released. In any case, I don’t think it was the hardware’s fault. Some of the DS units at hand had clearly been used for numerous demos already, and some of them had visible scratches on the soft plastic screen cover, where the stylus had been rubbed frantically. Such scratches might be such that you could buff them out with a cloth. The protective cover layer was clearly removable, but NOA employees indicated that the company would not be selling replacements, but rather asking consumers to send the system in for repair if the touchscreen gets too scratched up. Some third-party companies are planning to sell their own protective layers, however.

The DS front-end menus contain a number of settings, including different languages for system messages, clock and calendar options, and user profile information for wireless games. There is also a touchscreen calibration tool which can be completed in just a few seconds. One setting lets you tell the system whether to boot to menu or directly to software when you turn on the power with a game inserted. Another allows you to configure how GBA games are displayed (top screen or bottom screen). There is a menu that shows which games are inserted in the DS Game Card and GBA Game Pak slots, and you can boot either one by simply clicking on the title with your finger or stylus. The last two options are for receive mode, in which you will automatically download any single-card wireless games being hosted nearby, and PictoChat.

PictoChat is a blast. Perrin Kaplan said they are counting the days until it is banned in schools, and after messing around with it in a room full of systems, it’s easy to believe her. You can type messages in several character sets (alphabet, symbols, smilies, world language symbols, Japanese), even incorporate the keyboard letters into your drawings by dragging letters up to the canvas. There are a few basic MS Paint-style tools for the drawing feature, so you can write in two different pen thicknesses, erase manually or clear the entire board, etc. Messages are posted on the upper screen when broadcast, and you can scroll back through the entire history up until the point where you joined the room. Up to sixteen people can be in a single room, although things get chaotic with more than five or six participants, and there can be up to four rooms hosted in a given area. Message invariably lead to boob jokes and l33t speak, and it is awfully funny and engaging. PictoChat is a fantastic little utility that was more fun than some of the actual launch games I played.

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Developer Nintendo

Worldwide Releases

na: Nintendo DS
Release Nov 21, 2004
jpn: Nintendo DS
Release Dec 02, 2004
eu: Nintendo DS
Release Mar 11, 2005
aus: Nintendo DS
Release Feb 24, 2005

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