It's kind of strange when you finally hold in your hands a piece of kit you've been reading about for what seems forever. You've followed the announcements, the prototype models, the redesign, the endless hype. Months and months of information tunnelling its way into the darkest corners of your cerebrum, eventually ending in a bit of shiny grey plastic in a cardboard box. It's exciting though, isn't it, getting your hands on the next big thing? Like the initial time I caressed my first PS2, when I stroked my Xbox, when I whispered sweet nothings to my SNES in the dark of night. But that's my business.
Yes, it's a new Nintendo handheld. No, not a redesign or a consumer-friendly SP model - this is seriously "new" stuff. Talking of new things, as I seem to be, this is also a new situation for Nintendo. Previously Nintendo have been the undisputed daddies of the handheld market. For those of you too young to remember Nintendo were also once the undisputed daddies of the console market too, so it's no surprise that when Sony, the current powerhouse, announced the PSP certain bods at Nintendo secretly filled their pants. Granted, the Gameboy saw off several technically superior beats in its lifetime but all you have to do is look at the PSP to know that it's going to sell lots and lots. The DS is Nintendo's reaction. Never one for relying on technological grunt alone, Nintendo instantly recognised that Sony's handheld has been built for one reason only - to offer unparalleled handheld power. That's what the PSP offers, and no doubt when we see it in action its graphical capabilities will make the DS seem so last-generation. Saying that, it's instantly clear that the DS outperforms the N64 when it comes to power once you see Mario 64 in action. Nonetheless, the DS isn't about power - it's about innovation.
And so to the unit itself. The first thing I noticed? The size - put simply, it's big. Not in a "Oh my god, lord please HELP ME!" kind of way but more in a gentle "Ohhh, he's a wee bit plump." sort of manner. It's not worryingly big, just larger than you expect. Despite the extra pounds, the DS is a sleek and sophisticated number when sitting closed up on your PC desk charging. There's a front port for GBA games (though not original Gameboy or Gameboy Colour games, incidentally) and a smaller rear port for the tiny data-card like DS cartridges. Also present and correct is a built in headphone socket and a power terminal which handily works very well with the your UK GBA power adapter. I couldn't help but notice the understated Nintendo logo sitting quite unceremoniously on the front flap, almost hidden from the eye at a glance. No red lines, merely polished grey - very mature.
The DS opens with a reassuringly secure action that feels very solid. However, the inside isn't quite as seductive as its luscious exterior. It still looks nice, I shan't deny that, but from certain angles in particular lights you can almost see the ugly, plasticy demo model at the heart of it. At other times though it looks fine. It's great to see a diamond of buttons on a Nintendo machine again and it's just a shame that they have to be so small and close together, but then this is necessary for when left handed gamers wish to direct their actions at the same time as using the touch pad. The D-pad though is really quite good, baring more resemblance to the one found on the SNES pad as opposed to those on the Gamecube or GBA. Both screens are slightly larger than the GBA's and are also far better to look at. The use of rear lighting as opposed to the front lighting introduced on the SP offers a sharper image and richer colours. Stereo speakers sit either side of the top screen and whilst they're quite tinny, when held in the right position you do definitely get some sense of stereo sound.
The bottom screen however is really a far more interesting story. Pluck the quite tiny stylus from it's housing tucked in the rear cover (you get a spare, fortunately) and a whole new world of touchy-screeny-stuff awaits. Alternatively, there is also a small attachment on the wrist strap that can double up if you're caught short, though with my tiny hands I found it very tricky when using this to reach the far side of the screen without severely obscuring it. Using the stylus is far better and the accuracy of the touch sensitivity is excellent, allowing for some quite precise control. Also good too is the very modern user interface which allows you to digitally personalise the machine when playing multiplayer games, as well as set things like the time and choose what program to boot up - if you have both GBA and DS cartridges inserted then you're able to choose between the two, or even set it to automatically boot upon power up. The screen feels sturdy and the sensitivity is just right - it's not too light as to make it twitchy, yet it never requires as much pressure so as to make you feel like you're damaging it.
What it's like to hold the system really depends on what you're doing at the time. If you're holding it as you would a traditional joypad then it's comfortable enough - certainly less likely to induce cramp than the at times quite agonising GBA SP, though still a little angular and not quite natural. It's just about light enough to hold for extended periods without any tiredness though I did find that I tended to slowly lean the unit further and further towards me whilst playing. Games that require the use of the stylus, however, can often be quite painful if played over any length of time. If you're able, comfortable and well sighted enough then it's possible to play with the unit on your lap. If you're not though then holding the unit with one hand whilst jabbing the screen with your other is the stuff of the cruellest torture. It's simply not comfortable for any length of time, no matter what you do, though that doesn't mean that it isn't able to offer up some wonderful control possibilities.
The supplied demo of Metroid Prime Hunters is enough to demonstrate this. The default (and best) setup has you controlling the d-pad and shoulder button with one hand whilst using the stylus with the other. The touch screen controls the direction in which you're facing whilst the d-pad moves you backwards, forwards and from side to side. The shoulder button is then used to fire - a great improvement over the previous build that required you to jab the screen to shoot. Using the stylus and pad in this manner offers the same level of analogue control as if you were using mouse and keyboard; it's certainly superior to twin analogue sticks It's just a shame then that I couldn't find a way to make it more comfortable.
Let's not forget too the in-built microphone. Though accurate voice recognition is going to be impractical (not to mention publicly embarrassing) whilst on the move it's yet another feature crying to be used properly. The best example I've seen so far was in one of the mini games on Feel The Magic that required you to guide a boat across water by blowing into the microphone. The accuracy with which it responded to how strong you blow is really quite astounding, enough even for me to get it out and show my Dad on a recent family visit. How it will be used in other ways we will have to wait and see. Unfortunately the distinct lack of other DS's meant that testing the multiplayer or instant messaging software was not possible. The DS comes equipped with some serious wireless communications hardware so expect some excellent multiplayer action if it all works technically. A little play with Pictochat, the onboard chat software able to communicate with any DS's in its vicinity, did seem to suggest some, even if ultimately puerile, fun is to be had.
What I've seen so far is great, but this alone won't be enough to see off the PSP. Innovation and gadgetry is only as good as the games made to utilise it. This is why the DS can only really be judged well into the New Year. Only then will we see if developers have the imagination to make the most of the DS's undoubted potential. Great gaming gadgets like the Eyetoy's and light guns of this world demonstrate that whilst these things can be great fun, they're often only fully utilised by a small number of select titles. Virtua Cop is great, but only in short bursts, and only every now and then. For the DS to succeed it has to surpass the status of "novelty" and instead become as institutional as the analogue stick or the shoulder button, or at least as accepted.
In theory, this surely should not be a problem. After all, games don't just make themselves - creative geniuses are needed to develop them. However, take a look at games like "Goldeneye Rogue Agent" and "Catwoman" and then evangelise about creative genius! So many games nowadays are by-the-number shelf fillers, copying an established idea or formula because they know it sells. The next wave of DS titles need to exploit the technology further, not just re-imagine or expand upon what's already been laid down. In an interview with Edge (issue 142) Elliot Myers, creator of the Gametrak (a motion sensing device that translates the movements of your arms into actions within a game) described that from the moment he first demonstrated the golf game for the Gametrak he was inundated with calls from developers. "Great" you might think, but unfortunately these were all requests to use the technology in a golf game. As Myers said, "... we already have a golf game. We don't need another golf game. But it's hard for them to make that leap of faith and imagine what it can be used for. So one of the things we have to do is make more demos just to show developers what can be done."
We know Nintendo is innovative, we've seen it so many times before, but Nintendo alone will not be enough for the DS to succeed. It needs the likes of Capcom, Konami, Square Enix, Sega, Treasure and all the other great developers to put their minds to it and see what the DS can achieve. Playing Need for Speed or Ocarina of Time with the stylus alone isn't what this is about (though I won't be complaining when Ocarina is announced, as surely it will). It's really about stuff that I possibly couldn't imagine.