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A Closer Look

Dual Screens Give Gamers New Options

By Tom Ham
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page F06

At first, you might mistake Nintendo's new DS handheld game device for a high-end organizer or an ultralight laptop. But the expression on the face of whoever's using it ought to give the secret away -- this is Nintendo's latest ploy to keep its spot in the hearts, or at least the pockets, of video-game players.

The $150 silver-and-black DS flips open to expose dual screens (hence the name) and a different sort of game experience. It's not supposed to replace the Game Boy Advance, which will continue to be sold; the idea is to carve out a new market.

Nintendo's new DS opens up handheld gaming. (IMAGE COURTESY OF NINTENDO)

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In its size and weight, the DS certainly can't fill the GBA's place. It's both heavier and larger, weighing nine ounces and, when closed, taking up about as much space as a paperback book. On the inside it features two processors with roughly the same power as the old Nintendo 64 console, plus a graphics accelerator.

The two three-inch color screens are reasonably sharp, at 256 by 192 pixels each, and the bottom one also responds to taps with either a fingertip or the included stylus. The DS includes the usual array of controls -- a directional pad, two shoulder buttons and four face buttons -- plus a voice-recognition system.

The DS also supports WiFi wireless networking, as well as a proprietary Nintendo wireless scheme designed for multiplayer gaming between up to 16 DS users. But there's no Web browser or instant-message program (aside from a specialized chat application that lets you send messages to another DS by tapping away at on an onscreen keyboard). With this thing, it's all about games.

In that respect, the main attraction is the dual screens and the new gameplay options they allow. One common approach is to use the bottom display to track the game's status in one way or another; for example, in Nintendo's Super Mario 64 DS you play the game on the top screen while the bottom presents a map of your location in the game.

The DS version of Electronic Arts' Madden NFL 2005, meanwhile, lets players set up plays by diagramming them on the lower screen with the stylus. Once the ball is snapped, X's and O's zip back and forth on that display to show how the play is working out.

An offbeat Sega title called Feel the Magic: XY/XX takes the DS's possibilities still further. This title is a collection of strange mini-games, all of which are supposed to win the heart of the girl on the screen.

In one, you have to tap the scorpions running up her body with the stylus, but if you miss them and jab her instead, she'll yell at you. In another, you have to help people escape from a pit with a giant ant waiting beneath; the trick is to wave the stylus across the bottom screen to mimic these victims' scrambles up this pit, or they'll lose their footing and fall. (Please take our word for it that this actually does make sense in the game.)

The DS's rechargeable battery is rated for six to 10 hours of use, a bit below what Game Boy Advance devices could manage. It takes about four hours to recharge; the battery can be replaced if it wears out or if you want to swap it out for a freshly charged one (extras cost $15 each).

DS games, provided on memory cards about the size of the those used in most digital cameras and handheld organizers, sell for $30 to $40. Only six are available now, which is not a major surprise considering how few titles earlier Nintendo products featured at their introductions.

The developers behind them include such major companies as Activision, Electronic Arts, Sega and UbiSoft, which should bode well for the future of the DS.

The DS can also play Game Boy Advance titles (a slot for GBA cartridges hides on the bottom of the unit), a smart move on Nintendo's part. But we're more interested by the DS games that haven't shipped yet -- titles that will exploit this two-screen setup in ways nobody has imagined yet.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company