Saturday morning, I opened up my first portable game system, the Nintendo DS. I have put several hours into it by now, and figured I'd post my first impressions.
First things first -- it's bigger than your cell phone. It isn't tiny. But it will fit in your (loose) jean pockets, and the clamshell design means the LCD screens will be protected.
Overall, the unit feels extremely polished. Nintendo does not mess around when it comes to usability. Initial setup was a breeze, and connecting it to my home wireless LAN was painless. I'll get to that. The one issue with the look&feel is the form factor. It's comfortable, but I think it was designed for just slightly smaller hands than mine. My hands do get a little sore after a while, and the "square" edges of the unit dig into you a bit (we're so spoiled with our roundy console controllers these days). That said, the classic nintendo D-Pad and (4, not 2) buttons are well-placed and bring you back to the days of NES right away. The shoulder buttons are a little less intuitive, but I have that problem with all shoulder buttons, not just these.
The one ergonomic hiccup is the bottom screen, which is touch-sensitive. For precision and to avoid scratches, you're supposed to use the included stylus (like a PDA). The problem is that if you're playing a game, you aren't holding the stylus unless the touchscreen is your only input option (some games can do this). Nintendo includes a wrist-strap that doubles as a thumb-tip stylus substitute (hard to explain), but I have yet to really feel comfortable using it. I end up using the back of my fingernail to gently touch the screen when I need to, and I'm sure that's not the best long-term plan.
So, what about the games? The games are awesome. Someone online said, "I'm not sure I would use a portable game system." The answer? Don't think of this as a portable system -- think of it as a $130 console that's wifi enabled and not tethered to your TV. As Penny Arcade said, the games aren't butchered portable versions of your franchises, they are full-fledged sequels optimized for the portable platform. With the processing power these machines have, you're looking at near N64-quality graphics on a tiny LCD -- the 3D racing in Mario Kart looks -fine- to my eyes. It makes me wish I had a Beetle Adventure Racing port :). Castlevania DS is not just a port of a 2D side-scroller, it's a 2D side scroller with next-generation gameplay. You harvest souls from your enemy, you can equip several souls on you, and you can fuse souls to items. It's just deep enough. The library is growing steadily and also includes all the GBA titles.
I keep hinting at WiFi, so I'll go there next even though I have very little experience with it. You can play wirelessly with others in the same room (or further; 60' is the limit they suggest), and can even play multiple people on a single cartridge with some games (it transmits the needed software to the other handhelds!). Or, you can connect to an existing wireless network, even authenticating over WEP, very smoothly. You can then play online with any Wi-Fi enabled game (Mario Kart DS is the only one I have, and I didn't try it out).
(Note, you can't play multiplayer GBA titles -- the wireless link does not emulate the GBA multiplayer cable.)
I mean, really, that's SOLID for a $130 piece of hardware.
The LCD screens are good -- I have one "stuck" pixel, but it's only visible when the top screen is mostly black. I don't mind it. I hear Nintendo will replace it if you send it to them, even with just one stuck pixel, but I'm not sure I'm going to bother. We'll see.
As far as lighting/brightness, this is my first portable, so I don't have anything to compare it to. I have yet to complain about the appearance of the screen, let's put it that way. The one time I noticed glare was with a bright office light directly overhead.
I haven't talked about the "dual screen" aspect of the DS yet, of course. The big question is, why have two screens? In Mario Kart DS, the top screen is the 3D view, while the bottom screen is a top-down sprite-y representation of the action, letting you see more of the map. In Castlevania DS, the bottom screen is the main action window, while the top screen shows you the map of the world you've explored OR your character sheet. Not amazing, but still stuff that you'd normally have to hit a button to get to. Is it the next big thing? I don't know. I do know that the touch-keyboard that pops up when you need to enter text is NICE, and made setting up wireless connectivity much easier than it would have been otherwise. Silly things like having 3 saved games, each with a hand-written name associated with them instead of 3-initials is kind of cool too :).
The rest of the system specs are just as solid and polished. The battery lasts a long time, the stylus locks into the unit well, the game carts are invisible and protected when inserted, it goes automatically into standby mode when you close the unit, etc. It's an awesome new toy and I'm thrilled to have a chance to fall in love with another Nintendo console :).