“Anybody who's been on the fence about picking up the portable would do well to seize the day, and a spare unit.”
- Enhanced portability; Brighter screen; Revamped button layout; Slimmer weight
- Case prone to smudging; GBA games stick out; Where's the light switch?
Everyone’s trying to slim down in time for summer – Nintendo included. Witness the newly debuted DS Lite ($129.99), a smaller, sleeker and generally better designed model of the popular DS handheld, which improves upon its predecessor in almost every conceivable way.
From tangible weight and size reductions to a new button layout, sharper visual performance and repositioned stylus holder, it’s a welcome addition to the Japanese giant’s celebrated family of portable consoles. So if you haven’t gotten hip to the dual-screened diversion’s charms – i.e. touch-sensitive titles experienced through top- and bottom-mounted visual displays using a stylus or d-pad- and button-based front-end – now’s the perfect chance.
On the downside, the machine’s enhancements are more cosmetic than anything else, simply offering gamers a less cumbersome, more stylish way of getting their New Super Mario Bros. or Magnetica on. But when that’s the harshest criticism current admirers can level at the unit, which will surely continue to spark sales of the deservedly acclaimed DS platform (17 million of the devices have already been snapped up worldwide), hey… Be thankful. It’s not like we’re looking at another N-Gage QD.
Features and Design
First things first, though: Some good news for those already snookered into purchasing the Game Boy Advance (GBA), Game Boy Advance SP, Game Boy Micro and recently released, brighter-screened GBA SP update. Like many of these incremental revisions, DS Lite is merely a recommended, not essential upgrade.
As with the original Nintendo DS, the device runs all standard system-compatible carts including Brain Age and Metroid Prime: Hunters, offers WiFi-ready online multiplayer support and proves backwards compatible with Game Boy Advance software. You still get a microphone (players can interact with certain games, e.g. Nintendogs or Feel the Magic XY/XX, by speaking or blowing into it) and pair of twin screens (the bottom one being touch-sensitive) as well.
What’s more, while the chrome casing that initially surrounded the console’s internal circuitry has been replaced with a cheaper-looking, almost iPod-esque, milky-colored plastic shell that easily attracts scratching and fingerprint smudges, it still offers adequate hardware protection. Meaning that DS Lite, despite shipping in only a single hue, which Nintendo calls Polar White (Japanese models come in Enamel Navy and Ice Blue, European ones black), the gizmo remains travel- and jungle gym-ready as ever. Given that the device is region-free – unlike with DVDs, you can play titles from any territory – it’s recommended that the fashion-conscious consider splurging and importing a unit from overseas via eBay or retailers such as Lik-Sang.com.
Let’s call a spade a spade, however: The Nintendo DS, in its original form, was ugly, cumbersome and a pain in the butt to pack along on road trips/vacations given its tremendous heft. Between sheer bulkiness, a brick-like aesthetic, an unpolished user interface and ports and parts seemingly scattered at random around the gadget’s base, it wasn’t so much a case of less form, more function. It was, to be blunt, an issue of engineers jury-rigging a system so that it could ship in time for the holidays (November 2004), sacrificing industrial design on the altar of sales and marketing.
Worse, as we all know, featured games are plenty fun and innovative. But as anyone who’s tried to wrap their hands around the oversized doohickey and its ultra-addictive amusements – not to mention hold the 9.7oz beast for an extended period of time – can attest, simply playing them is a workout.
Therefore any hardware retooling which offers enhancements in a single area, let alone all, as does the DS Lite, isn’t just a bonus. It’s also a guaranteed smash hit, especially for those of us petite folk looking to cram the device into a size 32 pair of men’s jeans. Or, for that matter, fit the dainty little fingers of our 5’8″ or smaller frames around the unit’s d-pad, four face buttons (A, B, X, Y) and left/right shoulder triggers without cultivating the kind of grip that could crush walnuts.
Image Courtesy of Nintendo
Setup and Use
That being said, forget what the DS Lite doesn’t do: Introduce any major interactive feature upgrades, improve game quality, augment software performance or ace out the PlayStation Portable (PSP) in terms of whiz-bang 3D graphic technology. Concentrate instead on the strides the system does make, which enhance the overall quality of the gameplay experience, beef up visibility and make the handheld a much more desirable tagalong on business trips. Less likely to incite public ridicule – even if, that is, you’re one of the 3 million-plus people that enjoy head-to-head 802.11b wireless multiplayer match-ups at McDonald’s via Nintendo’s WiFi Connection service – the device also makes butt-bouncing walking mushrooms and blowing alien spaceships sky-high a real treat.
Whereas the Nintendo DS is 5.85 inches wide, 3.33 inches long and 1.13 inches tall, the DS Lite is 5.2 inches wide, 2.9 inches long and 0.85 inches tall – slightly less than two-thirds its size. The portable further weighs in at only 7.6oz, making it around 20% lighter. Screen sizes are the same (3-inches each) on both machines, as is the positioning of cartridge/card slots, though the sections on which they’re mounted snap together much more cleanly when the DS Lite is closed. While the original Nintendo DS boasts a top-mounted flip-screen that sits oddly stacked upon a wider base when shut, the DS Lite’s clamshell design is infinitely more pleasing to the naked eye.
Strangely, Game Boy Advance titles, inserted via a front-mounted slot and easily contained inside the larger Nintendo DS, stick out noticeably from the DS Lite’s similarly positioned bay. While no show-stopper, it’s a corner-cutting measure that does bear mention, and leaves one to wonder if even further steps could’ve been taken to improve upon the unit’s design and form factor. (Pray for your pocketbook’s sake that there’s not another update coming anytime soon.)
Then again, for the first time, you do get a free white plastic insert that can be plugged into the slot as a dust cover. Whether or not it’ll be lost within ten minutes of purchasing the device is questionable, although in theory it’s a nice nod towards protecting one’s investment.
The layout of the system’s interface has changed as well, with several buttons shifting position and others swapping places entirely. Universally, we can confirm that these changes are for the better.
Nintendo DS Lite on the left and DS on the right
Previously located near the bottom of the top-facing side of the system’s base, the microphone port now rests squarely, and more comfortably, in the joint where the upper and lower screens meet. Stereo speakers sit once again to either side of the viewing panel on the top half of the device too, but despite being smaller, pack the same sonic punch and audio quality as their forerunners.
The volume control switch, located on the front of the machine’s lower half, now sports plastic ribbing and a larger nub, making it easier to manipulate. Start and select buttons, formerly horizontally mounted and rectangular-shaped, have also migrated from the upper right-hand side of the base, just above the four face buttons. Now, they’ve become easier to activate circular keys situated just below these buttons in a vertical configuration.
The power switch has additionally made the jump to the right side of the unit, a better location for it than above the d-pad, where it previously resided. You’ll find the stylus has grown and lengthened, and generally feels better in your hand, as well. The storage slot for it can be found next to the power switch, where it’s readily accessible, rather than on the back of the gizmo, where it was unfortunately placed beforehand. The back-mounted L and R triggers are additionally smaller and more responsive.
From Left to Right: Game Boy Micro, Nintendo DS Lite and Nintendo DS
Nevertheless, of primary import is the inclusion of four distinct screen brightness settings, which can be used to improve visibility under multiple lighting conditions.
Pump up the luminescence, and subtle, but stunning differences appear. Colors bloom, details come into view more sharply and every frame of that intricate in-game animation you’d been missing before suddenly springs to life. To quantify, it’s almost like going from observing an analog signal being broadcast on a CRT television set to watching a film or newscast on a 1080p-ready plasma HDTV. Imagine our surprise upon revisiting with old favorites like The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap for Game Boy Advance and DS exclusive Advance Wars: Dual Strike. Every game we tried looked cleaner, crisper and essentially more jaw-dropping for the effort.
Nintendo DS Lite and Sony PSP Comparison
Bizarrely, there’s no switch provided through which to change brightness settings, as on the recently reworked Game Boy Advance SP. (A real disappointment, as we discovered while playing World Poker Tour on the back porch when the sun suddenly broke free from the clouds). You essentially have to change the setting before loading any given title by clicking on a sun icon located at the bottom left of the touch-screen. Say it collectively with us: “WTF?!”
We won’t look a gift horse in the mouth, though. Despite a few interface quirks and the fact the machine’s external casing is prone to taking a beating, not to mention attracting dirt and gunk, the DS Lite does what it promises. Now, you can not only enjoy the offbeat, artistically-gifted games the console is known for (Electroplankton, Trauma Center, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, etc.), but also do so in comfort and style.
If you’re looking for a handheld gaming system, between its current range of white-hot software, eventual upcoming Web browsing and audio/video playback features, plus increasing support for online voice chat functions, you could do infinitely worse. Mind you, the PSP still trumps it insofar as technology and versatility is concerned. DS Lite nonetheless presents the best, most intriguing gaming experience to be found from a pure enjoyment standpoint. Plus, while we’re at it, stands alongside sister product the GBA SP as one of the top options for kids, given its durability and price point.
Anybody who’s been on the fence about picking up the portable would do well to seize the day, and a spare unit. Then again, buyers who’ve already plunked down cash for the original Nintendo DS can take their time, even if it’s strongly suggested that they do come around eventually.
While you won’t see anyone calling DS Lite an essential purchase, think of it this way. It’s definitely a great way to save room in your carry-on and help your thumbs stay in shape during these otherwise relaxing days of sun, fun and leisurely lazing about by the pool.
Â· Featherweight alternative to DS
Â· Multiple screen brightness levels
Â· Slick aesthetic
Â· Redesigned button layout
Â· Still tops for innovation
Â· No light switch
Â· Available in single color
Â· GBA games protrude from front
Â· Case attracts fingerprints, scratching
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