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Nintendo gets touchy feely

MSNBC's Tom Loftus gets up close and personal with Nintendo's new gaming handheld, the DS.
Mario, Madden NFL, The Urbz and More Ready for Nintendo DS Launch
The Nintendo DS is seen here with the "Metroid Prime Hunters: First Hunt" game on its screens.Nintendo

Nintendo wants you to know that its new handheld is not just another blob of circuitry encased in cold silver plastic. To make this point, my review copy of the Nintendo DS came in unusual packaging.

Missing were the obligatory product photos and lists of features. Instead, the slogan "Touching is good" was splashed in big silver letters across the box, which was also decorated with textural swatches of things such as football rubber and Astroturf.

Welcome to the touchy-feely age of digital entertainment.

The slogan "Touching is good" refers, of course, to the DS' two three-inch LCD screens: The top screen displays game action; the bottom is an actual touch screen that reacts to the prods, pokes and drags of dirty fingers and included stylus alike. 

What exactly the touch screen controls depends on the game. In "Madden NFL 2005," the bottom screen is devoted to picking plays in formations. 

In "Super Mario 64 DS" and "Metroid Prime Hunters: First Hunt" the touch screen is how you move and navigate. Dragging a finger or stylus over the map on the bottom screen in "Super Mario 64 DS" moves your character on the top screen with the fluidity and smoothness of mouse-like control. No more button mashing.  In "Metroid Prime," touching controls your first-person perspective. 

Breaking new ground
The touch screen comes with its share of challenges. Fingers can get in the way of the action. Plus, when you combine the touch screen with a four-button control, a control pad and an additional pair of shoulder buttons, you get a confusing array of controls for anyone over the age of 18. 

But with only eight games on the market -- an additional four are due by the holidays -- the DS is only scraping the surface of what can be done with two screens.  Already, some available games are breaking new ground.

With its reliance on stats and skill levels, "The Urbz: Sims in the City" would be a rather annoying game to play on the Game Boy Advance SP, the single screen handheld precursor to the DS.  But DS' two screens allows the bottom screen to always keep a running tally of the stats as the action unfolds on the top screen.

"The Urbz" even takes advantage of the touch screen in creating your character. Rather than relying on endless button clicks to customize your sim's clothing, hair color and so on, you use a DJ turntable. Spinning or scratching the record with your stylus changes your sim's assets. It's a brilliant combination of the DS' touching interface with the game's street-smart sensibilities. 

Sega's "Feel The Magic: XY/XX" is both the most bizarre as well as the most forward-thinking game of the new DS titles. Bizarre because the goal involves courting a potential girlfriend and some of the tasks involve holding her hand or rubbing mud on her body via the touch screen. 

Forward-thinking because of how "Feel The Magic" uses the DS' new features. There's rubbing. There's poking -- no, not your girlfriend, but killer bees and charging bulls.  One task requires that you yell into the DS' built-in microphone. Other tasks such as extinguishing candles or propelling sailboats require that you blow onto the touch screen.

The available games provide just a hint of what game developers will be able to do with the two screens. In the future we may see games where scenes stretch across both screens.  Or games where players use the bottom screen to talk to fellow gamers, courtesy of the DS' wireless connectivity, while playing on the top screen.

Crisp graphics
Or imagine drawing games.  During a demo at last May's E3, I played a prototype where you were required to use the stylus to draw a Pac-Man and guide him after the ghosts.  The demo was both more difficult and more engaging than one might imagine.

The DS already ships with one drawing program, “PictoChat,” a wireless communication program where up to 16 players can type messages or send images to each other. 

The DS has a wireless range of 30 to 100 feet.  Some games, like "Super Mario 64 DS," require that only one of the players involved in multiplayer play need own the game cartridge. 

In addition to the twin screens, the built-in microphone, the wireless functionality, backwards compatibility with Game Boy Advance games and stereo speakers, the DS boasts two CPU's with the power, according to Nintendo, to match the graphics of the Nintendo 64 console.

The end results are crisp graphics way beyond the blocky pixels we've grown used to on the Game Boy Advance. In fact, you'll be surprised with the level of detail.

"Super Mario 64 DS" is a jaw-dropping good-looking 3D game that successfully marries the illusion of depth with color-soaked graphics. "Spider Man 2 DS" is another title that looks better than expected on the DS. 

All these new features on the DS come with a price. How does $150 retail sound?  Games run an additional $30 to $40 each. 

And the Nintendo DS is not exactly something you can fit in your pocket.  While the older Game Boy Advance SP is about three inches wide, the DS' duel speakers and button controls located on either side of the bottom screen push the overall DS width to nearly six inches -- wider even than the ancient Game Boy Advance handheld. 

That's a pretty hefty portable and whereas popping the Game Boy Advance SP into your pocket may have been a no-brainer, lugging around the DS requires commitment. 

But can it survive Sony?
So far neither the price nor the size has stopped the Nintendo DS from becoming the holiday gift to buy. Earlier this week Nintendo announced that it had sold 500,000 units, or 90 percent of available units in the United States, during Thanksgiving week alone. 

This early success should trigger more game developers to create games, which is good since, as everyone knows, a gaming platform is only as good as the games developed for it. Already such big name publishers as Electronic Arts, Activision, Sega, Ubisoft and Namco have signed on.

Of course one cannot talk about the Nintendo DS without mentioning Sony's venture into handheld gaming, the PSP. Due to hit the U.S. market as soon as March 2005, the PSP is almost the anti-DS. Whereas the Nintendo DS is built to play games and facilitate short-ranged wireless communication, period, the PSP will also handle music and movie playback. 

The two portables represent the companies’ two philosophies. Sony naturally wants to leverage its consumer electronics know-how and entertainment properties in a slickly-packaged all-in-one device. 

Nintendo, meanwhile, stresses that its dedication to a games-only platform will naturally result in the best quality games. And in defense of Nintendo, the two-screen option already shows the potential to change the way games are developed and the way we interact with them.  Over the last two weeks, I've grown accustomed to using the touch screen interface over the button controls. 

And thanks to "Feel The Magic: XY/XX," I am happy to report that yelling at a screen produces results.

Yes, "Touching is good." So is yelling.  But is it good enough?

Ultimately the choice between these two hefty handhelds remains between you, your pocketbook and the actual size of your pockets.  I recommend cargo pants.