A bit clunkier than I expected, but I’m sure they’ll fix that in a future revision of the hardware. Anyways, interesting differences between the DS and previous Gameboys:

  • Two screens.
  • Bottom screen is touch sensitive.
  • Microphone.
  • Wireless.

Wireless is obviously a good idea; ever since the Pokemon games, Gameboys have been about communication, so we might as well make it as easy as possible. I don’t have much of an opinion about the microphone; it’s probably really cheap for them to add, and maybe there are good uses lurking there somewhere. (Blowing into the mike to get Mario Kart powerups does not, I think, qualify.)

The touch sensitive screen turns out to be an unexpectedly great idea, though. In my limited experience, touch-only games can be fun, but have a bit of a gimmicky taint to them. Most games these days involve you moving around some sort of avatar of yourself; you can make that work with a touch screen, but it’s not particularly natural. But it can be a quite natural way to manipulate other parts of your environment; in Animal Crossing, for example, the touch screen is great for managing your inventory, and is essential for writing letters.

Of course, the problem that arises is that, in most games, you want to both move your avatar and manipulate your environment. You can find ways to do this either only using the touchpad or entirely avoiding the touchpad, but it usually feels like an unpleasant compromise. Animal Crossing is a good example here; Liesl uses the touchpad exclusively (with the stylus), while I use the D-pad and buttons for normal movement, use the touchpad with my fingers for inventory management, and use the stylus for writing letters. Either Liesl’s choice or mine works well enough; both are somewhat ungainly.

I’ll be very curious to see how the Revolution controller works. Clearly, in retrospect, the DS is a testing ground for Revolution mechanics; but you’ll have both hands free to control things, so maybe some of these problems won’t arise. I can imagine that moving with a joystick in the left hand while pointing at objects with your right hand will feel very natural, for example.

And then there’s the two screens. Total gimmick, as far as I’m concerned; it doesn’t play a major role in any of the games that I have, and in most of them I’m completely unaware that the top screen exists while playing it. There’s a reason why media is moving widescreen, and it’s not solely because of legacy influences from movies: your visual field is wider than it is tall. I actually am perfectly happy with a 4:3 screen ratio, but I see no reason to double the height. There’s very little that can be usefully done with the second screen that couldn’t be done just as well by making the original screen a little wider, and using some of the screen traditionally and some of it for the extra purpose.

The one natural model that I could think of for a vertical form factor is paper; an interesting example, given the possibilities that the touch screen opens up. Even there, though, you have a workaround: if you’re going to be doing a lot of writing in a game, then it doesn’t rely on traditional controls, which means that you can turn the whole unit sideways. Which, apparently one of the most popular games in Japan does.

Incidentally, I’m not completely sold on the widescreen form factor, either; I don’t own a PSP, so I don’t know for sure, but that thing looks too wide to me. I’m curious what the DS would be like if the top screen were wide, taking up the whole unit, and was also a touch screen; that seems to me like it might have potential. Hard to say without playing such a beast, though.

I’m definitely glad I picked up a DS, and Liesl is using it all the time. I wish the game library were a bit richer, but it’s getting there, and the touchscreen is a great idea.

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