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Nintendo DS Review

What is it?
The PSP is Sony's thrown gauntlet, challenging the undisputed king of the handheld realm to a duel to the death, or at least to the very bitter, hurty end. Nintendo has never suffered a serious challenger to the throne they carved out with the GameBoy. Many have tried and fallen: Atari, NEC, Sega (twice), and even SNK. Nintendo launched their portable at the height of their home success, and now Sony's doing the same thing.

I had long maintained that Sony's best shot at entry to the portable market would have been a PSOne compatible machine using smaller, possibly solid-state media. PSOne ports would be a snap, the system would be the undisputed king spec-wise, and the new media would demand new purchases of old games, a strategy that helps Nintendo rake in the cash. Sony however had grander, and at the same time lesser plans. They waited until they could shoehorn near-PS2 quality hardware into the portable system, but my second assertion seems to be true. Sony has officially encouraged ports for the new hardware to minimize development time and costs. Same games, new media; a curse we as gamers seem unable to shed.

First impressions
The system is gorgeous. Every time it's been shown in a glass display case there hasn't been much for negative appraisal. The system exudes sex appeal, with a transparent front face and universally suitable black colouring. It looks amazing, and dissenters have agendas - do not trust their bleatings. The good looks are a dual-edged sword however.

The high-res screen is incredibly bright and very very clear. Oddly it's made by Sharp. Sharp doesn't make the best screens, but they make consistantly decent screens and obviously at an attractive price - Nintendo uses them too in their GameBoy Advance and the DS. Moving objects tend to blur, but this is a long-accepted byproduct of LCD technology. It's better now than it was and will no doubt be better still in the future, but for now the PSP suffers some noticable blurring. The slow scrolling border-text of Lumines blurs noticably and when it pauses during disc-access the sudden clarity is jarring. While loading Ridge Racers a playable version of Rally Pop entertains the player, and there's very significant blurring here also (though to be fair it's so extreme I think it might be intentional). During play of actual PSP games the blurring isn't as noticable.

The OOBE (out of box experience) is pretty grand. No one stocks and no one wants the basic PSP pack, instead opting for the Value Pack with its included headphones and remote control, 32MB memory stick and carrying case. And a wrist strap, as if anyone would DARE dangle this system from a wrist. It's at about this time, when you've got the system out of the box and free from the protective plastic pouch, that things start to go a little pear shaped.

Not for clean freaks
This is not the system for people who like to keep their hardware clean. Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: using the PSP without leaving giant greasy fingerprints is totally impossible unless you wear gloves. Keeping it dust-free is impossible unless you work in a chip fab with space-suited chip ninjas. Cleaning it is impossible unless you like the appearance of millions of tiny, spider-web scratches in your smooth black system. I'm not kidding - your expensive new toy will be dirty, marked and scratched at the end of the first day.

It gets worse.

The first thing I noticed about the system: the spring-loaded drive door has a single latch that allows the door to hang open a bit, with one side open farther than the other so it looks as if it's not fully closed. It looks twisted or bent before it's even been turned on. You may have seen on that thar intarweb a video not unlike this one which shows how excited gameplaying can twist the machine and cause the drive door to pop open and launch the Unbelievable Magic Disc out of the machine. To be honest I couldn't make it happen, and I don't think anyone playing it under normal circumstances could, but maybe there are some units more prone to doing this than others.

The shiny surface of the system prevents your thumb from sliding smoothly when you're operating the digital d-pad, perhaps something that will be alleviated a little when the thing is slick from thumb grease. When sliding your thumb from any direction to the right direction button the control pad moves a bit, and there will be a noticable click as the button hits and then - when forced - clears the edge of the LCD screen inside the machine. Sony's desire to make the system look cool has sadly caused the system to be, essentially, broken. A similar situation is presented on the other side, with the square button. Have a look at this image (see here for the original), you can see how these two buttons are right on the edge - or indeed, far past the edge - of the LCD screen. Functionally this doesn't affect the square button, if I didn't know it was like this I'd never have noticed, but the d-pad issue is glaring. It's a disgusting problem, why it wasn't rectified is a question Sony should - but probably won't - answer.

The Unbelievable Magic Disc
Sony's UMD is a high-density mini-disc in a new shell. Unlike MDs however there's no sliding shutter to protect the media, and in a frankly embarassing move, removing the UMD from its protective case requires a thumb to pry the disc out by gripping the very spot where the case opens to reveal the disc inside. The system and media are designed by men with fingerprint fetishes, there can be no other explanation.

As you can see in this image there's a groove for a thumb to wedge the UMD out of the case. And, as you can see here that's right where you don't want to be putting a thumb.

The future
There's almost no question the PSP will sell, and probably in great numbers once Sony stops playing supply and demand games. Whether you want to believe their lies stories about production not meeting demand, or if you're more cynical and think they're holding the massive launch until their next fiscal year to hide the extreme losses they face, or because artificially restricting supply massively increases demand, there's no question the system will sell.

There are no compelling games yet, though the argument could be made they're more compelling than the initial Nintendo DS library. The future holds lots of ports and sequels. Unlike Nintendo's DS, which includes two amazing - or gimmicky, depending on your viewpoint - features with the touchscreen and dual-screens, Sony's done nothing but shrink their PlayStation hardare into a portable format. This achievement isn't to be dismissed, for an achievement it certainly is, but there's nothing new here.

The gaming industry has not been advanced a step, and given the unforgivable implementation it's very possible Sony's done more harm to their Playstation brand than good. One thing has been proven beyond a doubt: Nintendo knows how to build a handheld that works, and Sony doesn't.

If I were Sony
If it were up to me, a few things would have to be changed. First, texture the control faces so thumbs can slide, and maybe colour them as well so fingerprints don't show. If you can't use it without making it look like you first ate french-fries, then you've done it wrong. Fix the drive door with a stronger latch, one that doesn't look like it's ajar even when it's fully closed. Add an SD slot, for fuck's sake. Perhaps it would be tantamount to admitting Sony's memory stick is a failure, but SD cards are common, being in most new Japanese cellular phones, and cheaper than memory sticks. If you want people to adopt your product you make it easier, not harder, for them to do so. Put a frickin' cover on the UMDs!! Six face buttons would also have been nice, but i suppose it's been a long wait for four, so it'll have to do.

Let's hope the second generation PSP shows a Sony willing to admit that function should precede form.


Special thanks to tychom who let me play with his device. ;)