Today, Nintendo’s handhelds are known for having 2 separate screens on them. There is the top screen, mostly used for the display, and the touch screen, used for interaction and sometimes resource and reference sections for games. This is the typical aspect of today’s handhelds from Nintendo and what a lot will expect to see in whatever handheld Nintendo comes out with next, be it a 3DS successor or a partner unit with the NX.
This format did not start in this generation, though and nor did the clamshell hardware design. The two screens actually hit the gaming world one generation back, in direct competition with the PlayStation Portable. That’s what I’m going to talk about today. The system that not only brought forth the 2-screen design, but also the touch screen, stylus pens, and handheld debut of Super Mario 64!
Here is my retro hardware review of the Nintendo Dual Screen, otherwise known as the Nintendo DS!
I won’t lie. The GBA slot was probably the feature of the DS I used the most
The Nintendo DS is roughly in the same format and design the Nintendo 3DS is. It was made to use the clamshell format that the Game Boy Advance SP started as a means of not only making the system smaller for travel but also to help protect the screens from damage inside a bag or pocket (or being dropped).
From the outside, we don’t see a lot of interface buttons. However, looking on the top and bottom of the unit, we do see it. On the top of the device, we have the L and R triggers, a port for the charging cable (the same one used in the GBA SP), stylus pen compartment, and a cartridge slot. This slot is used for Nintendo DS cartridges. On the bottom, however, we have another cartridge slot. This was not on all DS models, and was used to play Game Boy Advance cartridges. Just like the 3DS is compatible with DS carts, the DS was compatible with GBA carts. Also on the bottom is the volume slider and the audio jack.
There’s a lot more to see once you open the system The actual piece that moves up and down on the hinge is what holds the main display as well as two speakers that allow for stereo sound without headphones.
On the bottom and much larger piece, you have most of the buttons as well as the system’s microphone, power lights, and the smaller screen used as the touch screen. To the left of this screen are the Power button and D-Pad. To the right are the Start, Select, and ABXY face buttons. This is similar to the 3DS, but with a few buttons missing and the Start/Select buttons in a different place.
That’s about all there is to say about the hardware design. When the system is booted, it has a very simple Operating System, offering areas for started the DS or GBA games in the slots, going into Pictochat, an ad hoc messaging system settings, and Download Play, enabling two people to play a game together when only one of them owned the cartridge for it.
All of that is displayed on the bottom screen. On the top screen at the home area shows a clock, calendar, and battery information. And that wraps up the design of the system features. When you actually want to run games, it’s a little different than the 3DS. Since the DS has no “Home” button, if you want to stop playing a game, you have to actually hold the Power button and cut off the power to the entire device, turn it back on, and then go into something else.
It looks bad, but the unit still works
So, how did the Nintendo DS perform? The clamshell design worked well enough for being Nintendo’s first attempt at it, and the fact that there was stereo audio through speakers was a really nice improvement over past handhelds. Not to say it didn’t have issues, though, as you’ll see in the video review of my Nintendo DS.
The main problem is how the hinge is set up. The piece with the top screen is smaller than the bottom piece, so with the hinge, it’s just lying and sitting on top of the larger piece. Because of this hardware design, it was a bit flimsy. There are a lot of cases where the hinge broke and part of the screen was loose. My NDS is like that, too. It happened not long after I got the system and is still like that today. Granted, the device still functions, but it is a pretty big design flaw that was rectified with later models of the DS.
The next thing to talk about is the screen quality. While the battery life of the DS was considerably long on a single charge, the screen quality paled in comparison to its competitor. In all honesty, the screen quality looks about like the screen quality of the Game Gear. There are a lot of pixels you can see or what looks like pixels. You can see clear degredation on the screen and, while this is the same unit I bought near-launch back in 2004, it had that problem back then as well.
Screen quality is all degraded, but I still love Super Mario 64 DS for Yoshi playability
Playing games works well enough, though one nit-pick is the lack of optimization of the card-reading capabilities of the system. In the Design section, I talked about how you have to turn the device off to stop playing a game and play another. You have to do the same thing when you put a different cartridge in. The system doesn’t auto-read and pull up another cart if it’s still on and you take one out and put one in. You have to actually turn the device off and back on before you can play the new game.
As far as actually playing games, listening to audio and such, things run nice and smooth. There are much shorter loading sequences between hitting Start Game and the game starting. It actually starts games a lot faster than the 3DS starts DS games. So there’s props to the original hardware for being able to do that, and a question as to why the 3DS can’t load games as quickly.
The Nintendo DS is arguably one of the best-selling systems of all time, despite having clear faults. On the downside, the original model had a very flimsy hinge design, degraded screen quality, and an inconvenient way of having to shut the system off and back on again to play other games. It has some hurdles, but was Nintendo’s introduction to true console-like handheld gaming.