30 Minutes With The American Nintendo DS-i

Earlier this month, Nintendo representatives stopped by MTV's New York offices to show us the American version of the DSi. Here's what we thought of it.


The Nintendo DSi will be released in the U.S. on April 5 for $169.99. The device had been out in Japan since the fall, but until four Nintendo reps visited me this month -- carrying the DSi in a small metal briefcase --  I had not seen the system in person.

I knew the system's main additions and subtractions. It has two cameras, one pointing at the player and one pointing away from the system. It also has an SD card slot. What it lacks is a Game Boy Advance cartridge slot. The screens are slightly bigger than those of the Nintendo DS Lite. The system is thinner. It has a new operating system.

That's what I already knew.

This is what I learned:

The DSi is a bit friendlier to multi-tasking DS-users. The first two editions of the DS, the fat original and the DS Lite, forced users to power their system down any time they wanted to change game cartridges or even after they tweaked system settings like the calendar or clock. The new system allows users to remove a DS cartridge and put a new one in the machine without freezing the system. And it has a soft-reset option that allows the user to mess with system setting and then reset the machine in a flash.

The new firmware features draggable icons that represent various saved applications. Using the stylus -- a new stylus since the old one won't fit in the DSi --  you can place the icons in whichever order you prefer. Their horizontal alignment vaguely resembles the layout of the PlayStation systems' cross media bar. Among the icons I saw on the DSi interface was one for updating firmware, which indicates that the DSi and its new onboard memory can get firmware improvements a la the PSP and all the home consoles, something the DS and DS Lite never received.

The pictures you see in this post represent some of the default applications I was shown, which were all basic but amusing photo and sound programs that come with the system. The image above and the top two shots of this post (all the images above this paragrpah  except the cat one, in other words) depict the DSi Sound application, which can record audio clips spoken or played into the DSi and then allow them to be sped up, slowed down, or played through various filters. This is the kind of thing that will entertain my pre-school niece for hours; me for a handful of minutes. The system can support up to 18 clips, each of a 10 second duration.

The DSi also supports playback of music files off of the SD card and will play these songs back even if you close the system, as long as headphones are plugged in. The top picture in this post shows one of the DSi's music visualizers, which is rendered to look like "Super Mario Bros." Another one looks like a poor man's "Star Fox," with a wireframe space-ship flying down a corridor. These visualizers allow for a tiny bit of interaction -- tap a button and the spaceship shoots, for example -- but they're not games.

The DSi camera software is also going to be a winner for five-year-old nieces. But it has more potential for the rest of us -- if you are entertained by making funny images with the DSi cameras and the lower screen as your viewscreen and editing page. The image software hosts at least a half-dozen applications. You can take a picture, put stars and ears and other pseudo stickers on the image. You can crop out part of the picture and create a frame that you can drop another picture into (for putting my head on an image of your body, for example). You can tag a color in the room you're in and then make the system only show objects of that color in its photos, dropping the rest of the world to black and white. You can even put a kaleidoscope effect on what you see. Images taken with the camera can be set as screenscavers of sorts for the top screen, a new one displaying every time the system is re-opened.

The Nintendo reps showing me the system had no information about when the first downloadable applications would be available for the DSi, but they did produce a Japanese system to show me two DSi-Ware programs that may come out here.

One was a numbers-adding game (sort of a sideways Sudoku-meets-"Tetris") called "Decode" that had to be played holding the DSi sideways in its "book style" format.

The other was "Wario Ware Snapped," which essentially brings" EyeToy Play" to the DSi. To play the game you have to set the DSi on a table, pointing the system's player-camera at your face. You hold your face and hands up to the system so that it can register their position and then you are thrown into "WarioWare" microgames that require you to wave your hands or shake your head to win them. As always, the games last just a few seconds each.

I expect that I'll use my DSi primarily for gaming, so I asked to see how the new, bigger screens rendered a DS game I was familiar with. We popped in "Advance Wars: Days of Ruin." The game's text was more readable at the bigger size, but otherwise I didn't notice a meaningful difference.

I asked one of the Nintendo people if the new screen size was going to affect the relative size of the gap between the two screens and hurt the gameplay of games that spread the playe'rs actions across two screens as if they're one big screen, like "Yoshi Touch and Go." If the screens are bigger, shouldn't the game be expected to calculate that the gap between the screens as being bigger? I was told that that shouldn't be a problem. Nevertheless, that's something worth watching for.

And that's about all I could learn in a half hour.

Portable gaming hardware upgrades almost always universally improve upon their predecessor devices. While there have been some complaints about the screen of the latest PSP, that's the exception. DSi looks to be a step up from DS Lite, though not quite a DS 2. Many of the DSi's new features may not be for a gamer like me right out of the box, but the added functionality and offering of downloadable applications and firmware upgrades bodes well for my gaming future.

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