It’s been just about two years since the damn near improbable happened: David beat Goliath. I’m not speaking Biblically, but figuratively. The David in question is a well known video game company that has lost mainstream appeal, and by extension, one of their flagship products is also a David of sorts. This product was the DS. Dual Screen or Developer System, take your pick, it was still a bizarre concept that had even me grumbling cynical remarks.
Goliath, on the other hand, was Sony’s Playstation Portable, a graphical giant that could play music, movies and maybe even do your taxes. It ran discs. It had Wifi internet at launch. Its graphics looked almost as good as Sony’s current-gen home console, the PS2. That in and of itself was one hell of a trick. In every conceivable way the homely, oddball little DS was inferior…all but one, that is. DS had the games, the addictive software and quality content that Nintendo was infamous for. Nintendo’s first party houses proved that the hardware concept worked, as strange as it seemed, and third party developers flocked to the DS. In the end, Nintendo just knew portables better than Sony. While Sony tried to cram the console experience into a pocket-sized box, Nintendo knew that an epic like Grand Theft Auto wouldn’t be too much fun on a bus.
The hardware worked, that much was clear, but Nintendo made such a dash to get their portable onto the market, they didn’t have a lot of time to polish the aesthetics. The DS had a face only a mother could love, one of the console’s main areas of criticism. With their foothold assured and the battle going well, Nintendo is ready to step back, take a look at the big picture and update the DS. The result is the difference between night and day.
Of course I’m talking about the DS Lite, the first hardware upgrade for the little handheld that could. I’d like to draw a parallel now: the Game Boy Advance. When the GBA came out around 2001 it to was somewhat revolutionary in its design and had a lot of developers talking, but the hardware just wasn’t up to snuff. The design, while garnering a cult fandom that had previously fallen in love with the taco-esque Game Gear, was admittedly rough around the edges, making the original GBA look more like a child’s toy than a serious game console. The GBA SP changed all that, with a few shortcomings; it wasn’t as comfortable and it lost the headphone jack. The brighter screen and smaller size seemed like a workable payoff, though.
With the DS Lite, there are no drawbacks, no exchanges. It is simply 110% better than the original DS (now dubbed the “DS Phat” by forum goers). One look at a comparison shot, and it’s clear that there was a lot to improve on.
The old DS has the distinct “video game” look. The silver finish, while novel, rubbed off easily and was more reminiscent of 80’s era electronics than modern class. The size and shape of the DS followed the hard-edged, semi-sophisticated look that drives tech geeks wild, but was not that attractive to mainstream consumers. The stylus was more akin to a toothpick, and resulted in hand cramp after about a half hour of play. The whole package was rather heavy and in the end the DS was somewhat intimidating to non-gamers.
For the DS Lite, Nintendo took a page or five from Apple’s book, and while I’m not a huge Mac fan, I admit that it worked wonders for the DS’s image. The shape of the new console is intentionally uniform, with no odd slants or curves, just slim, simple rectangular lines, rounded for sex appeal and comfort. Transparent plastic encases the Lite from stem to stern, protecting against scratches and lending a dream-like quality to the presentation. There definitely won’t be flaky paint problems any more.
One of the Lite’s main selling points is its compact size. Nintendo wasn’t kidding when they said “20% smaller”—I’d have to say that their estimate might have been a little conservative. Pulling the Lite out of the box was kind of an eye opener for me. I’d seen and touched a Lite at E3, but that one was anchored down and there were 100,000 fanboys screaming in the background. Actually turning it around in my hands, opening and closing it, that was when I finally got a feel for it. The raw dimensions are about as thick as the original DS’s bottom half, and two-thirds of an inch shorter length wise. The top half doesn’t have the top-heavy feeling anymore, and in keeping in line with the name, the Lite is much lighter and far more comfortable in extended play sessions. The thicker, longer stylus also lends itself to hours on Metroid Hunters, or marathon Pictochat sessions.
Speaking of which, let’s look at just how long you can play before that Li-Ion battery dries up. The DS Phat had an approximate battery life of 5-8 hours with the backlight on, 10-12 with it off. The Lite blows that away, with the lowest light setting affording 15-19 hours, while the highest setting is about 5-8 once again. I’ve yet to encounter any real drain problems; so as long as you charge your Lite every few days you shouldn’t run into any difficulties.
And that brings us, of course, to the main event: the screen. The old DS’s screen was old technology. It was the same backlight used in the GBA SP; it was sufficient, but the latest handhelds were worlds away from the dim, foggy display of the DS Phat. The Game Boy Micro was something of an experiment, I believe, for Nintendo to test feasible lighting tech before implementing it in DS. Held side by side, the Micro and Lite are both brilliant, but the Lite is clearly the cutting edge in screen back-lighting hardware. The colors are stunning, vivid and crisp—booting up Mario 64, I was amazed at just how green the lawns of Peach’s castle were.
In fact there are four brightness settings, each more powerful than the old DS. The first setting is just barely brighter, but still suitable for indoor play or when battery power is running low. The other settings get progressively better and the final brightness is almost eye-bleeding in its strength. I dare say the DS Lite even outshines the PSP by a small margin (no death threats, please).
With these drastic improvements (and Nintendo’s track record with updated portables) one would expect something to be lost in the transition, but all of the DS Phat’s functionality remains intact. The GBA backwards compatibility, the function that most feared would be lost, is the only thing with a small detriment. Because the Lite is considerably slimmer, GBA cartridges protrude about a centimeter from the case. When you’re not playing a GBA game, a small filler cart plugs into the open slot. This is really more for keeping the slim, sexy shape of the Lite and less for keeping out dust, but it’s a nice touch nonetheless. In Japan Nintendo has released a Lite version of the DS rumble pak that doesn’t stick out, and I would’ve liked if the filler plug had been a bundled rumble pak, but Nintendo will probably include the slimmer pak with a new game down the line anyway. I’m hoping for Star Fox DS to include the little rumbler—the N64 Star Fox was the first game to ever use a rumble pak, so it just seems right. But I digress.
Perhaps the only point of contention between gamers would be the actual color of the Lite. In the States the only current choice is Polar White, while Japan gets Ice Blue, Enamel Navy and recently released Noble Pink in addition to the Polar White. Europe lucked out as the only territory to get the black DS Lite, with white available too. Initially I was griped that the U.S. got the short end of the stick in regard to colors, but the limitation might be for the best. By supplying one uniform color, Nintendo avoided the supply/demand nightmare that plagued them in Japan, with two colors arriving later than the first and causing a general retail migraine. With the American launch going smoothly thus far, I’m confident that before the year is out, we’ll have black and maybe even pink DS Lites here in the USA.
I really can’t find a better way to say it: buy a DS Lite. If you’re a gamer, you owe it to yourself to get the best portable on the market right now. And despite its graphical limitations, the DS is simply that—the best. If the hefty software catalogue (including over 700 GBA titles) hasn’t tempted you yet, the assortment of great games coming out this year should change your mind. If you’re one of the early adopters, of which I know there are many, it really is worth it to upgrade to the Lite. For skeptics who haven’t jumped onboard yet, the Lite is the perfect reason to finally try Nintendo’s pioneering little portable. In any case, the $130 price tag makes the Lite almost an impulse buy. With its features, quality, massive software catalogue and fine-tuned, ergonomic improvements, the DS Lite is the best deal anywhere.
DS Lite gets the Gaming Nexus stamp of approval—Definitely Recommended.
The DS Lite is an interesting feat for Nintendo--an upgraded portable with no tradeoffs or obvious shortcomings. The GBA cartidges stick out a little and that detracts from the overall sexiness, but considering the compact size of the Lite it's forgiveable. The vastly improved screens, smaller form factor, massive software library and image-conscious design make the DS Lite a must buy, for serious and non-gamers alike.