Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Surprise! Nintendo's Latest Handheld Gets a Facelift

Well, not quite two years after the original launch, Nintendo does what it likes to do best: remodel its latest handheld. Each one has gone through many changes (Original Game Boy getting smaller, then colours; Game Boy Advance getting a compact mode with a flip-down, front-lit screen, then changing it to a back-lit screen (they never said anything about that one), then shrinking to bite-size), and while a remodel of the DS was inevitable (and almost necessary), a change so soon was a surprise to me.

How it Looks - System: Incredible, Screens: Incredible!
The shell of the system got a nice overhaul over its beast of a brother. First, the DS Lite is smaller in width, length, and thickness, making it easier to fit into pockets and small pouches in backpacks and luggage. Second, the multitude of colours available are arguably better than those for the original. Sure, North America can only get white, but that looks a hell of a lot better than what was offered at the original DS launch: silver. Not even a cool, flashy metallic silver, but a dull one that easily comes off when rubbed against things over time. As well, the outer shell is covered in clear plastic not unlike a certain popular MP3 player. One final touch is that the top part sticks out on the edges, allowing it to close shut like a clam shell. This makes the system look slick when closed, and helps keep the bottom screen nice and clean (or at least cleaner than the bottom screen on the normal DS).
The screen got a nice change too, as the colours are a richer than on the normal DS. When I first turned mine on with Mario Kart DS, it looked like the colours were too bright. The opening menu shot out at me with blue. It was startling! This was so much different than the DS, with a duller blue. Easier on the eyes a little, but nothing a little brightness tuning couldn't fix: another option is that while the screen's back light can't be turned off anymore, the lighting has four brightness settings: one under the original brightness to conserve battery life, one close to equal, and two brighter than the original, although I doubt anybody would really need a screen as bright as the highest setting. I could see it fine on low in the dark.

How it Sounds: Same
Not much changed here, though there are fewer holes for the speaker to blare through.

How it Feels: Nice
The plastic covering does take a bit of adjustment to hold, since your hands can slide about on it right out of the box (I know mine did), but it is very comfortable. The stylus is moved to under your right hand (where the ABXY buttons are) and has a nice indent that an unused finger can pop it out quickly. The stylus is also longer, dwarfing the original stylus by at least an inch. While no thumbstrap is included, you can still tie your old one (of if they're sold separately) on the back. The only things that may take some getting used to are the LR buttons are smaller, only taking up half the size of the bottom part, and the start and select buttons are now below the ABXY buttons, and made much smaller. If you're used to the start/select buttons above like I was, it will be often that you stick your thumb up only to find nothing.

How it Plays: Similar
While no buttons were added or removed, and the touch screen is as sensitive as ever, the movement of the start/select button may add about a minute or two of a learning curve back onto any game that uses them, since you have to rememorize their location. This is offset by the position of the stylus, making it easier to get to your hand, since you don't have to take your hand off the controls (with a little practice, of course). A couple of other things have also changed for the better: the power/charger light are now in between the screens on the right, so even with the lid closed, you can see the power lights; the microphone is now in between the screens in the centre of the system; and the battery life is slightly extended if you keep it on the lowest setting. This adds more time to the playtime of your games in one sitting.

Verdict: Buy!
While mostly cosmetic touch-ups from one system to another, most of the changes to the DS improve the experience of the games, whether its the better colour quality of the visuals, or the clam shell to keep the bottom screen cleaner. Not one thing that changed from the DS to the DS Lite was done carelessly (except maybe the movement of the start/select buttons). If you don't have a DS, this should give you enough of an excuse to get one. If you already have a DS, never touch a friend's DS Lite if you don't intend on buying one, because you will never be able to go back and enjoy the games the same way. Now if only you could get it in black...

Friday, June 09, 2006

New Super Mario Bros: Return to Memory Lane

Probably one of the biggest franchises in the history of video games, the Super Mario platforming series gets an update on the Nintendo DS, taking elements from almost every Super Mario platformer and tossing in some new stuff along the way.

How it Looks: Fantastic!
New Super Mario Bros have some of the best graphics of any game on the Nintendo DS, with some impressive 3D polygons that don't blur or pixelate around the edges, making everything look sharp and well-defined. The animations move seamlessly along as well, with nice detail in every enemy's movements as well. Even the water ripples pretty well. I think the best thing Nintendo could do with Mario Bros was using polygons, since you can use the same Mario, scale him for Small Mario, stretch him tall for Mega Mario, and colour swap for Fire Mario, all without having a large library of sprites: everything can be done with a few calculations.

How it Sounds: Good
There doesn't seem to be many (if any) new music in New Super Mario Bros, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The majority of the songs and sounds are remixed from the entire library of Mario songs (mostly Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario World), and they sound very good. The music is also a little upbeat than most other games, but that just tries to add a comfort level to those who don't play games (since the DS is targeting everybody, making a good portion of their first-party games available for everybody), and that even adds a little wrinkle in the gameplay: on every beat (almost like someone saying "Ah", or hitting a triangle for underwater levels) the enemies either jump or stutter in place. The Fire Flower power-up also follows suit. Another thing is that they cut back on Mario talking, only keeping it at the beginning and ending of every level. While I don't find it too bad, if they had it every time you jumped or shot out a fireball, it would have driven me nuts!

How it Feels: Intuitive!
The controls of New Super Mario Bros feel very natural, but that has a lot to do with the simplicity of the game. Jumping is done with A/B button , while running is done with X/Y button, though you can swap the buttons if you want. The only other button that does anything is the Start button to pause. While the touch screen only contains the level map (or map of the worlds on the world map), in levels there is a spot to hold an extra item like in Super Mario World. Touching it will drop the contained item above you. Unlike Super Mario World, though, if you get hit, it will not automatically drop.

How it Plays: Fun
Not much has changed in the Mario formula: Get from the start to the end while avoiding enemies and pits, collecting coins and power-ups, getting to the flagpole, etc. If you've played a Super Mario bros game for the NES or SNES, you know what to expect. Power-ups are not as diverse, and mostly are just the mushroom to turn you into Super Mario (they still call him that), and the fire flower to give him fireballs. New to the game are: the small mushroom to shrink Mario into tiny Mario, which allows you to jump extra high, run across water, and get into tiny pipes; the mega mushroom, which causes Mario to grow to the height of the screen, allowing him to crush anything in his path and gain 1ups for his troubles; and the shell suit, allowing his dash to turn into a thrown turtle shell. The small mushroom and shell suit are mainly for finding secret items. There are 8 worlds in total (two are hidden), and multiple levels in each world (akin to Mario 3). Also added are most of the minigames from Super Mario 64 DS, though they are changed to allow multiplayer. The only issue I have is with saving: you can't do it when you want until you beat Bowser at the end of the game. The only times you can save are when you beat a tower or castle, or use star coins on the map.

Game Length: 5-15 Hours
If you just want to kick Bowser off his throne, the game shouldn't take longer than 5 hours. If you want to unlock every level and world, and find the three Star Coins in every levels will raise the game time to about 10-15 hours. The minigames can also help pass the time, and the multiplayer (collect-the-stars with another player and multiplayer minigames) also adds a few hours of fun.

Verdict: Buy!
This is a game that reminds you of gaming roots, how fun it was, and that you don't need to be killing aliens, engaging in an over-arching story, or have HD quality graphics to have fun. Although the game is short, it is a game that you will pick up and play again and again.