Okay, so maybe I was a tad harsh in my dismissal of the Nintendo DS. Both have been launched recently and of the two, the DS appears to be doing better. There are a couple of factors relating to this.
First is that Sony have only launched the DS in Japan while Nintendo have launched in Japan and the US. When Nintendo started selling their DS in Japan, Sony -- bold as you like -- teased gamers by taking over Subway stations and having functioning PSPs presented behind reinforced plastic with armed guards. When Nintendo furiously churned out DSes for sale in the US, Sony sat on their Laurels and insisted that they were manufacturing 500,000 units, no more, no less. This number barely managed to cover all of the internet pre-orders, with retail units barely getting a slice of the action.
Then of course, you have the battle of the launch titles. In this case, Nintendo have Sony licked. They launched with an update of their most successful and most celebrated titles to date, Mario 64, as well as numerous other first-party titles. To further pile on the pressure, they even resorted to giving out a "demo cartridge" of what was coming with the new Metroid Prime (which immediatley conjured memories of the Kenner Star Wars "Early Bird" certificate). Sony could merely present people with a handful of games.
Finally, there are the other factors, such as the much-reported battery status of the PSP. Apparently, despite all best promises, the PSP can still only manage roughly 45 minutes of battery power when playing Ridge Racers, whereas Nintendo with its years of experience of creating handheld gaming hardware, can squeeze something ridiculous out of the DS.
Any or all of these could lead to keeping people away from the PSP.
I recently had the opportunity to play with a DS brought back from the US. I had a mixed bag of first impressions. First was the aesthetics of the thing -- it's big, and ugly. And I mean really big and really ugly. Close enough to two Gameboy Advances sellotaped together to make me want to open it quickly to find something to like. Opening it up, it feels plasticky, but the interface is nice. Starting up Metroid, I got to see what the touchscreen was all about. It works well in Metroid. It feels natural to move your thumb to the place you want to look. It also makes for some logical, intuitive menu options.
But I really wanted to try out Mario 64 in it.
Let me just say this... I play a lot of videogames. Right now, I'm switching between four different games. In spite of this, or rather because of this, I rarely finish games. I finished Mario 64, and it remains the largest game I've ever finished. This is because, more than any other game, Mario 64 was able to hold my attention for all the time it took for me to want to finish it. So the DS's Mario 64 had a lot to live up to.
It's playful and interesting to use the touchscreen to control it, but ultimately frustrating. I immediately went swimming and found that this wasn't as obvious or as well-thought-out as the N64 version. Controlling Mario in general had an air of concentration about it, whereas with the N64 controller, it was something that came naturally. I didn't play much of Mario 64, but from what I saw, it seemed more frustrating than I would have liked.
It might seem like I'm still bad-mouthing the DS, and I'm sorry if it comes across that way. There's a lot to like about the DS, and most impressively, the forthcoming titles look fun. Who couldn't love a game where you have to shout "I LOVE YOU" as loud as you can to win the level? (The microphone is another feature I'm sure many games developers will have a lot of fun developing with). I'll buy one, because they're cheap and I have a special place in my heart for Nintendo games. I'll wait until its European release in March 2005.
But I'm importing my PSP.