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Nintendo DSi Review

Chris_Hudak By:
GENRE Hardware 

They Did It Mario's Way.

The snazzy new Nintendo DSi is a hell of a mix: Sexy presentation, some cool new functionality, even more purely-gimmicky diversions... and finally, some stuff that just makes you want to bang your head against a wall (or, if you are a clearer-minded thinker, to bang some heads at Nintendo against a wall). Mario does things His way, for good or ill. Sometimes both at the same time. And ours is to accept, and deal.

click to enlarge[PRE-EMPTIVE NOTE TO THE DANGEROUSLY NINTENDO-SYCOPHANTIC: Corporate-mindset assessment as socially-minded illustration here, nothing more; just go with it for a paragraph or two, and don't whine about it, okay? Okay.]

Nintendo, you have to figure, would be 'that guy': The incontrovertibly-successful, inarguably-talented, still-closeted-otaku-turned-ragingly-successful-sarariman. Would still “hit” the clubs, music-festivals and “Xtreme” sports competitions, just to keep a well-attuned ear to the ground, just to keep one wingtipped foot on all conceivable fields, just to see what All The Kids Were Doing these days - even if that old rug upstairs were starting to, you know, show. Oh, he'd have the newest hip-hop, indie-rock or American Idol abomination clogging his iPod; but in his head, he'd still be listening to...Frank Sinatra.

And from that old crooner's admittedly-sprawling body of work, guess what song Nintendo would have on Repeat? You got it: My Way. The way of inarguable talent, H-bomb-proof fan-base loyalty, far-ranging voice and widespread, common-denominator, money-printing appeal... coupled with the occasional random, inexplicable, cheesy, annoying-but-livable concession.

If you're reading this, you're a gamer, and you already know all about the many good points of the DS Lite. It's probably best to just save everybody some time and say that the focal point of your appreciation (or dismissal) of the new DSi incarnation may well hinge upon the fate of that much-beloved slot for the older Game Boy Advance games (as well as odd fiddly-bits of peripheral tech, such as the Guitar Hero World Tour jack-in)--and in two words, “it's history.” Since there is nothing to be done about this except to hold onto your DS Lite for such retro applications, let's forge onward with the new DSi's more appealing points:

Cosmetically, the DSi has undeniable techs-appeal: The new grainy, matte finish (black or blue for North American units at this point, with more to come) isn't as much of a smudge-magnet as the DS Lite's glossy one, and has a slightly different feel that could almost be called sticky. The clamshell design, so like a little laptop, is slightly thinner at the spine than its precursor, and features a new side-mounted volume control step-switch (as opposed to the old bottom-edge slider); the power switch is now a straight-up, old-school button situated at the lower left corner of the lower screen, protected within the closed shell of the unit—in other words, no more accidental, power-interrupting brushes with the insides of your jacket pocket, backpack or what have you. The left and right shoulder buttons also protrude just a smidge beyond the flush of the unit's spine, and have a little bit of welcome, springy resistance to them.

click to enlargeThe dual screens, meanwhile, are a handful of millimeters larger; between that fact and the unit's slimmer overall profile, the battery life takes a noticeable hit, although this can be offset to some degree by toggling the screen brightness (which can now be done without powering down the DSi, a handy fix).

Now, let's get back to 'that guy,' stodgy in his nerdy ways, but making a definite effort to stay hip (let's call him Leisure Suit Mario). Mario, understandably, still wants to impress, and with luck, ultimately nail that Princess Peach chick who works coat-check at the club. But he's also rushed into a first and early mid-life crisis, and he's acting and dressing young--'bringing' what he sees as all the hip new tech.

The Nintendo DS has arguably long ruled the handheld gaming scene like Britannia ruled the waves... but its new incarnation isn't satisfied with that, and also wants to be your personal music player, your pocket camera, your plan-B web browser, Your Plastic Pal Who's Fun To Be With. And if we gamers are honest with ourselves... we want that too, don't we?

Toward this end, the DSi has not one but two cameras—one on the outer casing, facing forward, one on the inner hinge, always aimed squarely back at you. There's doubtless some clever gaming applications planned down the road, but right now they mostly exist to be used with a handful of gimmicky but fun 'lenses' whereby images can be distorted, mirrored, adorned with whiskers, blended with other facial pics, and/or otherwise manipulated or traded with other DSi users. See what might result if your mom and the FedEx guy had an 'indiscretion,' and if it looks just like you (as a fun ferinstance).

More radically still, the DSi now offers a slot to accept SD cards, on which owners can import their own music files—allowing the DSi to serve as a pretty decent little music player as well (with a selection of cute, goofy 'visualization' filters—one of the best of which turns your currently-playing tune into a constantly-rolling Excitebike course, over the humps of which two little bikes zip and jump).

Further, the DSi can, via your friendly neighborhood local wireless network, browse the web in general and the new DSi Store in particular; analogous to the store that Wii users frequent, this is the place from which to download utilities, games and other content both free (such as the DSi's Opera web browser) and paid; first-time visitors to the store automatically get 1000 DSi Points, equivalent to about $10. At launch, the selection is fairly slim pickings (the Math game is the highest cost-bracket of three so far, at 800 points), but the possibilities for downloadable content in the reasonably-near future are certainly intriguing.

The still-reasonable $170 price tag (about $40 over the DS Lite) comes at the 'hidden cost' of some of those typically-Nintendo, idiosyncratic, bang-your-head-against-the-nearest-wall things I mentioned earlier: You can import music...but the DSi won't recognize the charming, life-of-the-party MP3 files, preferring instead the loud, drunk-girl-at-the-party-at-8PM that is the AAC file. The modest (.3 megapixel) twin cameras are easy to use and you can save manipulated images to your SD card... but you can't currently import pics taken on a digital camera or cell phone, period — not even those taken on a DSi and altered on a PC. WHY are you fucking with us, Nintendo? Is this connected to why there are no  announced plans for video chat support? Why, I believe it is! Won't somebody PLEASE stop trying to Think Of the Children?

click to enlargeOh, and here's one that gets me, personally, squaw in the rocks: You can listen to your tunes, or browse the web...but not both at the same time. Urmph.

Oh, and they changed the shape of the charge adapter again too. Well, hell.

All that being said, am I using and enjoying the DSi right now, as you read this? Yes. Yes I am. Mostly because there are some great DS-format games out there; but partly because I am looking forward to seeing what game/app content pops up on the promising DSi store. Also I like futzing with the admittedly-modest cameras, using the surprisingly-slick web browsing functionality, and playing my 2-gig SD card's worth of audio books (you can slap the DSi closed and audio continues to play through your headphones, of course.

Bottom line: It's definitely sleeker, sexier and even more innovative than its DS precursor; whether that missing Game Boy Advance slot will mortally offend your inner old-school gamer depends chiefly on A) the size of your library of old Game Boy Advance cartridges and B) how intent you are on continuing to play and/or obsess on them, rather than moving forward with DSi-format and downloadable content. The DSi is definitely heavily slanted toward those who don't yet have a Nintendo handheld, and who want to play the newest games plus some modest additional audiovisual perks in a slick matte casing. You still have to do things Mario's way...but he's been doing this a long time, and is still awfully good at it.

B+ Revolution report card
  • Slightly larger dual screens
  • SD card support
  • DSi store downloads and decent browser
  • Sleeker, sexier matte casing
  • Protected power switch
  • Improved menu/game swapping
  • Twin cameras . . .
  • +/- . . . albeit modest, low-res ones
  • No MP3s or imported JPEGs, Nintendo? WTF?
  • Markedly reduced battery life
  • GBA slot/support R.I.P.
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