From left to right: Original Nintendo DS, DS Lite, and Nintendo DSi.
Touching is good.
Short story, the Nintendo DS succeeded in just about every way the Nintendo 64 faltered.
Long story, Nintendo got a little nervous about the rising development costs in games, because other developers were making bigger and better games appealing to a gradually narrowing audience. Now how much of that is true is debatable, but it can't be argued that Nintendo's steps to remedy this created an unbeatable counter to the PlayStation Portable.
Their first step was, instead of simply making "a more powerful Game Boy", trying something new with the system to alter the gameplay and get developers out of a rut. With the DS, the method was to add a touchscreen in between the d-pad and the buttons, while keeping the regular screen above it. The public prototype was codenamed the "Developer's System", or the "DS" for short (it was initially developed under the code name "Nitro" in-house; DS games still carry the "NTR" indexing code as a result, with the exception of games capable of using the DSi's additional features, which use "TWL" instead). But because of its two screens, the gaming press kept thinking it stood for "Dual Screen". Recognizing it was giving the system name recognition already, Nintendo made "DS" the official name.
When it was in development, Nintendo presented the device as a "third pillar" to complement the Game Cube and the Game Boy Advance, rather than claim that the DS was the latest iteration of the Game Boy hardware. There is some indication that this was a marketing ploy -- Nintendo did not want to potentially tarnish the positive image of the much-beloved Game Boy line if the DS failed to live up to expectations. Unnecessary in retrospect, and it didn't stop people from calling it the "Game Boy DS" anyway.
The PDA-like touchscreen also provided a more "intuitive" interface for game development. Rather than pressing buttons that manipulated some object on the screen, the player could simply touch what they wanted to. This fell into a new strategy of Nintendo pursuing so-called "non-gamers": people who would normally not play games and might be intimidated by being confronted with an array of buttons and a d-pad. Nintendo went on to market the Wii this way as well. Besides, die-hard fanboys could take solace in the console's overall layout, which was a Shout-Out to Nintendo's original handheld product, the LCD-based Game and Watch.
And they did. Non-gamers embraced games like Nintendogs and Brain Age, and gamers embraced games like New Super Mario Bros.. and Mario Kart DS.
With the Game Boy Advance having owed much of its success to updated releases of SNES games, it looked early on as though the DS would do the same for Nintendo 64 games. This never happened in the end, though, with Super Mario 64 DS and Diddy Kong Racing DS being the only major examples. Exactly why this was the case is debatable, though the most common explanations are that Nintendo was making a push for more innovative games instead of ports with touchscreen gimmicks bolted on (a major problem with a lot of the system's early games), and/or Nintendo 64 games weren't really system sellers (as that system had a major marketshare decline).
Another thing that some initially believed was that with the PSP using discs, and the DS sticking with carts, that Nintendo was falling into the same trap as with the N64. There were four main reasons that wasn't the case.
- Carts have fewer moving parts, which meant less heat, battery drain, and loading times, something the PSP was notorious for. They are also more resistant to the rough treatment and wear mobile platforms must tolerate.
- Carts are small, and require basically no support hardware, making both them and the console they're used with more compact.
- Compression and the processing power needed to use it had evolved significantly since the N64 days, so the capacity wasn't that big of a problem.
- Of course, the most obvious reason was the fact memory prices had pretty much collapsed by the time the DS came out, making profit margins on affordable CD-capacity cart games possible.
So those advantages (which Sony seems to agree with itself due to the change in media with the PSP's successor), combined with lower development costs, made developers turn around and give huge support for the DS. It wasn't a total reversal, as developers also support the PSP, but it's definitely a redemption for Nintendo.
The DS also had a redesign to address problems noted with the first system, such as a dim screen light and the bulk. The so-called "DS Phat" is the biggest of Nintendo's handhelds since the original Game Boy, while the DS Lite is just about the size of the original GBA. Another redesign, the DSi, dispenses with the GBA slot entirely and slightly decreasing the battery length to increase the size of the dual screens, add an SD Card slot, slim its third dimension even more, add two cameras, and 256MB of onboard flash memory, all built-in. Games can now be downloaded through a DSi Shop Channel, much like the Wii's own Wii Shop Channel. Despite titles like Guitar Hero: On Tour which use the GBA slot, the DSi sold over half a million units in two days.
Yet another redesign, the DSi XL (LL in Japan), upsizes the handheld (slightly wider than the original DS) and was released in Japan in November 2009, Europe on March 5, 2010 and North America on March 28, 2010. Apparently, it's aimed towards the elderly and enables more people to watch the screen at once.
The 3DS, the successor to the DS which includes 3D technology, has its own page now. Just like the PlayStation 2 continued to exist well into the Play Station 3's lifespan, it is expected that the non-3D DS family will stick around for some time after the release of the 3DS.
To date, the Nintendo DS is the second best-selling video game system of all time, with over 140 million units sold as of December 2010. It prints money.
- Two ARM CPUs. The main processor runs at 67 MHz, and handles the Polygonal Graphics alongside with its GPU. The secondary processor is a more advanced version of the GBA's processor, and runs at 33 MHz. The DSi's main processor is clocked at 133 MHz.
- The reason for this split is partly to keep GBA compatibility through the secondary processor, and partly because running 3D graphics on both screens would split the processing between them. So having 3D on one screen and 2D on the other is the best compromise.
- That's not to say that no games use both screens for 3D however. There are games out there who try to do 3D on both screens. The only caveat is that the max framerate is 30 fps instead of 60.
- The DS does not have the processor from the Game Boy Color, making it impossible to play original Game Boy or GBC cartridges. While the system is capable of emulating the games, Nintendo will only let you run an emulator if you repurchase a game with it.
- The ARM 7 CPU does audio processing, control input and wireless communications. It can process 16 "voices" at once, with support for ADPCM, 8-bit and 16-bit PCM. Streamed audio, through either PCM or audio codecs are possible. Virtual surround is also possible with certain games.
The DS has 4 MB of RAM, similar to the N64, but it's not Rambus DRAM, partly because of the latency, but mostly because of the increased power consumption it would cause. This has been quadrupled in the DSi to 16 MB.
The system also has a 512 KB texture buffer for each screen, so no matter which screen the graphics were on, they would flow smoothly.
There is also 656 KB of Video RAM (not sure if the main 4 MB can also act as video memory if needed).
The 3D hardware can render to either a frame buffer or directly to either screen through a 48-line ring buffer. Frame buffer allows drawing 3D graphics on both screens at a cost of frame rate, color depth (drops down to 15-bit) and 192 KB of VRAM for the frame buffers. It is also possible to use only one frame buffer for advanced screen effects on only one screen, and this doesn't come with a frame rate hit, but still reduces color depth and uses 96 KB of VRAM.
Carts have been 8 MB (e.g. Polarium) through 256 MB (e.g. Professor Layton and the Unwound Future), and a couple Japanese games are 512 MB. The price of the larger carts is, well, price and slower data transfer speeds, but games have not been adversely affected by them, so it's more like a speed bump than a bottleneck.
The DSi comes with 256 MB of built-in flash memory storage for downloadable games and content.
- The original DS and DS Lite allows one to expand the RAM by slotting a special cartridge into the GBA game slot. Most notably, the DS Browser cart uses it.
Resolution is 256×192 per screen, which means this handheld can almost match Nintendo's home systems, finally.
Color depth is 18 bit, or 262,144 colors.
The maximum polygon per frame is 2048 polygons (120K polygons per second), but the design of the system limits how many vertices can be in each frame, a rarity among 3D systems. Thus it can have all those polygons, but over an area not likely to be on screen at once. Another quirk -- completely invisible polygons due to it being completely covered up don't count toward the poly count. It is possible to attempt to use multi-pass rendering to override this limit, at the cost of VRAM and color depth due to frame buffer usage.
It supports edge anti-aliasing on polygon edges, except for those with only-1-pixel-thick edge-marking applied. It also doesn't work when the polygon clips through another polygon, nor on texture edges.
Textures are a different story. Not only does the system allow huge textures (1024x1024 apparently with a max size of 512K, though you are not going to fit anything good after that due to 656K of total VRAM.), but the system also has Texture Compression built in. Though, this is more likely to save cart space than for motherboard bandwidth. Although the system only supports point texture filtering, possibly resulting in blocky textures up close, the greatly improved texture resolution and color depth negates this disadvantage.
The DS also keeps the GBA 2D hardware and also improved it, which can be used by DS games.
- Sadly for ports, just like the GBA, this is still smaller than the industry standard 320×240 size used by nearly every classic gaming platform.
- Which is still smaller than the average non-HD TV.
- Happily, the 3DS's upper screen will be 400x240 for each eye. The touch screen resolution of the 3DS is 320x240.
Either version of the DS could have about 18 hours of battery life on the lowest settings, and about 10 hours on the highest. The DSi features about 14 hours of playtime at the lowest brightness settings, and around 3 hours at the highest, which is even brighter than any model of DS before the DSi.
All versions on the DS have wireless capabilities, allowing systems to link up together without the need for any Game Link cables at all. This also allows the DS to play games over the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, playing with people all around the world (as long as you have a wireless router). The lack of WPA encryption is a bit of a sore point for some users. The DSi has more sophisticated wireless capabilities, allowing it to connect to many WPA networks for DSiWare, but retail packaged games have been developed with WEP in mind.
The slot for GBA games can include extra devices for DS games. This could include a rumble pack or even a camera. This slot is sacrificed for an SD Card slot and cameras on the DSi, however.
- Which completely eliminates the backwards compatibility necessary for certain features in some games, such as 4th generation Pokémon games (though that issue was fixed in the remakes of Gold and Silver), and outright makes the Guitar Hero: On Tour series unplayable.