DALLAS - The last time Nintendo Co. tried two screens, the result was a head-splitting virtual reality goggle called Virtual Boy that quickly flopped in the mid-1990s.
The failure was a rare one for Nintendo, which now dominates the worldwide handheld game market with its $79, flip screen Game Boy Advance SP.
Nintendo needn't worry about repeating past blunders with its latest dual display device, the Nintendo DS. The $149.99 handheld, which goes on sale in the United States on Sunday, is a sleek powerhouse that's great for multiplayer gaming.
It's a completely new product from the Japanese company and a clean break from the norm. Visually, the DS is a retro-styled, wedge-shaped rectangle of silver and black plastic that's roughly double the width of its squarish SP cousin.
Like a miniature laptop computer, the DS lid flips open to reveal the signature dual screens.
Having two 3-inch, color liquid crystal screens (one on the lid, one below) would be nothing more than a gimmick - were it not for the fact that the bottom screen is also touch sensitive.
That and the short-range wireless feature creates many new gameplay possibilities. I got a taste with the two programs that come boxed with the DS.
"Metroid Prime Hunters: First Hunt" was a short but impressive demo that takes full advantage of the touch screen. I've played versions of this sci-fi shooter for years, but never with this level of control.
While the upper screen showed three-dimensional battles with aliens, the touch screen doubled as a map and an input system which I tapped to jump, look around and switch weapons.
This control scheme was nearly impossible with the toothpick-sized stylus, but it was very intuitive with the included wrist strap.
The end of the strap has a rounded plastic nub that you tighten around the tip of your thumb. It keeps the screen from getting smudged by your fingers and is much easier to use in tandem with the DS' 10 buttons.
The pre-loaded "PictoChat" program, meanwhile, has limited instant-messaging capabilities.
After choosing from one of four chat rooms, you can zap your doodles and short notes to as many as 15 others within a 100-foot radius using Nintendo's proprietary communication protocol.
It's neat at first, but I wonder how often I'd really use PictoChat since you can only chat with other DS users and there's no way to save the notes. And with such a limited range, wouldn't talking just be easier?
I managed 7½ hours of battery life on a single charge, playing graphics-intensive games, blasting the music through the stereo speakers and connecting online with another DS.
Games ultimately decide which systems succeed and which ones fail, and Nintendo promises up to 15 titles when the DS launches, including "Super Mario 64 DS," "Ridge Racer DS," and a version of "Spider-Man 2."
As the owner of dozens of games for the older Game Boy Advance, I was pleased to find that the DS can play some 550 titles for the older system.
I played a few recent GBA favorites, including "Astro Boy: Omega Factor," and they looked superb thanks to the DS' backlit display. The Game Boy screens are lit from the side and never had this level of rich visual fidelity. You can even select which screen you want to play on.
I did have some problems with the viewing angle of the screens. Unless they were perfectly aligned, it was often hard to see both clearly.
The included plastic stylus was too puny for my adult hands. And when you want to quit a game or program, you have to turn the DS off and on again to restart.
Another potential problem? Size. Weighing 10 ounces and roughly 6 inches long by 3 inches deep by 1 inch thick, it's fine to stash in a backpack or purse but too bulky for a shirt or pants pocket.
"PictoChat" aside, the DS is strictly games, sporting minimal extras such as a calendar, alarm clock and personal birthday reminder.
It has a built-in microphone and Wi-Fi, but no games take advantage of those features yet.
For about $190, Sony Corp.'s PlayStation Portable promises a more robust portable media experience when it goes on sale in Japan next month. Along with games rivaling the power of its PlayStation 2 home system, the PSP boasts wireless functions and the ability to play music and movies.
But here's the huge kicker - Sony hasn't even announced pricing or availability in the United States yet, so there's no telling how long we'll have to wait.
And even when it does come out, the DS will remain the only game system with two screens and touch sensitivity.
The DS is a quirky but welcome step forward in the interactive evolution of video game systems. Now it's up to game creators to take advantage of its unique qualities.
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