Nintendo DS Lite

Liten Up Baby, I'm in Love with You

Music, movies, and other multimedia applications aside, no one can touch Nintendo in the world of portable gaming. From the first Game Boy in 1989, the intuitive user interface, the addictive gameplay, and the cutting-edge hardware design ensured that seemingly every man, woman, and child on the planet would essentially buy at least six of each new handheld model, based on Nintendo's most recent sales figures.

In 2004, a few evolutionary kicks later, Nintendo released the DS, the abbreviation denoting "dual screen," with the bottom one offering analog touchscreen interactivity. (Note the drop of the "Game Boy" moniker for the current generation, even though the backwards-compatible DS can play previous-generation Game Boy Advance games and GBA Video cartridges in a separate slot.) This bold trick opened the door for game designers to use the combination of a fixed screen and a touchscreen in clever new ways: maps, inventories, hints, and other "static" data sit up top while you play nonstop via the D-pad, buttons, and stylus/fingertip down below.

But, this year, we were given more, namely a wonderfully refined Nintendo DS Lite ($130), so named for its reduced size-now less than an inch thick-and weight, plus the four settings of its backlight, giving you the option of making the display look much brighter, making it a joy to stare at, especially if you're used to the original DS. The brightest settings will take a toll on battery life but will do wonders for the apparent colors and graphic detail in any DS or GBA games in your library. At rest, it is a slender white brick not entirely unlike the iPod. Although it is significantly larger than Apple's ubiquitous gadget, the DS Lite did fit snugly into a would-be iPod pocket in my Logitech noise-canceling-headphones case on a recent flight.

Stereo speakers flank the upper screen, with a volume slider along the front edge and shoulder buttons for whole-handed gaming. The more comfortable stylus parks in a new spot, although, again, a finger on the touchscreen will work, too. But the screen can smudge, and some of the targets can be small, especially when you reach out to the world with a couple of meat hooks, as I do. Despite the reduction to this pleasing new form factor, the pair of screens remain the same size: 3-inch backlit TFT LCDs boast 256-by-192-pixel resolution and are capable of displaying 260,000 colors.

Integrated Wi-Fi is still here. Nintendo even makes a home Wi-Fi adapter to turn a PC into a wireless "hot spot." This creates a gateway for the DS Lite to venture online to find and do battle with opponents around the globe for free. A few subtle layout improvements also make the DS Lite easier to handle, and the clamshell design still protects the most sensitive areas of the unit. At press time the only color available is the goes-with-everything Polar White, at least here in the United States. The Nintendo DS Lite is simply a beautiful piece of gaming hardware: compact, powerful, and loaded with features.

Then again, much of my fondness for the DS Lite might be based upon the game I've been playing, Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day. Unlike any video game you've probably ever tried, Brain Age, seems targeted to older gamers with a genuine interest sharpening their brains, though it's also enjoyable for kids. There are genuine benefits that are displayed on updated graphs. "Hosted" by a virtual representation of a real gray-matter expert, this enjoyable experience asks a few key questions about you the student before you embark upon a series of exercises designed to determine and actually improve your level of mental fitness. It periodically reminds you that the ideal "brain age" is 20. (The brain ain't the only thing that's true for, brother….)

Exclusive to the DS/DS Lite systems, Brain Age requires you to rotate the device 90 degrees, holding it like a book. It can even accommodate both lefties and righties, since you are required to write your answers for some of the exercises. Sudoku, the puzzle craze that's been sweeping the nation, is included here, as well as word puzzles and some interesting use of the microphone for the oral exams. Some of the activities are unlocked as you continue to spend time with the game. In addition to self-improvement, you can compete against up to three others, with individual files storage on a single game cartridge, or go head to head wirelessly in speed-math contests.

Based on all the buzz that this game has been receiving, I'm tempted to believe that my dream has come true, and "brainy" is the new "cool." Although based on my most recent score, apparently I'd still be sitting at the nerd table in the cafeteria.

Nintendo DS Lite $130