Hands-on: Nintendo Wi-fi Connection Service

We see the future of online handheld gaming and it is good. Also: we thrash the Americans at Mario Kart DS and it is gooder

It's been a busy old week in Nintendo land, and none more busy than yesterday when a bunch of lucky journalists were literally catapulted like giant peas from a secret location in the depths of Heathrow all the way to sunny Frankfurt for Nintendo Europe's Gamers Summit. In return for the light bruising and high-velocity hairstyles, we were rewarded with a good long look at the company's forthcoming 2006 lineup alongside some transatlantic Mario Kart DS antics and the full lowdown on its Wi-fi Connection Service which made the whole thing possible.

Given that we came away with enough material to fill, ooh, a King Kong notepad, we've only got time to go through some of it today - largely because we're all set to go and enjoy the free-flowing alcohol at the Golden Joysticks later on.

Of most note, aside from the frankly sublime Animal Crossing: Wild World and Mario Kart DS, was our first look at Nintendo's Wi-fi Connection Service in action. We've been hearing for a while now that it's designed to be as transparent and simple for players to use as possible and - whoop! - it looks like Nintendo wasn't fibbing there.

We're not even going to pretend we understand the technical gubbins going on in the background but that's because we don't have to - the whole point is that it works seemlessly with the games shoved into your DS, just as long as you've got your own wi-fi connection at home or happen to be near one of Nintendo's 7,500 announced free public hotspots around the country.

Using Mario Kart as an example (given that we thrashed a bunch of US journalists in Seattle and even made Mario Kart DS producer Hideki Konno run away - although that might just have been because he wanted to go eat his tea), it's simply a matter of selecting the appropriate WCS option on the game's main menu and you'll be rocketed around Nintendo's server while the game tries to find three other competitors based on your chosen criteria.

At the moment, the service allows for searches based on players online in your Friend's list, Rivals (which is anyone the game judges to be of similar skill level to yourself), Continental (so that's anyone in your territory) or Worldwide. As far as Mario Kart goes, all that's left to do after that is to select your racer then each player gets to pick their preferred track and the game randomly selects from the nominations. From there on, it's racing ahoy - it's a remarkably solid and stable online racing experience at that. Kudos Nintendo!

The set-up is pretty similar for Activision's Tony Hawk title, although we didn't get much in the way of play time on that one, suggesting that these are likely to be consistent options for most online games - assuming developers decide to make them available in their games.

As is pretty common knowledge by now, certain games like Animal Crossing: Wild World only permit you to go online with people in your Friend's list if you want to cross-pollinate in each other's villages. The logic behind this is simple: rogue traveller's can't enter your village unannounced and cause havoc on your messageboard and hack down every tree in sight - it's worth noting as well that Nintendo's worried enough about the safety of its younger gamers to have implemented a swear filter to stop any language naughtiness. B@!!&ck$.

Interestingly, Animal Crossing also uses a feature which brings a whole bunch of possibilities to Nintendo's service in the future. At the moment, there's an option which enables you to connect to Nintendo directly and download freebies and extras for your game - the example we were given is that you can currently download a mutant cat character for Animal Crossing who'll reside in your village until you switch your DS off.

After some determined probing, we discovered that it's technically possible to store these downloads onto your game cart's memory for some more persistent goodies. While it's unclear whether the early roster of games will use this feature, it opens the gateway for reams of downloadable extra content on your DS such as, we hypothesise, future release promos and tie-ins along the lines of a pet puppy for Nintendogs events and so on.

Probably the most striking indication of how seriously Nintendo is taking it's Wi-fi Connection Service is its dedicated website which we got an early peak at too. Very much in the style of Xbox Live, you can log on and check out your current stats and rankings, alongside who's online and who's playing what. All this info is initially only available for viewing by yourself, to preserve anonymity, but it seems it will be possible to link this information to your account so anyone can check out how skilled or otherwise you really are.

Furthermore, the site also contains forums for game chat and, presumably, the opportunity to share gamer tags to add to your Friend's list. There's also detailed information on getting your DS properly connected and even a handy postcode-based utility which shows you exactly where your nearest public wi-fi spot is to your home. W00t, as they say on the internet.

We'll be slamming down everything we know about the service and its games over the next few weeks, alongside some sage words from Nintendo Europe's top brass telling you what you'll be doing with the WCS on release and what's possibly in the pipeline for the future. Keep your eyes glued to the screen, although feel free to go to the toilet if you need to.