Nintendo's ongoing dominance of portable gaming has had a schizophrenic genesis. The original Gameboy had a brick-like, toyish quality which made it look natural only in the hands of children; its sequel, the Gameboy Advance was slightly more attractive, but no more mature, and it was cursed with a screen so poor people took to soldering in cathode lights to make it usable.

Then, unexpectedly, Nintendo got it right with the the Gameboy Advance SP. The Advance SP sported a design that was so elegant and grown-up that it revolutionised the social perception of handheld consoles. Suddenly, unveiling your Gameboy on the plane drew admiring glances regardless of your age or questionable self-awareness. Genuinely pocket-sized and utterly desirable, it seemed Nintendo was taking intelligent cues from the Mac school of design.

But then something went wrong. The Nintendo DS, its latest handheld, has clearly suffered a lengthy entanglement with the ugly tree. It's a genuinely progressive piece of hardware, admittedly, but it's far more likely to draw laughter rather than lust in public.

Silver plastic has had its blingy moment in the sun, and on the DS's fatted frame looks simply tacky - it might be going for Powerbook stylings, but without an aluminium body it feels more like a Camden Market bootleg.

The introduction of new colour schemes next year should do it some favours - the jet black model especially will give it a much sleeker appearance - but it's unquestionably lost the aesthetic war with Sony's impending rival, the PlayStation Portable (PSP). Being a pure games machine with no extra features, the DS is also in the shadow of the PSP's movie and music functions, too.

But where it has won out is in innovation. Its second screen is a PDA-style touchpad, immediately opening up a good half-dozen new ways to interface with games - drawing, rubbing, dragging, pushing, pulling, writing...

The most unexpected surprise from the DS is how intuitive and easy it is to steer Mario 64's primary coloured heroes or Metroid Prime's first-person perspective using the touchscreen and the console's bundled thumb cap.

It's a small plastic nipple on the end of shoelace-like strap attached to the DS, which slips over your thumb so you can use the bottom screen in a similar fashion to a laptop touchpad, without risking greasy, acidic thumbprints all over the screen.

In practice, it's eerily similar to using a Nintendo 64 or PlayStation analogue stick, and nowhere near as gimmicky as it might sound. Even better yet is breaking out the included stylus for the many mini-games on Mario 64 DS - using it to draw paths for falling puzzle pieces or aiming a cartoon catapult at a bomb-filled sky can't help but raise a geeky smile.

Hence, it's the opportunities the touchscreen presents, rather than the DS being capable of Nintendo 64- quality 3D graphics, that's the console's most compelling feature. Its built-in wireless multiplayer (using a slightly modified 802.11b standard) is well implemented and straightforward, though that famous British reserve means you may balk at engaging a complete stranger within a 20 metre radius in competition.

The discreet microphone, too, throws up some interesting possibilities - voice-controlled games could be on the horizon.

With an unexpected rush of sales in its US launch week, the DS has neatly avoided the 'what were they thinking?' obscurity that many predicted. And despite the oddball interface, it is simply enormous fun, filled with genuine possibility, and thus is far more the thinking gamer's handheld than the multi-talented high-brow PSP can ever hope to be.

It's hard not to be thoroughly charmed by it... though perhaps a little embarrassed at the same time.