I was very skeptical of the Nintendo DS when it came out. A touch screen seemed like a reasonable idea, but putting two separate screens in a handheld seemed like a gimmick.
My skepticism was also likely due to my disappointment with the Game Boy Advance. There are some truly great games for it—Advance Wars, Golden Sun, Wario Ware—but they are far outnumbered by the endless Pokemon games and lame movie and TV tie-ins. The majority of titles seem to be aimed at those teenage or younger.
When Sony launched the PSP, I hoped that things might change. I guessed that just as the PlayStation targeted a more adult gamer than Nintendo, so the PSP would go after those who didn’t want to play with Pokemon, Bratz, Jimmy Neutron or Spongebob Squarepants.
And it did. But unfortunately, when I finally got a chance to try a PSP, I discovered that the load times were just cripplingly awful. In addition, most of the games seem to be sequels or ports of PS2 games; and unfortunately, things which work well on a full size console don’t make for a good experience on a handheld.
Meanwhile, Nintendo had taken things in a strange new direction, releasing titles like Electroplankton, Brain Age and Nintendogs. It wasn’t exactly the blood and guts approach to mature gaming that Sony favor, but it wasn’t kiddy gaming either.
I’ve a real soft spot for experimental games. I love Katamari Damacy, I bought Nobody Can Stop Mr Domino!, I have Sentinel Returns and Stretch Panic. Even if the game is flawed, I’d rather play something artistically interesting and new, than yet another First Person Shooter.
So before heading off to Hamburg I bought a DS Lite and a copy of Animal Crossing: Wild World. Sure, it’s cute animals, but cute seems to be almost obligatory with Nintendo. Behind the cuteness, though, is an interesting Sim-like open ended gameplay focused on exploration.
The game world exists in real time, with different events happening throughout the year and at different times of day. This encourages you to drop in for a few minutes on a regular basis to see what’s going on, rather than spending hours playing like a conventional console game. In other words, it’s a good game for a portable. Walk into a cafe, buy coffee, sit down, and go see what’s happening in the game world. Since it’s Internet enabled, you can go online via WiFi and see what’s happening in a friend’s game world too, or see if there are any new extras from Nintendo.
Brain Age has a similar design philosophy. It’s something you can play for 10 minutes a day for a quick break. And unlike the PSP, the DS has practically no boot time, so you won’t find that your bus arrives just as you get past the loading screen.
In fact, the DS Lite shows an attention to design that’s typical of Nintendo. Just as the GameCube was a much better piece of hardware than the original PS2, so the DS Lite seems to fit its niche much better than the PSP. It’s iPod-like, white and smooth. The rechargeable battery is easily replaceable. It flips shut, automatically putting the game into pause/sleep mode and protecting both screens. It’s small enough to fit in a pocket. All of this means you can put the game away and return to the real world in a second or two.
The DS memory cards are like slightly enlarged (and much more robust) SD cards, and will stand up to more abuse than a Memory Stick, let alone a UMD disc. The extra slot for GameBoy back-compatibility doubles as an accessory slot for rumble packs and other add-ons. There’s an iPod-like headphone socket that will take regular headphones, or a special DS headset with microphone.
As with the GameBoy, the game cards are both ROM game and flash memory for game saves. This is neat as, unlike with a full size console, you never have to worry about swapping memory cards or finding space for your game saves.
Overall, it’s a really nice piece of design. If Apple made video games, it’s the kind of thing they’d release.