Everybody loves an underdog tale. Everyone loves a comeback story. The Nintendo DS, which launched a decade ago today, offers both. And its story begins, as most third acts do, with things looking darkest.
By autumn of 2004, Nintendo had fallen a long way over the course of 15 years. The company ended the first act of its tale by striding into the '90s with a hammerlock on nearly the entire world's video game market: The NES/Famicom dominated both America and Japan, and the newly released Game Boy rocketed quickly to an uncontested lead over a portable gaming market that hadn't really even existed prior to its launch.
By 2004, though, Nintendo had sunk to the nadir of its tenure as a first party over the course a turbulent second act. The company's dominance had eroded throughout the 16- and 64-bit eras, and now the GameCube was trailing PlayStation and Xbox as a distant also-ran. Few third parties had any interest in working on GameCube, and the console sold primarily on the strength of Nintendo's own creations. The Game Boy Advance offered Nintendo's single shining hope for the future, and even that had a bleak outlook ahead; Sony's enormously powerful and tremendously hyped PlayStation Portable was slated to arrive in Japan at the end of 2004 and shortly thereafter in the U.S.
There was little question in anyone's mind that PSP stood to upend the handheld market, and that spelled doom for Nintendo. Even as its consoles carved out an ever-shrinking space for themselves, the Game Boy family kept the company in the black. But how could GBA, effectively a souped-up Super NES, hope to compete with a portable system whose power seemed roughly equivalent to a PlayStation 2?
For once, Nintendo's commitment to competitive pricing seemed fairly moot. Game Boy systems had always triumphed in large part because of their relative affordability. And it was true that PSP would cost more than twice as much as the GBA. But this new system promised to make handheld gaming appealing to hardcore game enthusiasts, who generally poo-poohed portables as kids' things. Nintendo would surely maintain a lead among younger gamers, ones with less money and a greater addiction to Pokémon; but just as the original PlayStation rose to dominance by courting adults and playing off Nintendo as childish, PSP threatened to do the same for handhelds.
The idea that Nintendo's end could be nigh wasn't completely unthinkable in 2004. Long-time NCL president Hiroshi Yamauchi had recently retired, appointing the untested Satoru Iwata (a former programmer at Nintendo software partner HAL) to take his place. And, more to the point, Nintendo's long-time rival Sega had bowed out of the first-party market only a couple of years prior, its bottom line trashed by infighting, inefficiency, and the cool reception that met both the Saturn and the Dreamcast.
Change, it seemed, was in the air. All the old giants were dead or dying. Sega had accepted its place as a third-party game maker. Atari had vanished into fragments, its name adopted by French publisher Infogrames. Over in Japan, Bandai had given up on its hardware ambitions, too, withdrawing its moderately popular WonderSwan handheld from the market. SNK had been devoured by pachinko company Aruze before being bought back by Playmore, but without a successor to its iconic Neo-Geo console to be had. With Nintendo's demise, it would be a clean sweep: A fresh start for the games industry for the new millennium.
Nintendo, however, had different ideas.
Sink to hell
Former NCL president Hiroshi Yamauchi was never the type to go quiet into that good night. Despite having formally retired now that he was in his mid-70s, Yamauchi retained a strong interest in the company he had built into a global giant from its humble roots as a playing card maker. It was Yamauchi who had suggested a dual-screen game system driven by a touch screen, and it was Yamauchi who spoke out most memorably at the new portable's announcement in February 2004.
"If it succeeds, we will rise to the heavens," he proclaimed. "If it fails, we sink into hell."
While no one disagreed with this sentiment at the time, few looking on could imagine how this third console — the supposed "third pillar" of Nintendo's games business — could be anything but a leaden weight dragging the company's future straight to hell. The DS was introduced without preamble, with barely a hint that a new system was in the works. It was also announced without any sort of imagery; no game demos, no prototype handhelds. No target renders. Simply a statement of intent, and, stunningly, the promise that the console would be on the market by the end of 2004.
"Prior to the actual unveiling of the system, my first impression — like many other people's — was confusion regarding the design," says Chris Wright. "The choice to use two screens, combined with doubts about the usefulness of the touch sensitive bottom screen (back before everything everywhere was touchable), certainly left me wondering if we weren't about to see another Virtual Boy. The unusual design choices made the DS an immediate target of mockery and derision before anyone even had the chance to see the real system."
The name Virtual Boy seemed to be on everyone's lips. Between the hasty announcement (clearly delivered in response to the looming debut of PSP) and the way the DS would seemingly cut into the marketshare of Nintendo's own GBA line, DS immediately brought to mind the company's last attempt to creative a portable gaming alternative with a heavy emphasis on interface innovation. The Virtual Boy had been Nintendo's first true failure, presaging the challenges it would face over the coming decade, and to many DS appeared to be cut from the same cloth.
While the press presented the DS announcement as straightforward news, their sentiments behind the scenes — along with more public responses from game enthusiasts on forums and sites like Slashdot — ranged from bewildered to derisive. The promise of a two-screen design left people scratching their heads, Nintendo's handful of dual-screen Game & Watch consoles from the early '80s long having been forgotten. While the touch-screen interface sounded more interesting, the industry's first attempt at a stylus-driven handheld system (Tiger's Game.com) hadn't exactly been a world-beater.
"I remember everyone wondering if it would survive against the about-to-be-released PSP, which was more powerful and had the backing of then-unstoppable juggernaut Sony." — Steve Tramer
"When I first heard rumors of the DS I was really confused," says Jordan Starkweather. "I had been a big GBA fan, but the console hadn't been out that long. Comparatively, the Game Boy had been going strong for almost (over?) a decade. Also, Nintendo was touting [DS] as some kind of third pillar console, which confused me even more. In the back of my mind, I knew this would be the successor to the GBA."
But most of all, despite clearly have been positioned to make Nintendo's handheld lineup more competitive with Sony's PSP, the specs Nintendo announced for DS still trailed far behind what Sony would be offering. The disparity became heartbreakingly clear at E3 2004 a few months later, as Nintendo showed a cheap-looking prototype capable of outputting PlayStation-era graphics while Sony proudly displayed a slick gaming gadget with multimedia capabilities and visuals nearly on-par with its current console.
"I remember everyone wondering if it would survive against the about-to-be-released PSP, which was more powerful and had the backing of then-unstoppable juggernaut Sony," says Steve Tramer. Omar Garza agrees: "It seemed strange and confusing. The original model looked like a toy compared to the sleek look of the PSP."
Ain't on stoppin' this train we're on
And yet, the DS rumbled inexorably onward, even though few wanted it. Between the durable GBA, which had really just begun to come into its own as a platform, and the promising PSP, the DS seemed as thought it would find little place in most people's lives.
Nintendo launched the handheld the week before Thanksgiving 2004. It received little fanfare from the press, and even Nintendo itself seemed somewhat apathetic about the system, putting the majority of its marketing behind Metroid Prime 2: Echoes.
Many who did try the system at launch found themselves unimpressed. The inclusion of an innovative touchscreen interface was matched by the disappointing lack of an analog stick or slider; instead, early games offered "virtual analog controls" via the touch screen. The original DS model shipped with a strange little strap for players to attach to their thumbs, allowing them to treat the system's bottom screen as a makeshift analog control for its more ambitious launch titles, Super Mario 64 DS and the pack-in demo of Metroid Prime: Hunters.
"The first time I held a DS was after my friend had gotten one for his birthday a couple months after the system's North American launch," recalls Stewart Smith. "It was bulkier than I expected, and trying to play Super Mario 64 DS with that stupid little thumb nub attachment was a nightmare. Compared to the sleek styling and (nearly) PS2-level graphics of the forthcoming PlayStation Portable, my immediate reaction to the DS was, 'Well, THIS won't be much of a hit. Guess Nintendo's finally gonna lose the handheld war for a little while...' I'm not sure I've ever been more wrong in my life. "
Smith was hardly alone in his initial skepticism.
"This was an era before ubiquitous touch screens or alternative input devices," says Tramer, "so developers were puzzling out what kind of games they could even make for the damn thing, which makes nearly the entire catalog of the system's first year pretty awful. It didn't help that the original DS Fat design was unappealing and difficult to hold for people with smaller hands than 'gigantic.' For all the XBox controller jokes from around the same era, the DS form factor actually felt bigger and more unwieldy."
"When I got the DS, it weird in my hands," says Jason Venter. "A bit bulky, and using a stylus to control things, though a novel concept to me, felt awkward. Feel the Magic was a great deal more challenging than I suspect I would find it now, and a bit quick to wear out its welcome. The DS looked a bit dorky, for lack of a better term. Compared to the PSP, it seemed rather old-fashioned, even though it was doing some cool new things."
In short, the DS didn't make a great first impression. It was the first Nintendo platform ever to launch first in America, suggesting the company was eager to get it out before the lucrative Thanksgiving weekend and was working on such a rushed schedule that there was no lead time to get it out in Japan first. Its lead title was a slightly enhanced port of an eight-year-old platformer, and the other releases it saw before year's end included mediocre racers, underwhelming console ports of the midguided Sims spinoff The Urbz, and Sega's stylish but shallow Feel the Magic XY/XX.
"The first few games for the system weren't really that inspiring or interesting-looking, and nobody seemed to know what to do with it," adds Tramer. "Anyone who was paying attention to games in that era probably remembers Feel the Magic XY/XX and Sprung as the kind of titles the system originally generated — they're not good games. When your big launch title is a port of a Mario game, and you're Nintendo, that's not a confidence-inspiring sign.
Worst of all, however, was THQ's Ping Pals, less a game than an app that allowed players to use one of the DS's strongest features — its built-in local and online wi-fi connectivity — to chat with one another. The problem? The DS already shipped with an identical communication app, Pictochat, built in to the firmware. Rumor has it that THQ had commissioned the game and sent it to manufacture before Nintendo informed third parties of the system's basic features... including Pictochat. This lack of transparency seemed an ill omen for the system, a sign of its hasty rush to beat the PSP to market and yet another example of Nintendo's troubled relationship with its licensees.
Still, the system's short announcement-to-release cycle had its benefits. In America, the machine shipped a full four months before the PSP arrived, giving it something of a head start. While its low-resolution visuals — 20% smaller than the ancient NES's video output — looked a full generation behind the PSP, they were nevertheless far more impressive than anything that had yet appeared on a handheld system.
"When I saw the first screenshots of Super Mario 64 DS I couldn't believe it," enthuses Starkweather. "No, I honestly could not believe it! I didn't think that we'd be moving on to 3D visuals in a portable this quickly, and I was blown away. I remember at E3 2004 when they finally did their big reveal showing off Metroid Prime Hunters — that was when I was sold."
Still, despite being sold on the concept and potential of the DS, even Starkweather found himself underwhelmed by the system Nintendo actually delivered.
"When I bought the thing on day one, though, I was a little disappointed with the build quality, size, backlight, and just about everything else that had to do with its design. That first year was also pretty rough when it came to game selection as well. Still, I had fun playing Nanostray, Wario Ware Touched, and Mario 64 DS until the system really hit its stride."
Even the DS's key feature, its touchscreen interface, took some getting used to.
"Though I loved the clunky, laptop design of the hardware I remember being skeptical of the dual screen set up," remembers Gary Butterfield of Watch Out for Fireballs. "I thought taking my hand away from the face buttons to draw on the screen would only interrupt the flow of play. Further, the space between the screens seemed like it would limit the usefulness of having the two screens interact, instead relegating the bottom screen to a gimmick interface method or a built in VMU. Luckily, the high quality of the software (eventually) overcame these weaknesses."
"I remember being skeptical of the dual screen set up. I thought taking my hand away from the face buttons to draw on the screen would only interrupt the flow of play. Further, the space between the screens seemed like it would limit the usefulness of having the two screens interact." — Gary Butterfield
"Despite the poor launch line-up, I was impressed that the handheld could reproduce N64-like graphics without the associated blurry textures of the system," says Marc Uva. He adds, "Beyond that, I remember being uninterested in the utility of having two screens or what the pen could do for games. The bulky look of the handheld already looked dated next to what previews had shown of the PSP. I was sold on the idea of a Nintendo handheld in and of itself — and bought the system despite its design, not because of it. I knew Nintendo handhelds had longevity, so I wasn't worried despite not being totally excited in my initial impression."
A few months later, the PSP debuted in America. As far as many people were concerned, that marked the end of the DS's brief life as a novel distraction. Sony had won.
A tortoise/hare scenario
Except that's not it turned out at all. The PSP impressed, but it wasn't without its shortcomings. It cost $100 more than the DS, and its delicate, glossy design betrayed a fundamental failure to understand the reality of handheld gaming and the hardships to which portable systems are subjected.
Most of all, the system's viability was damaged by Sony's determination to once again push its proprietary formats on consumers. Rather than operating off of standard cartridges, the PSP incorporated an optical drive based on the company's own MiniDisc standard. While this gave PSP media vastly more storage capacity at a lower cost than carts, the cost difference wasn't reflected in game prices (which had been a key advantage the original PlayStation had offered over Nintendo 64). Worse, the optical drive suffered from infamously terrible loading times, would forcefully eject disks if the system was subjected to mild torsion, and devoured battery life with its moving parts.
The DS, by contrast, was an inelegant but staunchly reliable brick of a system. Despite the fragility of its touch screen — vigorous play invariably resulted in unsightly scratches from the hard-tipped stylus — the console continued Nintendo's tradition of making nigh-indestructible portables.
Given a brief reprieve, the DS soon began to demonstrate its adherence to an even more essential Nintendo tradition: Low costs to both developers and players. With its ARM processors and modest hardware power, the DS provided an appealing development environment for budget-conscious game makers.
"The DS showed up right as budgets were starting to get bigger and the modern idea of 'AAA' began to appear," says Tramer. "Now here's a relatively simple, low-cost machine to develop for — both in terms of art assets, and specialized knowledge. Its multi-processor ARM architecture were starting to become industry standard at almost exactly around this period, and Japanese developers were familiar with some of the oddities the system shared with the Saturn, like its independent processors for pushing 2D and 3D."
The PSP, too, ran on a fairly standard chipset — the MIPS R4000, used throughout the '90s for high-powered workstations — but its higher specs meant creating an attractive game required more development budget than for the humble DS. And the DS's use of ARM chips meant its secondary processor was exactly the same as the chip that powered the Game Boy Advance, offering a clear line of development continuity for seasoned GBA developers or even a justification for easy cross-platform releases.
"The freedom to experiment comes with modest development costs," says Butterfield. "When I think of what makes the DS special, my mind goes to odd duck, niche titles that I just couldn't see coming out on consoles. The DS is a refuge for genres that are totally MIA on other platforms. First person dungeon crawls, roguelikes, visual novels and classic puzzle games (in the 7th Guest sense, not the Tetris one)."
While PSP worked to gain traction, Nintendo began to show its hand with DS at E3 2005. Despite the company's portable showing being awkwardly split between two systems, and despite the fact that a leaked Metroid sequel (Metroid Dread) proved to be a no-show, DS had a stronger showing at the event than anyone could possibly have expected. All eyes were on New Super Mario Bros., the first wholly original classic-style 2D Mario platformer in more than a decade, but the system's roster for the remainder of the year proved to be far stronger than the console's unimpressive debut the year before would have indicated.
"It wasn't until Kirby Canvas Curse came out that I began to fully grok what the system was capable of and how it allowed for completely different styles of play. I think that was a vitally important game for the system. It wasn't just a fun spin on a classic formula. To me, playing that game felt like the beginning of the future." — John Mix Meyer
The first true sign of things to come arrived concurrently with E3, with the sleeper masterpiece Kirby: Canvas Curse. Ostensibly a platform action game, Canvas Curse controlled entirely with the DS stylus. Rather than feeling awkward or limited, though, this interface opened up the Kirby franchise to genuinely new and innovative — not to mention greatly entertaining — ways to approach the platformer.
"It wasn't until Kirby Canvas Curse came out that I began to fully grok what the system was capable of and how it allowed for completely different styles of play," says Wired contributor John Mix Meyer. "I think that was a vitally important game for the system. It wasn't just a fun spin on a classic formula. To me, playing that game felt like the beginning of the future.
"I think you can attribute the bulk of the system's success to the way Nintendo managed to release a consistent stream of games like Nintendogs and Brain Age that not only took full advantage of the system's then-unique features, but did so in an obvious way that felt immediately natural and intuitive to people whose experience with videogames was limited to when arcades were in vogue."
The DS floodgates opened that August: Nintendo slashed the price of the system $20, to $129, making it just slightly more than half the price of the competing PSP (which came in at $249), just in time for the launch of two very different games that demonstrated the company's determination to appeal to two very different audiences. Advance Wars: Dual Strike was aimed directly at loyal Nintendo fans, the millions of core gamers who had played the previous Advance Wars titles (along with Famicom Wars and Game Boy Wars before them in Japan).
Meanwhile, Nintendogs took the company into the virtual pet simulation space in an adorable way. Gone were the bizarre imaginary beasts of Tamagotchi or Creatures, replaced by convincingly cute puppies of numerous breeds. And unlike other pets sims, interaction was no longer a sterile, hands-off process; the DS touchscreen allowed pet owners to rub and pet their pooches directly and play with them in various minigames. Initially given the stinkeye by the press, Nintendogs appealed to people who didn't read game magazine reviews, ultimately selling more than 20 million copies worldwide. Its sales were bested only by New Super Mario Bros., which rocketed to success by appealing to both audiences.
Though these two titles stand at the top of the DS lifetime sales charts, their success is echoed in countless other games. The DS saw more games that sold more than five million units than any other system ever, including the PlayStation 2 — the only other console in history to sell better than DS.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee
How did DS turn its fortunes around, going from a bewildering last-minute act of desperation to a world-beater? As is usually the case for games, it was, well, the games.
"Nintendo was very conscious of creating content tailored to the key features of the console that could also expand their audience," says Garza. "They had something for everybody and knew how to sell it to the public. Nintendo created Brain Age and Nintendogs to bring new players, but also still had Mario and Zelda. The control layout based on the tried and tested SNES controller made it familiar to hardcore gamers, but the touch screen made it accessible to everyone else.
"It was affordable, efficient and innovative. It’s probably the best example of 'Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology.' Even being able to close the lid of the console to pause the game and put the console on sleep mode enhanced the portability. It made developers rethink how to approach portable games, as they no longer could just release scaled down console titles without wasting the key features of the console. Of course some developers tried, but you won’t find many of their games on any 'best of' lists."
By the end of 2005, the DS offered a remarkable library. Besides Canvas Curse, Advance Wars, and Nintendogs, Nintendo also published Mario Kart DS — the first game in the company's history to go all-in for online play — and a sequel to GameCube's Animal Crossing, which proved to be far more at home on a handheld than on consoles. Third parties, too, began to find their stride, beginning with the extraordinary Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, which built on 2003's Aria of Sorrow for GBA with better visuals, more impressive music, and grander secrets.
Yet traditional games like Dawn of Sorrow weren't where DS made its greatest strides. Though they appeased core gamers, many of whom found themselves frustrated by the PSP's slow start, it was the games that broke the mold the way Nintendogs had.
"A huge part of the DS's success was its appeal to the casual or even non-gamer," says Wright. "Seeing women in their thirties playing Nintendogs on the train was not unusual. The Brain Age games were marketed (apparently successfully) towards an older demographic as a way to keep their mind in shape. It was completely acceptable to be seen in public using a DS, at least until the iPhone started to take off here.
"And for the more serious gamer, there were a large number of great games on the system offering new kinds of interactions, both via the touch screen and the wi-fi capabilities."
"The system's greatest strength was found in not just a lineup of games that were built around portability, but that there was a stunning diversity of games," says Smith. "Golden Sun, Advance Wars, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, Dragon Quest, Pokemon, Castlevania, Zelda, Mario, Chrono Trigger, Puzzle Quest, Harvest Moon, Aliens Infestation. This system boasted one of the most diverse lineups of games, not just in Nintendo's history, but of any system ever.
"But it wasn't just the wide range of genres available, it was how weird so many of those games were. Nintendo really let the freak flag fly with the DS by putting out some of the most unique titles ever made: Elite Beat Agents, Rhythm Heaven, The World Ends With You, Scribblenauts, 999, Hotel Dusk: Room 215, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Professor Layton, Ghost Trick. You'd be hard pressed to find anything like any one of those games on any other system, much less all bunched up on a single handheld.
Nintendo seemed to really embrace the unique content, too. Almost all of those games were widely available, with Elite Beat Agents even showing up on demo units in stores. While Sony with the PSP was out trying to find a way to cram the console experience into your hands, Nintendo was finding ways to deliver experiences that could only be possible on their clamshell, touchscreen handheld."
As the system's sales momentum grew, publishers and developers were quick to jump aboard to support the DS. Ultimately, it grew to boast one of the richest and most diverse console lineups ever seen. Any survey of DS owners' favorite games invariably yields as many different answers as there are respondents.
"I was a big fan of Etrian Odyssey," says Venter, "which I felt did a terrific job of blending old school gameplay with new ideas. Being able to make maps of your progress right in the game you were playing was awesome. The Professor Layton titles also deserve a shoutout for making puzzle solving cool and practical. Kirby Mass Attack was interesting, as well, and even more conventional games like Retro Game Challenge deserve a mention. I was especially pleased also to finally be able to play updated versions of Dragon Quest IV, as well as V and VI for the first time."
"It was affordable, efficient and innovative. It’s probably the best example of 'Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology.' Even being able to close the lid of the console to pause the game and put the console on sleep mode enhanced the portability." — Omar Garza
"Retro Game Challenge is a very special work" says Butterfield. "It's the only game I can think of that functions both as a play experience and also as a simulation of what it feels like to be a kid just getting into the hobby. Also, for my money, Rocket Slime is the best Dragon Quest spin off title and one of the best action games on the system."
"The game that really hooked me was Meteos," says Meyer, "which was a puzzle game designed by Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai in cooperation with Q Entertainment. The game had you matching colored blocks up and down (horizontal movement was disallowed), which would cause them to ignite and rocket upwards and off the screen. You could play on a variety of different planets, which all had their own distinct gravity and animations. So on some planets, you would need to match a significant amount of blocks to produce the necessary force to take off. On others, the blocks would disappear instantaneously, but the downside was that new blocks would fall so quickly that it was hard to keep up."
Wright looks to The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. "Many people — myself included — take issue with some of the design choices in this game, particularly the repetitive nature of the Temple of the Ocean King. The design of its user interface, however, was superb. Whether plotting your boat's course by literally drawing a line on the game map (goodbye, tedious Wind Waker navigation) or drawing out the exact path your boomerang should travel to allow it to hit the switch hidden on the other side of a wall (hello, finally useful accessory), playing this game with its stylus-based interface was a real pleasure. This was also the first Japanese DS game I played that allowed you to touch any kanji in the game to see its phonetic reading, an extremely helpful feature for a person learning Japanese and something that would not be nearly as useful without the touch interface."
"The World Ends with You sticks out as a great game that used almost all of the features unique to the DS," says Myncy. "I loved Elite Beat Agents despite the somewhat questionable track list and cover quality. The Phoenix Wright series was my first foray into visual novel-style games, and the writing kept me engaged for hours. Kirby Canvas Curse was a great game that couldn't have worked on a console before the DS. One of my most played games was Tetris DS, which was just a solid version of Tetris with some interesting gameplay modes and nostalgic music/sprites. There were also some great ports of older games. I played Chrono Trigger for the first time on the DS, as well as Dragon Quest V and Kirby Super Star."
The DS easily attracted such a wealth of content; inexpensive to develop for, and with a massive install base of eager enthusiasts, it really did live up to its original code name: "Developers System."
"Momentum was easily found when developers of the system could afford to take risks with the smaller budgets of DS games," says Uva. "Bending and molding of existing genres took place most prominently on the DS because of that alleviation of risk; and that novelty made people excited. Games like Contact, Advance Wars, Nintendogs, Phoenix Wright, Feel the Magic, and WarioWare were early DS games that would have required focus groups to justify the risks their hypothetical console budgets would have imposed on their development.
"The DS was well aware of this creative advantage to the effect of its own design: The dual screen, pen, and wi-fi were a logical extension of form for its games to run on. Handhelds finally had enough power to show developers that every genre could be represented faithfully and even thrive on handheld systems with less risk than on a home console. Eventually the system had built up such a huge library that there was something for everyone, and owning a DS made sense for anyone that wanted to play any type of game."
Nintendo cemented the DS legacy once and for all in mid-2006, when the DS Lite launched. Slimmer, brighter, longer-lasting, and generally more attractive in every possible way than the original DS, the Lite broke down the final barrier that stood in the way of the platform's mass acceptance. Once the Lite arrived, the DS became a true gaming juggernaut, pulling Nintendo from the brink of obsolescence and back once again to the leading position of the sales charts. It was a hit in every respect.
The comeback story was complete, and Nintendo had rebuilt itself on the appeal of its underpowered, undercooked underdog. And they all lived happily ever after.
The fourth act
Or rather, they all lived happily after for about three years, at which point things started to get dicey again.
Unfortunately for Nintendo, the DS story isn't a standalone tale with a harrowing beginning and a tidy finale. It's all part of a larger continuity, a continuum. And while the system's underdog tale warmed our hearts for a time, the next chapter betrayed the lie of "happily ever after."
The DS experienced a sort of golden age in 2007 and 2008, seeing an astounding number of varied but high-quality releases across every genre imaginable (and some that appeared to have been made up on the spot). Old-school styles of play like 2D platformers, dungeon-crawler RPGs, and classic point-and-click adventures sat comfortably alongside weird and innovative creations like The World Ends With You, Trace Memory, and Rhythm Heaven. By 2009, however, DS sales began to falter. The system remained popular as ever, but fewer people were buying games.
"Perhaps [the DS's] biggest failing was in how easily it facilitated piracy," says Smith. "The arrival of flashcarts meant that it became absurdly easy to pirate the relatively small file sizes of DS games, allowing pirates to cram an alarming number of DS games onto a single cart. Combine that with the flashcart's ability to run emulators for systems such as the NES and Genesis and piracy on the DS became an all too prevalent thing thanks to the fact that this was all possible due to the (more or less) plug-and-play nature of the SD cards used."
Software piracy, traditionally generally only seen on PCs and in Asian territories like Hong Kong and Russia, exploded on DS with the arrival of flash cart technology such as the infamous R4. A formerly obscure corner of gaming went as mainstream as the DS itself, and combined with the ease of finding and downloading games through the Internet, these devices caused the bottom to drop out of the DS market almost overnight.
"Although the cartridge medium was ideal for the size of games and battery life, it also meant that that piracy was incredibly easy and rampant," says Uva.
Nintendo found itself suddenly stung by the strengths of its platform. The openness of the portable — like its predecessors, the DS had no regional lockout — and the well-worn technology that had been such strengths suddenly worked to the detriment of the DS.
The company responded by clamping down; it released a new hardware iteration called the DSi in 2009. While boasting more RAM and processing power than the Lite, the real purpose of the DSi was to introduce digital distribution to the market — a safeguard against piracy.
And with the advent of a digital story came the introduction of region-locking. Where Nintendo's portables had allowed players to enjoy games from any country on any system for 20 years, the DSi restricted games to consoles of the region in which they were released. While this had no impact on existing DS games or existing DS systems, many post-DSi games contained code that restricted them by region when played on DSi (and, subsequently, the 3DS). As a further anti-piracy measure, the DSi also dropped the legacy Game Boy Advance slot, which many hackers used for exploits.
While a nice machine in its own right, the limitations imposed by the DSi — along with its remarkable lack of software feature support to benefit anyone but Nintendo — soured many gamers on the platform.
"Though I picked up a DSi at its launch, I was ultimately turned off by the multiple hardware revisions" says Wright. "The DS Lite was a great improvement on the original DS, and I think without it the system would not have been nearly as successful. The DSi and its various iterations, however, didn't really seem to add much. Very few games (that I am aware of, at least) took advantage of the extra capabilities of the DSi hardware, and the downloadable content never seemed to take off. Ultimately, I regretted my DSi purchase, particularly when they followed with the larger screened DSi XL model just a year later."
Around this time, Nintendo's DS faced another threat, one that created a challenge to Nintendo portable supremacy that even Sony hadn't managed to muster: The rise of iOS.
"DS paved the way for things like the App Store and how a lot of focus is put on casual pick-up-and-play games these days. Before the DS, those experiences were kind of relegated to things like Bejewled and Peggle. DS brought the mainstream into the mainstream." — John Mix Meyer
Mobile games had existed for a decade by the time Apple launched its App Store, which debuted in 2008 and brought with it a number of high-profile games, including an ambitious Katamari Damacy sequel that put the PSP version to shame. But the iOS approach to mobile gaming took a number of pages from Nintendo's book: A closed platform with an emphasis on low cost, touch controls, and casual appeal. In a sense, Nintendo created its own worst enemy.
"I think [DS] paved the way for things like the App Store and how a lot of focus is put on casual pick-up-and-play games these days," says Meyer. "Before the DS, those experiences were kind of relegated to things like Bejewled and Peggle. DS brought the mainstream into the mainstream."
"[DS was] truly the first 'alternate input' device to take off in gaming, so much so that we don't think of it that way any more," says Tramer. "Without the DS, there's probably no Wii, for better or for worse. Without the DS as a proving ground for what worked and what didn't with touch input, iOS games would have probably started off in much worse shape."
While the ultimate outcome of the portable-vs.-mobile battle remains to be seen, there's little question that the rise of iOS games (along with Android and other mobile platforms) has taken a bite out of the traditional handheld console market. Sony's Vita struggles in obscurity, and while Nintendo managed to salvage an unenthusiastic launch for DS's successor 3DS, the platform continues to trail well behind lifetime-to-date sales figures for its predecessor.
A touching legacy
Regardless of how the current act of Nintendo's story turns out, and what future chapters bring, few would deny that DS is anything less than a high point in the company's history — and in games as a whole.
"DS proved that with a little bit of imagination, developers can do a lot more with a handheld than just shrink down familiar console experiences, and it didn't have to sacrifice tight controls to accomplish that feat," says Venter. "It also was backwards compatible, meaning you weren't separated from a great library of games you might have built up by that point, and the hardware was affordable enough that all sorts of people could afford to jump in if they were still interested in mobile gaming. The success of the DS surely paved the way for the Wii, and then the less successful Wii U after it, but overall it's difficult to see the DS as anything but a bright spot in Nintendo's history."
"The DS provided a home for esoteric experiences that I couldn't imagine finding anywhere else," says Butterfield. "Though many of these forsaken genres have thrived in the indie PC scene, the DS helped them find a wider audience and for that reason alone it remains an important system. Like all of Nintendo's handhelds, it's a lesson in the value of modest aims, something I've grown to appreciate immensely."
"The DS will be remembered fondly by those who had one," says Drew Bush, "but I don’t know how future generations will look back on it. They may wonder why the screens are so small, or why it has buttons at all, but for those of us who owned a DS and who traversed its robust library of amazing games, we’ll remember a quirky little gaming system that offered a window into the future of what gaming could be."
"The DS seemed to occupy a space for games that seems to be much more narrow today," says Uva. "A space where a large number of titles that could sustain larger budgets and teams than that of the indie-games of today while still being much smaller-scale than that of a home-console budget."
"The DS showed that Nintendo could still successfully innovate, and it made them popular again after the poor performances of the N64 and GameCube," says Wright. "I don't have a citation, but I would wager that the DS's success primed the pump for the Wii's success — people were more willing to give the new Wii-mote interface a go because Nintendo had just shown with the DS what could be accomplished with its 'wacky' ideas.
"It brought a variety of audiences to video games in a way that no other game console did before," says Garza. "Unlike the Wii, the DS reached successfully both casual and hardcore users of all ages, something no other game console has been able to do since then.
"Perhaps the Nintendo DS made obsolete the idea of a portable console like the GameBoy Color or the GameBoy Advance. They were small, affordable consoles that offered more traditional experiences on a single screen. It’s hard to argue that Sony is filling that niche, as their portable entries are all about having the most advanced technology, often awkwardly trying to close the gap between portable and home console."
"The DS left a legacy of incredible games that anyone of any age can enjoy," says Starkweather. "It ushered in an era of online play on portable systems, wireless multiplayer, touch screens, and console-like experiences that you can carry in your pocket. I do not believe it's a stretch to say that without Nintendo DS mobile gaming as whole either would not exist and definitely not in the capacity that we see it today. That can be both a good and bad thing depending on who you're talking to, but more people are playing and buying games than ever before and I choose to see that as amazing.
The DS brought a variety of audiences to video games in a way that no other game console did before. Unlike the Wii, it reached successfully both casual and hardcore users of all ages, something no other game console has been able to do since then." — Omar Garza
"In a literal sense, the DS's legacy is the Nintendo 3DS, which is an incredible system in its own right. It may not have the quantity of the Nintendo DS's library, but it certainly has the quality."
"I think the DS leaves a legacy as the true successor to the Gameboy, even more so than the Gameboy Advance," says Myncy. "It seemed like everyone had a DS at some point, and there were plenty of opportunities for wireless multiplayer. I played far more Mario Kart DS than Mario Kart Wii with my friends thanks to the portability of the DS.
"With so many units in the wild, developers took the time to try out a variety of different designs using the touch and dual screens. I think it's difficult to envision future handhelds without a touchscreen of some kind - both the Vita and 3DS still use them (even though it's probably more because of the iPhone, the DS came a few years earlier and showed off what touchscreen gameplay could do). For some people, the DS was the first step into gaming; for just as many, it was a step back to their gaming roots."
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