Sunday, February 10, 2008


The Nintendo DS is a curious console. As anyone reading this is probably aware, it's a huge, huge success - far beyond what almost anyone could have predicted. It's still regularly selling out, and since late November, it's been impossible to find on store shelves.

When I first saw the DS, I was completely dismissive of the touchscreen. There's no feedback, they tend to be imprecise, they can't really track fast movement all that well, they get scratched up, and are generally frustrating. The PSP trounced it from a graphics perspective, its high resolution screen made the DS look like a sorry joke, and overall, I thought the PSP was going to hand Nintendo its ass.

Of course, the best piece of advice you can ever give someone is to never, ever bet against Nintendo in the handheld market - for NINETEEN YEARS, Nintendo's owned the space, and handfuls of challengers have had their dreams shattered by the lower-tech Nintendo handheld. The Lynx, Game Gear, Nomad, Wonderswan, Neo Geo Pocket Color and PSP were almost universally "better" than their Nintendo counterpart. Why the success?

Normally, I'd say it comes down to software. Hardware power's never been the determining factor in a console's success, except as it relates to how that power translates to software. But the PSP's had some great games that look much, much better, complex, console-style games like Metal Gear: Portable Ops, Wipeout, and Daxter. These are portable games that feel like their console counterparts with minimal sacrifice except load times.

But where the PSP is frustrating - the delicate media, the huge, unprotected screen, the short battery life and long load times, the DS is extraordinarily elegant. The screen is protected by the clamshell design. You can 'sleep' the system for weeks on end without worrying about the battery, the battery lasts almost a full reasonable weekend of play, the media is nigh-indestructible (and small), and the load times, where present, are minimal.

The DS, as a result, actually works *as a handheld*. It's explicitly *not* a portable console - it's something uniquely geared towards playing games in short bursts. While the available software is a really mixed bag (there are a few extremely high-quality standouts, like Mario and Zelda, as well as some really interesting options like Phoenix Wright and Elite Beat Agents, but the vast majority of the DS's software lineup is *terrible*), the good games are designed to actually work in a completely "portable" environment.

The DS's big problem is that Nintendo needs to start clamping down on quality. Both the DS and Wii's software libraries are so full of shovelware that it's increasingly difficult for an uneducated consumer to actually make *good* purchasing decisions. If Nintendo continues to let garbage like Elf Bowling and Chicken Shoot taint their libraries, they're really risking killing the casual market through bad games.

Still, it's hard to question Nintendo these days. I was sure the Wii was going to be their last console, and the PSP was going to hand them their hat. I was wrong on both counts, but I worry that between the Wii's relatively low attach rate and the DS's mixed library that their success is not as stable as people seem to think it is. Obviously, they've made a huge, huge amount of money so far, and as a result, they are free to make some genuinely risky decisions. The ones they've made so far have paid off in spades.

We'll see how it goes from here on out...

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