Thursday, October 2, 2008

Nintendo can keep the new DSi. Here's why.

If you haven't heard, Nintendo today announced the third DS model, DSi. Successor to the Lite and Phat (what we tend to call the first, bulky DS), this model most notably adds a camera. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, I don't quite think so.

Last week, a Japanese speculatory article was published in a magazine not typically associated with a lot of credibility. The article stated that Nintendo would announce a new DS, with two touch screens instead of one, a camera, and the ability to play music. The Internet went crazy over the news, at least in the portable gaming circles.

Portable gaming is pretty serious business. I own a Nintendo DS Lite, and my wife owns an Xbox 360. And I wouldn't trade her any day of the week. While the 360 is nice, there's something to be said about being able to carry your games with you. And then you mod it... Modding an Xbox 360 looks to be a lot of work, and then all you can do is play copied games. Tsk tsk. A fully modded DS can play DS games as well as games for Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, and NES. It can play some Super NES games, and it can play Sega Genesis games without sound. I hear it can play Sega Master System and Game Gear games flawlessly, but I haven't tried that. Also it can play multimedia (which a stock 360 can do anyway) and run homebrew applications. So there are a lot more options. And on the other side of the fence, the PSP is interesting in its own right. It's better for movies, and its games look better, if you prefer graphics to gameplay. It also, apparently includes a browser. You can get a few browsers on the DS (one is official, others aren't) but none of them are fully functional. A PSP can be modded, too, and apparently it can do even more, being a more powerful machine. But a PSP can only be modded into a better gaming/entertainment system, where a DS can be modded to basically be a handheld computer.

And now a portable gaming system is going to get a camera. It wouldn't be the first time; the Game Boy systems have had cameras, and even a printer! Neither were very popular, Nintendo would do well to remember.

So let's take a look at the DSi. The DSi is basically the same form factor as a DS. The hinges appear to be a little bulkier. The DS logo is completely gone from the outer shell of the DSi. The screens are slightly bigger. The DSi does not support Game Boy Advance cartridges natively, which means it also does not support the official browser, or the new Guitar Hero games. It also doesn't support GBA to DS linkage, a rarely used feature supported in some Pokemon and Castlevania games. As I said, it has a camera. It actually has two cameras. One is on the outer shell (reportedly 3 megapixels) in the lower-right corner, and the other is on the inner spine (reportedly 0.3 megapixels), where the mic is on the DS Lite. The speakers are changed; they look smaller but are said to be better. The power button is no longer a slider switch on the right side above the stylus slot; instead it's a button you push on the left side, under the D-pad. The power indicator light on the right shoulder is gone; on the DSi, three indicator lights will indicate Wi-Fi connectivity, charging status, and battery status, respectively. Most interestingly, however, the DSi will feature a Secure Digital (SD) card reader on the right side, where the power switch is on the Lite. This will store photos taken by the cameras, and can be loaded with music, which can be played through an updated home screen.

All in all, the DSi seems like a nice update to the 2-year-old DS Lite. But pitted against my fully modded DS Lite, it doesn't look as sweet. Here's why:

1. It's got a camera. Nice, but does it have a flash? I have a 2MP camera on my phone, and it doesn't have a flash either. The pictures are great in good lighting but terrible if I don't have good lighting. I expect no better out of the DSi. And a 0.3MP camera is worthless. No two ways about that. I have a fairly nice Canon Powershot from 2005 (4.2MP) which serves me quite well. My digital camcorder can take stills at 5MP, but I never use it because it's not very good, ironically. So I have three cameras, two of which I use. I don't see myself taking pictures with a DSi.

2. It doesn't support Game Boy Advance games. This is a huge turn-off for me. I can't stress that enough. My three favorite gaming franchises are Castlevania, Legend of Zelda, and Metroid, in that order. So let's run the numbers. Game Boy Advance has three Castlevania games, four Zelda games (even though 2 are NES ports), and three Metroid games (1 is an NES port). The DS has two Castlevania games, one of which is inherently broke (there's a part where you have to defend a character who is casting a spell which takes 30-45 seconds to cast... against two screen-clearing bosses), though a third is on the way. It has only one Zelda game. It has two Metroid games. One sucks and the other is Metroid-themed pinball. So the DSi can play less than half of the games the DS Lite can from my three favorite franchises. Also, since the Guitar Hero games use the Game Boy Advance slot to connect the guitar grip controller, the Guitar Hero games won't load on the DSi. I have the first one, and if you start it without the guitar grip, it tells you it can't proceed. The second one comes out in the next couple months and I fully plan to get it as well. I repeat: No Guitar Hero for DSi owners. DS Lite owners will have 58 songs to play on the go (25 in the first one, a reported 28 will be in the second one) by this holiday season. Guitar Hero is nothing compared to Rock Band, which Jen owns all over on the Xbox 360, but for portable... hell, I'm glad to have Guitar Hero! Again, not on a DSi though.

3. It plays Mp3 files. Wow. This might actually be neat to see. Oh, but wait. My DS Lite already does this. Yay for modding. I can also play video. If the DSi can play video, they haven't announced it. If one of the biggest new features of the DSi is that it can play music, that doesn't say much about the rest of the system. Being as that music playback has been an underground feature for years.

4. The power button is on the face. This is a huge turn-off for me. I see myself accidentally hitting it, and that's not cool. I've never accidentally turned off my DS Lite because the power switch is out of the way, not... in the way. Well it's not RIGHT in the way, but it's close enough that it's in a stupid position.

5. I have a perfectly fine, fully operational, fully modded DS Lite. It's awesome. Some speculate that the DSi will feature technological countermeasures to prevent modding. While that will end up bypassed soon enough, if true, it means that besides the camera, Nintendo plans to make the DSi more limited than the DS Lite, in which case it would not be upgrading, but downgrading.

6. Better features were passed over. Here is where I start whining. The DS has a touch screen... how about a text writer, for taking notes on the go, keeping a journal, or maybe writing poetry or a story? How about an address book? A calendar? All of these are software solutions they can add at any time with no hardware update required. I would trade the camera for a good text writer. And how about video playback? Video playing is sketchy on a modded DS, and all of the solutions to make the required DPG files are half-broken hacks which don't work half the time. If the DS could play video in an established format dozens of programs could write to without concern of failure, that would be awesome.

So, all in all, it's interesting that Nintendo has a new handheld on the market, but until something changes down the road, I believe I still have the best handheld Nintendo has to offer.

Oh yeah - you wanna see it? The North American website has no mention of the DSi; to see it, you have to go on their Japanese site and navigate without knowing what the site is saying.

Here's the link.

The page will load, and you'll be presented with a starting image showing off the camera. The tabs I'll refer to are along the bottom.

First (home) tab. Nothing but the other tabs to click on here. Look, and move on.

Second tab is first on the left on the Home tab (Home tab is the NintendoDS logo). This just shows off the camera, probably explains what they can do. Again, look and move on.

Third tab has two symbols and a dash (-) then a bunch more symbols. Here, you can finally do something! Click the icons in the upper right corner to change the view.

Fourth tab actually says DSi at first. We'll call it "First DSi Tab". This must be the new home screen, with a lot of new options to play with. Nothing to actually do though.

Second DSi tab focuses on photo manipulation. Move your mouse around the pictures to scroll. Cool, eh?

The third DSi tab will make you wish you knew Japanese, because it talks about what you can do with music. Looks like you'll be able to interact with it somehow.

The last DSi tab shows a new web browser (guess they overcame the 16MB RAM expansion requirement?) and something I can't tell what it is.

The last tab, the one that says DS Lite, is a lot of fun. On the left you have the DSi; on the right, the DS Lite. (This may seem backwards, but it's not. The Japanese read right to left so it's fitting that the new model is on the left, not the right.) Move the mouse around. You can compare the consoles side by side using the middle, which I guess is supposed to be like a mirror. If you click the icon in the lower right, you can see the top and right-hand side (no fancy mouse movement). Also, if you click the link in the lower left, you can read the specs. Well, if you could read Japanese, you can read the specs.

Thanks for reading. You now know as much about the just-announced DSi as I do.

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