Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It has begun...

Nintendo's full transition to the DS, that is.

In 2004, Nintendo dropped its most ambitious handheld, the DS, worldwide. The first Nintendo handheld to not bear the Game Boy name, Nintendo distanced itself from its experiment so as to avoid tarnishing the near-spotless Game Boy name (as they had with a previous flop, the Virtual Boy). Not sure the DS would take off, they included a Game Boy Advance slot in the bottom in addition to the dedicated DS slot in the top, so that in case the DS line crashed and burned, early adopters would at least have a GBA that could play a few of the new games. Following the release of the DS, Nintendo released a third model of the wildly popular Game Boy Advance line, the Micro; designed to look like a classic NES controller and only a little bigger than the game cartridges themselves, the GBA Micro was an utter failure. Everyone wanted a DS. This handheld, which like the GBA SP before it, looked like a cross between a makeup kit and an electronic dictionary with its clamshell design, which protected its signature and as of yet unparalleled features: Two screens, the lower of which a touch screen. The system also featured a microphone. Originally costing $149.99, the console dropped in price to $129.99 just a year or so later, and has stayed at that price point since.

It's important to know that the DS, while a Game Boy in spirit, the DS is actually something else entirely. As early as the late 80s, the Game Boy line has been accused of, purely by the name of the product, excluding girls. Laugh it up, but girl gamers are a huge financial incentive and have helped propel DS game sales with titles such as Nintendogs and the Imagine line, with focus on care and nurturing rather than conquest and destruction. While "Game Boy" is marketable to sentimental old fossils such as myself, Nintendo, much more so than Microsoft or Sony now or Sega or, well, anybody else back in the day, wants to appeal to families, games that are fun for Mom and Dad and educational for the kids, as young as possible. And while the debate as to whether edutainment titles actually help kids learn more so or even as much as traditional learning, none can deny that it makes learning fun, or better yet, Nintendo's sales records. In the 1980s and pre-PlayStation 1990s, Nintendo creamed their one major competitor, Sega, to the point where the company stopped making consoles and focused, instead, on games, primarily for Nintendo, it would seem.

2006 saw the release of the DS Lite, a smaller DS with a more squared-off design, and, at a glance, about a 33% reduction in overall size (though, oddly enough, the stylus got bigger). The battery was said to be better, the screens got two more brightness settings, but it was pretty much the same thing. The size reduction caused the original DS to be redubbed the "DS Phat" by fans, and was still preferred by some (including many with larger hands). The DS, now marginally bigger than a smartphone, could now be carried discreetly in most articles of clothing. It was about the size of the GBA SP, only wider.

2006 also saw another advancement in technology: the rise in popularity of micro SD to Nitro converter cards. (micro SD is the kind of memory card your cell phone probably uses if it takes a memory card, and Nitro is the code name for the DS; "DS Cartridges" are technically "Nitro cartridges".) Such a device allows, among other things, one to load a few to a couple dozen DS games on one memory card and play them for free. Of course, there are legal uses for the converter cards (referred to as "flashcarts" by many of their users, as cartridges which take flash memory) as I've even blogged about in the past, such as music and video playback, PDA features such as calendar/appointment keeping, painting, writing text files, and playing homemade games. And quite naturally, it's Nintendo's responsibility to its game publishers (as most of their games and arguably all of their best games are exclusive to the DS) to try to prevent this. They've gone after Japanese shops selling a popular flashcart called the R4 (the one I've got), but so far their efforts have been in vain. Like the RIAA going after KaZaA and other old networks long after most users have jumped ship, Nintendo likely hasn't stopped anybody from downloading, rather than paying for their games. However, Nintendo really can't fight pirates in realtime. The DS just isn't set up for forced firmware updates. Sony's PSP is better equipped to do so, relying more on the Internet (it has a web browser that actually works, unlike the one Nintendo put out in partnership with Opera a couple years back) and releasing firmware updates every so often.

In 2008, rumors circulated about a new DS system. Videos appeared on YouTube; one showed what looked like two iPhones side by side, implying an ultrathin clamshell design, and another showed something straight out of Transformers which is probably a physical impossibility. These viral videos probably fooled very few people, but the gaming world was indeed abuzz that something new was coming for Nintendo's handheld market. Quietly announced in Japan and hurriedly translated by American gamers, the DSi features two 0.3MP cameras - one on the outside and one on the inner hinge - a slightly slimmer design, slightly larger screens, an SD card slot in the side, and a more intelligent design, as far as the indicator lights, placement of the power and reset buttons, and speakers, all the "little" things. Oh, and no GBA slot. The casual dismissal of the GBA slot led to a fair bit of controversy among fans. Fans who sold their GBAs and intended to replace their DS Phat or DS Lite for a DSi but still wanted to play GBA games felt burned. Oh, and the two (and one upcoming) Guitar Hero games, among others, rely on an attachment which plugs into the GBA slot.

The removal of the GBA slot is a far more important move than most fans notice, or care to admit. The DSi is Nintendo's first dedicated DS, as in the first DS which does not double as a GBA. The DS Phat and DS Lite were really both two systems in one. With a DS game, it was a DS, something totally new, but with a GBA game, it was really just another GBA. With the DS Lite, Nintendo said, in not so many words, that they did not trust the DS to carry the Nintendo handheld, but combining the failure of the GBA Micro and the success of both DS systems, as well as the exclusion of the GBA slot from the DSi, Nintendo has finally accepted that DS is the future of Nintendo handhelds. It will not become the "Nintendo Game Boy DSi"; likely, they will never put the "Game Boy" name on anything, again. The last true Game Boy platform was the Game Boy Advance line, and it was a hit. The only thing that burns me is that the Game Boy Advance was a widescreen gaming platform, and the DS line took a step back returning to square gaming. But regardless, Game Boy went out with a bang, and may it rest in peace.

If it's any consolation, PSP loyalists like to let Nintendo fans know that a modified PSP can play GBA games with 100% accuracy in most games. A PSP is good for music and video, much more so than a modified DS, so if a DS Phat or DS Lite owner really must have a DSi, the PSP looks real good as a second system. Never mind that it's expensive and has few really good games. Its homebrew emulators are far in advance of the DS's, so it can play the NES games, just like a modded DS can, and it can play Super NES games, ironically, better than a DS, especially as most Super NES games don't even play correctly. They may be playable, but they don't look right. Nintendo wants us to forget about the past and move on (and of course buy all their new games, good or otherwise) but many of us self-proclaimed Nintendorks just can't let go of the classics. It's a damn shame Nintendo doesn't accept this and try to make money by reselling all their classics every year on the latest platforms. They'd really make a killing, and on franchises they own - namely Mario, Zelda, and Metroid - they wouldn't even have to pay any licensing fees. They already own the content. That said, the DSi will have an SD card reader and a "Channel" system like the Wii - it's speculated that it might have a Virtual Console of its own. Obviously not as many games would be supported, if it's true at all, but it is a step in the right direction.

Oh, and about the pirates. The DSi will not support homebrew software from booting from the SD slot, so apparently, that's out as a means to play downloaded games on the system. Apparently it can store resources, but the actual executable programs (or the keys to run them) will be held elsewhere, possibly on a flash memory device inside the unit. The anti-piracy measures of the DSi are not known at this time, but it is known that most if not all of the flashcarts made for the DS Phat and DS Lite will not work on the DSi. However, flashcarts are out now that work on Japanese DSis, as the console is available there. When the DSi comes to America in May of this year (unless it gets pushed back) it's pretty much assumed that the system will be ready for hacking.

And so it goes. Another great handheld game system is about to come out with unforseen potential, and the hackers, crackers, and pirates will have their way with it, as they always have, and those who buy games, well, both groups are in for a new world of surprises, only one's paying more, and hopefully it's enough to keep Nintendo going long enough to go at it again in 2011 or 2012.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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