Review by Arkrex

Reviewed: 10/02/07

Dominating Success

There was a time when videogaming was considered to be an exclusive hobby of the geek community. As technology advanced - ultra-realistic graphics, pulse-pounding sound, go-anywhere portability - more and more enthusiasts were brought into the fray, but the old flame of innovation seemed to have burnt out as the next-gen gamers swept in. The next big game was inevitably to be the sequel, prequel or spin-off of some star-shining example; a grandiose return, but essentially more of the same. You couldn't help it, though. What more could you get out of a control pad linked to a single window of interactivity?

Nintendo was the original market leader in the videogaming industry, but the tides had turned after their back-to-back commercial failures against the dominating Sony Playstation duo, and Microsoft's Xbox didn't make it any easier. However, they still thrived on the handheld front - the Game Boy Advance (GBA) was the undisputable king of gaming-on-the-go. But guess what? Sony hinted at penetrating their long-held portable dominance. Uh-oh! And so, the good people over at Nintendo finally decided to pick up the slack and rack their brains for a potential successor. Something new, something special, something unique - something that could offer whole new way of making and playing games, and which could be accessible to as wide an audience as possible. In 2004, the result of their persistent drive for innovation was unleashed: the Nintendo DS.

The Nintendo DS, NDS, GBA 2 - call it what you will; I prefer a plain and simple "DS". It was dubbed the "Third Pillar" by Nintendo, alongside the Gamecube home console and their previous wonderboy, the GBA. Why the cautious slant? Well, being somewhat of an unconventional follow-up to the most successful handheld at the time, its touted new features meant that it had to tread carefully in a market which may not have readily accepted what it had to offer: two screens, one of which is fully touch-sensitive; a built-in microphone; wireless and WiFi connectivity; and a modest hardware upgrade over the GBA. The spotlighted feature of the DS was, of course, the dual screens from which its abbreviation was derived.

“Wow! Stunning!” Or should that be “stunned”? It wasn't quite the revolution that everyone was expecting, and Nintendo knew it themselves; they added on backwards-compatibility with GBA games via Slot-2 as a failsafe, in case the DS were to suffer a similar fate as one of their earlier 'innovative' ideas: the Virtual Boy. But while the gaming community was sharing mixed feelings, the developing side were revelling in what new opportunities were now available.

Two screens meant that a complete map could be conveniently displayed on top of the main gameplay screen at all times (Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow/Portrait of Ruin); two separate events could be shown simultaneously at any one time (Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan; Undercover: Dual Motives); or action could simply be spread over twice the screen-estate (Yoshi's Island DS; DK: Jungle Climber). Tactile feedback on the lower touch-screen allowed developers to create extra big buttons for games that required more than just a conventional d-pad, four face buttons, and two shoulder triggers (Super Princess Peach; Bleach: The Blade of Fate). With a stylus in hand, it was possible to jot down your own notes during an adventure game Hotel Dusk: Room 215; Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass; dictate where your troops would head towards in a strategy game (Advance Wars: Dual Strike; Heroes of Mana); aim a headshot with startling precision in a first or third-person shooter (Metroid Prime Hunters; Brothers in Arms DS); or even draw up your own heroes! (Pac-Pix; Drawn to Life.). The sky was truly the limit.

Then we have the vast multiplayer options available via wireless and WiFi communications - you can choose to play close to some DS-owning buddies, or else go online and face the entire world! Download-and-play data-transfer means that demos can be sent over from one unit to another for a taster, but when each DS owner has their own gamecard, some games offer an unprecedented amount of multiplayer goodness, from massive racing track selections (Mario Kart DS), to highly customisable rules of combat approaching what would normally be seen in a dedicated PC game (Metroid Prime Hunters again), to full-on co-op experiences (Touch the Dead). Hook yourself online with either Nintendo's official USB WiFi dongle or a mainstream wireless internet connection and you're in for a treat: can anyone say 'Global Pwnage'? Prove you're the best out there with complete online rankings, leaderboards or simply face-palming your unknown rival to the ground from x kilometres away (Pokemon: Diamond/Pearl; Sonic Rush Adventure; JUMP! Ultimate Stars).

But hey! Look at that sleek PSP over there: a widescreen, a vast array of multimedia components, Playstation 2 equivalent graphics and sound - who cares? Sure, it's a great unit in its own right, but comparing the DS to the PSP is simply wrong. Whereas the latter gears itself more towards the more mature gamers (whatever that means), the DS strives to capture the hearts and wallets of everyone of all ages, races and other not-so outspoken demographics. Take Brain Age, for example: a combination of math and language-based problems with the aim of training our minds and improving our intellectual ability. Utilising both touch and voice functionality in a way that no-one would have dreamed possible a decade ago, this - and many other 'Non-Games' that followed - took the world by storm. There was an incredibly positive reception from everyone: natural-born core gamers, their kids, their grandparents, even the likes of George W. Bush and Jessica Alba; Nintendo's vision to bring the world together in visual-interactive harmony was made a reality.

Innovative hardware led to some innovative game designs: virtual pet simulations (Nintendogs; Hamsterz Life), versatile rhythm-based games (Daigasso! Band Brothers; Elite Beat Agents, touch-centric/action-adventure fusion games (Pokemon Ranger; Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass). And then, there was a flood of classic puzzle games, re-invented with WiFi or touch-screen functionality (Tetris DS; Picross DS) or else, virtualised from pen and paper to stylus and screen (Scrabble and the numerous variations on the numerical phenomenon Sudoku). The adventure-game genre was revived too, with the upgraded GBA ports of the sensational Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney series of courtroom dramas leading the way to a comeback for this nearly-lost gaming art.

The more pure-bred gamers haven't been neglected, though. Although there are already a ton of games and non-games that cater to casual players, there also exists a fairly decent amount of more conventional software. The legendary Castlevania series returns with its traditional action-adventuring within a massive castle-type structure with few gimmick additions present; the popular GBA Mega Man Battle Network line is succeeded by the upgraded Star Force arc offering a new perspective on its classic card-based battles; and the perennial favourite - Pokemon - has made yet another big splash with all its core elements retained. Such games have made good use of what unique features the DS has (WiFi especially) as applicable. Others may tack on a few touch-based minigames and call it a day (New Super Mario Bros. - you are guilty!), but quality developers have demonstrated that the power of increased freedom has allowed for more robust products in most instances (touch-directing in Advance Wars: Dual Strike; visiting other user-created towns in Animal Crossing: Wild World; online battling/racing in Pokemon, Mario Kart DS, and the rest.

What does the DS hold for us in the future? We've had a slightly upgraded model in the form of the DS Lite - a lighter, more compact unit with some mighty impressive brightness setting - but with Sony's PSP keeping Nintendo's latest beaut in check, it looks like we're going to need some souped-up, internal and external hardware next time. But as sales figures have consistently shown, inferior technical specs don't mean much so long as you have great first,second and third-party support (thank god Nintendo have the latter this time - the Wii included!). You see, the DS is a resounding success not because it's a better GBA, but because it has an incredibly solid backbone of software to hold it up high. As of October 2007, it has a current library of around 2007 unique titles; much more too if you include the myriad quirky Japanese titles that don't find any localisation overseas (Hissatsu Kung Fu: Kanji Dragon - fight by drawing Kanji characters; Minagara Oreru DS Origami - a virtual origami handbook; Onsei Kanjou Sokuteiki: Kokoro Scan - one of the most insane ideas ever, but with a damn catchy theme song - I have no idea what's it all about!; Project Hacker: Kakusei and Summon Night Twin Age: Seireitachi no Kyoumei - why not? ...yet?) With crazy support from the big names, like Square-Enix with their (how many?) Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest remakes, spin-offs and what-nots already out, prepped for localisation or else planned a release in the near future; a whole host of lesser-known companies like Atlus (who have so far brought over some truly unique and refreshing franchises such as Touch Detective and Trauma Center) that see the already massive DS userbase as a vehicle for success (which it is); and of course, Nintendo's own star-studded studios helmed by Shigeru Miyamoto among other esteemed figures; responsible for model key franchises featuring portly plumbers, princesses that need saving, life-sucking Metroids, an everything-sucking Kirby, and soon enough we'll have inevitably have long-running Fire Emblems too.

It has been less than three years since the advent of the DS (2004-2007 at the time of writing), but it has already broken many milestones: April 2007 saw the DS Lite cross the 10 milliion units sold figure in Japan making it the fastest selling console ever (and that doesn't even account for the large number of DS 'Phat's too!); the DS also enjoys reasonable success in the US and, most surprisingly, it's doing even better in Europe (continuing on with no region lock-out was a very wise decision) - heck, even other smaller countries in the southern hemisphere (e.g. Australia) are logging in some serious play-time! WiFi may still be a slightly hit-and-miss affair with the reliance on friend codes required to work with many WiFi-enabled titles (c.f. other portals such as Xbox LIVE), but for a portable system of this day and age, it works a treat. May 2007 saw another milestone reached: more than 5 million unique users had played online, and more than 200 million gaming sessions had been held. Yeah, there are cheaters out there: flying bounty hunters who can shoot through solid walls, virtually indestructible pocket monsters, even Mega Men who can screw you own WiFi capabilities like a virus. Don't be scared, though. These occurrences don't come that often, if at all - there are just so many users, after all! Plus, there's always local wireless for multiplayer fun and that's always a blast.

All in all, Nintendo's risk has paid off big-time. Along with their complementary home console - the Wii - the DS has broken the barriers between hardcore gamers and classical non-gamers. It has shattered expectations with the innovative concepts and upgrades it has demonstrated thus far, and it will be sure to continue to gather more believers as the years pass by. It has far surpassed my own expectations of what a portable gaming system should deliver, keeping old favourites intact with intuitive, yet subtle control scheme changes and visual display modifications, whilst paving the way for a new generation of innovation. The lack of hardware 'oomph' means the homebrew scene isn't as great as it could be (although various indie applications are available to the more astute), and there are times when the relatively feeble processing power (over two screens, remember?) means that certain cuts have to be made (sometimes at the expense of a stuttering framerate, but more often resulting in ugly textured blocks in even the very best full-3D games). But with such an extraordinary library to cater for all tastes and sizes, there's no doubt that the DS has more than something for everyone. Forecasts even show it is likely to eventually eclipse the monumental success of the Playstation 2, so that really does say something! Bottom line: this dual-screen modern wonder is an absolute must-have. Millions of people worldwide can't be wrong and the 100 unique DS reviews that I've written from A to Z to the number 7 just goes to show how passionate I am about it.

That's right - this is my 100th officially unique DS review!

The DS may not be the best portable gaming console ever, but it's definitely the best portable gaming console so far!

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Product Release: Nintendo DS Hardware (AU, 02/24/05)

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