The Nintendo DS

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A Dual-Screened Motivation
Earlier this week I had a discussion with my mother about the Nintendo DS when I noticed, in an ad paper, that the DS Lite was being sold for $150 (a price which I recently realized is nothing special). I made the mistake of mentioning that there was a Super Mario Bros. remake and Tetris DS released for the system. It took only a few nanoseconds to get the conversation to a point where my mother was trying to use her years of parenthood tactics in manipulation to try and get her maternal claws on the beautiful piece of two-screened hardware that I caresspet… often. Needless to say, some bargaining was in order. Since I was her first born, I wasn’t exactly willing to allow that normal allow that component to be entered in our verbal debate. Eventually, we decided that going halfsies seemed like an appropriate arrangement for the excessively poor college student to make with the Motherperson. Words of agreement were exchanged, unwritten contracts were signed, and an exchange of cashiemoneys occurred. The deal, for all intents and purposes, was finalized in nothing less than metaphorical blood.

I’ll admit, I’m not a fan of buying those kinds of items over the massive zeroes and ones that compose up our world-wide webernet. I’m a traditionalist like that. I like to go into the store filled with people who, on occasion, must have gotten lost and confused on their way to the Abercrombie and Fitch stores and ended up in a store with pretty colors and letters that eventually spelled out Gamestop. This is by no means a rant against the intelligence of game store employees so much as it is a complaint against their general demeanor — because they are, you know (mean). Anyway, I like to go into said store, wade through the customers, buy the game system and a game or two, and then work my home to open up the box in a cardboard opening frenzy. It’s a good feeling. Like the gamer equivalent of the New Car Smell.

So you can imagine my dismay upon the realization that the Nintendo DS (Lite) was apparently this season’s most sought-after electronic system. I’m not even kidding here. In my excursion through the mall and potential DS-selling stores in the outlying area, I saw systems of all shapes and sizes. I saw PSPs, I found Xbox 360s, and — hell — I even came upon a cache or two of Wiis and Playstation 3s. The only consistently sold-out system at every single one of the eight-nine stores that I wandered into was the DS Lite.

What the taff? When did Nintendo’s little system-that-could gain such a surge of popularity that it even outsells the brand spankin’ new fancy systems that only a month ago were selling for four-figures on the Internet Garage Sale? Two years ago, I was one of those very people who considered the DS to be a system whose only purpose in life was to be the brunt of incredibly lame jokes like “Hey, you see that DS? Wondered if it has two sets of batteries.” Yes, those jokes. Granted, I changed my opinion when I received, as a gift, the red DS bundled with Mario Kart; a game which, along with Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, nabbed two of the entries in my Top Games of 2005 list.

Huh.

In the Days of Yore (The DS Release Era)
The Nintendo DS was born at 9.7oz on November 21, 2004 in North America to the potential three-million plus expecting parents across NA and Japan who were eager to accept this very bizarre little handheld into their homes. Nintendo, apparently, did not expect such a high number and in response brought one of their DS-churning into operation just to produce more of the dual-screened little system. The purported wariness of gamers and industry analysts did not seem to have much of an impact when it came to launch day and the subsequent month leading into Christmas… But, still, the question is exactly how the system managed to be such a hit for Nintendo. There was, in my mind, only one strong launch title (Super Mario 64) and even that was little more than a remake of one of the Nintendo 64′s greatest titles. And, with few exceptions, there really weren’t a whole lot of games in the upcoming release list that warranted much attention.


The Nintendo DS.

For those not exactly in the know, the Nintendo DS is a dual-screened hand-held with the bottom of the two screens being touch-sensitive via included stylus, thumb strap, or finger — the latter not really being applicable to my gigantic flesh hammers, but supposedly people not burdened by size of hand can operate it in such a fashion (I, myself, rely on the stylus). Like the Gameboy SP, the DS has a rechargeable battery pack which provides a very reasonable amount of battery life in the range of six to ten hours. The DS two screens are powered by two CPU units within the system, one of which is the ARM7TDMI process that the Game Boy Advance used. The other, more powerful main processor, is the ARM946E-S. What this means, in simple speak, is that the DS has far more powerful hardware backbone than the Advance and, theoretically, can render a more impressive graphical display on one of the two screens (the choice of screen depends on whether the developer wishes for touch-screen interaction, really) while still maintaining a Gameboy Advance level of graphics on the other screen — though a balance has to be struck between them which seems to be the reason that most games keep one of the screens at a very minimal level of graphical complexity. One of the problems that I envisioned when I first saw the layout of the DS was the separation between the two screens (both of which have a resolution of 256×192 pixels) and that separation occurring across different planes of the system due to its folding design. For the most part, this is something which has yet to affect me even in the slightest, but this may be a result of my avoiding of a majority of the early games released for the platform.

One of the biggest selling points of Nintendo’s new system is that, for games which choose to support it, the system supports playing games via a wireless connection. Nintendo established an online service dubbed the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection to facilitate this very purpose. Despite being a very highly-touted feature of the DS, the online system was not launched until November of 2005 with Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land and Mario Kart DS. I personally only played a handful of matches of Mario Kart via the system’s matchmaking functionality, but from what I saw it was a very well-designed and very functional way to handle wireless gaming on a platform. I, however, am not normally a fan of playing games online, much less games like Mario Kart DS where the online competition is… Tough. I’m a wimp like that.

2005: The Year the DS Found Its Legs
By the time 2005 rolled around, I felt fairly comfortable in maintaining my dismal prediction for the DS and its future as a liable gaming platform. The launch games seemed to be, for the most part, an average bunch of titles — and that’s never something to help sell a new system… But, then again, the DS didn’t need a whole lot of help selling units. It was the game library that needed the resuscitation.

And that’s exactly what it received.

Spread out over the course of the entire year, the DS had games released which, for the most part, could be considered “excellent” by just about any gamer with a pulse who would be willing to set aside their preconceptions of the platform and play some of the year’s titles. I could go through each game in mind-numbing detail, but that would turn this article into a four-part series the likes of which this site has seen enough of over recent months. So here are some of the truly amazing games that were released for the DS (With their average rankings according to Game Rankings:

Out of that list, I’ve personally played Mario Kart, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, Trauma Center, and Nintendogs pretty extensively and I can say that these games have brought me some of the most supremely enjoyable moments I’ve ever had with a console, much less a portable one. As I said at one point or another, the DS version of Mario Kart is, as far as I’m concerned, the definitive version of the franchise — it even manages to surpass Super Mario Kart released for the Super Nintendo way back in 1992 — you know, before electricity. Castlevania was also the first entry in a franchise (which started way, way, way back in the gaming timeline) that I’ve enjoyed since my time-revered Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

Nintendogs, also, proved to be a surprisingly title to me in the fact that I actually enjoyed it. Here’s a game that is, essentially, a glorified Tamogotchi which demanded more effort and public humiliation as a user/player/owner than its many-times-removed predecessor. You can only imagine the surprised look that was present on my face when I discovered that was required to talk into my DS in order to advance my dog past the training stage. Eventually I got tired of shouting into my DS (something about why the stupid dog couldn’t understand “sit” and the resulting crude mutterings which followed in a purely rhythmic sense), but I still enjoyed the components of the game which didn’t require me to talk into the system’s microphone to play. It took at least a week and a half or so, but when I got first-place at the final stage of the Frisbee-throwing championships with my black lab (Named “Black Jack” after Jack Black — my sister, present at the dog’s naming, is clever like that). It was a special moment. I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of tears at the award ceremony.

2006: A Portrait of the Handheld as a Young Console
With a brand new red-colored DS within my possession and my old, outdated ideas of what the system was like and what kind of early fate it would suffer so that it could join the before-their-time heaven with its great grandfather proven completely erroneous I began to take a far more active interest in the Nintendo DS and the kind of games it would be receiving throughout 2006. I’m not going to do the whole list thing this time around because, while it seemed like a good idea for the last section, I’d much prefer to elaborate on the select few games which I was lucky enough to play throughout 2006 in a kind of detail not entirely unlike a tepidly expanded summary.

One of the biggest pieces of news for the Nintendo DS in 2006 was the announcement and eventual release of a redesigned DS: the DS Lite. The shinier and fancier upgrade seems to address a lot of the most prominent issues that the public had with the original DS: it’s lighter, sleeker, has a screen with four brightness levels (all of which are brighter than the original DS), a redesigned stylus, redesigned D-pad, a more durable touch-screen, and so on. Overall, the goal of the redesign wasn’t to revolutionize the handheld (at least, not in the same way as the Gameboy SP did for the Gameboy Advance), but to make it a far more user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing piece of hardware. One of the biggest drawbacks in regards to the redesign is that, since the unit is smaller on the whole, the Gameboy Advance cartridges now extend a centimeter outside the border of the system itself — Nintendo shipped a port cover to match the DS Lite hardware to maintain a smooth surface, but if a GBA game is plugged in, it’ll definitely… you know, protrude.


The Nintendo DS Lite.

I was finally able to acquire my very own DS Lite recently and, thus far, it has proven to be a very well-done upgrade to the original DS. In my opinion it is far more compact, more stylishly designed, and the screens seem to be of a slightly nicer make than the original’s had — the four brightness levels (of which I use the third) is a bit bizarre at first, but I’m quickly becoming a fan of it. My only real complaints about the DS2.0 is that the Game Boy Advance cartridges protrude to the point where it’s not advantageous to always have a GBA cart inserted into the slot like I did with the original model. The stylishness also comes at a price in that the unit’s coating (with the Onyx style, at least) shows finger prints and, presumably, scratches with greater clarity.

I’m a very bizarre sort of gamer in the sense that the games I rejoice in playing on a platform system are, typically, very unlike the kinds of games I play on every other console — this is especially true of PC games. The first of my post-Christmas DS acquisitions was Age of Empires: The Age of Kings — a turn-based strategy game unlike the real-time nature of the PC franchise from which it is spawned. I had heard surprisingly good reviews of this game from the Intarwebian plane and, given my interest in more relaxing, thoughtful, and tactical/RPG-ish sorts of games for handheld consoles, I figured this would be a good lead to follow up on. As is so often the case, my gaming instinct proved keen and on-target as per the usual. Age of Kings DS ended up landing somewhere in the top five games in its unique, and fairly specific, genre (Shining Force and, more recently, Final Fantasy Tactics being top-notch examples).


Age of Empires: Age of Kings.

It is a peculiar game, though. Most of the titles within the Shining Force vein of gameplay force the user into battle with a very fixed supply of units to fight with and some games, like the Fire Emblem franchise (a predominately Japanese series up until recently), are more fond of keeping units killed in any certain battle dead for realsies — once dead, always dead. Age of Kings, though, mixes some aspects of its PC counterpart and allows the player to not only train units in the midst of battle, but also to build structures which can act with a defensive purpose, train more soldiers, or harvest more resources. The inclusion of base-building in a genre title which I have been taught to rely on a fixed-army was surprising (at first), but something I grew quickly to love. And although this love turned quickly to annoyance upon learning that this method of calling in reinforcements tends to make individual battles go on (and on, and on), Age of Kings DS is still an enjoyable title.

A copy of Brain Age was given to me by a friend one day with his words being something akin to “Play this. You’ll enjoy it” and then he vanished before I had a chance to look a gift horse straight in the mouth. It took me a few days to work up the courage necessary to plug a game into my DS that had the intention of making me smart(er). When I did, though, I found a very well-rounded cartridge (erm, card?) that had a lot of little exercises along the lines of basic addiction/subtraction and multiplication/division, voice and color activities, memory, and so and so forth. I started getting bored with the daily activities after a month or two, but even then the game had more than enough built-in Sudoku puzzles (yes, I learned Sudoku through a DS game) to last me for the remaining months until I found the cash to upgrade my game library.


Brain Age.

The game that took the coveted first-place on my “Must Buy” list throughout 2006 until its release was the completely redone Final Fantasy III — which is, from what I understand, the only game in the Final Fantasy franchise to never have a legitimate release in the United States. I still have yet to make it all that far into the game, but from the few hours that I’ve played it the game appears to be a very enjoyable Final Fantasy game. It relies on a Job system much like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and the recently released Final Fantasy V Advance — a feature that I’ve always enjoyed in the games which possessed it. The title seems to be getting panned by some reviewers for the gameplay in terms of it preserving too much of its nostalgic roots (ie, too hard, too many random battles, etc.); this is, I suppose, a legitimate complaint for a lot of modern gamers… But, for a person who grew up playing the Final Fantasy games, it’s very enjoyable. One of the complaints that I do share with reviews is that FF3 makes such minimal use of the secondary DS screen that it’s almost a crime. This wouldn’t be such an annoying aspect of the game if the secondary had something — battle stats, random images, battle progression, or something — but for a lengthy amount of time throughout the game that second screen displays absolutely nothing. And that just seems like a glaring error on Square-Enix‘s part. FF3′s job system, while in place, also pales in comparison to the implementation in comparison to Final Fantasy V Advance, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance — it’s very limited in the options it presents for character building, and also fairly linear in its overall progression from job tier to job tier. Still, a completely redone version of an old-school Final Fantasy game is still a gift, no matter how it’s wrapped.


Final Fantasy III.

Had Square-Enix spoken with Nintendo I have absolute confidence that they could have pulled of a reinvention of an old classic just as superbly as Nintendo did with The New Super Mario Bros.. When I plugged this game into my DS for the first time, I was expecting a very meager port that would not do a whole lot for me; I was able to purchase the game new at a relatively low price and would have been happy with anything that wasn’t simply a straight port of the classic Mario that we all know and love. So, yeah, that expectation got… surpassed. This is the first Mario platform title that I’ve played since Mario 64 for the Nintendo 64 and, wow, what a game to jump back into the franchise with. The traditional 2D sprite-based graphics are done and gone, replaced with very colorful 3D polygonal models which run, jump, and bash through the old-school 2D gameplay. I don’t really need to go into the details about why this game is now a must-have for the Nintendo DS but, rest assured, the New Super Mario Bros. is now one of the must-have titles for Nintendo’s little handheld that could. It has got a whole lot of platforming goodness, minigames, and other extra content that more than warrants the price necessary to play.


The New Super Mario Bros..

And then there’s Metroid Prime: Hunters which is, for the most part, a sort of handheld miracle. From my limited playtime with this title I’ve seen a portable version of the Gamecube MP (and its sequel) which manages to keep the entirety of the Metroid Prime spirit alive in terms of its gameplay and its technical achievements. This is a very well-done adventure/FPS which I’m sure required numerous sacrifices by its developers to create such an accurate version of the franchise’s impressive 3D engine on a portable system which doesn’t even begin to approach the strength of the Gamecube. More so, the first-person controls were able to best my very pessimistic viewpoints as to their handlings. Once I lowered the input sensitivity I was able to run, jump, and shoot my way through the first area with a feeling of control over my actions that is only surpassed by a mouse/keyboard PC combination. Utilizing the stylus to aim the targeting reticule is an incredibly user-friendly and natural-feeling form of input that is complemented by an excellent use of the dual-screens in the game to compensate for what I at first would consider a heavy lack of controls (since one hand is occupied with handling the stylus) . As I said, I haven’t played enough of the game to really rant and rave about it to any true extreme, but my hour or two of playtime was enough to fill me with pleasant feelings and a happy disposition that the Gamecube Prime games failed to do — partially due to the fact that I always felt vaguely nauseous (motion sickness is a guess, but something that almost every other game I’ve played never inflicted) while trying to navigate through the title’s non-linear areas.


Metroid Prime: Hunters.

These are a group of games that I felt, especially, warranted extended coverage — Age of Kings DS may not be in the same league as the New Super Mario Bros. in terms of overall awesomeness, but it’s a commonly overlooked game that I feel, you know, shouldn’t be. These, of course, are not the only noteworthy titles to be released in 2006. Here are a list of some of the others that helped to make 2006 the year for the little handheld that could, as it were:

2007 (And Beyond!)
Using an entirely made-up stat: one of the games that is topping the DS wish-list for 2007 is The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. Gamers were hoping that the DS Zelda game that they were craving since the system’s inception would be released during the 2006 Holiday season, but alas, no such luck. Phantom Hourglass looks to be a Zelda title in the fashion of A Link to the Past done with Wind Waker style cel-shaded graphics. Nintendo has yet to provide a release date on the title, but I think banking on a release sometime by the 2007 Holiday season is a safe bet. I hope. I really hope.

One of the biggest surprises for the Nintendo DS and its fan base, though, is Square-Enix’s revealing that the next title in the Dragon Quest franchise is going to be a DS game. Now, to really understand the impact of such a thing, it’s important to note that in Japan, the Dragon Quest series is an even more popular and well thought-of franchise than even Final Fantasy. The last game released in the series was Dragon Quest VIII — one of the best RPG games that the Playstation 2 has ever seen. So, the fact that Dragon Quest IX (Defenders of the Sky) will be released on a handheld system like the DS as opposed to a next-gen powerhouse like the Playstation 3 or Xbox 360 is huge. A follow-up title to Final Fantasy XII will also be released for the DS; presumably, this title will be similar to the relationship between Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 which were both released for the Playstation 2. And, last of the announced titles from Square-Enix, is the Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles spinoff slated for the DS titled Fantasy Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates. I actually quite enjoyed the Crystal Chronicles for the Gamecube, but the addition of multiplayer to the DS version would probably shoot the game’s entertainment up by a long shot.

And, with that, I’m going to bring a closing to this article. As usual, when I began work on this whole thing I had meager intentions of writing a couple pages worth of my thoughts about the Nintendo DS, but it then grew self-aware, sprung from my hands, and spun out of control into the massive beast you see before you currently. Nintendo has, essentially, created a minor miracle with the DS — this is a system that didn’t exactly capture the masses with its slightly more bizarre concept (“Who would need two screens on a portable console?”) but was able to power through the naysayers like myself to produce an already impressive library of games which reach an average level of quality I can’t say many other systems have.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I got me some Metroid Prime: Hunters to play.