Nintendo views DS as a product built in terms of innovation, and an innovative hardware approach demands an innovative software equivalent. It's clear from the off that the DS has that, because despite several impressive video demonstrations, a huge roster of proposed titles and pledges of support, the console is doing a wealth of business in hype purely on the basis of technically expressive demonstration software.
Indeed, while Nintendo presumably hopes the watchword for the day will be 'innovation', in reality it's rather more likely to be 'imagination', because at the moment it's all about the gamer's capacity to envisage DS' countless attractions in an enjoyable sense. In asking us to believe that DS will deliver games incomparable to existing frameworks, it's asking us to use our imaginations, and it will likely be the average gamer's willingness to take this at face value that, for now at least, determines the worldwide response to the DS unveiling.
Primed and ready
There are a couple of handfuls of confirmed titles of course, but none of them is complete, and none of them stands up and yells "thirty hours of gameplay!" or "involving single-player adventure!" in terms our press release-frazzled synapses are used to digesting. In fact, the two most significant and heavily trailed titles still lack definition - Metroid Prime: Hunters and Super Mario 64x4 both appeared in impressive video form, but neither accounted for more than a paragraph's worth of text in Nintendo's post conference handout. Let's see how we do, eh?
Metroid Prime: Hunters will be the title that most people remember from the conference. On the lower touch screen, there's a decreased resolution version of Metroid Prime - perhaps as it might look on the PSone if somebody really pulled out all the stops. The top screen consists of a red wireframe map on a black background. The game consists of deathmatch battle-style four-player encounters (wirelessly linked, of course), in which differently coloured Samus Arans attempt to kill one another by touching the stylus on the screen to rotate camera, aim and fire, or to transform into the Morph Ball. Nintendo reckons it features the same artwork, sound, visuals, architecture and ambience as MP on the Cube - it'll be hard to say how right they are on the final point until we have the console in our hands tomorrow morning, but on the other counts they are plainly correct. And yet Hunters is arguably the least interesting title we've heard about in gameplay terms.
Less prosaic is Super Mario 64x4. In the past this has served as a technical demonstration for developers, and on the surface it's certainly a nice advertisement for the system's graphical capabilities. Essentially it's the opening castle section from Super Mario 64 revisited on the new handheld, with up to four players linking up wirelessly to move Mario, Luigi, Yoshi and Wario around the 3D landscape looking for stars. The difference is that while the lower screen shows off the traditional 3D view, players will use the stylus to control their character, touching a spot on the screen to shift the camera over to another player's position or close in on the castle, and using the secondary screen to show the overall position of the four characters within the game world. Perhaps it's not much of a 'game' on the surface, but then again it's all about imagination for now.
Flicking through the pages of the Nintendo press brochure though, we've stumbled upon a number of titles that are far easier to envisage, including one game that you get the impression the system might as well have been designed for - WarioWare, Inc. Anybody who played the GBA original (and it's not as many of you as we'd perhaps like) is bound to be pleased to hear that WarioWare will join the first wave of titles leading the DS' proposed revolution, and if any existing game will enjoy endless possibilities on the new format, it's this one.
Already we're hearing about dragging a net with the stylus to catch fish, cutting a rope to drop a cage on a duck, drawing and erasing pictures, and slicing at food as it's thrown towards us - finishing as many mini-games as possible in 35 seconds. With two screens, one of them touch-sensitive, voice recognition, wireless technology, a mixture of 2D and 3D visuals, and a mixture of four buttons and D-pad to utilise as well, we can only begin to imagine what Nintendo might do with its most innovative creation of recent years.
Indeed, left alone to consider the possibilities for WarioWare on Nintendo DS - and the chance to play it for the first time, tomorrow - the prospect of a few videos of "in development" Nintendo titles has less of an impact. Which is saying something when you consider that those titles include Mario Kart DS and Animal Crossing DS, as well as "NEW Super Mario Bros." and something called "Nintendogs".
Mario Kart is clearly pictured in the USA Today article that brought us our first look at the system a few hours before Nintendo's conference today, and it's possible to make out N64-level racing visuals on the top screen and a Yoshi-shaped track layout in the bottom half on the touch screen. It's impossible to say what we'll be doing on that soon to be famed touch screen, but it is possible to remind you that a Yoshi-shaped track appeared in the recent Cube release of Mario Kart: Double Dash. As for the other titles - you now know as much as we do. Look forward to more details when we see the videos.
Videos, and playable versions of Metroid Prime: Hunters, Super Mario 64x4, WarioWare and PictoChat aside, Nintendo will also be demonstrating a number of technical demos geared towards extolling the virtues of the new system in specific ways - which is arguably what its announced 'games' seem to be doing anyway. 'Balloon Trip', most notably, is the demo mentioned in USA Today's piece, which has the player creating clouds with the stylus to bounce Baby Mario into gold coins and away from enemies - in order to demonstrate how game designers could let players create their own environments.
'Carving', meanwhile, involves using the stylus to finely craft a block of wood, steel "or even a watermelon" using a lathe, 'Mario's face' recalls the front end of Mario 64, allowing us to distort ears, pinch his nose and generally tweak his features in ways previously alien to handheld titles, 'DS Pikachu' lets us interact with the little yellow fella using the stylus, demonstrating the console's range of colours, switching the 3D display from screen to screen, and allowing us to draw Pikachu as he poses or rub a scratch card on the touch screen.
It's certainly special
Then there's 'Special Effects', which is in three parts - sliding dots around to create water, smoke, fire and other trailers on the screen; whacking various blocks on the screen to emit musical notes while launching fireworks-style visualisation on the other screen; and sliding boxes around one screen to change the geometric shapes on the other.
The final technical demo pairing, however, are arguably the most exciting of the bunch from a gameplay perspective. 'Submarine' involves using one screen to judge the position of a sub in the water, whilst the touch screen is used to control the dive, pitch, speed and use of torpedoes as players whip the stylus around to help try and dodge depth charges, enemy subs and boulders on the seabed. Two different perspectives working in unison - it is, says Nintendo, something that just about any genre will be able to benefit from.
Obviously though, with so many Nintendo consoles behind us, one of the biggest questions we had as we left the press conference this afternoon concerned third party support. Nintendo stuck the answer midway through its press pack. Last week of course it claimed to have a mixture of implicit and explicit support from a huge number of publishers, but that's hardly a first - there was a time when we were all told in no uncertain terms that third-party support on GameCube would erase the painful memories of the first-party-heavy N64. Whether or not the DS will live up to its billing arguably depends on how it positions its notoriously tight fisted third party royalties, and higher game prices than the market really wants to pay. It may be left to individual companies' desires to work on the innovative console to lead developers to commit where they haven't before. We certainly hope so. In the meantime, seven third-party titles will be playable at E3, and an even larger number of games and publishers are named in the press pack.
Third, fourth, fifth, sixth...
Tomorrow, we're told to look forward to playing Bomberman from Hudson Soft, a Sonic demo from Sega, Egg Monster Heroes from Square Enix, Mobile Suit Gundam Seed from Bandai, Pac-Pix and Pac'n Roll from Namco and Yu-Gi-Oh!: Nightmare Troubadour from Konami. All of which will benefit from the unique features the DS brings to the development table. Bomberman, for example, starts off with players vigorously rubbing the screens on their individual systems to compete for power-ups, before using the stylus to compete in traditional Bomberman terms - with the added worry of pesky ghosts that have to be rubbed off with the stylus if ever they grab us.
Pac-Pix, meanwhile, quite literally draws upon the idea exemplified in the Baby Mario demonstration. Players will see Pac-Man moving around in whichever direction he's facing, and will have to draw walls in front of the little chap in order to change his direction. Pac'n Roll involves a 3D Pac-Man trying to move up ramps and round walls without falling into gaps - moving faster the faster the player draws his or her finger across the touch screen.
We're also keen to see how Sonic looks on the DS - at the moment we know that we'll be able to switch between different camera angles as the blue blur zips through vibrantly coloured environments, and that he'll run faster and faster as we whip our fingers back and forward upon the screen, and jump whenever we rub the top of the screen.
Along with the announced and detailed titles, a large number of other publishers have already committed, including Activision (Spider-Man 2), Atari (title TBD), Bandai (a One Piece game and several other titles), Banprestro (Dragon Ball Z), Capcom (Mega Man Battle Network, Gyakuten Saiban and, most excitingly, Viewtiful Joe), EA (Need For Speed), Fromsoft (several titles), Hudson Soft (several titles including Bomberman), Koei (Dynasty Warriors), Konami (Frogger 2005, several other titles), Majesco (title TBD), Namco (Mr Driller, the Pac-Man games and a new RPG), Sega (Project Rub and of course Sonic), Square-Enix (intriguingly, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, Dragon Quest Monsters and of Egg Monster Heroes), Tecmo (Monster Rancher and another Team Ninja title), THQ (SpongeBob SquarePants), Ubisoft (Rayman) and Vivendi (title TBD).
It's a good number of titles for the launch of a new system, and some of them (notably Viewtiful Joe and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles) would stand up with or without the different approach that DS could bring. But in a sense that's what the difference is in dealing with Nintendo's new system - although so much of our enthusiasm for it is based on what could wind up being exposed as a naive level of trust, the prospect of a console that forces developers to think outside traditional boundaries even has us picking over a description of a Yu-Gi-Oh game and marking it up as one to keep an eye on. With apologies to Konami, we've never done that before.
On the other hand, it's also easy to look down the list of games and argue that many of them are novelty, party pieces. Many of them seem to be so anxious to be seen exploring new ground that they might not be founded with gameplay firmly in mind. But then it is important to top-load your line-up with a degree of novelty - it's just that, as EyeToy proved, you won't get very far if at the end of the day you don't come up with solid games when the novelty wears off. This being Nintendo though, and this being a system rather than a mid-cycle peripheral, there's a good chance DS will have that. Starting tomorrow, we hope to clasp our hands round some confirmation of that.