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Nintendo DS: Reasons to care

Tom is as sceptical as anyone else, but there is plenty of incentive to give it a chance, he argues.

Just like you, I was surprised and intrigued when I arose this morning and found a Nintendo press release blinking in my inbox. Indeed, I had fully anticipated the speculation surrounding the Big N's "mystery product" to last us all the way to the E3 trade convention in Los Angeles this May, and perhaps even beyond. To have it unmasked out of the blue on a cold January morning feels rather anti-climactic, even if it is in keeping with Nintendo's penchant for low-key revelations. Remember the GBA SP's unveiling after a year of speculation?

However it hasn't taken long for sceptics to substitute Nintendo president Satoru Iwata's claim of "innovation" for one of "gimmick". It's easy to see why. Consider what we actually know: It might be called Nintendo DS, it uses two backlit three-inch LCD screens aligned vertically rather than side by side, and two processors - an ARM9 with an ARM7 sub processor - with up to a Gigabit capacity on reportedly rewriteable media, and it's due out by the end of 2004. That's it.

On the other hand, we don't know what it looks like, whether the two screens will fold out ala the Game Boy Advance SP or the Game & Watch consoles of old, what sort of power or battery system it will rely on, whether it will support existing Cube or GBA titles as Mr. Iwata has hinted, whether it will link up with any existing device, what sort of games we can expect to play on it, how many third parties are interested in developing for it, how much it's going to cost, or even how long Nintendo has been working on it. And while it's going to have taken Sony 19 months from announcement to launch in the case of the PSP (and they're still wrestling with the specifications even now), Nintendo aims to have the DS up, running and in stores within the next 12.

Until we see it in action, the next few months will be a minefield of rumour and speculation, as gamers dream up new and ambitious projects that could benefit from the dual screen approach. Already people are suggesting RPGs that allow you to navigate, talk and fight on the one hand whilst viewing character and equipment statistics on the other (and some far-fetched speculation already has Square Enix developing a multiplayer Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles port in time for launch - giving the notoriously peripheral-hungry Cube RPG a proper chance to shine), while it certainly has the potential to deliver multiplayer Wario Ware in cramped quarters. Meanwhile Nintendo's own example, a football game with the usual side-on or close-up view in one hand and a top-down overview in the other, has singularly failed to excite even me, and I almost cried when I saw the Spurs/Liverpool result on Saturday afternoon. Useless Reds. Such a gimmick just doesn't seem to be worth an entirely new product.

Then again, Nintendo is notoriously fond of breaking the mould in search of new gaming ideas, and although a lot of people would highlight things like the tilt function in some GBA carts (as witnessed in Kirby Tilt 'n' Tumble), the Virtual Boy and the company's promotion of handheld/console connectivity as failures in this area, it's all too easy to forget that Nintendo also pioneered 3D platformers, D-pads, shoulder buttons, the diamond button formation, the analogue stick, and rumble packs, which have enjoyed far more success. They were also the first platform holder to launch an official wireless controller, the WaveBird, and its monopoly on handheld gaming has resisted many challengers over the years despite the odd design quirk. And although FreeLoader broke down borders between regions (praise be), piracy of Nintendo's home console games has always been a far blacker art than for any of its CD or DVD-based competitors.

It's also worth remembering that this is neither the successor to GameCube nor Game Boy Advance, and that Nintendo president Satoru Iwata has publicly stated that the company will be happy if just ten per cent of people find the DS interesting enough to buy. In other words, Nintendo is prepared to see it do badly. As Rob joked this morning, for all we know at this point they may well have designed a game that needs a pair of screens and built a console around it. With Nintendo, the only dead certainty is that whatever their plans, games will be the key concern, and I'd be very surprised to see any multimedia functionality at Nintendo's E3 press conference, despite the potential to play something whilst watching something else. Ultimately while I'm still sceptical about the DS' potential, I think it would be unwise to dismiss it at such an early stage, and I'm more than prepared to be convinced in a few months' time.

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