I got it all wrong at the time, but quite a lot of other people did too. Almost everyone who saw Sony's PSP prior to release assumed that it spelled the end for Nintendo's long domination of the handheld market.
Why wouldn't it? Sony had been on a roll for over a decade by this point, transforming consoles from things children played with before going to bed - at least in the popular imagination - into chic accessories professional clubbers, DJs, models and probably even sexy drug dealers wouldn't mind leaving lying around on the coffee table next to a copy of ID or the UTNE Reader.
The PSP was beautiful: it was exotic and smooth and shiny and it looked, in fact, like it had slipped through a wormhole and tumbled into the present day from some point in the future. Nintendo's handheld tech, on the other hand, always tended to resemble something that had just been decommissioned by a particularly unglamorous facet of the Russian military.
So, yes, I got it totally wrong: Rumours of the PSP's death have been greatly exaggerated, of course - it's still a nice machine with a growing library of decent titles - but the DS, meanwhile, is a phenomenon. It's a phenomenon in exactly the same way the Game Boy was so long ago, a phenomenon that reminds you that, when it comes to playing games on the bus, in the bath, or in the back of the car, Nintendo absolutely knows what it's doing.
And now, with the release in Japan of yet another DS variant - this one has slightly bigger screens, gang! - it seems as good a time as any to look back over the history of Nintendo's handheld legacy, to gather all of the company's portables together in one space, and reflect on a golden age for gamers and early-onset arthritis experts alike.
Game & Watch
Proof that all technology, no matter how mind-bendingly futuristic it initially seems, is inevitably going to end up on someone's keyring one day, Nintendo's Game & Watch series boldly leveraged LCD displays and a natty clamshell casing, to give children something to do while shivering outside on winter lunch breaks, before, of course, most UK schools sold all their playing fields off to private military contractors and industrial waste processing companies.
Created by Gunpei Yokoi, the stern-looking engineering yang to Miyamoto's grinning high-colour yin, Game & Watch was a series of portable one-shots Nintendo made between 1980 and the early nineties. Inspired, allegedly, by Yokoi watching a commuter stuck on a train screwing around with a pocket calculator because there was little else to do - Yokoi came very close to inventing books at this point, but that honour would go to Intellivision in 2003 - 46 titles were eventually made (full disclosure: this is what Wikipedia tells me) including outings for Mario, Zelda and Balloon Fight.
A word, here, about Gunpei Yokoi - a towering figure in handheld gaming, and easily the most influential designer in this field, having had a decisive hand in all of Nintendo's portable consoles up until his death in a car accident in 1997.
While Miyamoto will always be the most famous creative force at Nintendo, Yokoi, creator of the Metroid series, is a figure of equal stature and the company's handheld legacy is largely down to this one man. Even the consoles that came after his resignation and subsequent death bear his unique hallmark: a clever mixture of lowest-cost tech and smart ideas to distract players away from the obvious limitations. Word over.
Yokoi was yet to have his finest hour at the time he was working on Game & Watch, but the series represented an important first step for portable gaming and, often, a very generous one, if you took into account the relative low price of the unit, and the fact that most titles had A and B variations of the same game.
Some of us found the fiddly drabness of the LCD screen depressing, even back in the eighties when everything was depressing - but that's probably just because we couldn't afford them. Needless to say, there's a fairly buoyant collecting scene in operation for Game & Watch these days. Equally needless to say, I've yet to meet anyone who genuinely used the "& Watch" part at the time.
In the glitzy and somewhat clinical Nintendo Store wedged into an expensive corner of New York's Rockerfeller Plaza, shoppers can goggle at a Game Boy that was wounded in action in the first Gulf War. Frazzled and warped, its buttons melted down to little nubs while its smooth grey case is transformed into something that looks like an Artex rush job, it's a fascinating object to stand and stare at, before you load up on Pokemon plushes and glance around for any sign of Tina Fey.
And, inevitably, this particular casualty of war still works: battered it may be, but it's doggedly humming the Tetris music to itself, conjuring those familiar sequences of blocks on its shiny green and yellow screen. It will probably still be doing that on the day that the Earth is finally torn apart by the sun, if there are any AA batteries lying around at that point.
One of the many things Nintendo got right with the Game Boy, then, was the understanding that, for handheld gaming to really take off, you had to be comfortable taking your handheld console around with you wherever you went. They had to be durable and reliable: the kind of thing you wouldn't worry about slinging into a backpack with a muddy football kit, or dropping out of a car window - the sort of thing, in other words, you wouldn't mind taking along on Operation Desert Storm.
So while the first Game Boy was ridiculously bulky by modern standards - if people did try to mug you for it on the mean streets of Sutton, you could probably use it to cave their heads in - it felt trusty: a reassuring weight in your hands, a coating of industrial - almost institutional - grey plastic, and a screen that wouldn't have looked out of place on an oscilloscope back in the 1940s.
That screen was an important piece of the puzzle too: crude even by the standards of the late eighties, it was central to Yokoi's low cost, low battery consumption plan. At times, getting the unlit screen to reflect any light at all could be extremely annoying, but at least you could play the Game Boy for longer than two hours in any one sitting.
Yokoi's gambles paid off: while a handful of other companies were starting to think about moving console experiences out from under the TVs and into players' hands, Yokoi was the first to truly understand that the technology didn't have to be good, it had to merely be good enough. Nobody looked at the Game Boy's urine-coloured display and thought: "Ooh, this will be nice to stare at for the next 10 years," but it didn't matter. The software would take care of that kind of thing, and all the device itself should do is make sure that the software runs, and that people can afford to buy it.
Released in 1989, and bundled with a certain Russian puzzle game, the Game Boy was an instant success: its homely yet still rather beautiful design was supported by some great titles and the initial US consignment of a million units was gone in the blink of an eye. Mario was present on the rosters, although in a series of mirror-world Mario Land games which, designed by Yokoi's team, never really felt quite right, while elsewhere F-Zero, Metroid, and Zelda all got stand-out instalments - Link's Awakening, with its jumping and side-scrolling moments, remains one of the series' greatest gems.
Then, of course, there was Tetris, the snuggest convergence of hardware and software of all time, and the result of a dizzyingly complex legal battle that Nintendo knew it simply had to win. Yokoi may have designed the Game Boy, but Tetris was the purest explanation of what it should do, and, besides, it never hurts to have your console ship alongside the most brilliant piece of game design the world has ever seen.
Game Boy also had Pokemon, justifying the Game Boy link cable, and keeping the cheap handhold not only relevant, but chart-dominatingly so, right through to the age of the PS2.
Aside from yearly iterations of bug-hunting games, there's one other trend the Game Boy started: you'd buy it, again and again, in slightly different variations, none of which would be entirely perfect, yet all of which were strangely alluring. Released in 1996, the Game Boy Pocket de-greened the screen and shrunk the overall package so it would fit, really uncomfortably, into large cargo pants, while the Game Boy Colour came along in 1998, bringing Game Boy games just about into line with the kind of thing the NES had been capable of.
With over 100 million Game Boys sold, and an absolutely insane menagerie of add-ons ranging from cameras and printers to titles that came with tilt sensors, the Game Boy has lived a billion lives, and inhabited a handful of different skins, like the technological equivalent of a time lord. The result is a genuine videogame classic: a device that changed the industry by simultaneously aiming very low and very high all at the same time. Any contemporary competitors, quite simply put, were screwed.
Everyone gets it wrong now and then, and it's nice to know that, when a giant like Nintendo gets it wrong, the results are hilarious. The Virtual Boy is unwieldy, heavy, and looks like something an ophthalmologist might make you peer into before announcing that you have eye cancer.
Magazines and marketing people hated it because its stereoscopic 3D meant nobody could take screenshots of any of the games, players hated it because of the migraines it gave you after half an hour of use, and Nintendo hated it because it was a big fat radioactive money bomb which it would be forced to ditch in under a year.
No matter how charitably you try to frame it, the Virtual Boy was a total disaster for everybody except eBay traders. The only way the whole project could have possibly gone any worse was if holding the device's controller magically triggered earthquakes.
Announced in 1994 and released the following year, the Virtual Boy was designed by Yokoi's famous Research and Development Team 1, and utilised technology originally devised by the Massachusetts company Reflections Limited. Reflections had been pitching its stereoscopic 3D display around for years, according to Steven L Kent in his lovely book, The Ultimate History of Videogames, but with little success.
This was basically down to two simple reasons: everybody who heard the idea of a single-colour, hooded game device that used two mirrors to create the illusion of 3D objects hated the concept, and everyone who subsequently tried it out for more than 40 minutes felt, like, totally weird afterwards and had to have a few Anadin and a lie down. Try putting that on the back of the box.
Yokoi liked it, however, and thought it might be the future of games - this is a little like NASA staring at a broken owl-shaped money box and deciding it's just the ticket to get them to Mars, incidentally - and, after exploring the possibilities of a system that worked in, y'know, full colour, which would have been far too expensive, settled on an all red display, as red was kinder on the batteries than other LEDs, and was easier to distinguish, too.
Sadly, red also makes all of Nintendo's games look like they're taking place in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland where the horizon glows with the embers of radioactive ash.
A lot's been written about how uncomfortable the Virtual Boy is to use, and how oddly unsatisfying its rather flat approach to 3D can be, but few mention just how alarming it is to actually play: Mario's Tennis looks like a piece of nihilist theatre in which a group of idiot friends knock a ball around on Ground Zero as their DNA goes through the shredder, while Wario glows a distinctly ominous shade of scarlet in his own, pretty good Wario Land platformer, where he ducks chains that swing in and out of the screen, and even mucks about with the foreground and background a bit.
Even Tetris gives way to a murky kind of chaos in this all-red world, its friendly and recognisable blocks reduced to the kind of thing you might expect to see in some new manner of the Voigt Kampf test, and Teleroboxer - a first-person robot fighting game with some genuinely snazzy 3D elements - looks like it's taking place in the Fallout universe, for all the wrong reasons.
Curious and clearly possessing too much money, I bought a Virtual Boy a couple of years ago, played around with it for a few hours until I succumbed to a truly memorable headache, followed by a night spent hallucinating that I was sitting in a Victorian boating house talking to a woman made of rust. I was probably coming down with flu, or something, but I haven't used Yokoi's bright red dream machine that much since.
Yet even this wretched, hobbled relic had a handful of decentish games: Wario's not bad as I mentioned, and Jack Bros is a fascinating Megaten spin-off that plays from a top-down perspective. Besides that, there's no escaping the fact that playing a Virtual Boy is a unique experience - not just because it's red, it's 3D, and it makes your brain hurt. With your eyes deep inside the rubberised cowl, the Virtual Boy makes for an intimate experience - the rest of the world seems removed, and it's just you, a controller, Jack Bros, and a killer migraine. Good times.
Game Boy Advance
The Virtual Boy floundered within months of release, and Yokoi himself very sadly died in a car accident two years later, having been given the cold shoulder somewhat by Nintendo, while also finding the time to design the quirky WonderSwan for Bandai.
Meanwhile, Nintendo's actual successor to the Game Boy was the admirably straightforward Game Boy Advance, a no-nonsense handheld console released in 2001, which really did manage to provide everything you might expect from a sequel to the most popular gaming hardware of all time: more power, fewer batteries, a couple of extra buttons (including shoulder triggers), and bigger, brighter, games.
The GBA is front-loaded with classic software, from Golden Sun to the rumble-iscious (sorry) Drill Dozer, which came in its own buzzy little cartridge. Series that would help define the system included the utterly unmissable Advance Wars, and almost all of Nintendo's franchises had strong showings.
It was also front-loaded with Classic software, however: while GBA owners would get a new Mario Kart, a couple of nice Mushroom Kingdom offshoots like Mario Vs Donkey Kong, and a new Zelda, albeit one designed by Capcom in the form of the Minish Cap, they'd have to make do with reissued, upgraded versions of classic adventures when it came to a new platform game featuring the world famous plumber.
The closest he ever came to a bespoke title on the handheld would be AlphaDream's genuinely brilliant Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, an ingenious RPG with a great story and excellent combat. It's a title that remains, with its vivid purple and gold backdrops and air of globe-spanning mystery, one of the greatest Christmas games of all time.
Elsewhere, while there were plenty of crazy attachments available, not least an e-reader which allowed you to scan in old Nintendo games stored on packs of cards, you could also connect the GBA to the GameCube to play titles like Pac-Man Vs and Zelda: Four Swords Adventures. Few did, even though the games themselves were largely excellent.
Players might have got a more powerful system, but, for the first iteration at least, they'd have to make do with an upgraded version of the same old unlit screen, which required reflected light in order for the device to be playable. As ever, third-parties rushed in with a series of bizarre add-ons, most involving magnifying glasses and pathetic little torch bulbs, many of which weren't very good, while modders broke into the guts of the machine and positioned little LEDs around the edges.
Nintendo got into the act in the end with the GBA SP, released in 2003, a beautiful clamshelled device with a frontlit (and then eventually backlit) screen, a smaller footprint and - why? - the wholesale removal of the headphones jack.
Fans of headphones would have to wait for another iteration - the GB Micro, a wonderful miniature console seemingly released for the hell of it in 2005. The Micro had the best screen yet - backlit and bright, with great colours - and the whole thing was so tiny you could put it on your keychain or lose it in any number of unlikely places. While it did much to remind people how much they loved the GBA, however, its success was severely limited as the console rushed towards its inevitable twilight.
That didn't really matter, though, as change was on the way, in the quirky form of the DS.
Codenamed Nitro, leaked spec sheets for the DS made it absolutely impossible to understand what Nintendo was initially planning: stylus control, a microphone, and two screens? It can be hard now to remember just how strange this list of features sounded. Nintendo clarified things somewhat at E3 2004, with a demonstration Yoshi Touch And Go, a spiritual successor to Yoshi's Island, which had Baby Mario falling through the sky, protected by lines of clouds drawn by the player, but the overall feeling remained that the DS was a risky, tremendously niche move for a company that had seen its market share of the home console space steadily erode over the last decade.
Many commentators said that the DS was most likely a temporary stopgap until the next Game Boy, and even more complained about how clunky the hardware seemed compared to Sony's shiny bauble. The Guardian's Nick Gillet even suggested Nintendo's latest looked like it had been knocked up in a shed.
Early third-party software almost certainly had been: Titles like Sprung, Ubisoft's grim dating sim, and EA's tragic The Urbz clearly struggled with the idea of the machine, while Ridge Racer took things a little too literally with an on-screen steering wheel manipulated with the stylus which was, as it sounds, about as much fun as being shot through the nuts with a musket.
Over time, however, developers started to understand the system: Cing's gentle and rather creepy Another Code made the most of the DS's dual perspectives for some interesting puzzles, Capcom produced a dazzling Viewtiful Joe update that had some typically unique uses for the stylus, all of which snapped into place rather nicely with the sort of things you'd expect from the series, while Square-Enix ignored most of the features entirely with the brilliant Rocket Slime, one of the few games I would have no trouble recommending to absolutely anybody: a bubbly isometric cartoon adventure that divides its time confidently between simple combat-heavy exploration, and massive real-time tank battles. Please check it out if you haven't already.
But it was, of course, Nintendo who understood the DS better than anybody. Games like Super Mario 64 DS may have been pleasant enough, but they seemed somewhat forced on the system: with Yoshi's outing, the quirky, highly focused style of game that the DS supported became clear, and then with Nintendogs and Dr Kawashima's Brain Training, Nintendo somehow managed to do what many publishers and platform holders suspected had been impossible: they opened gaming up to the broadest, and strangest of demographics, turning the DS into something your mum owned, and something your granny might use.
Through a mixture of friendly pseudo-science, calm self-help-style adverts, and the towering presence of luminaries like Chris Tarrant photographed looking at a DS while frowning - possibly because he's checking the onboard calendar and realises he's booked in two conflicting sexual liaisons on the same day - everyone was playing.
More traditional gamers may not have liked rubbing shoulders with the grey crowd in Game, but few would actually deny Brain Training wasn't worryingly entertaining, and, even if they did, they still had Rocket Slime, right?
The DS may have made significant in-roads, but it was probably the magical pairing of lifestyle software with the pearly, Apple-style surfaces of the DS Lite that powered the unit into so many homes. The original DS had basically the same features as the Lite - the Lite's screen was a little better - but it still looked like a gaming device: sharp-edged, metallic, and probably awkward with women.
The DS Lite looked like it might contain futuristic cigars, or make-up, or it might be a peculiarly sexy strain of PDA. You could look cool on the train playing it - or at least you could say that you did - and it offered just enough improvements, more than enough if you consider the form factor, to convince people to upgrade - probably doing Nintendo's bidding in the process by palming off the old DS on younger siblings, who would then go out and buy even more games. It was a bizarre, style-driven pyramid scheme, essentially.
Released in 2006, the DS Lite is already inching towards its 90-millionth sale, driven on by ever-green titles like New Super Mario Bros. and Mario Kart DS, but while receipts have refused to tale off, and week-on-week, month-on-month, it's continued to make Sony's decent PSP figures look miserably inadequate, Nintendo's iteration monkeys were already back in the lab come 2007, getting things together for a much more elaborate upgrade.
The DSi was the point that Nintendo's handheld consoles embraced the internet: while you could get a surfer cartridge for the previous models, the DSi has a browser built in, allowing you read Eurogamer wherever Wi-Fi access can be found, and look through Nintendo's brand new online store where you can download DSiWare titles.
Other additions include twin cameras, both rather lame, but ideally suited to taking stupid pictures of your friends and then turning them into kaleidoscopic messes, a little onboard memory and a slot for SD cards. The form factor changed somewhat too: for my money, I really like the new matte finish, but I find the d-pad rather wobbly and ineffective at times.
People moaned about the runty cameras, and the absence of a GBA slot, possibly closing the door on the Game Boy generation forever, but it's actually just the world-beating spirit of Gunpei Yokoi at it again: taking the lowliest, cheapest, most profitable technology, and figuring out how to make it fun, while allowing competitors to run aground on more expensive alternatives.
For all its strange quirks, the DS, in all its forms, is perhaps the most fitting of spiritual torchbearers for Nintendo's handheld lineage after all: the PSP may be slightly less powerful than a PS2, but the N64-levels of performance the DS packs is perfectly acceptable for Nintendo and the kind of audience it's going after, while the rest of its features - none of them stand-outs in their own right - come together to create one of the most playful devices yet invented.
With the arrival of the new DSi LL - this one with slightly bigger screens - and yet another instalment heavily rumoured to be in the pipeline with a focus on full-time internet connectivity, it's clear that Nintendo's frustrating tendency for regular iteration isn't going away.
What is possibly changing, however, is the marketplace. Insubstantial as its games are, the iPhone is increasingly a competitor to watch out for: it will never match its rivals point-for-point, but it's already proved capable of rearranging the sales landscape to suit its own peculiar strengths.
And that's a strategy, inevitably, that Nintendo should already be fairly familiar with.
Watch out for our hands-on impressions of the new Nintendo DSi LL as soon as postie hooks us up yo.