DS, we have to talk. I'm sorry that I'm doing this in a letter rather than face to face, but I need to express all my thoughts and feelings carefully. I need to make sure you understand. I need you to know that I still love you, I've always loved you, but something is wrong.
Remember that love letter I wrote you in 2006? We'd been together for a year and I'd never felt so happy. We were still getting to know one another even then, and you had that ability to constantly surprise me. Every time I thought I knew all about you, you'd pull out another twist, another wonderful talent. Of course we knew this wouldn't last, but then, at that time, it felt like forever.
In August 2006 I wrote a piece of Eurogamer about my unbridled love for the DS. The console had been out for just over a year and what was happening was extraordinary. While the DS was of course home to streams of rubbish, it was also the place to go for your dose of strange. Many spectacularly odd games, ideas that seemed born of fever dreams and lunatics' fantasies.
It was the memory one of these games this week that suddenly brought the reality of my relationship with the DS crashing down on me. I remembered Rub Rabbits.
Oh, remember that year. We were always hand in hand, laughing, playing. There was so much laughter. The games weren't always brilliant, but it was about us, how we interacted, how we learned about each other. Those hours and hours chatting with Phoenix Wright. The strange adventures, exploring with Another Code. Painting together with Kirby: Canvas Curse. It was like nothing else. We were young, we had no responsibilities, people didn't understand us. And we didn't care.
"Project Rub" was a launch title for the DS, and it was extraordinary. Even its name was extraordinary. In America it was the strange, suggestive Feel The Magic XX/XY. But best of all was its Japanese name, I Would Die For You. What a name. And how stunningly appropriate for a game that was about... well, love.
"Rub Rabbits" was the lame, slightly unnerving name for the European sequel released in 2006, the year of the love letter. Rub Rabbits captured those early days of the DS. You begin the game and before you've even selected a profile the top screen says, "Life is a struggle, right from the very beginning..." It's birth.
Then a warning screen appears: "Warning: continuous stroking, blowing and poking could lead to unwanted attention in public places." This was Sonic Team opening the tops of their heads and letting their brains fly away on little cartoon wings.
The following menu screen, accompanied by fabulous manic J-dance, contains an option for "Baby making". To do this, of course, two people had to play together on a single DS. Tell it your date of birth, age, and blood type, then work together to cut open a cake. There's a baby inside! A baby you can name and keep.
The first level is a festival of insane, attempting to pursue a young lady up a down escalator by furious scribbling on the screen and avoiding top-hatted gentlemen and sumo wrestlers.
On some levels it was pathetic. A man pursuing a woman made of shadows in a yellow bikini, showing off to win her attention. And then there was the microphone.
I remember how much you'd enjoy it when I gently blew on your skin. Those intimate moments. Hot breath. It was novel. It was new.
Blowing into the mic was one of the strangest things about the early DS. Presumably intended as an audio input, it was adopted by developers purely as something to blow on.
At first this was cute. It's no longer cute. In fact, there cannot be many left who hadn't discovered that tapping on the mic with a finger has much the same effect as blowing, making train journeys less awkward, but removing the romance of a lot of moments.
Blowing out the candles, watching them flicker, then extinguish, the thin wisp of smoke rising from the wick as if a ghost of the flame that was.
The DS had us enraptured. It had developers enraptured. They had been given a collection of tools so strange they were forced to reinvent. Two screens, an inch apart, and above one another. Then one of them is a touch-screen that responds to both a stylus or a finger. There's a microphone, there's an array of buttons scattered all over. And it folds closed.
It was so startlingly different, so silly, and it engendered an enthusiasm amongst the inventive to let this inspire them. And so it was that games like Rub Rabbits appeared. Games like Pac-Pix, where your drawings on the screen would come to life, move around. It was magical. It was like casting spells, the stylus your wand.
As time went on our love matured. We were more calm, but no less close. If anything we spent even more time together. Hours and hours in each other's company, no need for constant thrills, but instead embracing the comfort of our companionship.
We still had adventures. We still had our times. Exciting nights, days spent exploring, but always waiting for us the security of home. It was enough for it to be us.
2006 to 2008 saw the DS reach a more mainstream audience. Games like Brain Training had identified a role for the machine outside of the hardcore gamer, and indeed outside of the children's market that had dominated the GameBoy.
Families, mothers, daughters. Of course Brain Training was as delightfully mad as so many of the early releases, combining educational challenges (maths, language and so on) with a lunatic professor and a daft sense of humour.
It was a game that would chastise you for staying up too late, or for slacking on your practice. Of course it brought forward a million copycats of varying success or failure, but it also reminded us that the DS could be a platform for puzzle games.
Hudson Soft released 13 games from March 2006 to March 2007 in its Puzzle Series. Only officially released in Japan, these were mostly popular Japanese puzzle games converted to the touch-screen with a rare gift for economic use of the DS's features.
Beginning gently with a jigsaw puzzle simulator, a crossword collection (one of the few impenetrable to a non-Japanese speaking audience), and of course the all-conquering sudoku, they established they knew how to use both screens without gimmicks, and the touch-screen without frustration.
August saw the splendid Kakuro, before the series' apogee in November. Alongside a second crossword cart, and indeed the absolutely stunning picross game, Illust Logic (infinitely better than Nintendo's own Picross DS, and only beaten by Mario Picross on the GameBoy), was Slitherlink.
I lost count of the hours. Just you and me, tangled limbs. No beginning. No end.
In 2007 I played Slitherlink for around 250 hours. Discovered after my friend Stu recommended it to me, this obscure Japanese product had received no Western coverage that I had seen. Slitherlink, or Puzzle Loop, was a long established puzzle - sometimes you'd find one or two of them scattered amongst a supermarket sudoku collection. But I'd never encountered them before.
And at first I didn't get it, I thought it was too hard. There's a grid of numbers, about which you must weave one elaborate loop of lines. If there's a 3, then three sides of its square will be filled. A 1, then one. And based on this knowledge, you must discern the pattern the loop will make.
When it clicked, it clicked like the lock of a vast safe door in an echoing chamber. It's hard, yes, but it's purely logical. The game taught you a few tricks in its tutorial. Two 3s next to each other, then you know this, this and this.
Then I found my own. 2 and 1 in a corner, ah yes. 3,1,3 in a row, I can do this. My skillset grew with the challenges, the puzzles eventually vast. And it was exquisitely well designed for the DS. It's one of the most perfect games.
(There's one flaw, one I wasn't aware of when I wrote the review in 2007 after playing it for at least 150 hours. In the final stages the puzzles become too large for the DS's processor to cope, and they start to stagger, making it impossible to get maximum stars on them. It's a shame. But it's a tiny weed in a mountain of flowers.)
After Slitherlink came both Illust Logic games, then Pic Pic, then last year the beyond-stunning Rittai Picross. I've played each twice through, potentially a thousand hours or more. I've played them so much that I almost forget I'm playing.
They accompany other activities, they're a comforting background hum, a passed bus journey, a fiddle while watching television. They are my constant companion. Playing on my DS is the last thing I do each night before I fall asleep. But I can't remember the last time I looked to see what new DS games had come out.
We've both changed. In many ways we've changed together. But I'm concerned about where we are.
This is so hard to say, but something's very wrong in our relationship. We've settled, and settling is so wonderful in so many ways, and of course I still love to fall asleep in your arms. I wouldn't know what to do without you.
But our interests are just so far apart. Everything you care about now, everything you talk about, everything you want to spend time doing - it's so far from anything I understand. You have so many new friends, friends I can't identify with, friends I can't get on with.
I feel like our relationship is a fading echo. We're clinging to a spirit of wonderful times, but it's melting through our fingers, turning to smoke. I don't know if we love each other, or if we love the memory of each other.
I miss us.
The Nintendo DS has become something else. Perhaps it began with Brain Training. Perhaps it was an inevitability of time. But to look through the release lists for the DS now is to make a mockery of that article I wrote three and a half years ago. Every third game is an RPG no one asked for nor will ever play. And the other two? Here's a sample of games that appeared in recent weeks:
- My Little Baby
- Wedding Planner
- My Friends
- The Biggest Loser
- Jigapix: Pets
- Hello Kitty Party
- Horse Life Adventures
For the last year the DS has become the domain of this swell of casual/cutesy noise. A search for the word "baby" across 2009 offers me games like My Baby 2: Boy & Girl, Dreamer: Babysitter, My Animal Centre: Baby Animals, My Baby World, the quite terrifying potential of Babysitting Mania, Petz: My Baby Panda, and Hello Baby.
There are 29 games with "Petz" in the title, and a further 15 "My Pets". There are currently 51 releases in the "Imagine" series. I daren't even search for "horse".
(The Imagine series is a sinister collection. Seemingly created by a 1950s corporation to ensure little girls don't get ideas above their station, they encourage ambitions to be a Fashion Model, Cheerleader, Party Planner or Beauty Stylist. While you can be a Doctor, the series has yet to include Imagine: Business CEO, Imagine: Philosopher, or Imagine: Politician.)
Of course some of these games might be brilliant. I make no claims as to their quality, merely their subject matter. It's clear there is a massive audience for this, an audience far larger than for Rub Rabbits or Slitherlink. But it has brought with it the collapse of the DS as a machine for innovation, inspiration and the joyously strange.
We're treading water. I feel as though we're less appreciating each other's time, and more putting up with each other. I hate saying this, I hate being the one to acknowledge it, but it hangs unspoken in the air between us like a brooding cloud.
Over the years what was once so intriguing about the DS has become familiar. Once, just having the screens above one another, mimicking Nintendo's Game & Watch, was such a peculiar choice. But now it's the DS, we know the DS, we recognise the DS, that's just how the DS is. The DSi may have bigger screens, more features, but it's still the old, familiar DS.
There are still games to come. Next month brings Ace Attorney: Miles Edgeworth Investigates, and I couldn't be much more looking forward to a game. But this is surrounded by Sushi Go Round and Little Book Of Big Secrets. March promises an English language version of Rittai Picross, called Picross 3D. But then there's also Gina USA Power Shopping, Jigapix Love Is, and Animal Country: Life On The Farm.
There was a time when each week brought at least one enticing new DS title to explore. Now looking across the schedules is a troubling landscape, with occasional glimpses of shelter.
Unless you're a 12 year-old girl, of course, in which case it's a bonanza crop. But the man who wrote that love letter to the DS those years ago, it is not for him. The madness is gone. The weirdness was a temporary diversion as people grew used to the device, found out how to make it ordinary.
Sure, you're thinking Scribblenauts. You're protesting about the ongoing Professor Layton series. And they're there. The DS isn't to be abandoned or mourned.
But the relationship has changed. Even here there isn't the spirit of the strange that once ruled. There aren't running gags by multiple developers to use the initials D and S in their games' subtitles, nor the in-gag of concealing outstretched hands on game covers. It's moved on, occasionally offering games that recall the past. And that's sad.
I have no plans to leave you. I'd never cheat on you. But, look, ever since the beginning of 2009 you've been so different. And around the beginning of 2009 I made friends with the iPhone. And sometimes I feel like it just understands me better.
It might be coincidence that it was at the beginning of 2009 that the iPod Touch and iPhone sprang into gaming life. But it's unavoidable that this is now the place to look for mad, weird, inventive, inspired, interesting, novel and deranged gaming. The cheaper prices, easier availability, and sheer range of choice, from developers who are once more alive with the possibilities represented by this new device, have replaced the DS as the home for the strange. The DSi has not made any dent in this, nor indeed seemed to try. Perhaps this is the way it will always be.
I know we have plans. I know there are some good times to come. But I'm frightened of the gaps between. Our hopes punctuate a coldness we cannot deny any longer.
I don't know what I want to do. I don't want to break up. Please, don't let us break up. But you have to let me know you still want me, that this is more than prolonging the familiar, repeating the routine. I love you. I'll always love you. But we have to acknowledge it. We're in trouble. We're not right.