Feliz Cumpleaños, Nintendo DS Lite
June 11, 2007 – Exactly one year ago today, Nintendo of America launched the retooled version of the Nintendo DS. The Nintendo DS Lite, launched on June 11, 2006, turned an admittedly bulky system into a thing of beauty and did so at the same price as the original system. Lighter, sleeker, and sexier, the Nintendo DS Lite offered everything the original DS did, and did so with the charm and elegance that was clearly inspired by Apple’s iPod.
The US launch of the DS Lite came just a couple of months after the Japanese debut in early March. When it was near impossible to secure a Nintendo DS system after December in that territory, it was clear that Nintendo was ceasing production on the brick-like system, preparing to assault the Japanese market with the far superior DS Lite. Rumors about a redesign were floating through the air for months, but in late January 2006 the company officially announced its intentions to at least supplement the DS market with the upgraded handheld.
Once the market got a glance of the system, it was clear that the days of the classic Nintendo DS system were numbered. The Nintendo DS Lite improved in several areas: most importantly, the system’s bulk was shaved down considerably, reducing its footprint by more than 40 percent. The reduction also brought down its weight more than 20%, an important area when it comes to a portable device. The two LCD screens of the Nintendo DS were upgraded with brighter, more vivid displays that offered four different levels of brightness. And even as the system shrunk, the designers managed to increase the size of the stick-like stylus of the original Nintendo DS to something meatier for the hands.
With Nintendo’s shift in focus towards the non-gaming crowd, the Nintendo DS started seeing a significant surge in sales even before the DS Lite’s launch. But much of the handheld’s recent success can easily be attributed to the sleek and sexiness of the newer system. The device looked less like a game system and more like a device, which clearly made more consumers — mostly those who’ve never used a videogame system on their own — open to the idea of toting around a game system.
According to Nintendo of America, to date more than 11 million Nintendo DS systems have been sold in the US since the platform’s debut in November 2004 to April of 2007. According to Nintendo Co. LTD financial reports, in one year the Nintendo DS Lite has sold through more than 6.8 million systems in the US since its debut, selling more units in a single year than the original Nintendo DS did in its first 18 months on the market. And that momentum is continuing to surge into the second half of 2007.
Of course, that didn’t last long as just a few months later Nintendo of America energized the Nintendo DS Lite market by adding a Black and a Pink option for consumers to purchase. And just as always, Nintendo will continue to release additional color options when the market starts to taper.
But releasing additional colors isn’t exactly advancing the handheld market, and Nintendo knows that it has to eventually update its hardware to keep up with the changing gaming trends and technologies. Just because the Nintendo DS is currently at the top of its game doesn’t mean the company isn’t prepared to shake up the industry with the true follow-up to the Nintendo DS platform — after all, the Game Boy Advance was still tearing up the charts when the original Nintendo DS was revealed in 2004. Heck, the Game Boy Color had absolutely no competition when Nintendo unveiled its plans for the Game Boy Advance in 2000.
So, the big questions: what’s next, and when?
Clearly the Nintendo DS Lite is near perfect in its design, and any "big" redesign will mostly be aimed at functionality and features. The Nintendo DS is currently the most successful handheld on the market and will clearly continue to be so throughout the next year and beyond. But though we don’t know when it will happen, we do know that Nintendo will follow up the Nintendo DS with a next generation. And using past experiences on top of some wishful thinking, we thought we’d lay out what we will expect out of the next Nintendo DS handheld.
Two touch screens. This is pretty much a given — how many people have seen players instinctively want to tap the upper screen with the stylus in the same fashion as the lower screen? Two touch screens open up potential for different styles of game designs. So does:
More sensitive touch technology. The Apple iPhone has it, the Microsoft Surface has it…the next Nintendo DS will have it. The current DS can only sense one specific location on the screen, meaning you really can’t use multiple fingers or stylus at the same time with any real accuracy. A filed Nintendo patent showed a Star Fox game design using two fingers on a touch screen to guide an Arwing around in a 3D environment, and the current DS screen technology just doesn’t have the capacity to handle this idea. But start fresh with a new Nintendo DS system with updated touch technology and you’ll be able to pinch and stretch, as well as draw with multiple brushes at the same time. Imagine the next Wario Ware using a more versatile and more sensitive touch screen.
Improved 3D hardware. We already know that Nintendo had its R&D reduce the company’s GameCube 3D chipset to something that consumes far less electrical power, something that would be useful in a battery-powered device like a gaming handheld. The GameCube is still a very capable system, and it’s hard to not see developers and game designers restricted by the hardware within the current Nintendo DS system. With more powerful visuals, developers will be even more capable to offer new and more impressive ideas just not possible on the DS Lite.
Backwards compatibility. The success of a system platform is dependent on the library for it. Though Wii marks the first time Nintendo’s created a backward-compatible console system, the company has always been about keeping its backlog available to portable gamers. Each successive Nintendo portable has been compatible with the generation immediately preceding it. Game Boy Color played all of the classic Game Boy games, Game Boy Advance (at least the original and SP models) played classic Game Boy and Game Boy Color titles.
There’s no question that the Nintendo DS is a success. To ensure that the follow-up will grab consumers’ attention, Nintendo has to make sure that the next system can already play hundreds of games right out of the box. To retain this, a lot of what the Nintendo DS already is will be a part of the next generation: same size screens, same distance apart (for games that use both screens as a single display), similar button layout, and built-in microphone.
Of course, this goes without saying: the next generation system will still use cartridges. The PSP’s disk based media is an incredible crutch — nothing’s more annoying and irritating than load times in portable gaming, and Nintendo will stick with what it knows: solid-state, cartridge media. The sizes will have to increase, though — the current maximum for a Nintendo DS game is 128 megabytes…and that’s a virtual runt compared to PSP’s one gigabyte bohemoths.
However, this leads us into:
Game Boy Advance compatibility gets nixed. When the Nintendo DS launched, Nintendo knew that it was taking a risk by offering a new handheld in a market already dominated by its Game Boy Advance system. The GBA compatibility was an insurance policy, that’s all. If the DS failed in the market owners at least still had the ability to continue to play Game Boy Advance games. Now that the Nintendo DS has all but demolished the Game Boy Advance out of the market, there’s no reason to really keep the legacy going.
It’s not hard to anticipate that the Game Boy Advance slot will be removed out of the next Nintendo DS system. While a couple of Nintendo DS games use the GBA slot for secondary functions — most notably Pokemon Diamond and Pearl’s import ability — it’s not enough justification for Nintendo to restrict its R&D. The DS Lite redesign already shows that the engineers had a hard time getting it into the smaller system (the carts protrude out of the bottom instead of sitting flush), and the real estate that the cartridge slot takes up in the DS system can be used for other, more useful items. Larger battery, perhaps? Or maybe…
SD Card Slot. Easily one area that the PlayStation Portable has over the Nintendo DS is the ability to bring in external media like photos and MP3s from PCs and other sources. Homebrew devices for the Nintendo DS show that the handheld has the ability to handle these items with ease, and the touch-screen of the system makes it a breeze to navigate through the data.
The addition of an SD card slot would also open up the Nintendo DS to the idea of downloadable content — be it from the consumer locations or the Wii system. The current system can download code to the internal memory or even the EEPROM of a particular game, but adding the expansive near endless space that SD cards offer brings the same potential of the Virtual Console download system to the Nintendo DS system. And we could finally save chats and doodles from our PictoChat sessions.
Higher resolution for both screens. Back to the display for a second. Yes, the PSP is gorgeous with its massive wide-screen oriented LCD screens. Don’t think that the next Nintendo handheld will follow suit: the screen size pretty much dictates the system size. The Nintendo DS is a handheld first and foremost.
However, we do expect that the 4:3 ratio will shift to a wider 16:9 (or closer) orientation, similar to the way Game Boy Advance did. screens will improve in clarity and resolution — smaller pixels means room for more…which means sharper, more detailed imagery. But, keep in mind that backward compatibility will still be key and the screen will have to downgrade for older DS games…which means, like playing GBA games on DS or Game Boy games on GBA, we’ll get borders for the "older" games.
Accelerometer. Imagine the Wii motion technology automatically inherent in the next Nintendo handheld. Wario Ware Twisted showed off some fantastic ideas in game design that implemented motion detection in cooperation with screen orientation. Games like Kirby’s Tilt and Tumble and even the somewhat lackluster Yoshi Topsy Turvy demonstrated the potential for motion in portable games. Though kids in the backseat of a moving car might be out of luck, the pros definitely outweigh the cons…and could definitely open up some really cool design concepts for linking up the handheld with the Wii console.
Better online experience. A lot of the limitations of the online experience, like Friend Codes, are purposely instituted by Nintendo to create a "safe" experience for gamers. But some, like only having the weaker WEP encryption and lack of a central user account for all DS games, are due mostly to the Nintendo DS’ Wi-Fi technology and the fact that Nintendo didn’t have its strategy laid out before its system was launched.
Now that the servers and technology are in place, the next Nintendo DS can institute a tighter online experience. Friend Codes will still be there, but if the Wii and its "codes attached to Mii character" feature are any indication, the next generation DS can open up its online with far fewer restrictions. In a perfect Nintendo world, the Friend Code and Friend Lists will be inherent to the system and not the game, so that players can track their buddies far better than they can. Imagine playing Mario Kart and seeing your online buddies playing Planet Puzzle League…and giving them a ping to let them know that you’re ready for a race.
Oh, and while you’re at it, make PictoChat online. Thanks.
Surfing the web.The DS Opera browser is awful. There, we said it. It’s not entirely Opera’s fault: the Nintendo DS just doesn’t have the "oomph" necessary to keep up with the visual experience of the Internet. Bulk up the memory and processor power on the next generation handheld and we’re sure that Opera’s engineers could trounce the PSP’s web navigation. Watching YouTube on the DS would be downright sexy…but it just isn’t possible on the current handheld.
Built-in camera. The Game Boy Camera is proof that Nintendo isn’t against the idea of letting players snap photos with its system. And a couple years ago, the company even registered a trademark for a potential camera idea in Japan. Making a feature standard ensures that developers will put it to use. Just look at the microphone of the DS — developers clearly don’t have to use it, and yet "breathing" tends to get into half the games for it. Put a cheap cellphone like camera in the hinge of the DS where you can face it in or out, and you’ve just opened yourself up to Video Chat and custom faces in handheld games.
Of course, you’ve also opened up yourself to countless "boob and penis" images…but obviously Nintendo’s already aware of that with the creative doodlers in Mario Kart, Diddy Kong Racing, and Animal Crossing.
Built-in Rumble. Sorry Nintendo, but your DS Rumble Pak stinks. If you can give it away with a game, you can sure as heck build the tech into your system, so do that next time. And please…make sure it actually shakes the system.