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Nintendo DS

February 10, 2006 ・ Blog

icon 023 Dear old DS. Most of my complaints have been dealt with in the form of the the lovely new design and the load of truly great games (Mario Kart, Animal Crossing, Castlevania, Ouendan, Advance Wars) that have come out for it. Not many use the touch screen in any particular depth, but hey: the DS is where some of the most exciting things in videogaming are happening at the moment.

It’s a pity that Nintendo’s new handheld console looks so lumpen. Put alongside Sony’s gleaming PSP handheld, to be launched later this year, it’s easy to imagine which shiny surface punters will want to leave their greasy fingermarks on first. The PSP is as powerful as a full Playstation 2 console, has a huge screen and can play videos and music. But, while less obvious, the DS’s charms are in fact a lot more progressive.

The DS’s main innovation is its touch-sensitive lower screen, a fairly familiar technology that videogames haven’t really used before. In Yoshi Touch and Go, instead of directly controlling the protagonist, a green dinosaur called Yoshi, you must draw around obstacles to protect him from danger. Another section sees you drawing clouds to guide a falling Mario past airborne hazards. The interface is about immediacy and reaction – you don’t have to learn what button does what and coordinate your fingers accordingly.

The stylus is also used as a pointer, much like a computer mouse. In Zookeeper, a puzzle game, you build lines of matching animal blocks by moving them around with the stylus. It’s not a new idea – PDAs have worked like this for years – but it works incredibly well. You can play it without a thought to what you’re doing.

It’s this interface transparency that is DS’s breakthrough. Apparently it was created to counter falling videogame sales in Japan. Nintendo found that people are being turned off by the complexity of many modern games, particularly by the demands on time and dexterity just to learn how to play. The decline is mirrored by the burgeoning interest in “retro” games, which isn’t merely nostalgia for childhoods spent pummelling a Spectrum rubber keyboard to Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, but also a yearning for simplicity of interface. The best of these games allowed anyone to understand the basics, using a clearly legible screen and straightforward controls: left-right-up-down and fire. These games, easy to learn but hard to master, relied on instant gratification rather than modern games’ comparative reliance on spectacle and storyline.

I think Nintendo is really onto something. Watching people who don’t usually play videogames using it, you notice that once they’ve got over the mental hurdle of using a stylus instead of buttons, they are instantly drawn to it. They can forget the technicalities of what they’re doing and engage more directly with the entertainment on offer – for instance, pulling back a satisfyingly stretchy slingshot to fire at falling enemies in a sub-game of Super Mario 64 DS. Or frantically scribbling to reveal a coin as if it were being brass-rubbed in Wario Ware Touched. Instead of being trials of patience and skill, these games are fun, and absolutely ideal for the DS’ portable format: you can squeeze in a quick game while out and about.

As a device it works perfectly, but whether the DS is truly successful is up to the games taking full advantage of its capabilities. Yoshi and Wario Ware Touched use the touch screen to create genuinely new forms of play, but most others available so far don’t. In the Metroid Prime Hunters demo (which comes free with the system) and Super Mario 64 DS (a remake of the 1995 N64 classic) you use the stylus to control movement in their 3D environments by dragging across the screen. These applications are simply replacements for traditional joystick control, though, with a little practice, they do work precisely and smoothly. Some, like Zookeeper, simply use it like a mouse, and others, like Mr Driller: Drill Spirits, are actually best played with traditional buttons (which the DS does still have – it also plays Gameboy Advance games).

As you play this, you’re constantly aware of the future potential of the touch screen in game playing. Quite what that is I’m not sure – I’m no game designer – but it will certainly bring immediacy back to the medium. Whether the DS itself is commercially successful or not, it’s a brave attempt to change the focus of game-making. Nintendo might be an old company, but it’s still one of the industry’s most exciting risk-takers.