Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Ranking Nintendo's Systems: Part 7

We continue our look at Nintendo's best and worst systems. Click to read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 and part 6.

Nintendo DS

History: All gamers wanted was a Game Boy Advance with better graphics.

That was the general consensus after the Nintendo DS was announced in 2004. Nintendo was shooting themselves in the foot bylaunching a system that wasn't as powerful as the upcoming Sony PSP. Besides, with two screens and a touchscreen, it looked absolutely ridiculous.

Nintendo even backed off carefully from the system, stating that it would be a "third pillar," not something that would entirely eclipse the Game Boy Advance. The internet responded with "Yeah, right," and continued deriding the DS for having a weird shape, for being underpowered, and for using a touchscreen, which no one ever asked for in the first place.

Results: The DS series was Nintendo's most successful system ever, pound for pound. From its launch in 2004, 149 million units have been sold. That's over 21 million units per year.

To put that in perspective, the Game Boy series, including the Advance, sold 199 million units from the launch of the original model in 1989 to the end of the Advance line in 2005, at a rate of 16 million units per year, give or take.

In fact, the touchscreen idea worked so well that it became the de facto standard for all handheld devices, including iOS and Android devices. Even the newest Sony portable will include one. Clearly, Nintendo knew what they were doing.

What Went Right: Nintendo knew there was a huge market out there for handheld gaming after seeing how quickly the market had grown since the launch of the Game Boy. The one market that hadn't been touched, though, were non-gamers.

It seemed silly. If someone doesn't like to play video games, why would you try and and sell them video games? However, Nintendo instead asked the question, "If someone doesn't like to play video games, why don't they?" After researching the question carefully, they released games like Brain Age, which went on to sell over 17 million units worldwide, and Nintendogs, which sold over 21 million copies worldwide.

Nintendo also laid down the template for how to make an engaging touchscreen game with Kirby: Canvas Curse, then launched Mario Kart DS and New Super Mario Bros. and made the DS a must-have.

Since the DS sold like crazy to non-gamers and gamers alike, other companies decided that it was now safe to create games for the system as well. That led to some of the best third-party support for a handheld ever. RPGs, a normally disregarded category among handhelds, called the DS their home. There were wildly ambitious RPGs, like the space opera Infinite Space. There were real-time strategy RPGs, like Knights in the Nightmare. There were puzzle RPGs, action RPGs, platformer RPGs, Rogue-like RPGs, any type of RPG you could ask for.

The DS ended up, all told, with one of the deepest libraries of any handheld gaming system, and frankly, one of the deepest libraries of any system ever. We're going to be seeing articles unpacking the many pleasures of the DS for years to come.

After a well-received redesign brought about the DS Lite, Nintendo made even more money. Battery life for the DS Lite was as good or better as the GBA. The screen was bigger and brighter. While Sony's supposedly superior PSP faltered and became a niche product, the DS continued to establish itself as the premier destination for all handheld gaming.

What Went Wrong: The original DS and the DS Lite were both painfully easy to pirate, and Nintendo had no way to stop it. They couldn't release a firmware update to combat the piracy, since the DS and Lite didn't have that capability. Developers put in code that would make pirated games lock up, but the pirates always found a way around it.

That almost killed the DS' library for a time. Developers got really concerned that their games weren't going to sell, and for good reason. That led some to take their talents to iOS and Android devices, others to create more complex lockout systems to try and disable pirated games.

Nintendo launched the DSi in an attempt to combat the growing problem of piracy and also to make an "App Store" of sorts for the DS. In both fields, they failed. The flashcarts continued being made, although this time for the DSi. DSiWare never took off due to a poorly organized online store and lackluster selections. (Who wants a Mario calculator? Anyone?)

Lessons Learned: Nintendo took to heart several of the criticisms of the DS. For one, they made piracy much more difficult with regular firmware updates that add substantial upgrades to the system.

For instance, one new update allows developers access to more system resources. Imagine if you've been building a flashcart for the old firmware. Now this new update comes along, which means that you may have to start all over from scratch in order to pirate any recent games. I'm sure that those who make flashcarts will find a way, but it's going to be a tough row to hoe.

Nintendo also learned from some of their mistakes with DSiWare. The new eShop for the 3DS is easier to use, allows people to rate games (along with showing how many ratings there are for any given game), has demos, decent games, and more.

However, Nintendo seemed to have forgotten a few lessons as well during the launch of the 3DS. It was priced too high. There were virtually no games to play. Still, in recent months they've recuperated and brought the 3DS closer to the principles laid down by the Game Boy Advance and DS.

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