Nothing will ever seem as futuristic to me as the Nintendo DS
In 2022 it can be a little easy to dismiss nintendowhimsical impulses. The company has long since stopped trying to compete on important fronts like graphics power or providing competent online services. Although for years it was the industry leader, Nintendo has spent the past two decades content with making great games for the weakest hardware on the market.
You might expect Nintendo to focus on consolidating these shortcomings. Instead, it offers cardboard games. It’s pulling a collection of its beloved 3D Mario games from the physical and digital market just months after its first release. It announces the inevitable end of support for Splaton 3 even before the game is over. It’s a strange and idiosyncratic company, and that’s been confirmed in its decisions, both in its games and in its activities.
After the DS, Wii, Wii U, and Switch each had unique gimmicks, it’s easy to wish the company was just normal. At this point, if a Switch game has me using motion controls, it’s a Switch game I’m done playing. If you pay attention to how every other company works, Nintendo’s decisions are more than a little frustrating.
But, 18 years ago, none of these fatigues had yet set in. I was totally blown away when Reggie Fils-Aime showed off the DS at E3 in 2004. Even though I was only ten years old at the time, I grew up playing my sister’s great original. The Game Boy and the Game Boy Pocket that I got for Christmas at five o’clock. The first handheld games I played were black and white. Although there were some good ones, like Pokemon Blue and Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, I’ve also spent a lot of time with licensed sidecrollers trying to translate decent console games into technically inferior hardware.
The DS then seemed to come from the future. Its chrome gray clamshell, which looked like it could just as well prowl the night sky as play games only added to that feeling. Its ability to produce N64 quality 3D graphics on a thin paperback sized handheld blew me away. Super Mario Land 2 was fun, but Super Mario 64 DS gave me a full 3D world to run around in. A year earlier, I had struggled to light up my almond-shaped Game Boy Advance with passing streetlights. The DS not only had a backlit screen, but the games it now allowed me to play in the backseat of my parents’ van seemed far beyond anything my experience had taught me that a PC pocket should be able to work.
But, before I had it in my hands, there was the design of the thing to face. As someone who can’t imagine the dexterity it takes for a pianist to play completely different things with their left and right hands at the same time, the DS left me baffled. How could I pay attention to two screens at once? How could I play games on two screens at once? I didn’t understand how it could work, but I was immediately intrigued.
And I didn’t even get into the features of the DS. The DS came out years before the first iPhone came out, so the now simple idea of being able to control a game by touching a screen was mind-boggling. Although the game itself is little more than a tech demo, Pac-Pix, in which you drew your own Pac-Man and let him unleash ghosts, was the craziest thing I had seen at that time in my life as a player.
But Nintendogs was the real killer app of that era. It used the stylus, but it also used the DS’s microphone so you could talk to your dog. I didn’t know the release date, so I went back to Walmart again and again, hoping to find the Dachshund and Friends version waiting for me behind the glass. Eventually it was there, and although one day I got tired of the game, it was a comprehensive presentation of everything the console could do, letting you pet your dog with the stylus, talk to him via the microphone and play with it through both screens.
When the DS first appeared, it promised an instant leap into the future. While the Switch making console-quality games more portable and the Steam Deck making any PC game playable on the go are nice steps forward, nothing will ever top the amount of innovation Nintendo has packed into a PC. dual screen pocket in 2004.