The DSi brings some new ideas and an updated physique to handheld gaming. While welcome, the arrival of iPhone gaming casts a long shadow over Nintendo's party. We've had our hands on the DSi for a few days now. With the warm glow of the midnight launch fading, how does Nintendo's new form factor stack up in the cold light of day?
Firstly, the console provides a pair of cameras, one pointing at the player and another directed at the outside world. These offer a range of snap and tweak photo-booth style functions that enable you to distort and adorn photos of your loved ones. One of the DSiWare download games, Wario Ware Snapped, uses the camera pointing at the player for simple motion detecting minigames. While this doesn't flesh the experience out, it does enough to prove that this is a viable use.
Along with Wario Ware Snapped, the other DSiWare games are the beginning of a WiiWare library for the DS. Here, you can download games directly to the DS via a Wi-Fi connection. Some simple games or applications are free, whilst most gravitate towards 200 or 500 points. There is also an advanced category for games that are more akin to those on store shelves.
Those that early adopt are given a nice 1000 points free for registering and can buy a few of the launch titles. These consist of Wario Ware Snapped as mentioned above, the first in a series of art styled puzzle games Aquite and Code as well as some Wario Ware Touched-lifted minigames like Gliders. These are all in the 200 and 500 point region. But even though this means they only cost between 2.50 GBP and 5.00 GBP each they are pretty brief experiences for the money. Spend this much in the iPhone App Store and you'll walk away with a game that will keep you entertained for many hours. Here, most players will struggle to last a few minutes once the novelty has worn off. Even the old launch stalwart Wario Ware only comes to the table with four camera based minigames that whilst enjoyable (not least because along the way they create a video of your performance that is played back at the end) are all too brief.
DSiWare may seem like something and nothing particularly with the slim early pickings, however this is the real make or break feature for the DSi. If Nintendo get this right it has every opportunity of becoming a rival to the iPhone's App Store. If they neglect this great feature it may only mirror the sparse offerings on WiiWare. One conundrum they need to solve is how to DSiWare enable existing DS's. On these lines I would be surprised if we see some sort of GBA slot add on for DSiWare storage in the near future. Although only rumoured at this stage, a DSi version of the Virtual Console offers a much stronger proposition. This has been handled much better on the Wii with varied games available for a wide range of platforms from yesteryear. If they can replicate this feature for portable systems on the DSi they will be onto a real winner. This would give gamers the chance of playing 90's Gameboy and Gameboy Colour games. If this was expanded to other more powerful hardware like the Gameboy Advance, this would be the reason that no GBA slot was included in the DSi.
The last addition to the hardware is the inclusion of an SD card slot. This offers an easy route to save and share photos and music. The downside is that the DSi only supports the AAC format. Whilst this sheds some light of Nintendo removing MP3 support from the Wii Photo channel, it makes the music function redundant for a lot of users. We know Nintendo are after Apple's market share, but this is certainly the wrong way to go about it.
You can probably tell, this makes the experience of the new hardware a little lumpy to say the least. Those looking for the killer feature to validate a purchase will struggle. However, the big win is the updated form factor itself rather than the tweaks and additions to functionality. Not only does the DSi have bigger screens but the shell, buttons and general build have been overhauled in some style.
Now, this is no DS phat to DS lite revolution, but the same care and attention to detail has been paid.
The power button is now bottom-left and inside the clam shell to avoid being triggered accidentally. Volume is now on a rocker mechanism that makes it much easier to adjust than the loose slider on the DS lite. The D-pad is as positive and strong as ever and the face buttons remain nice and 'clicky'. The shoulder buttons have been improved and now protrude a little further and offer a sharper action.
The shell itself has lost the glassy finger print attracting sheen, instead being draped in a nice matt finish. Not only does this avoid smudges but makes the device much easier to hold. The DSi's ergonomic is also improved with a thinner, lighter footprint. This feels a little odd though, for games played in the increasingly popular book style - the lack of weight in the bottom half of the clam makes it harder to grasp in this vertical orientation.>
The hardware is not without its downsides though. The lower screen perpetuates (to my eyes at least) the slight yellow tinge that dogged recent revisions of the DS. Also the much touted support for modern Wi-Fi security is only available in slots 4-6 of the Wi-Fi configuration. Existing games only support slots 1-3 for Wi-Fi configuration and thus can't take advantage of the wider support. A big burn in my book. All this adds up to something much more significant than its parts though. I enjoyed the DSi because it gave me a fresh reason to play all the DS games I love. The bigger screens and refreshed buttons combine to update the feel of any game just about enough to make them feel new again. This, for me, is worth the price of entry alone.
While the DSi is exciting for people like me who revel in the long history of Nintendo gaming, it is also in danger of becoming the point when Nintendo's backward looking stance starts to look a little dated. With the iPhone pushing ahead with so many innovations - the App Store, in-game purchases, multi-touch games, voice chat - the DS, successful though it is, is in real danger of being beaten at its own game. The disruptive technology of the iPhone makes the once disruptive DS seem like a device more for longstanding gamers than the truly casual market.