Some tipped the DS to fail, but the gaming’s most creative designers looked at it and saw only ideas and opportunities.
The Nintendo DS was destined to flop. Pundits lined up to scoff at its maker’s folly, mocking this ugly stepchild of a console, with its cheap looks and weird dual-screen design. Sony’s PlayStation Portable, the PSP, was by far the more attractive on-the-move option, a handheld with sleek, desirable looks and far greater horsepower. The battle was over before it had started: Sony had already won, and Nintendo would be forced to exit the hardware race.
Except, of course, that didn’t happen. Sure, the DS might have had two faces only a mother could love. And heck, even Nintendo might not have been confident in its own creation—it was quickly positioned as a “third pillar,” designed not to replace the Game Boy line, but to supplement it. But like the Game Boy, it was a huge success, built upon the late Gunpei Yokoi’s theory of “lateral thinking with seasoned technology”: It made creative use of cheaper, older parts for a more unique play experience and won over a massive audience in the process. It also happens to be the console that got me into writing about games for a living. So you can blame/thank Nintendo for that.
Launched in late 2004, just a month ahead of the PSP, the DS went on to vie with the PlayStation 2 for the title of biggest-selling console of all time. But it got off to a sluggish start. The initial lineup of games was far from brilliant: It was undoubtedly a novelty to play Super Mario 64 on a handheld, but the bizarre “thumb shoe” peripheral that you were supposed to slide across the bottom screen to mimic analog movement never felt natural. The stylus-based mini-games of WarioWare: Touched! convinced some that touch controls were the future, but for my money, it couldn’t hold a candle to the original, nor to its brilliant, gyro-enhanced Game Boy Advance follow-up, WarioWare: Twisted!.
The problem with the DS was that no one had reckoned on it being a hit, with most publishers throwing their weight behind the PSP instead. That wasn’t quite the case in Japan, however, and with the console being region free, many players (including me) started to import games rather than waiting for Western developers to pull their finger out. It might be hard to imagine now, but back in 2004, the pound was in pretty good shape and import sites like Play-Asia and the dear departed Lik-Sang offered the opportunity for hundreds of DS owners to get their hands on an array of strange and fascinating Japanese—and, occasionally, US—titles well ahead of their European debuts.
‘Yoshi Touch & Go’ became available for the Wii U Virtual Console in the summer of 2015.
With plenty of disposable income—ironically, much more than I can afford to spend on games these days—I submerged myself in the import scene. Your average Japanese game cost between $21 and $30, and I gorged on mad, experimental stuff. Games like Namco’s Pac-Pix, which asked you to draw a Pac-Man (the size of your scribble determining his speed), using arrows and walls to direct him. Yoshi Touch & Go (I always preferred its excitable Japanese title, Catch! Touch! Yoshi) was maybe a bit rich at like $40 over here. But at not much more than half that for an import copy, this unusual but addictive score-chaser, which had you drawing touchscreen cloud platforms for Mario’s dino friend to walk across, was worth every penny. Then came Kirby’s Canvas Curse—or Power Paintbrush over here—which pulled a similar trick but with more substance.
I started spending more and more time during my nine-to-five office job on forums, chatting with like-minded importers. Not that we always made sensible choices. We tried to convince ourselves that SEGA’s I Would Die for You—aka Feel the Magic: XY/XX, aka Project Rub—was an inventive, light-hearted romantic tale about a boy wooing a girl rather than an unsettlingly creepy compendium of middling touchscreen mini-games. But for every flop, there was a word-of-mouth success.
Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan (later retooled for the West as Elite Beat Agents) was and still is one of my favorite games ever made: A series of J-Pop bangers soundtracking the elaborate dance routines of a male cheer squad, called to solve everyone’s problems via the time-honored medium of shouting and dramatic poses. Its comic-book vignettes ranged from a violinist suffering from a sudden attack of the stomach problems on the train (we’ve all been there) to a giant meteor threatening all life on Earth. The pick of the bunch, though, was a surprisingly heart-breaking story: A recently diseased young man makes a final trip from the heavens to say goodbye to his girlfriend, set to Hitomi Yaida’s gorgeous power ballad “Over the Distance”.
I also dipped into Hudson’s excellent puzzle series, including the dangerously absorbing Slitherlink. I spent many a happy hour tinkering with Toshio Iwai’s musical curio Electroplankton. I laughed my way through many a multiplayer session on the MIDI-tastic Daigasso! Band Brothers (belatedly localized as Jam with the Band and frequently celebrated—to similarly hilarious effect—on the excellent podcast The Rotating Platform). The Trauma Center games gave me the chance to conduct nerve-racking procedures as a talented surgeon, wielding my stylus as a scalpel. The superbly written Ace Attorney games introduced me to extravagantly coiffed legal hero Phoenix Wright. Pretty much every one of them was available in Japan well before anywhere else, and soon my feverishly enthusiastic forum posts became something more substantial. I set up my own website to cover these games, and within a couple of years, I had my first magazine commission.
Beyoncé appeared in television advertising for ‘Rhythm Heaven/Paradise.’
Games like Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training, Nintendogs, and the all-conquering New Super Mario Bros—not to mention a vastly superior redesign—eventually brought the DS to a much wider audience, and with it came all-ages classics like the Professor Layton series, oddities like Contact, inventive RPGs like The World Ends With You and Radiant Historia, and thoughtful, touching narrative adventures like CiNG’s Hotel Dusk: Room 215. Rockstar courted controversy once again with a portable GTA containing an incredibly moreish drug-dealing aside. We even got Beyoncé advertising the wonderfully batshit Rhythm Heaven/Paradise.
But even at the very peak of its popularity, I’m not sure the DS—or any console since, for that matter—was ever quite as exciting as in those early days, where developers were trying lots of wacky ideas with this strange new device to see what came off. I’ve never been so in love with video games as I was back then, with this bizarre clamshell contraption: the device everyone said would fail, but that the medium’s most creative designers looked at and saw only ideas and opportunities.