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Feature: DSi Preview

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Another year passes us by and you have to wonder where the time goes. It seems like only yesterday that Nintendo’s Game Boy sat proudly at the summit of the world’s hardware charts, pummelling Sega’s battery-hungry Game Gear at every turn.

Two decades later and some things never change. A handheld system from Nintendo, the DS, is currently the bestselling console of its generation. Its third iteration, the DSi, arrived in Japan in November 2008, quickly climbing to the top of the chart in the territory. The system launches in Europe and North America later this year, but will it enjoy the same commercial success it has in the Far East, or go the same way as the ill-fated Game Boy Micro?

Specifications

So what does the DS’s latest incarnation offer over the previous models? For starters, the system is considerably thinner than the DS Lite at 2.6mm, 4mm wider, and 1mm longer to accommodate a larger screen. The screen quality remains the same but the speakers have been improved and a built-in media player has been incorporated. Like the original DS, the DSi has a power button rather than a switch, which is located to the bottom left of the touch screen. There are now five brightness settings to choose from, compared to the DS Lite’s four, but battery life has been reduced by several hours.

One of the most significant additions to the DSi is the inclusion of two VGA digital cameras. One is located on the inside, positioned between the two screens, the other on the outside of the shell. Although the cameras’ resolution may be modest (0.3 megapixels), users can manipulate pictures prior to taking them through the use 11 different lenses. The cameras will be utilised by many DSi software titles, from games to applications.

Online support and connectivity has been greatly improved this time around. The system will be the first handheld Nintendo console to support upgradable firmware. Furthermore, users will be able to connect to the DSi Shop, an online storefront similar to Wii Shop, which went live in Japan on Christmas Eve. Customers may exchange Nintendo Points (formerly Wii Points) for DSiWare games and applications via the service. Every DSi that connects to the store before March 2010 will receive 1,000 Nintendo Points; Nintendo even threw in a free web browser to support the DSi Shop’s launch.

With so much downloadable content available, Nintendo has made the console SD card-compatible. A new card slot has been included for external storage and Advanced Audio Coding (the successor to the MP3 format) support. The system also has 256MB of internal flash memory.

The DSi’s major drawback is its lack of backwards compatibility with Game Boy Advance software. Unlike its previous incarnations, there is no cartridge slot at the bottom of the console, meaning accessories such as the DS Rumble Pack and Guitar Hero peripherals are no longer supported. Other DS titles, such as Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, make use of GBA cartridges for saved data, making them barely playable on the DSi.

Japanese Release

Given the number of Nintendo DS units already in circulation in Japan, and a distinct lack of significant launch tiles for the new hardware, it appeared Nintendo was taking something of a risk when it released the DSi in the territory in November 2008. The gamble, however, paid off with the system shifting over 170,000 units in its first two days.

Retailers reported throngs of customers queuing up hours beforehand on the day of the system’s launch, many of whom went home empty-handed. Popular stores were unable to stock the system in-house due to the sheer volume of pre-orders.

Sales grew to over 535,000 units by the end of November and its success shows no signs of abating. At the time of writing, the DSi is the bestselling console in Japan with over 1 million units sold.

Nintendo is currently looking to push the boundaries of the system, presenting it as a device offering far more than mere gameplay. Company President Satoru Iwata recently stated his intentions to promote the system as a business development tool, utilising its improved connectivity as a means of creating and sharing software on a small scale.

Iwata wishes to see the device widely used as an information terminal, with an expansion of Japan’s free Nintendo Spot Wi-Fi service looking like a viable way of achieving this.

DSiWare Launch Titles

Nintendo released its first batch of DSiWare titles in Japan on Christmas Eve, with games and applications ranging from pleasingly retro to downright bizarre.

Moving Memo is a free DSi application that allows users to keep a calendar of events and store reminders. Photographs taken with the system’s camera can be incorporated into each entry and voice notes recorded. Although some modern mobile phones offer similar applications, this software has proven a popular due to the fact it costs nothing.

For 200 Nintendo Points, magic tricks from the Master Of Illusion game are available as three separate pieces of software: Three Times Shuffle, Funny Face, and Scary Numbers. For the same number of points, budget titles such as The Bird And The Bean and Paper Aeroplane - the latter being a revamped WarioWare title - are available for download.

Age-old NES classic Dr. Mario is a bargain at 500 Nintendo Points. This Tetris-style puzzler is as addictive now as it was in its heyday, and with improved graphics and sound, this is an essential purchase. Other puzzle games falling into the same price band include Art Style Aquario and Art Style Decode. The former is a brick-style puzzler and the latter mathematics-based.

Daredemo Asobi Taizen is a compilation of classic card games, while Utsusu Made In Wario is the latest entry in the highly successful WarioWare series. Using the DSi camera, users must upload photographs of themselves imitating Wario’s onscreen actions. At 500 Nintendo Points, this unusual title looks like a good investment, though maybe not the most appropriate game to play in public.

At the top end of the points scale is Brain Training: Arts and Brain Training: Science, the two most significant launch titles in the DSi’s downloads roster. Available for 800 Nintendo Points, they are follow-ups to the Brain Age games, both containing new puzzles. As the titles suggest, the two versions deal with arts and science respectively.

Western Release

According to the Big N, the DSi is not due a Western launch until "well into 2009". Rumours suggest a late spring release is most likely, but until an official date is confirmed, this is no more than speculation.

It is difficult to say whether the console will achieve the same commercial success it managed in Japan, as many factors will determine this. The DSi is the first Nintendo console to launch without the support of one of the company’s flagship franchises, but that did not seem to do it much harm in the Far East. Should Nintendo announce a new Zelda or Mario Bros title ahead of the system’s Western release, this would certainly help units fly off the shelves.

The DSi’s fortunes are also dependent on those of its opposition. Late last year, Apple revealed plans to pit the iPhone and iPod Touch as competitors to the DSi, announcing that several top third party developers are onboard to deliver the latest games to these platforms. Sony is also stepping up its bid to rule the handheld market. This year will see the release of a new iteration for the PlayStation Portable, the PSP-4000. Although previous incarnations of the DS outsold the PSP significantly, little is known about the 4000 and with developers already working on games, let's not write Sony off just yet.

The improved online support opens up many possibilities. To make up for the removal of the Game Boy Advance cartridge slot, Nintendo could offer GBA titles as downloads via the DSi Shop. Perhaps original Game Boy and Game Boy Colour titles will also be sold online (the likes of Zelda: Link's Awakening and Wario Land 3 would be welcome additions). A Wi-Fi information service equivalent to Japan’s Nintendo Spot is also a possibility to ensure that Western users maximise their system’s potential as an information tool.

The DSi retailed in Japan at ¥18,900, which is the equivalent of around £140. At this price the system is still cheaper than either of Apple’s devices, with the cost of the PSP-4000 yet to be determined. Convincing Western customers who already own a DS to part with their hard-earned cash for this new console will be a big challenge for Nintendo, but should it invest in more of its trademark exclusive software and online services, the DSi just might make some waves in Europe and North America.

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