— You’ve heard that saying about wisdom from the mouths of babes. Yeah, well, since when do kids know anything about anything, much less walk around with pearls of wisdom dripping from their childish lips? When I was a kid, I believed that I could will myself to fly, that I was the reincarnation of St. Francis of Assisi and that paste made a perfectly fine afternoon snack. In short: I didn’t know jack.
And yet, having recently spent some time with a couple of adorable moppets and a new Nintendo DSi, I’m thinking, you know, these kids … maybe they’re onto something.
There I was, playing the DSi — the third iteration of the massively popular DS handheld gaming machine — and honestly, I was wondering: What’s the big deal? Launched on Sunday for $169.99, the DSi is not an entirely new device, but an upgrade. The most obvious changes from the previous version (the DS Lite): The DSi comes with two tiny cameras — one installed on the outside of the clamshell and one installed on the inside. It also comes loaded with applications that let you manipulate your photos as well as record tiny sound clips and manipulate them, too.
But the cameras seemed gimmicky to me. They take preposterously small photos (a mere .3 megapixels) and the photo-editing program offers nothing but some goofy gags — you can add a moustache to a picture of yourself or you can twist and tweak your photo until it looks like something you’d see in a funhouse mirror. The sound recording program amused me, but only for about 15 minutes. I couldn’t imagine returning to those features, and I was struggling to understand why anyone would feel compelled to upgrade from the good ol’ DS Lite, which costs $40 less.
And then a couple of pint-sized pals dropped by my place and I let them have a go at the DSi … and well, they loved it. I mean, they loooooved it.
They loved taking silly pictures. They loved manipulating the pictures. They loved recording their voices and then tweaking that recording until it hit a pitch so high that adult ears in the room began to bleed (almost). And soon they had the adults in the room roped into playing with them, posing for pictures and laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.
Despite my DSi skepticism, Sophia Eisner and Ivy Galloway — both 10 years old — assured me repeatedly: “It’s cool!”
Wisdom from the mouths of babes? Quite probably. That is, I realized something … apparently I still don’t know jack when it comes to what’s cool in the eyes of the preteen set.
Nintendo on the other hand …
… knows a thing or two about what kids these days (and quite a few adults) think is, like, totally cool. After all, they’ve sold 100 million DS machines worldwide (the original DS launched in 2004 and the svelter DS Lite launched in 2006).
With its sassy dual-screen design, a touch screen and a lineup of family-friendly titles like “Nintendogs” and “Anything Pokemon,” the DS has been a mega hit with young gamers. Meanwhile, titles like “Brain Age” and “Personal Trainer: Cooking” have made DS owners out of non-gamers and grandmas. And many veteran gamers love the DS too, reveling in the machine’s hefty library of well-crafted titles.
Clearly Nintendo hopes the DSi will help extend the life of this gracefully aging lady. In addition to the cameras, she’s been given a slimmer shape and bigger screens (3.25 inches vs. 3 inches). She loses the slot for GameBoy Advance games but gains a slot for an SD memory card. The DSi can also play music files. Using an SD card, you can import your music — that is, as long as your music is in AAC format because MP3s are not supported (a real head scratcher).
But Cammie Dunaway, Nintendo of America's executive VP of sales and marketing, says that what’s more important than having the ability to play your music, is being able to take your favorite songs and tweak them. The DSi allows you to change up individual tunes by altering the pitch and speed and by adding various sound effects. You can show off your creations to your pals though you can't permanently save these changes.
“The DSi is really designed to be a very personal gaming experience and to the take interactivity to the next level,” Dunaway says. Interactivity, creation, customization … she insists that’s what people want nowadays.
You know what else people want nowadays? They want to make farting sounds. Or at least, they want to be able to download bite-sized applications that allow them to break digital wind (and maybe do some other humorous and helpful things as well). And Nintendo might just have that covered too. Allow me to explain.
When it comes to sales, the DS has been thumping its only portable gaming competitor, Sony’s PSP — this despite the fact the PSP is a beefier machine and has a gorgeous 4.3-inch screen. The PSP has been sorely lacking in the software department and, despite an upgrade in October, its brickish, button-centric design just hasn’t inspired the masses the way the DS’s snappy clam has.
But this rivalry took a new turn last summer when Apple strode smack dab into the fray, presenting the handsome iPhone and the iPod Touch as viable gaming machines and serious competitors to the DS and PSP. With their tilt-sensitivity and multi-touch screens, Apple’s gadgets suddenly offered some interesting new gameplay opportunities. More importantly, Apple launched the App Store — an easy-to-use online store that allowed just about anyone who wanted to make programs for the iPhone to provide those applications to just about anyone who wanted to use them … and for very reasonable prices (mere pocket change and sometimes even for free).
Since then, everyone and their second cousin’s sister’s Chihuahua has started making applications for the iPhone — no small number of those applications being dedicated to the art of fake flatulence. But games! Games are even bigger than farts. In the few months since the App Store’s launch, multiple thousands of games (zoinks!) have been created for Apple’s handheld devices.
Quality vs. quantity
Nintendo seems to have taken notice. When the DSi launched, so did the DSi Shop — an online store not so different from the App Store. On opening day, this store — a snap to access via Wi-Fi — provided not only a free Internet browser, but five bite-sized games that can be downloaded for $2, $5, and $8. “Brain Age Express: Math,” “Bird & Beans” — these DSiWare games (like most App Store games) are lightweight fare meant to be lightweight fun.
But more games and applications are on the way and this is where I think the DSi has intriguing (and purchase-worthy) potential. That is, the App Store has been a place for developers of all stripes to take the iPhone’s unique features, push the envelope of creativity and cook up some imaginative gaming experiences. The DSi Shop could do something similar for the DSi. For example, launch title “Wario Ware: Snapped!” uses the DSi’s camera to allow players to control the game by waving their arms and waggling their heads. I’m keen to see what they come up with next.
But unlike Apple, Dunaway says Nintendo is going to be more selective about what’s sold through its online store. While the App Store sees up to 50 new games arrive every day, Nintendo will launch a few every week.
“The focus is on quality rather than having thousands of applications, a few of which may be terrific but many of which are disappointing after you play for a few minutes,” Dunaway says. “We want experiences that people are going to enjoy time and time again and that they’re going to have fun sharing with others.”
I may not be intimately familiar with the mind of today’s preteen, but if there’s one thing I do know about youngsters (and even some oldsters I know), farting sounds are something they enjoy sharing with others. So I asked Dunaway … might we see a DSi Fart app in the future?
“If it was really fun and innovative and something that people had never seen before, you might,” she said.