Then come the party games. Mario 64 kicks off with eight, but you can unlock more during play, and each one is a fun-packed showcase for touch-screen controls. Whether you’re sorting bombs into black and red boxes, playing snap in Luigi’s casino or placing trampolines to save a plummeting plumber, these games don’t need any explanation. Anyone can pick them up, play them, and enjoy them. They’re ludicrously good fun and bizarrely compulsive in an “I can’t believe I’m actually wasting my time playing this” sort of way. And if these can suck up hour after hour (and they will) you only have to imagine what the DS version of WarioWare could do.
Nintendo keeps on saying that it’s trying to reach out to the audience that doesn’t play games, but it’s only when you see someone fitting that description enraptured by Mario’s mini-game antics that this really hits home. But this could also be the problem. Non-gamers may love these simple stylus games, but will they actually go out and buy a DS just to play them?
Maybe, maybe not, but their children probably will. For the younger audience, the killer app isn’t even a game but Picto-Chat: an oddball chat applet where 16 users can huddle in a wireless chatroom sending scrawled doodles and text speak. It’s the sort of thing that’s destined to spread through the nation’s schools like a virus.
The bundled demo version of Metroid Prime: Hunters might even win a few older converts. If you can imagine a multiplayer version of Metroid Prime crammed onto the N64, it’s a convincing – if slightly pixelated – 3D shooter, and it happens to have a fantastically usable control system. One uses the stylus to aim, the control pad to move and strafe, the left shoulder button to fire and some additional buttons on the touchscreen to switch weapons and jump. Link up two, and it’s a makeshift, pocket-sized LAN party (provided those pockets are the ones in your coat).
In other words, the DS could be more than just a kiddie-console, and it’s already a natural fit for RPGs and strategy games. What’s more, the stylus and touch-screen are already bringing round a range of weird games that just wouldn’t fit anywhere else (fancy an oddball, heavily stylised, scorpion slapping, candle-blowing dating game? Project Rub is for you!).
So the best and the worst thing about the DS is that Nintendo certainly isn’t playing safe. If you want the games you play on your TV in a unit that fits in your hand, then the PSP is going to blow your mind. The DS won’t do the same, but it does bring you something genuinely different. Buying one is a bit of a leap of faith, but for every person who dismisses it outright, there will be someone else who picks it up and remembers the days when games used to be a lot less complex and – perhaps – a bit more fun. Who knows? If Nintendo finds enough of them, the DS may not seem so crazy after all.
With it’s clunky design, oddball concept and inferior specs, the DS isn’t likely to win over the hardcore gamers and gadget hounds lining up to embrace the PSP, but then maybe it doesn’t need to. The old Nintendo magic hasn’t left the company yet.