If you're a major gamer you probably know that Nintendo's DS Lite is the best-selling gaming machine of the year. Here are some more stats: During the recent Thanksgiving week consumers bought 9,200 DS Lites per hour. Over 57 million DS systems (including both the original DS and the newer DS Lite) have been sold worldwide — more than the Wii, PS3, and Xbox 360 combined.
If you're like me and don't read or know a lot about video games, all this might come as a surprise. That's because while the DS system, which costs $130, has been insanely popular with consumers, the mainstream media has practically ignored it. To date The New York Times has written one three-paragraph article about the DS Lite, and mentioned it only twice ever.
Because the media considers gaming portables more children's toys than "real gadgets," we never hear about them. Millions of Americans may own a DS, but I'm seriously late to the game: I hadn't even seen one in person until this summer. But if one of Nintendo's goals with the DS (and with Wii) was to bring gaming to a larger audience, it succeeded with this customer in ways I'd never imagined possible. Not only has the DS Lite turned me into a gamer, I now believe that it's a better product than the iPod. Hit Continue to read my incendiary views.
Like the Wii, the DS is for everyone. No, really
When I bought a DS Lite in October for my husband's birthday, I did not have my own interests in mind. The only game I thought I'd be able to play on it was Brain Age, a seemingly boring application that I didn't even purchase. Not having grown up in a household with video games, I never mastered the art of using A-B-X-Y/up-down-left-right controls. Acquiring that button-punching ability is kind of like learning tennis or how to ski: Your form is never quite right if you started after age 5.
So I was shocked to discover that I could play, and enjoy, the new Zelda for the DS. It's played entirely with the stylus on the console's touchscreen. I remember sitting in friends' basements long ago and watching as they played Zelda. To me it seemed even harder and more confusing than Super Mario Bros. Now I'm obsessed with getting new heart containers. I see bomb cracks and bombchu holes everywhere in my daily travels.
One of Nintendo's stated intentions with the DS was to bring gaming to a wider audience with applications like Brain Age and New York Times crossword puzzles. But forget keeping my numbers skills sharp — the company inadvertently made old-fashioned video games more attractive by making gameplay intuitive. This isn't true for every DS game. While you can enjoy Zelda without touching a single button, Super Mario on the DS uses an annoying combination of keypad and stylus. I'm hoping that stylus gameplay will completely replace RSI-causing buttons, even on controllers for couch-potato consoles.
Look beyond Apple
The DS was a revelation to me for another reason as well: It shows that good, strong, well-designed technology can be affordable. When my friend first showed me his DS, I assumed that it was a luxury purchase, akin to him having gone out and bought an iPodTouch for $300 or a Nokia tablet for $479. After all, the DS Lite has a great touchscreen (plus a display screen), Wi-Fi compatibility, an internal microphone, and stereo speakers. Never mind the fact that it can play two different kinds of game cartridges.
I couldn't believe that it costs only $130. Of course, the DS Lite has no internal memory, but these days that kind of storage space is cheap, and can be added easily to the console via various mods. You can even use your DS to make free VoIP calls. And in the spring, Nintendo will introduce own iTunes like site in Japan to sell movies, TV shows, and even comic books for the DS.
The DS is selling well now, but I believe that most mainstream consumers don't even know its capabilities. If the media gave the DS even a fraction of the attention it bestows on the iPod, the market would explode.
A word on the PSP
Some of you may be fans of Sony's PlayStation Portable. That's understandable. In some ways the points I've just made are even more relevant to the PSP than they are to the DS. The PSP doesn't have a touchscreen, but it does have Wi-Fi and its browser is built in. Its screen is larger, graphics are better, memory is more easily expandable, and it's had music and video capabilities since day one. And though it costs more than the DS (the PSP retails for $170), the difference is negligible when you add the DS's browser ($30) to its cost.
The PSP, like the DS, should be considered less a children's toy and more a portable media center that's more affordable and flexible than either an iPod or Zune. But without a touchscreen, the PSP is useless to me and to many other inexperienced newbies as far as gaming is concerned, so it lacks the DS's democratic and universal appeal.
Nintendo vs. BlackBerry/Palm/Kindle/Zune
These days, $130 will buy you 86% of an iPod Nano, 43% of an iPod Touch or Zune, or 33% of a Kindle. The DS may not be able to do everything that these devices do right out of the box, but it's capable of performing most of their tricks with a little investment and time. By all accounts the next generation DS will be slimmer but have internal storage space and larger, brighter screens. All the better for watching television, reading, listening to music, and browsing my dear. Oh yeah, and gaming. Miraculous, button-free gaming.