Put a chain around my NES and lead me anywhere

Thursday, 19 August 2004 — 4:16pm | Video games

There is a hilarious visual gag in Finding Nemo so subtle that I never caught it until I watched it for at least the fifth or sixth time just yesterday. Pay close attention to the ornaments in the saltwater tank where Nemo ends up; among them is a human skull. Next to the skull is a sign that appears in only two or three quick shots in the entire movie. Read it, and remember, the tank is in a dentist’s office.

A week ago at the Ziff Davis Electronic Gaming Summit, Reggie Fils-Aime of Nintendo delivered a speech about the company’s portable gaming strategy; IGN has the transcript. It clarifies a lot about Nintendo’s controversial philosophy that higher specs and better graphics are a technological dead end, and new frontiers in interface design are the way to go. “While we’ve steadily improved the technology of the Game Boy,” he says, “Nintendo has never considered itself in the technology business. We are in the entertainment business.”

This guy is right on the money. Observe:

On the other hand, if we are talking about a hard core 20-something gamer, the question of consumer desire becomes more pertinent – just what, exactly, does that avid player want? The initial thought is pretty obvious – if they love Grand Theft Auto on their PlayStations… they should love it just as much on the PSP, right? Well, leaving aside the issue of specific content not jumping platforms very well, game developers have to consider how these older consumers will play. The vast majority of older hard core players have made a leisure time commitment to gaming. Your mother may play solitaire or hearts for ten minutes at a time. Your most passionate gaming buddies probably play for entire nights or weekends at a time… because that’s what they love.

Now, consider those games they play to immersion – Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Madden, Zelda – and ask yourself this. Are they away from home for sufficient blocks of uninterrupted free time to repeat that immersion on a handheld device? How many 20 year olds really take regular three hour plane flights? Eleven-year-olds spend half-day car trips in the back seat, playing Game Boy. 21-year-olds spend half-day car trips in the front seat, driving. Even if those blocks of time were available to them, how many older gamers wouldn’t really rather wait and play those games at home, lying on the couch, blasting away on their big screens?

I give the Nintendo DS a fair amount of coverage here and virtually none for the PSP, and there’s a reason why I am excited about one and not the other. It is because the PSP is and fully intends to be a Game Boy that plays PlayStation games (albeit on an absolutely gorgeous display). There is nothing that it offers that cannot be done with a home console, except for additional features like music playback. Now, it’s no secret that part of why the PlayStation 2 sold so well is that it doubled as a DVD player at a time when most consumers did not have a DVD player, but were about to purchase one. Portable music players, on the other hand, are really nothing new. Nokia discovered this last year with their game-playing phone, the N-Gage: people would much rather buy a superior phone and a superior game system as separate, specialized units. This is why a hardware-driven approach falls flat on its face.

One may point out that the Game Boy is subject to a similar criticism: that in terms of pure gameplay, there is nothing that distinguishes it from what home systems can do aside from its inherent portability. That is only half true, because here, the innovations are driven by software developers. These range from using the unit as a control pad with a private screen in Four Swords Adventures and Crystal Chronicles to, say, monitoring and tuning your car. Still, it is quite correct that some Game Boy titles are just as playable on a TV screen, if not moreso. Take the phenomenal Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, for instance. As a traditional RPG where you have to play in long stretches to get from one save point to the next, it’s far more playable on the Game Boy Player accessory that puts it on a television and routes control to the wireless GameCube controller. Most of the biggest titles on the GBA are re-releases of NES and SNES classics, but they are still more playable on the old systems for which they were designed. (Part of it is because of the GBA’s lack of X and Y buttons, but that’s a different story.)

The thing that makes the DS so exciting is that almost everything about it takes advantage of the fact that you can take it with you and hold it right in your hands. You cannot implement two independent screens and stylus control on a console that plugs into a television set, any more than you can use a Duck Hunt Zapper gun on a cell phone. That means we are going to have new software that takes advantage of PDA-style features, like touch keyboards to replace that age-old method of scrolling with the directional pad to select each individual letter. At the same time, it sports the most effective button design of any system in history, the diamond/shoulder layout of the Super Nintendo controller that is simple enough to be intuitive, but consists of just enough buttons to play Street Fighter II.

Heck, you can play Scrabble on this thing, so long as Hasbro doesn’t screw up the software license. Put the rack and board on the touchscreen with a drag-and-drop interface, and use the other screen for scores, timers, tile tracking and the whole gamut.

There is one little problem, though: Hasbro doesn’t own the software license.

Since the acquisition of Hasbro Interactive in 2001, Scrabble has been owned by Infogrames, which has since renamed itself Atari to fool the unsuspecting into feeling nostalgic. As was pointed out at the Nationals town meeting, this is the major stumbling block that has prevented the rise of an online Scrabble network tied directly into the competitive world of the National Scrabble Association. Instead, the independent Internet Scrabble Club reigns supreme.

The other problem with the official distributions of Scrabble software is that they use the censored dictionary. While on a PC there are ways to edit the dictionary data under the table, cartridges are a different story. With the biggest dictionary revision in ten years just over the horizon, it is not the best time to buy a Scrabble program anyhow. But this is the part where in a stroke of genius, one suddenly recalls that the DS is Wireless LAN-enabled. Why not connect to a central server, download a dictionary update and flash it like a game save file?

The possibilities are fascinating, and it would take a lot to stop the DS from being the next big thing. Underpromotion and overpricing of software are culprits to watch. As Fils-Aime points out in his speech, software is the one determinant of success when you boil things down. The Game Boy sold because of Tetris, and the Game Boy Color sold because of Pokémon. Build the hits, and they will come.

I still think the DS version of Animal Crossing is the one to watch. The original for the GameCube is a niche title with a word-of-mouth cult following, but almost everything in its design would work even better on a portable system with a touchscreen that you play in bursts. But one area where Sony has consistently beaten Nintendo is promotion and marketing. Advertisements like the Santa Claus commercial for the PlayStation 2 are the ones that get the public to spend. Right now, the Nintendo DS is almost unknown outside of circles that read game industry news or University of Alberta student blogs. This needs to change.

Final note goes to Square/Enix: get your act together and work on Chrono Trigger DS already.

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