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Backstage: Nintendo DS as iPod games inspiration?

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By Jeremy Horwitz

Editor-in-Chief, iLounge
Published: Friday, June 3, 2005
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Six months ago, we passed on the chance to review Nintendo’s then-new DS handheld, primarily because we weren’t too excited about its features or the launch software. Since then, a few things have happened. Little compelling DS software has been released, Sony’s PSP has won plenty of mindshare, and Nintendo has re-affirmed its commitment to the popular Game Boy brand with the iPod mini-esque Game Boy Micro.

So where does that leave Nintendo DS? In our opinion, and despite the recent suggestion of game magazine editors that it’s making a comeback, it’s undeniably a novelty system - bound for a better future than the much-maligned Virtual Boy, yet still highly unlikely to approach Nintendo’s other portables in success. At least for now, that’s not stopping handfuls of programmers from experimenting with some of its novel features.

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When Nintendo sent a DS our way, the one title we were really interested in checking out was Electroplankton, a Japanese “not exactly a game” that’s planned for American release later this year. It was designed by Toshio Iwai, a renowned Japanese audiovisual artist who occasionally creates games, and had a role in the high-concept “future of play” exhibit at London’s now-defunct Millennium Dome (above). Along the same lines, Electroplankton is essentially musical art - not as much a game as a diversion or a creative playground. In Japan, the first production run is being sold as a special box set with a custom pair of headphones at a modest premium, though we’d be a little surprised if the same thing happens when it releases stateside.

There are ten different fish-like plankton, each with its own themed semi-game. You choose one of the ten fish from a menu, then wade in to a watery environment that you control with the DS’s buttons, joystick, stylus and touch screen. The point of each game is the same: make music. Click on Read More below for more on this interesting title, and some of the lessons Apple might take away from it for eventual iPod gaming.

One of the biggest problems with Nintendo DS titles to date has been their “technology demo”-like approach - many of the $30 titles seem like (and were) novel ideas that someone came up with quickly and then tried to pass off as full-fledged games. In the case of titles such as Pac-Pix and Yoshi’s Touch and Go, the relationship between early DS demos and finished games was obvious: demos shown in May were released months later as short, simple games for the DS. This isn’t a smart way to build a game library, but it does get software on the shelf and sort of show people what a new system can do. For a lesser company than Nintendo, it would have been suicide, but the 16-year leader in portable gaming can sometimes get away with things that others just can’t.

While novel, Electroplankton is this demo-to-game concept taken to the extreme: there are ten technology demos on a $30 cartridge, fewer than half of which will appeal to any given purchaser. Some involve voice sampling with the DS’s built in microphone, but most are ways to use the touch screen and stylus to make chime-like noises or remix existing songs. The selection screen is shown above on the lower screen, with the Japanese-language display of data on each demo on the top screen.

In the screenshot above (“Rec-Rec”), look to the bottom screen. There’s a set of four fish that can be individually selected by touching the screen with the stylus. Once selected, each fish stores a short voice sample as an audio waveform in its body, and the sample plays back every time the fish crosses a certain mark on the screen. There’s a simple background beat, which when combined with four samples creates a song. Dennis’s sample was too profane to post online, but inventively incorporated dog and human noises.

Then there’s the crazy arrows game (“Luminaria”). These electric fish start in the screen’s four corners, and you can reposition the arrows on screen to set the fish on specific paths from place to place. Each point on the screen represents a certain musical note, so the fish individually or together can be used to create music by traveling on the paths through those points. If you’re not musically inclined, or don’t want to fidget with the arrows individually, you can use the joystick to select pre-defined paths that make pleasant songs. And as with each of the other Electroplankton games, the top screen is somewhat pointlessly used to provide a magnified view of any small portion of the bottom screen, where all the stylus work and action is really taking place.

In the demo above (“Tracy”), six fish can be set on paths you draw with the stylus, and each step along those paths sounds like a piano note. Draw something on screen and watch it turn into music, or just create paths at random and see how they sound.

The best of the demos (“Hanenbow”) lets you position the leaves on screes at various angles, with or without the aid of an overlay that shows the precise angle of each leaf. A fish is launched from one leaf and ricochets off the others, making music that sounds like a wind chime or xylophone. Hitting the Select button brings up different plans with different opportunities for launching fish and making sounds. You can spit out additional fish to create more simultaneous sounds.

Aside from the fact that some people are going to reject it out of hand because they don’t get the idea of musical tinkering or don’t want anything other than a traditional game for a portable game system, there’s only one deal killer in the Electroplankton design: you can’t save anything. If you somehow manage to create beautiful music, there’s no way to store it for a repeat performance unless you hook your DS’s headphone port up to a recorder of some sort, and even then, the system has no video outputs to preserve that portion of your work. At the end of the day, that storage omission is a good part of the reason why you feel you’re just playing with a bunch of tech demos - not a completely realized set of creative tools.

Why should Electroplankton matter to Apple? Strictly speaking, it doesn’t need to mean anything. If the company’s interested in pursuing a broader handheld game agenda for the iPod, it can surely go down the “we want to appeal to the hard core” path, and quickly fall on the same sword that has helped every one of Nintendo’s challengers from Sega to Atari, Nokia to NEC to bleed cash on portable gaming. If Apple’s not interested in further iPod gaming, it can keep the same four titles we’ve been playing for a while, and hope that people don’t get too bored of them.

Or it could take Electroplankton as a rushed and unpolished example of what interactive music gaming could be like in the right creative hands. As a $30 cartridge for a Game Boy-like system, Electroplankton utterly flops when judged as game software. Even Nintendo concedes that it’s not a game, and that it’s going to be a huge challenge to market to Western game players. But as a piece of interactive art - a musical diversion that occasionally wraps you up in its controls and sounds - it’s fascinating. Portions such as Lumiloop, a boring demo that involves spinning five on-screen wheels, could be made fun with a rotary controller and some gameplay tweaks. And an iPod with built-in voice sampling and new graphics technologies could produce all sorts of cool audiovisual effects that would make the device even more social and shareable than it is already.

There’s no doubt in our minds that Apple is not going to be able to successfully compete with the likes of Sony’s PSP on the high end of gaming no matter how hard it tries - without a top-three gaming partner, at least. If that’s not in the cards, there’s still room for the iPod (or its successors) to become a worthwhile platform for experimental titles such as this one, especially if they’re inexpensive or included with the hardware. Sure, we’d prefer Space Channel 5 or something of the sort, but software like this (with recording capabilities) wouldn’t be a bad start.

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Comments

1

Great review for ElectroPlankton smile

What is the definition of a game anyway?

ElectroPlankton was designed by a Japanese artist, Toshio Iwai, that is known for his multimedia interactive art expositions.

Before even reading this article I was working on a little online clone of the “Luminaria” game you cited, using some of the Aqua interface. It’s much more basic than the DS version and you don’t get a touch-screen to use it smile

You can try it online at http://pages.infinit.net/voxel/ElektroAqua.html

Don’t be surprised, this thing plays music smile

The arrows are randomized at first so if you are lucky you’ll get a nice tune. If you get a tune you don’t like, you can drag the mouse to rotate arrows as you wish or hold Option/Alt to randomize arrows again.

You’ll need the Shockwave plug-in (which is included in Tiger)

Maybe I’ll release it as a widget eventually if there is a demand for it.

Posted by Starxxon on June 4, 2005 at 1:56 AM (PDT)

2

Hmm, this “novelty system” seems to be doing very well for itself. In Japan its outselling the PSP, PS2 and, ur, well all the other consoles… http://www.joystiq.com/entry/1234000570045500/

Though this is partly down to games that aren’t really games, which is what Nintendo said they were trying to do with this console from the get-go - expand what games are.

In Europe it sold more in it’s first week than any other console has, ever.

I couldn’t be bothered to read the article after I read the first 2 paragraphs so sorry if I’m saying the same as you. I’m just tired of people cristicing this “novelty system” when they don’t seem to understand what it is trying to acheive.

Posted by struddie on June 4, 2005 at 9:13 AM (PDT)

3

As the Joystiq article says, “The DS outsold both the PSP and the PS2 last week” in Japan. That’s a week - nothing really in the life of a game console - and the DS only sold 4,000 more units than the PS2 in that particular week, which (should be) in a relatively light period of PS2 demand.

Here are the latest calendar year 2005 Japanese hardware sales figures, copied from The Magic Box (likely taken from Famitsu). They don’t include sales that took place in 2004, or sales in other territories.

PlayStation 2 - 957,469 units
Nintendo DS - 904,498 units
PlayStation Portable - 892,191 units
GameBoy Advance SP - 328,231 units
GameCube - 112,601 units
GameBoy Advance - 11,338 units
Xbox - 7,543 units

The small gulf in 2005 between DS and PSP sales is noteworthy in that the PSP is both more expensive and comes from a company with no track record in portable entertainment. And it’s not much of a difference, is it?

Regarding “what it is trying to achieve,” don’t kid yourself into believing the hype - that developers were demanding all of the ‘novel’ features that Nintendo tossed in there. No one is making good use of the second screen, virtually no one (including Nintendo) has any significant plans for its wireless capabilities until the end of 2005, and the majority of the games you’re seeing for it right now could have been (or were) done on the N64 or any subsequent console. (We’ll put Nintendogs aside for the moment.) As noted (ahem, after the first 2 paragraphs), Electroplankton is novel, but it’s no great shock that it’s not selling especially well.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on June 4, 2005 at 7:37 PM (PDT)

4

Jeremy Horwitz, and what are -you- trying to achieve?

Posted by Starxxon on June 4, 2005 at 10:12 PM (PDT)

5

Informed discussion of interesting developments tangentially related to the iPod. And Starxxon, I know you’re a Nintendo fan - your voxel Metroid demo is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, honestly ... I checked it out when you first released it… but the goal here is to look through the hype and just discuss the good and the bad of new things that could influence future iPod development.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on June 5, 2005 at 8:24 AM (PDT)

6

I get your point Jeremy, being critical is not a bad thing in itself.

That’s why at first I didn’t say anything negative about the article in my first comment, because overall, it’s still a great review of ElectroPlankton wink

It’s the way that you answered the post, coupled with the negative parts of your article that got me a little cranky. I guess that struddie was really unkind when he said he stoped reading after the first two paragraphs. Still I found your reply to struddie to be a little ... too much negativity.

I felt that the only thing that your article plus the comment can do is help make those negative things to become even more true. You think that people could be “lured” into buying a DS then be disappointed?

Anyhow, I don’t feel like debating it. Mostly because I could debate about it for days smile

I guess since you are a Metroid Cubed fan it’s all forgotten wink Thanks for the compliment smile

And sorry if my second comment happened to sound mean, but really it was the question I was asking myself at that moment…

Posted by Starxxon on June 5, 2005 at 10:10 PM (PDT)

7

Starxxon,

It’s not criticism for the sake of criticism - it’s criticism of a system and software that fall short of consumer expectations, and deliver underwhelming and/or low-value game experiences. Since its release, the DS’s lineup of software has been way less than it should be - less than that of most Nintendo systems, at that - and a lot of the “games” that are coming out are barely games. They’re $30-$40 demos, experiments, but not fully realized concepts or experiences.

The focus on Electroplankton specifically is meant to say, “here’s an interesting set of demos that could point the way to some cool interactive experiences (on the iPod) if properly developed.” This isn’t meant to be an advertisement for the DS or an opportunity to laud Nintendo for a job well done. To read the first two paragraphs and give up (as struddle claims to have done) suggests an expectation of what “should” be said in an article, which strikes me as a not-so-great way of reading and understanding information. It also explains why the statistics from the Joystiq article were incorrectly presented - because they were read hastily and incorrectly for what the reader wanted them to say, not what they actually said.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on June 6, 2005 at 6:19 AM (PDT)

8

Jeremy,

I think a lot of the problem you have with the DS is that you want it to be something that it’s not. I personally have enjoyed the system a ton more even than my GBA (which I loved) because I find the 15-20 minute play sessions much more conducive to a portable. If I want a longer quest, a GBA cartridge works great in the system. For pure fun, though, I’ve never had more fun than Yoshi. There were a ton of games at E3 that similarly worked beautifully.

It’s a bit ridiculous to say that nobody has made good use of the wireless capabilities. Let’s try a few: 1) single-cart multiplayer. Pictochat and the other multiplayer games on the system have really been great for people to screw around on a DS in airports, my school’s library, etc. People have faked this capability on PSP for limited use, showing that it’s in demand. 2) Online password trading in Polarium. Create a puzzle, the game outputs a password, post it online or trade it with your friends. 3) Demos. Send a demo version of the game to a friend through the local wireless capabilities.

If you’re just criticizing the system’s wireless capabilities for not having online, you should specify that. I’m sorry if you don’t have any friends who have a DS, but so far it’s been great for those of us that do. The full blown communication is coming later with some great games, not just sports titles.

It’s interesting that you say the PSP has captured a lot of mindshare. That’s not really evidenced in sales. (According to NPD and Media Create numbers, DS leads PSP by 3 million units worldwide. Even with the DS’s headstart in the U.S., that’s a big total.) Don’t mistake the hardcore gaming community (that is, those who post online) as representative of the consumer base. With games like Electroplankton, Nintendogs, and Animal Crossing, Nintendo’s going for a much broader, less technologically concerned crowd.

Just like Apple.

Posted by seandizzle on June 6, 2005 at 8:29 AM (PDT)

9

Sorry, one last thing. Nintendo never said this system would revolutionize games. They set themselves up for that with their new console. They just said this would offer fresher and more intuitive ways to play. That’s been accomplished so far. Drawing clouds/paths (Yoshi, Pac Pix, Kirby) on screen to manipulate a character’s path? Wow. Playing puzzle games (Meteos, Polarium) without having to scroll and use a button? Much easier. Adding a map and touch-screen menus (many games) so that you don’t have to continually pause (Mario, Madden, Animal Crossing, Nintendogs, and a host of others)? Now that’s making games more intuitive.

Again, just like Apple and its goals to focus on user interface.

Posted by seandizzle on June 6, 2005 at 8:37 AM (PDT)

10

Sorry if I was a little rude in my first post, Jeremy, and of my criticism of your article without reading it in it’s entirety.

I think Seandizzle has hit the nail on the head with his reply and agree with him.

I own a DS and a PSP and personally there are a lot more games that I’m looking forward to on the DS. Mainly this is because the PSP’s titles are the same things we’re seeing on PS2 and Xbox at the minute, they offer no innovation what so ever and require many hours of gameplay to get into. Even Lumines requires me to play for two hours to get a high score which isn’t really what I want from a pick-up-and-play portble system.

I know you’re article wasn’t about the PSP over the DS, my point about sales was to point out that what you consider a novelty system is being bought by a hell of a lot of people. It’s not so much a novelty in my opinion, as the market leading handheld system.

Also criticising the lack of use of the DS’s wireless/online capabilities is unfair. A lot of games had been released with local wireless multiplayer, with *one* game card (how many PSP games have this functionality?). Nintendo is currently working on *free* access to online multiplayer network, something which none of the current generation of consoles have achieved.

Just to add, Wario Ware: Touched is one of my favourite games of the last year, and is perfect for the DS. There is, in my opinion, no software for the PSP that comes close to this and its accessibility.

Jeremy, your iPod articles are always interesting and a great read, but I find your views on the DS bewildering.

Posted by struddie on June 6, 2005 at 8:59 AM (PDT)

11

Seandizzle - I would spend considerably more time on an answer to you specifically, but I have to note the facts that (a) you’ve attended E3, (b) are referring to Pictochat as “really great,” (c) are talking glowingly about games that haven’t been released in the United States (Meteos, Kirby, Nintendogs, etc), or sold poorly (Polarium), and (d) discussing trading of DS demos all strongly suggest that you have some agenda outside of impartial discussion of the DS. If you’re an insider, enjoying Pictochat that much, have a bunch of friends with DSes, play Japanese software and have been swapping game demos, there is absolutely no way I’ll be convincing you of anything. You’re either a viral marketer, a hard-core Nintendo fan who works at EB, or something similar. There are valid and deeper responses to each of those points, but I’m not spending my time on them tonight.

Struddie: For background - I was an early adopter of the GB, GBA, and GBASP, each of which I thought was great. I’ve owned every Nintendo home console released, and imported every one save the original Famicom from Japan before its US release date (except the Virtual Boy, which I still own, with a collection of virtually every game made in the US and Japan). My first imported game was Super Mario Bros 3, which I had around a year before it came out in the United States. So I’m not unfamiliar with Nintendo products, including good Nintendo products, and bad ones. I was present at the launch of GameCube in Japan in September 2001. You can call me a sort of hard-core fan, or whatever you want.

That said, my views on the DS are simple - the games have generally disappointed me, I find the machine (like the PSP) to be large in a way that I don’t enjoy carrying around, and I think the new hardware features - specifically the double screens and stylus control - are gimmicky and not especially useful. I also think that the system’s awkward controls have turned off at least as many people as they’ve attracted, and most likely lots more. I know there are some people who disagree, but there are many more who agree. My favorite post on this topic - by a person I don’t even know personally - can be seen at the end of this page (http://www.video-fenky.com/archives/2005_03.html).

Re: Wario Ware: Touched, I have it. IMO (and in the opinion of multiple reviewers FWIW), it’s not as good as either of the other two portable Wario Ware games that have been released. The first Wario Ware was pure genius. I don’t see a need to buy a DS to play this one - Twisted is a smarter buy.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on June 6, 2005 at 6:45 PM (PDT)

12

Jeremy,

You may be right in criticizing me as being overzealous about the DS, but believe me I’ve been more than impressed in my short time with it. In fact, I didn’t get the system until late February (after adopting the GBC, GBA, GBA SP, and Cube on launch dates) because I was unsure about how the system would fare. I haven’t looked back since getting it.

(a) you’ve attended E3: sorry fail to see the point here. only one I don’t understand. I attended the show to cover all the companies as media…

(b) are referring to Pictochat as “really great,?: fair enough. It’s limited but fun when you get to use it. I’m hoping for an online version because I would really love laying in bed and chatting with friends.

(c) are talking glowingly about games that haven’t been released in the United States (Meteos, Kirby, Nintendogs, etc), or sold poorly (Polarium): tried them all at E3 and have read enough to like the ideas being thrown around. What does it matter that Polarium sold poorly? Check the sales figures on PSP games for a second, particularly in Japan (not a single game currently in the Top 20, three in the Top 50) which you cited for figures earlier.

(d) discussing trading of DS demos: What’s wrong with that? I’m not the only one who likes the ability to grab a demo of a game wirelessly. It worked great with Meteos at E3 (just put my system to sleep and played it for a couple days), and it’s been nice for friends to try Polarium. Single-cart multiplayer is great too if someone doesn’t have a game. Wouldn’t you support that feature?

all strongly suggest that you have some agenda outside of impartial discussion of the DS: I guess. You didn’t really discuss any of the points, so it’s a bit unfair to come to that conclusion. At least struddie has had a similar experience.

Posted by seandizzle on June 6, 2005 at 10:55 PM (PDT)

13

While I don’t really want to turn this into a pissing contest, perhaps I should fill you in on my background. I have owned every Nintendo console that’s been released in the UK (in which I live). The DS was the first console I imported. I currently own every current generation console (including the Dreamcast!) and the DS is the only one I find offering anything and *new*.

For me the best feature for the DS is the touch screen. I own a PDA and have played Bejewelled on it far more than I’ve played all my Xbox games in total. I would say the touch screen is suited to some games more than others and Mario 64 DS takes some getting used to with its control system. But with the touch screen games like Polarium and Zoo Keeper would not work very well.

I agree to some degree that the dual screen is a little gimicky, but some games use it well, and not all these games are first-party titles.

A lot of games don’t make very good use of having 2 screens. But having 2 screens isn’t suited to all games and if developers can’t make any use of them should they be criticised? Games that haven’t used them seem to be generic cross-platform licenses, and “regular” games (I don’t own any of these games and not what I’m agruing for!)

I think Seandizzle can argue the DS corner a little better than I can, and he’s making some great points. I just want to say that I’m enjoying my DS and looking forward to some great looking titles. Of course there will be a lot of mediocre games that don’t make any use of the DS’s functionality but that’s not really a fault of the DS’s functionality…

Posted by struddie on June 7, 2005 at 3:17 AM (PDT)

14

Sean: My point was that if you’re gaming media, a die-hard Nintendo fan who attends E3 and/or imports Japanese games, or otherwise an industry insider, I’m not looking to debate this with you. I know your viewpoint, and will agree to disagree. Obviously you love the wireless stuff, stylus, and dual screens. As I’ve said, I don’t, and stand by/clarify my statement that they’ve not been used especially well in titles currently shipping in the United States. When the next wave of games is out six months from now, maybe this will be worth rehashing, but I don’t see today’s DS lineup as compelling for American consumers.

The reason it matters that Polarium sold poorly is that of the millions of people you guys are quoting as DSers, around 10,000-15,000 people have that game, which is a drop in the bucket. I could get deeper into this issue as well, but suffice to say the masses aren’t actively trading passwords (is this really a wireless feature?) for a game that tanked. However, yes, single-cart multiplayer is a nice feature. Nintendo could have done (and to a limited extent did) this with every GB since the first one using a connecting wire. It wasn’t done widely because of the company’s desire to sell multiple cartridges, and its success at doing so; the DS needs this more than the GBs did.

Struddie: If you’re a person who played Bejewelled more than all of your Xbox games in total, the DS is probably a better fit for you than the PSP. And my answer to your question about “should they be criticised” isn’t about the third-party developers so much as Nintendo. Nintendo claimed that DS was a ‘developer’s system,’ but yet developers don’t seem to know what to do with these features, and lots of good developers aren’t bothering to even make DS games. The list of games that haven’t used the two screens well reads pretty much like the current list of titles for the system. There are maybe three exceptions. And while I know some people are going to be satisfied with Castlevania’s token use of the screens and touch stuff, for example, I just see these things as gimmicks hastily appended to GBA titles.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on June 7, 2005 at 8:28 AM (PDT)

15

Now I understand you a lot better, Jeremy. That’s fine so long as you realize that I’m not even trying to compare it to any other systems to claim its superiority. I’m merely saying it’s done a great job entertaining me so far, better than even Nintendo’s best selling portables.

The thing about Polarium (it has sold 100k in Japan, but you’re right it didn’t sell well here) is that the passwords are open to anybody. You may or may not be aware of the Animal Crossing community that sprung up with the GameCube release, but strangers were trading items using passwords. The message boards on IGN were the most used game-dedicated board for over a year. Now, if you do a simple Google search for “polarium custom puzzles,” you’ll come up with some threads (Nintendo’s is 64 pages long). Even if the game didn’t take off, I sure would be happy if more puzzle game developers implemented this technology. It certainly helps with the game’s replay value.

By the way, single-cart technology came with the GBA, if I recall correctly, not before. The other systems didn’t have the RAM to hold the files. In any case, I think the reason we’re seeing it more now is not because of any desperation to push the DS but rather because it’s finally wireless.

It’s definitely, however, fair to criticize the system so long as you are willing to reevaluate it down the line. Having tried the games (and many hands-on reports will corroborate this point of view), the DS was probably the most impressive lineup of any system at the show.

Finally, keep in mind that Nintendo is pushing this system as a blank canvas for developers rather than one where the features are forced upon them. If a game’s good, does it really matter if the touch screen is only used for a map, health meters, and touch-screen selection? Have you tried the first-person, mouse-and-keyboard style shooters (Metroid demo for example)? It’s no coincidence that so far Japanese game developers, such as Capcom, Sega, Namco, and Knoami, have been far more excited about the system than American developers. There are different gaming philosophies, and I hope that consumers just pick the one that suits them best rather than bashing the other syste (goes both ways).

Thanks for the discussion, Jeremy.

Posted by seandizzle on June 7, 2005 at 3:37 PM (PDT)

16

I’d personally take any other Nintendo portable, including the original Game Boy with Tetris, the Castlevanias, Contras, etc., instead. At least in the right sunlight.

Re: those Japanese developers, apart from Sega’s unreleased Sonic title, I haven’t yet seen the type of support that I consider meaningful. Namco’s titles are a lot off-kilter (Dig Dug DS? What a missed opportunity. Pac-and-Roll is the only promising one.), and while I’m interested in Castlevania for the DS, it looks largely like a GBA title.

FWIW, my recollection was that F-1 Race for the original Game Boy was just one of the games that let people play without multiple cartridges. But it’s been a while.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on June 12, 2005 at 4:15 PM (PDT)

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