Backstage: An aside on portable games of 2004

I just might be the only person in the world who plays the iPod’s built-in Solitaire game, and that’s mainly because it’s the only title that doesn’t destroy battery life or blur a bunch on the screen. As a lifelong gamer, I’m one of those people who hopes against hope that Apple will toss some better video hardware into the iPod, if only so that Tempest 2000 could appear on the machine. Since that’s not happening any time soon, I’ve been watching the only new portable games platform likely to show up by year’s end… Nintendo’s DS (Dual Screen) quasi-sequel to the Game Boy Advance.

I’ve owned Game Boys since the day the first one was released in the United States, and as a collector have kept an almost complete Virtual Boy hardware and game set in my collection for years. That said, having played 90% of the NDS’s demo games at E3, and even having thought that its chances of success were most likely higher than Sony’s with the PSP, I’ve recently come to feel that NDS might be the first Nintendo platform I skip entirely. A US$179.99 retail price has been the consistent buzz over the last couple of months, and I consider that number to be something close to suicide for a portable platform with no killer apps and features (stylus? two screens? bigger size? less battery life?) that consumers haven’t been asking for. Most clued-in industry people I know have been assuming that it would sell for $129.99, and hoping that it sold for $99.99, which incidentally are my “I’ll think about it” and “I’ll buy it at launch” price points.

From my perspective, there are of course reasons to price a portable game system at more than twice the current retail of the Game Boy Advance (and $70 more than the original GB’s launch price): you don’t have enough to meet demand, you want to gouge early adopters, or you’re really, really stupid or forgetful and don’t mind being blamed for another Virtual Boy-style debacle. (Yes, the VB launched at $179.99, had no killer app, and offered a two-screen gaming experience no one knew that they wanted. Purely coincidence, though.) Even at the same price, I doubt that the NDS will be a VB-caliber flop, mostly because the newer device has better third-party support, but what do you guys think? Would you shell out $180 for a DS? Or wait until the price drops? Or skip it altogether?

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