In the video games world, it’s nearly a truism that people will not line up more than once – if at all – for the launch of a new piece of games hardware. Even in Japan, land of video game release lines, crowds famously failed to materialize for the launches of Nintendo’s GameCube and Microsoft’s Xbox. And while lines formed all over the place in America for the Xbox 360 – the only exception to this truism – Japanese game stores were discounting their massively overstocked machines almost immediately.
This should put this month’s two – yes, two – Japanese launches of the Nintendo DS Lite (Y16,800, approx. $141) into some perspective. The first launch of the white, iPod-inspired unit on March 2 provoked huge lines, nation-wide sell-outs, and even an apology from Nintendo’s headquarters, posted online and in Japanese subways. Then a second launch – for two blue-colored versions – took place on the 11th, and the lines were even bigger, tallying hundreds and reported over a thousand people at certain stores. Yes, this might be flock mentality. Or eBay profiteering. Or it might be genuine enthusiasm for a much-improved redesign of its predecessor, the controversial Nintendo DS.
We’re not doing a full review here, but you can click on Read More for additional details and more comparison photos with the new DS Lite.
You may recall Nintendo’s launch of the original DS system in late 2004, one which we skipped thanks to a mediocre slate of launch titles, and the spectre of Sony’s PlayStation Portable (PSP) looming on the horizon. By handheld standards, the DS was chunky, suffered from an outdated industrial design, and emphasized features that didn’t excite us – a stylus or thumb-strap for touch-screen input, and a second (vertical) screen that appeared set to be poorly used in upcoming games.
These feelings were only exacerbated by the PSP’s Japanese release. Many initially described Sony’s design as the sexiest piece of portable entertainment hardware ever designed, equipped with a phenomenal widescreen LCD that only suffered in one way – dead pixels. Nintendo quickly proved willing to replace DS systems with even slight screen issues; Sony shipped PSPs with surprisingly large numbers of dead or problematic pixels, and refused to take them back, even under extended warranty. In the process, a little of the PSP’s luster was tarnished; then, a higher-than-expected ($250) U.S. price then led to an unexpected failure of the machine to sell out on its American launch day. Subsequently, AAA software releases for the system have been few and far between, and many formerly enthusiastic buyers have noted that their PSPs are collecting dust.
Meanwhile, the DS staged a comeback, starting in Japan. Nintendo released the puppy simulator Nintendogs, which enticed female and casual gamers, and followed up with a series of IQ test titles called Brain Training. Other quirky titles, such as Ouendan and Elektroplankton – previously covered on iLounge – have also helped generate both interest and respect for the DS’s unusual features. And a number of sequels to familiar titles, including Castlevania, Mario Kart, Advance Wars and Animal Crossing, have received favorable attention from old and new gamers alike.
Not everything has been rosy for the DS, though. There have been a large number of really disappointing games – ones that look shoddy by comparison with similar PSP titles, or otherwise struck us (and others) as weak. Many titles have made only modest use of the second screen, most frequently using it as a map. And despite the DS’s impressive numbers in Japan, and recently, the U.S., the PSP still dominates media attention, and Sony continues to use inflated “shipment” numbers (“15 million”) to suggest that the PSP has outsold Nintendo’s console. It’s presently unclear as to whether that’s true, but widely suspected to be false. Regardless, Sony will offer the PSP at $199 in the United States starting next week, and could potentially see gains here, depending on whether Nintendo has a counter-announcement to make in the near future.
The DS Lite represents a major cosmetic improvement over the original DS, and a fashion counter-point to the black, bad boy PSP. Even in 2004, Nintendo’s DS design looked dated – a bigger, weirder evolution of its popular Game Boy Advance SP. Launched in an inexpensive painted silver plastic finish, it was updated with additional colors, each of which made the DS look a little better… but not anywhere as good as the DS Lite. It’s obvious that Nintendo knew this; it did everything possible to improve the DS’s shape, given the requirements of its internal components.
The DS Lite is smaller in every dimension than its predecessor, and lighter, too – easier to fit into a pocket, though still not iPod-sized. Yet its screens are the same size as the first DS’s, and its stylus larger; it also does a superior job of protecting its second (Game Boy Advance) cartridge slot, thanks to an included plastic insert. Most appealing is its new finish – gone is the cheap-looking and -feeling metallic paint, replaced with an iPod-like double layered plastic. The first layer is clear, the second white or blue, depending on the model you pick. It’s expected that the U.S. will get a black version in the near future.
Amazingly, Nintendo went even further than just improving the shells, and this is the primary reason the DS Lite is a hint more expensive than the standard DS. There weren’t a lot of complaints about the original DS’s screen quality, but Nintendo has actually sourced new screens that are unbelievably clear and bright – so bright, in fact, that they put the PSP’s display to shame, as well as even the best iPods.
Still images look amazingly vivid and detailed; similarly moving images look clean from even odd angles. The picture below shows the old DS on its normal brightness setting and the new DS on its top setting, for comparison.
This shot shows the DS (top, highest setting), PSP (middle, brightness 3 – highest without AC power), and iPod (standard). The PSP’s screen can do a bit better than what’s shown here when it’s plugged into wall power.
It’s an amazing step forward, and one that spells good things for future handheld devices; if a $150 Nintendo device can afford to use two of these parts, so can more expensive products. And that will hopefully mean that upcoming handhelds will look more like what we see on the right than what we see on the left.
The DS Lite is exciting to me on a personal level – games that were sitting here unplayed are getting their first breaths of air, as I can finally actually carry them around with me. Metroid Prime Pinball, for instance, is now getting some action; you may note that its included Rumble Pak, sized like a GBA cartridge, now juts out of the system’s front bottom rather sitting flush with its surface, but this is OK – a fair compromise in order to shrink the system down for everyday use.
Though it doesn’t need to be said, the DS Lite is no iPod competitor – it lacks music storage capability, is still quite a bit larger, and unlike Sony, Nintendo isn’t trying to position this as a potential alternative to an Apple product. But it’s surely a nice complement to an iPod – a point we’ll discuss further in the near future. Nintendo and Apple should really be working together on these things.
When can you get one? Nintendo hasn’t announced a U.S. release yet for the DS Lite, but it’s widely expected to debut in May, around the time of the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. Pricing here is expected to be in line with Japan’s, and only more aggressive if Sony’s PSP price drop starts to cut into DS sales. All of this, of course, assumes that Nintendo can make enough of them to satisfy demand. The company hasn’t even been able to come close in Japan – could the U.S. possibly be sated simultaneously? We’ll have to see what happens.
Update Mar. 18: Here are a few more pictures – enjoy.