Nintendo is a weird company, and they make weird decisions. Cartridges instead of discs for the N64. A motion-controlled non-HD console. Friend Codes. The Virtual Boy. And every time Nintendo announces another weird decision, my first instinct is to scoff, to say they've lost their touch for good this time. But I don't. For one simple reason.
Because that same Nintendo, following their weird instincts, made the DS, which is a) about as weird a collection of design choices as you could cram into a portable console, and b) one of the greatest consoles of all time.
Gimmicks (or, Comparisons Between Two Different Games About Teenagers Trapped in Shibuya for a Week)
The DS, when looked at as a list of features, is a gimmicky mess. A Wi-Fi-connected dual screen clamshell with built-in microphone and touch screen? It sounds like a platform designed to support about five first-party titles that exploit all of its mechanics and a billion pieces of shovelware where you touch the screen to throw a snowball at a monkey (I'm looking at you, Wii).
There is a belief that, when a piece of gaming hardware includes some innovative or strange feature, every game released for that system needs to use it. The big example here is the Wii - the system is a one-trick pony (albeit a pony that's very big, and very multi-faceted, like some sort of giant spider pony). Without motion controls, the only reason to play a game on the Wii is if it's an exclusive - Mario Galaxy would still be great without motion controls, but you wouldn't bother playing Madden on the Wii without them.
The beauty of the DS is that, except for the dual screens, all of its features are ignorable. Relatively few games use the Wi-Fi connectivity (which is good, given how useless the DS is with common security protocols) or the microphone. Most DO use the touch screen, but more often than not as an enhancement to the other controls (which is ALSO good, because the DS touch screen really isn't sensitive enough for fine controls - 5th Cell made Super Scribblenauts 1000% better than Scribblenauts just by letting you control Maxwell without having to use imprecise stylus controls).
What this translates to is an avoidance (for the most part) from weary, obligatory uses of those features. The system has a D-Pad and 8 buttons, so designers don't HAVE to use the touchscreen if they don't want to. And at the same time, it's there when they have a really good idea for it.
Square Enix's The World Ends With You is the best example that comes to mind of the DS features being used right. TWEWY uses everything on offer - combat occurs on both screens at the same time, with the upper screen being controlled with the traditional face buttons and the bottom screen's battle commands using every possible implementation of the stylus AND the microphone. A person playing the game looks like a total spaz, desperately scratching and blowing at their screen while furiously typing commands in on the D-Pad. Players can use Wi-Fi and passive contact with other DS owners to get bonuses. Hell, the game even uses the system's clamshell-closing Sleep Mode to kill a bonus enemy. The game was designed to use every feature of the system to the fullest, and it works on every possible level.
Contrast with Atlus' Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor. SMT:DS (And as much as I love the system, I will NEVER be able to defend the rampant tendency of developers to give their titles for it those particular cutesy initials) is a turn-based strategy game that incorporates traditional JRPG fights into its combat system. It doesn't use the microphone. If it has Wi-Fi, I honestly don't remember it, and the touch-screen is used only for menu commands. The only DS feature the game really uses is its inherent portability - it turns out turn-based strategy games work great on a system you can pick up and put down at a moment's notice. Past that, it's a game that could be on any system - and it's still great, one of the system's best titles. Because it wasn't on every platform... it was on the DS.
Why was that?
The Strength of Limitations (or, In Which a Controversial Argument Is Made Against the Noble Console Port)
The DS is not a powerful system. I'm not tech-minded enough to know all the details, but everything I've read says that it's roughly equivalent to a Playstation One. Its major competitor (in the pre-smartphone game world, anyway) is the Sony PSP, a system that absolutely crushes Nintendo's handheld in terms of graphic.
And that, I think, explains a lot of why I've spent roughly 10 times as much time with my DS than with my poor, neglected PSP.
The PSP , you see, is powerful enough that designers can, with a little work, make reasonably faithful portable versions of home console games. Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, God of War: Chains of Olympus, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. These are all good games that take the console experience and make it portable.
And that's why, on a fundamental level, they're boring. I have a home console, I've played those games already. Being able to play them on the bus doesn't make them anything new or exciting for me. It doesn't push designers to do anything except get existing games and mechanics to work on a smaller screen and a weaker processor.
But the DS can't do that. It's just not feasible to try to force a current-gen game onto the system (the sole exception I can think of being Disgaea, never the most technologically-demanding series in the first place). So even when the DS does get a console port, it's something fundamentally different. Weird strategy games, chibi-fied platformers... They can't just recreate, so they have to innovate. Have to step out of the current juggernaut genre (the first-person shooter) and try something else.
Genre (or, (or, How the DS Woke the Sleeping Princess Called "Adventure Games" With a Kiss, And It Was Totally Hot)
There are genres that have been left behind by the mainstream because they don't fit the image or the requirements a studio wants for their home console releases. Niche ideas whose small audiences don't support the cost of developing for a current-gen console. Adventure games, visual novels, first-person dungeon crawlers... All rare or extinct in the current generation. But they've found new life on the DS, because none of them demand powerful hardware - only good design.
(It doesn't hurt that the DS's mouse-like stylus design makes it great for adapting genres that have typically been most successful on the PC - the adventure genre, relying as it so often does on clicking hotspots and choosing dialogue options, is an especially good fit).
At the same time, relatively low development costs and unique features like the stylus mean that developers could delve into their experimental side. Surgery simulators, mini-game collections premised as historical recreations of fictional NES games, rhythm-based cheerleading games where you play as tiny men encouraging a white blood cell depicted as a hot nurse to eradicate a virus... All games that wouldn't have fit on a home console, but which work perfectly on the DS. Whole genres either created or pulled from the dust-heap and given new life.
A Justifiable Bout of Cranky Nostalgia (or, The Good Old Days Are Called That For a Reason)
I'm a little hesitant to write out this last point, both because it seems highly objective and because it makes me sound like an old fart, but here goes: The Super Nintendo era was a golden age of gaming. It existed at a point where technology was developed enough to make interesting experiments possible, without demanding huge investments of time and money to make a visually competitive title. After this comes the Playstation era, where games begin to bloat, with huge amounts of time and money being put into things like CG movies, where play times ballooned into the 80 or 90 hour ranges. We learned a lot in that era, but we also lost a simplicity, a fun that's vital to keeping a gamer interested in the hobby.
I see the DS as the answer to a question: What if the SNES-era never ended? What if developers were allowed to experiment, because the games they were developing weren't so expensive that an interesting failure would cripple the company? You might get a catalog of quirky platformers, deep RPGs, well-written adventures, brain-bending puzzles... And all of them available on-the-go, and at a lower price point, to boot.
So here's to you, DS. Resurrector of the Golden Age, Last Bastion of the Light. Your 3D cousin may eclipse you in the market, but never in my heart.