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Sizing up the Nintendo DSi

Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell

April saw the release of Nintendo’s latest and greatest in their line of portable gaming machines. At first glace the biggest difference between the DSi and its handheld gaming predecessor, the DS Lite, seems to be the price tag, but a closer look reveals a host snazzy new features to the system; though can it possibly be improvement enough to justify a $400 NZ price tag?

When the original Nintendo DS morphed into the DS Lite the evolutionary step was so great that the new machine became an essential upgrade. The design was markedly more compact, ergonomic, and altogether more Apple-like, plus it came in several pretty colours. To look at the DS Lite and new DSi side-by-side the same sort of developmental leap does not appear to have taken place; with their clamshell designs snapped shut the two devices are almost identical.

To the average gamer the list of differences between the two systems probably don’t stand out as ‘must have’ improvements for a typical gaming experience. Slightly larger screens are a nice touch, and their brighter, less-glary glow is welcome, but it’s not the sort of thing that’s going to impact too heavily on an Advance Wars firefight or rearing a Nintendog. Similarly the inclusion of two cameras - one inside the device pointing at the user and the other on the flipside pointing outward – is unlikely to get a dedicated Pokémon player too hot and bothered.

The reason these changes aren’t setting off fireworks within the collective consciousness of gamers is because that isn’t who they are aimed at. Nintendo have produced this machine to be more fashion accessory than system upgrade; they’re looking to emulate the success of their home console, the Nintendo Wii, by hooking that juicy non-gamer market. They no longer want the DS to be what gamers use to tide themselves over when away from a television; the DSi is angling for the trendy app crowd, another cell phone, Blackberry, or iPod.

Just how wise that ambition is only time will tell. On the one hand, the strategy has working unbelievably well for the Nintendo Wii (New Zealand is about the only market on earth where the Wii isn’t outselling its competition by leaps and bounds) but the home console market is one thing, the portable industry is a different beast entirely.

Even so, the DSi definitely has the character to attract non-gamer eyes. Its elegant matte finish gives it a rather more solid feel than the glossy DS Lite, and its larger, more vibrant screens are a pleasure to behold.

Upon flipping the system open the first thing a newcomer will instinctively float towards is the camera function. A straight-forward interface and simple, pre-set manipulation options gets users warping photos in no time; adding bunny ears, bushy moustaches, altering colours, deforming faces, and even merging the facial features of two people together. It’s not exactly Photoshop but it is the kind of pick-up-and-enjoy feature that transforms casual interest into fixation.

None of this is to say that the DSi has nothing of value to offer the hardcore gamer however, while it can no longer play outdated GameBoy Advance games the DSi is still compatible with the entire DS game library. Furthermore there will soon be software on the shelves that exploits the unique functions of the DSi, so those unwilling to upgrade from the Lite model may not get the most out of future gaming experiences.

Perhaps most exciting to this gamer’s mind is the DSi’s new Internet functionality. While every model of the Nintendo DS has had some degree of WiFi ability the DSi takes things to the logical next step. Again aping the successes of the Nintendo Wii, the DSi can log on (via a WAP-enabled connection, at last) to its very own online shop where Nintendo Points can be exchanged for applications and games. Early adopters will receive a free 1000 point deposit into their account when first logging on, which is enough to purchase a couple of DSiWare games with a free internet browser to boot.

Of the limited selection available at present I went with two Art Style games, Aquite and Code. If you’ve explored the Wii Store you might already be familiar with the Art Style series; they are small, simple puzzle games designed in a striking graphical style with a modern art bent. Both Aquite, an aquatic twist on Tetris, and Code, a grid-based mathematical puzzler, come highly recommended as addictive little diversions, perfect for the likes of commuting to work.

As it stands the DSi does not instntly jump out as a must for hardcore gamers, although this certainly has the potential to change in the future. As far as being bait to tempt converts into the gaming fold, the DSi definitely makes an attractive case. Its ludicrous price (more expensive than an Xbox 360) will be a big turnoff for most, but those who can pony up the dough will be walking away with high-quality hardware, lets just hope the dizzyingly exciting software is quick to follow.

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