That Dual Screen Nintendo Console

    It is quite cliché to see nostalgia bait surrounding the Nintendo DS, and it's been a pretty common gripe of mine for quite a while at this point. Despite this, I am quite guilty of feeling this type of nostalgia myself. It makes sense considering the DS was my gateway drug into video games, with Sonic Rush being the first game I ever remember playing. Personal attachment aside, I do think the DS is worthy of admiration and interest for anyone interested in game design, as the confines and idiosyncrasies of its hardware make for one of the most unique game consoles to have ever existed.

    I figured I might have some fun dissecting some of the features that make the console so unique, and perhaps reminisce about "how much better games used to be" during that era.

Features of the DS

    Perhaps the most obvious place to start with the console is its physical layout. As far as controllers go, the DS is quite standard in its button layout, having 4 face buttons (A, B, X, and Y), two bumpers (L and R), and a start and select button. For directional input, there was also a D-pad. This setup is pretty standard as far as Nintendo's controller layouts go, with the format being an updated version of the predecessor console, the GameBoy Advance's button layout. The notable difference is the addition of the X and Y buttons, which allowed for a bit more depth of control. Looking back at it, however, I can't recall many games that made great use of the X or Y buttons. They would often be used for utility functions, such as in the Pokémon games. Otherwise, the 4 button layout would retain the 2 button structure of Nintendo's previous handhelds, just with each function bound to two buttons instead of one. For example, in New Super Mario Bros. the A and B buttons can both be used as a jump button, and the X and Y buttons can both act as a run button. It is mildly unfortunate that creative uses of the additional buttons weren't as commonplace, but there was a much more interesting method of input that allowed for much more depth.

    I am obviously talking about the microphone. I highly doubt most people were really aware that the DS had a microphone, and the same could probably be said for the people making the games. The only real use I know is that Pokémon would allow you to record a custom cry for Chatot through the microphone. Even then, this is more of an easter egg than a proper feature. I don't really see how the microphone could have been used in a more interesting way.

    Now that I've made a joke about the microphone, I can talk about the actual interesting input method: the touch screen and stylus. The touch screen is the main feature that makes the DS such a unique system. Beyond its successor systems and the world of mobile gaming, touch screens are a real rarity. This feature was so novel that a very large number of games were designed exclusively around the use of the touch screen. Kirby Mass Attack has the player controlling a horde of Kirbys by tapping, flicking and dragging the stylus across the screen. WarioWare: Touched! contains various micro-games all based around gimmicks involving the touch screen. Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs had the player draw special glyphs using the stylus in order to summon legendary Pokémon. Even games that were controlled mainly by the buttons and D-pad would usually make some use of the touch screen. New Super Mario Bros. allows the player to use stored items by tapping them on the touch screen. The mainline Pokémon games allow the player to navigate the battle menu through the touchscreen. I wouldn't imagine there being a more intuitive system in place for these games.

    The system's double screen setup has utility beyond just the touch screen. Often times, one screen would be used to display real-time gameplay information while the other screen could display mostly UI and menus. A game that really took full advantage of this was Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, wherein the top screen was always used to show Bowser and the bottom screen was always used to Mario and/or Luigi. Since the game's whole gimmick was having to switch between the two sets of characters, dedicating each screen to one perspective of the story is a very neat implementation. I suppose it could be seen as wasteful and boring to have one screen dedicated entirely to stats and whatnot, but your attention will likely only be on one screen at a time regardless, even in games that require attention on both screens.

    Through these unique features, the DS is one of the most distinct game consoles in both the way it looks and the way it plays. Essentially every game on the system makes some kind of creative use of these. In order to properly appreciate the console's overall performance, it would surely help to fully analyze the way that the touch screen and buttons are used in a few games, but I will leave that endeavor for another time.

    Of additional note is the online capabilities of the system. While multiplayer wasn't a new development for Nintendo's handhelds, the DS was the first to allow for wireless online multiplayer. Through the Nintendo WFC (Wi-Fi Connection) system, players could connect systems through wi-fi instead of a link cable as the GameBoy systems required. The Nintendo WFC could allow up to four players to play together simultaneously, and many games implemented specific wireless multiplayer gamemodes, such as the minigames in New Super Mario Bros. or wi-fi races in Mario Kart DS. One of the most iconic pieces of software on the DS could only exist through Nintendo WFC and the touch screen, that being PictoChat. The software would allow devices to join online rooms and send messages to anyone else in the room. The hand-drawn messages seen in PictoChat rooms are a core memory for many DS nostalgists.

    I feel it is also worth bringing up the DS Download Play function for anyone who is unaware of its existence. Through Nintendo WFC, in order to connect to another player's game, you didn't even need another cartridge. DS Download Play would allow players to essentially download a condensed version of the game and play wirelessly with a player who did have the game. What this means is that four players could play the same game on different DS systems while only needing one cartridge. The Download Play was of greatest use for games like Mario Kart DS or Mario Party DS, which require multiple players to get the fullest experience.


    Lord help me, but I am going to be talking from nostalgia for a lot of this section instead of from my brain, so do forgive me if I say just straight up wrong opinions here. The DS' catalog of games was a truly unique bunch, and I think the DS owes much of its greatness just as much to its catalog as its hardware. Due to the hardware factors listed above, as well as the low storage of the cartridges used to hold game data, there was a much simpler approach to game design than what we see today. Many games from the past decade and a half or so have really started to go for a more maximalist approach to their design, and I think the blame for that can go either to Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto V. Higher storage spaces, longer development periods, and a more streamlined process of game development have all certainly contributed to this newer trend of maximalist AAA games.

    It is undeniable that some of these newer trends in game development are quite good, with a streamlined development process making it easier for indie devs to come into play and high storage spaces allowing for a greater level of freedom from the devs to make whatever game they want. However, limitations often provoke innovative works, and I find this to be the case in a lot of respects towards video games. Some of the most interesting music for games has been made with only 4 instrument tracks, some of the best looking artwork in video games comes from beautifully designed pixel art, and some of my favorite games have gameplay loops that can be explained in under a minute. So if there is any big takeaway here, it's something to do with simplicity.


    I was originally going to include a section about the successor handheld systems Nintendo has released, but I realized that would mostly just be bloat. There isn't much need to talk about the 2DS XL or whatever when this article is entirely about the DS. This article is already incoherent and pointless enough. That being said, I could write an article in the future about the 3DS and its lineage. Perchance.

    I thank you for reading my ramblings about the DS. I realize the site has been inactive for a good while, but I'd like to start using it more often whenever I have a good idea for an article. The subject matter should be the same as always, but I'd like to take a more genuine approach to my writing instead of being overly cynical or tongue-and-cheek like in the older articles. Hopefully anyone who keeps up with Big Bohos will enjoy what is to come.

- morsh