How to Make the DS Better

  • Reading time:6 mins read

by [name redacted]

Originally published by Next Generation.

That the DS is a sensation is both indisputable and deserved. That it has helped to change the industry should by now be reasonably obvious. All the more shame, then, that the system is not really built for success.

The DS was an experiment – a cautious stab in the dark, introduced almost with an apology in Nintendo’s early assurance that it was not replacing the Game Boy. Instead, Nintendo insisted, the DS was meant as a “third rung” in the company’s strategy in addition to its traditional handheld and console systems. Judging by how long it took the industry and its followers to “get” the system and its improved follow-up, the Wii, Nintendo’s caution was probably well-advised.

To Nintendo’s credit, it wasted little time. The moment the system started to prove itself, the company introduced a slicker, more appealing version – outwardly at least, less of a prototype – as it revised and adapted the system’s ideas into Nintendo’s next home system. The laurels are barely even worn, much less sat-upon, and the Game Boy has been given its long-deserved retirement.

The problem is, as pretty as it now looks, the DS is still a half-measure, incompletely realized and insufficiently explained. The system has two screens because of the touchscreen. Input on the bottom; output on the top. So why does the extra screen seem so extraneous? The hardware was made for wi-fi – so why wasn’t the user interface? A portable system is as personal as game consoles get, and the DS is the most interactive ever – so why isn’t it more customizable?

The DS could well be the ideal portable platform; it certainly has all the right ideas. Here’s what Nintendo can do to push it over the wall, and follow through on all the system’s promises.

1) Give the system some internal flash memory. Right now you can store a downloaded demo in RAM until you cut the power. Though nice in its own right, that’s not enough. For points I’ll address in a moment, this extra storage space is crucial.

2) Improve the system interface. Nobody wants to reboot every time he changes the system clock or exits Pictochat. I don’t necessarily even want to shut down the system when I turn off a game. The user should have the option of returning to the home menu at any time – perhaps suspending the game for a moment to fiddle with a system setting, then resuming. The game will react as if the player snapped the lid closed, then open again.

3) Make the system interface expandable, preferably over wi-fi download. Hey, those Wii channels? Good idea. Should have thought of it earlier. I want the option to expand my options – to upgrade features like Pictochat for wi-fi glory. To add new functions, like…

4) A Virtual Console. I keep hearing grunts over the lack of Game Boy games on the Wii Virtual Console. That’s a kind of a strange thing to mope about, as the Game Boy is a portable system; the Wii isn’t. Portable games and home console games are kind of different. Considering that, like the Wii, the DS is only backward-compatible by one generation (another source of minor annoyance), it makes sense to expand the system’s range, transforming it into the handheld of all handhelds. Surely the DS is punchy enough to drive a Game Boy / Game Boy Color emulator. Or a Game Gear one. And hey, this would be the perfect place for SNK to wave all of those amazing Neo Geo Pocket games under a new set of eyes. And what about the Atari Lynx! If Nintendo really wanted to be cute, it could offer new adaptations of its old Game & Watch LCD games (including the dual-screen ones everyone joked about when the DS was announced), for cheap.

5) Integrate wi-fi support, already. Allow people to keep universal friend lists, and support them in future games. Make it easy to manage Internet options from the system menu.

6) Integrate Pictochat more. Make it active in community games like Animal Crossing, and – as with Xbox Live – allow people to see if friends are online. Make it the tool it’s meant to be. It’s already the best IM program on the planet; a shame to waste that on… well, when do people use it? At gaming conventions?

7) Let users toy more with the system menus. The DS has a stylus – let people draw and organize. Doodle avatars for Pictochat. Doodle wallpaper. Doodle borders for windows. Choose which options and applications they want on the main menu, and where (all the more handy, should wi-fi system updates and expansions become commonplace). Build in a “portrait” mode for people who like to hold the system Brain Age-style. (It really is comfier.)

Note: Although IM avatars would be neat, the DS doesn’t need a “Mii” system; portable systems are intimate enough, as they sit inside the player’s personal space. On a portable, all Miis would do is distance the player by adding a layer of abstraction – when in fact the point of this article is that we want to remove that layer. (That Miis are such an amazing idea for a home system should illustrate why Game Boy games would be pointless on the Wii.)

8) Make real, native use of the Game Boy advance slot by offering a system update cartridge that incorporates all of the above features. And maybe also serves as a rumble pak, if there’s room. The advantage over typical “system upgrades”, like the ram expansion for the N64 or the PS2 hard drive, is that this cartridge should have little direct effect on game software; it would simply transform the DS into a more useful and personal tool. Such an update would also weed out the necessity to offer a whole new DS model, further annoying people who felt forced to upgrade to the DS Lite – itself only a cosmetic adjustment.

Judging by current sales and cultural penetration, the DS is going to stick around for a long time. It would be a shame if it lacked the ability to keep up with its own legacy. If Nintendo makes the above adjustments, there will be practically no end to the system’s shelf-life. If not… well, it’ll still be a neat little system. In the face of the Wii’s “new every day” philosophy, though, it’s already feeling like yesterday’s news.