There's a little dead pixel on the top of my DS Lite. It hangs out on the bottom of the screen, green and dull, stamping every game like an eye floater that just won't go away.
In the seven years I've owned a DS Lite — my first and only DS — I've grown quite fond of that dead pixel. It's kept me company as I played through many, many amazing games on what wound up turning into my favourite system of all time. When I think of the DS, I think of that little green square, and I think of the games it's decorated.
But the 3DS has taken over, and although Nintendo says they're still selling their old console, the DS's time has passed. It's no longer part of Nintendo's sales projections, meaning the company doesn't plan on seeing heavy profits from the system anymore. (And profits were heavy: counting all four models, Nintendo has sold a whopping 153.8 million DSes over the years.)
So this feels like a good time to look back at a system that, in many ways, changed how we play video games today. A system that popularised touchscreen gaming and introduced the world to iconic characters like Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright. A system that made Brain Age part of the lexicon, showed us that virtual dogs can be just as adorable as real ones, and garnered something like 1301 games, by Nintendo's count.
It was really quite something.
What the hell is this thing?
"If you're looking for the future of gaming, look at [the DS's] interface," a freshly-appointed Reggie Fils-Aime said back at E3 2004, introducing the world to Nintendo's bizarre handheld.
And it is bizarre. Or at least it was bizarre. Nine years ago, we had no idea what to make of the DS. A system with two screens? How would we know where to look? Would touch controls really be all that accurate? Do we write "DS's" or "DSes"? (If only we knew that this would usher in a new decade of Nintendo consoles that are impossible to pluralize.)
Perpetuating this confusion was the design; with its asymmetrical hinges and strange grey-black-grey colouring, the first DS looked like some sort of alien space cube. Nintendo DS©: Made For Robots, By Robots!™
I never got a chance to feel this incarnation of the DS, but I'm getting anxious just thinking about how gummy that directional pad must have felt. When the finalised hardware was unveiled and released later that year, it didn't look all that much better:
Look at those bulky ridges. Those massive, ugly speaker dots. The hinges in the middle look like some sort of ancient torture device. And does it really need to say "Nintendo DS" on the bottom screen? It's not like we're going to forget.
In early 2006, something funny happened. Nintendo suddenly announced the DS Lite, and it was... perfect.
Now this was a video game system. Clean and beautiful, the DS Lite stood out from its predecessors not just because of its function, but because of its form. It was aesthetically pleasing in a way that no other Nintendo system had ever been, with a glossy finish and smooth, pleasant buttons. When you closed it, the edges would align with a satisfying snap and transform the device into a neat little rectangle.
I bought my DS Lite on June 11, 2006, when it first came out. It had a dead pixel. I didn't mind. It felt like a birthmark. This was my DS.
Ode to the DS
Before there was Wii U, or SmartGlass, or Vita/PS3 cross-play, dual-screen gaming was a tough concept to grasp. And, really, it still is, if you've never tried it before. Two screens at once? Where would your eyes go?
Then, as game-makers started to master the handheld that Nintendo liked to say stood for "Developers' System," we saw what it could do. We could wander around a dungeon on the top screen while charting our progress on the bottom. We could write in numbers to answer maths problems, jot down notes for a tricky Zelda dungeon, plot paths for Kirby using lines and squiggles. Something was different, here. The DS let us play games in ways that its competitors — the PlayStation 2, the Xbox, the PSP — could not.
It was the touchscreen, really, that made all the difference. Touchscreen gaming, while scary at the time, has become so appealing and ubiquitous that it almost seems impossible to believe there was a time before the DS, when major gaming devices didn't use touch controls. But back then, it was scary. It was weird. And it was hard to understand until you actually got your hands on the DS's plastic stylus — a relic reminiscent of the Palm Pilot days — and played some Brain Age or Advance Wars.
But the DS could have never worked if it only had a touchscreen. The touchscreen was supplemental. The DS's most successful games used it in tandem with both the second screen and buttons to create experiences that were interesting and unique. My favourite DS moments were ones that took advantage of that: tapping the screen while frenetically pushing buttons to fight with both party members in The World Ends With You; holding the DS sideways like a book as I used my stylus to navigate the grim Hotel Dusk; drawing maps as I moved through dungeons in Etrian Odyssey.
There's also a microphone. Did you know that there's a microphone? Sometimes you had to yell in it, to talk to your Nintendogs or call out to a woman in Phantom Hourglass. Sometimes you could scream "Objection!" Sometimes it would pick up stray noises when you were outside or on the subway, which was never fun.
The games, though. The games were fun.
An amazing library
I own a lot of DS games. They look like this:
I never liked the cartridges. I always got nervous when handling them, because the chips on the back seemed like Sensitive Devices That Should Not Be Touched.
They're too small, and easy to misplace. I think I've lost at least five or six of those bite-sized buggers over the years, mostly because I have the bad habit of playing a game, swapping in a new one, then leaving the cartridge on my desk or nightstand, where it's easily dropped or eaten.
But they were so good. So good! Platformers, adventure games, RPGs, racers, puzzlers, virtual dog simulators — the DS pretty much had anything you could want from a gaming system.
The DS, unlike the Wii, does not keep track of your gaming stats, but if I had to guess, I would estimate that I've played something like 60 DS games over the years. Oddly enough, Nintendo's biggest system-sellers were some of my least favourite. I thought both Zeldas were mediocre. That 2D Mario game was kind of plain. Metroid Prime Hunters? Not for me.
It was the experimental games that got me. The Mario & Luigi that let you explore the inside of Bowser's stomach. The quirky RPG called Contact that treated you the player as if you were part of the story. The rhythmic Elite Beat Agents, which somehow featured music from both Avril Lavigne and the Rolling Stones without a trace of irony.
There's Phoenix Wright, a series that started on the Game Boy Advance, but was only introduced to North America when Capcom remade it for the DS, wisely predicting that the quirky visual novel would appeal to a worldwide audience on Nintendo's new platform. I devoured those games as they came, cordoning off entire days just to pump through their delicious mysteries. A friend of mine imported the Japanese version of Phoenix Wright 3 because it had an English setting, and he didn't want to have to wait two months for it to come here, so I borrowed it as soon as he was done. I don't think I ever gave it back. Whoops.
I loved Hotel Dusk: Room 215, a noir point-n-click adventure game, because it's a lovely game and because you played it by holding the system sideways and reading it like a book, using your stylus to tap around the right side of the screen while looking at pretty things on the left. I always thought this was very clever, even if it did move my dead pixel to a more prominent, central location.
At one point in Hotel Dusk, you solve a puzzle by closing the DS, then opening it again. You also close the DS when you want it to enter sleep mode and suspend your progress, so it's very possible that, while playing Hotel Dusk, you'd find yourself totally stumped, close the DS for a while, and pick it back up to find that you've solved the puzzle by accident.
The DS really was such a strange and clever system.
I'd be remiss not to talk about Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999), a visual novel that really could only have worked on the DS, thanks to an endgame twist that reveals... well, I won't ruin it for you, but it makes both screens mean something.
I liked the platformers, too. The Castlevanias, the Kirbys, the remakes of old games like Super Mario 64. And the strategy games! Fire Emblems and Advance Warses and a great Final Fantasy Tactics Advance that fixed some of the problems with its GBA predecessor. And I can't forget the quirky, clever Lock's Quest, a game that you probably haven't heard of, but should undoubtedly check out.
As a JRPG fan, I loved the DS for bringing me Radiant Historia, and Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, and The World Ends With You, and four Dragon Quests, and three Etrian Odysseys, and even a watered-down Suikoden game with an unpronounceable name that I enjoyed despite its many deficiencies.
The DS Lite graduated to the DSi, and the DSi became the DSi XL, but I didn't upgrade until the 3DS came out two years ago. It was a smart move: the 3DS is well-positioned to inherit the DS's mantle as the most interesting, versatile dedicated gaming device out there.
But from 2006 to 2011, I played that DS Lite more than anything else. I took it everywhere. During one particularly boring job I would bring it to work and take thirty-minute bathroom breaks just to go play Puzzle Quest. (Not this job, Totilo, I promise.)
Then I got a 3DS. It plays DS games, but it doesn't have any dead pixels.
Today I turned on my DS Lite for the first time in two years. It's dusty. The pixel's still there.