With over 154 million consoles sold to date, the Nintendo DS is the company’s most successful hardware platform, the world’s best-selling dedicated handheld games console and the second most popular video games system of all time. Not a bad set of achievements for a handheld which, prior to launch, was debated, contested and even ridiculed by gamers and the press alike. Given the ubiquitous nature of the system during its zenith – even your grandparents probably had one – it’s difficult to even fathom how so much doubt could have clouded the launch of the DS – and, to a similar extent, the 100 million-selling Wii – but much of this cautious reception was down to Nintendo’s standing in the industry at the time.
Back at the start of 2004 when the DS was formally announced, Nintendo was in what could charitably be referred to as a tight spot. The Game Boy Advance was selling well enough – despite not offering any genuine innovation over its forerunner the Game Boy Color, outside of improved visuals and sound – while the GameCube was struggling in the face of Sony’s world-conquering PlayStation 2, which would go on to be the best-selling games console ever.
The core concept of the DS, revealed in more detail during E3 2004, appeared to intrigue and amuse in equal measures. The introduction of an additional screen seemed like a gimmick at first, however Nintendo’s message with the DS prior to release had been clear – the company was looking for new ways to connect with players by offering a combination of unique interfaces: a touchscreen, a second display and a microphone. While this barrage of features may have caused some gamers to furrow their brows in puzzlement – especially when set against the sleek and attractive imagery Sony was peddling for its PSP – it’s clear that developers were quicker to realise the potential of the DS, hence the flood of support at launch.
At launch the DS instantly captured the minds of players. Those who had cast doubt over its chances of success were instantly converted the moment they picked up that stylus and interacted with the touch screen. Early titles like Zoo Keeper, Yoshi Touch & Go and Meteos look simplistic by modern standards but were perfect at communicating the nature of the console; it’s worth noting that this was prior to the touchscreen smartphone revolution that would take place after the release of the iPhone.
The DS was the first encounter many people had with touch-based tech, and it left an amazing first impression. If there was one gripe on the console in the early days it was the way it looked; while the PSP was a desirable piece of consumer tech, the DS looked like a plastic toy; its uncharacteristically swift gestation (it was on store shelves less than a year after its official announcement) could well be to blame for its rather awkward appearance. No matter – just over a year later Nintendo would take a leaf out of Apple’s design book and release the redesigned DS Lite, solving this problem and propelling the system to even more sales.
The DS was a genuine game-changer for the industry, perhaps even the most drastic innovation the market had ever seen up until this point. It was also proof positive that Nintendo is a company which should never, ever be underestimated.