Aged viewers will recall this reporter's once-burning love for the Nintendo DS. But it wasn't just the appearance on the scene of the younger, slimmer, all-touching-all-the-time iThings that caused the flame to die.
This week, with the Western launch of the 3DS just a few days away, I went back to the old stager for one last hurrah, to see what I'd missed in what's now almost two years of iOS-focused gaming and also to see how it felt to use a so-called "real" handheld console again. I found out some things, and have written them down here because I'm old and I forget stuff.
1. Since 2009 the DS has been the sole property of pre-teen girls.
To catch up, I headed over to the invaluable information repository that is Advanscene and skimmed through their comprehensive list of releases since the last DS game I remembered spending any significant time with – Space Invaders Extreme 2, which came out two years ago next week.
Incredibly, AS listed just over 2000 releases since then – a whopping 36% of the total number of titles the machine has seen since it appeared in late 2004, which means the rate of game release has actually increased since I wrote the Console Of The Year 2008 piece. But to a quite astonishing extent, the demographic focus of those releases has shifted. In overwhelming proportion, those 2000 releases comprised titles like these:
Florist Shop, Imagine: Babyz Fashion, Nursery Mania, Baby Animal Zoo, Pony Friends 2, Let's Play Ballerina Sparkle On The Stage, Samantha Swift And The Hidden Roses Of Athena, Dream Salon, Petz: Hamsterz Superstarz, Dora The Explorer: Dora Puppy, Petz Pony Beauty Pageant, Smart Girl's Playhouse 2, Barbie: Groom And Glam Pups, My Little Baby, Wedding Planner, Hello Kitty Party, Girls Life Jewellery Style and Horse Life Adventures. Want some more?
Princess Lillifee – My Dearest Friends, Princess Angel, Princess Melody, Figure Princess, Princess Isabella: A Witch's Curse, Princess Bakery, My Horse And Me: Riding For Gold, America's Next Top Model, I Love Horses, Wedding Dash, Peppa Pig Fun And Games, Tinkerbell And The Great Fairy Rescue, Petz Nursery, Diva Ballerina, Best Friends Tonight, My Baby First Steps, Paws And Claws Regal Resort, Element Girls – Style Your Life, Busy Scissors, Dancing On Ice, Nancy Drew Model Mysteries, Fashion Tycoon, Imagine: Boutique Owner and finally what's perhaps the ultimate nadir of videogames, if not humanity itself: Let's Play Flight Attendant.
("Put up your hair, choose your lipstick color and dress yourself in your favourite uniform! You could have the chance to serve a famous person in first class! Will it be a millionaire or a movie star?")
I haven't made any of those up. Quite the aspirational rollcall for tomorrow's young women, isn't it? But lest you fear I'm exaggerating, that's barely the tip of the iceberg. We've listed just two of them, but there are over 30 distinct games in the Imagine series alone, ranging all the way from Cheerleader and Babysitter to Makeup Artist, Salon Stylist and Happy Cooking. Girl power!
For all I know they might all be fantastic games, of course. But it's pretty clear who's supposed to be playing with the DS these days, and it's not us.
2. Real buttons are good. But they're not THAT good.
On loading up Pang: Magical Michael (if you're wondering, it's Pang again), it was hard to escape the memory of the horribly uncontrollable iOS version of Pang. But terrible virtual controls are the exception rather than the rule nowadays, with even fast-action precision platformers like League Of Evil and Ready Action! offering pixel-accurate leaping and shooting, thanks to being designed from the ground up to handle touch controls.
What was more unexpected, though, was playing Trackmania Turbo and finding myself wishing for the analogue delicacy of Pole Position Remix, Real Racing or Final Freeway as I bounced off walls with TT's full-lock-or-straight-ahead-and-nothing-in-between digital steering.
The other thing that struck me was how having a multiplicity of controls encourages developers to use them all, just because they're there, which is rarely a good thing. The way that so many DS games made me jump back and forth between stylus and d-pad and face buttons and shoulder buttons was suddenly bewildering and horrible, and it seemed amazing that people had ever come to tolerate it.
I played 25 games in all, covering every genre from FPS to platforming and racing and cards, and Pang Magical Michael was the only one where I really thought "Man, it's nice to have proper buttons again". The truth of the matter is, it's just not a big deal. You get used to it.
3. DS racing games look like they come from 1993.
Need For Speed Nitro, there. And below: Real Racing 2 (iPod version), released less than a year later and playable on hardware costing just £40 more than a new DSi.
4. Atari are STILL trying to get people to pay £30 for Pong.
Two of the most recent releases I looked at were Atari All-Time Classics Vols 1 and 2. What must be almost 20 years after they first started selling official Atari retro packs for the PC with Asteroids, Battlezone and the like in them, the company is still flogging the same handful of exhausted horses, padded out with dozens of the VCS games nobody cared about.
Each volume of the latest offers just nine ancient coin-ops, the most recent of which (I think) is 1983's Crystal Castles, and with the vast majority horribly unsuited to the DS either by dint of being a vector-graphics game (Black Widow, Major Havoc, Red Baron, Space Duel, Gravitar – the last of which is essentially unplayable because on some planets the resolution isn't sharp enough to be able to see which way your ship is pointing), a portrait-mode one requiring hideous sideways contortions or graphical mangling to get it into landscape (Centipede, Millipede), or just plain rubbish (Super Breakout).
In addition you get 40 or so VCS titles per pack, featuring absolutely none of your favourites (no Space Invaders, no Pac-Man, no Galaxian, no Donkey Kong, no Pole Position, no Frogger, no Pitfall, no Enduro, no River Raid) but lots and lots of absolute garbage like BASIC Programming, Breakout, Super Breakout (again), 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, Math Gran Prix, Casino, Video Checkers and the famously awful Video Olympics. The VCS games have the full original customisation options, but idiotically none of them saves a high score, thereby obliterating any possible point there might have been in playing them.
In fairness, apart from that the actual execution of the compilations is mostly pretty superb, and I'll forgive a lot simply for the fact that there's FINALLY a decent handheld version of Tempest (the previous DS port and the PSP "Atari Evolved" one both having epically horrendous controls). But really, splitting this thin fare into two full-price boxed products in 2011 is pretty weak.
(The carts are only 32MB each – an eighth of the size of the latest Pokemon games – so it's not like there wasn't room to squeeze it all, and maybe even some games less than 30 years old, into one half-decent package.)
5. There's a You Don't Know Jack game for the DS.
There's a You Don't Know Jack game for the DS! It's awesome, as all You Don't Know Jack games are. Why is there no You Don't Know Jack game for iOS yet? Have someone killed immediately.
6. Not having a built-in hardware screenshot function sucks.
You have no idea how many times I got to something I wanted to take a picture of for this piece, reached for the Home and power buttons, then remembered they weren't there. I'm sure the absence of a screenshot function is a significant part of why there was never a dedicated DS games magazine or even a decent website, despite it being the most popular and successful videogames console of all time.
(Coupled with the games industry's insane, inexplicable preciousness with press-release images, its boneheaded reluctance to supply actual in-game images rather than renders from cutscenes, and everyone and his dog's immensely cuntish propensity for slapping watermarks all over stuff they don't own, it'd simply have been far too much trouble to illustrate one.)
7. Goldeneye DS is impressive, but it chugs like a thirsty Australian.
Activision's reboot of one of the greatest first-person shooters of all time commendably takes the moral high ground on DS, by trying to port the Wii game properly rather than making some weak unrelated 2D spinoff as has traditionally been the case. It looks fantastic and captures a lot of the atmosphere of the original (despite the levels being all-new), but the hardware just isn't quite up to the job.
The framerate lumbers along like an old Freescape game on the Speccy (I exaggerate, a bit), which also makes the controls sluggish, and a bit like Perfect Dark on the N64 you're left slightly frustrated at how stupendous a game it could be if only the CPU had a little more oomph to cope with the ambitious things being asked of it.
(Oh, and while we're mentioning the controls – despite all the real buttons it's no easier to play than a well-made iOS shooter like Zombie Infection, and their presence means the developers haven't been able to resist throwing in annoying and superficial touch-screen bits even when you're playing with the all-button option. I honestly wouldn't entirely rule out a fucking blowing-into-the-mic bit later on.)
8. Paying £30 for a handheld game buys you a lot of splash screens.
Man, I really had forgotten that "normal" games were like this. Nintendo boot-up screen! Publisher splash screen! Developer splash screen! Sub-contractor splash screen! IP owner splash screen! Middleware splash screen! Different piece of middleware splash screen! Unskippable intro animation! Title screen! Awesome! Now we've only got 20 minutes of compulsory tutorial to go and we might get a shot at the actual game!
If there's one thing I truly love about iOS gaming it's that the time between thinking "Ooh, I fancy a quick go on Flight Control" and actually drawing your first plane's approach path is about six seconds (I checked).
On the DS you're doing well if you can manage it in five times that, and changing games will double the time again, whereas with iOS it adds an extra 0.1 seconds to press the Home button. People often criticise the iPod Touch and the older iPhones for their battery life, but they forget that they're always on and ready to go, in a way the DS and PSP aren't.
(And of course, all that's leaving aside the fact that if you restrict yourself to legal methods of playing your game collection on your "proper" handheld, you have to go and find the cartridge and plug it in first, assuming that you had the foresight to be carrying a bag around with all 600 of your games in it.)
9. I still love Dragon's Lair.
God help me, I do. The DS version has been a long time coming (it was first announced way back in 2007), but it's brilliant. It's nowhere close to the stunning graphical sharpness of the iOS version and it's roughly 50 times as expensive, but it's nice to discover after all this time that all the screens have names, and better yet is the terrifically minimal front end which launches straight into the coin-op attract mode on loading and after every game.
(Also, if any game deserved to have its screen unobstructed by thumbs, it's surely this one, particularly in the light of how atrociously badly the iThing port's developers positioned the virtual buttons.)
More so than any other version, the DS port's (lack of) interface really makes it feel like you're carrying a tiny arcade machine around in your pocket (only without all the disc-accessing delays), and those of us of a certain age have never really wanted anything more from videogames than that.
10. Puzzle Quest 2 is 32MB on DS and 1.2GB on iPhone.
What's that about, then? How in the name of Sweet Zombie Jesus do you manage to make a match-three game take up over a gigabyte? And also, how come the huge one is £2.99 and the teeny one is £30, eh?
Anyway, I can't remember what my point was. The time of the DS is over now, and we may not see its like again. The comically inflated prices of 3DS games, and Nintendo's legendary incompetence and greed in the online arena, will more than likely conspire to deprive the new machine of the library of fun, accessible titles the DS has accumulated in its six-year life, and it seems destined to battle with Sony's NGP rather than the iThings.
So let's offer a valedictory salute to the DS as it shuffles towards the exit door. I'd love it for eternity if the only game it had ever run was Bangai-O Spirits (almost certainly my single most-played videogame of all time), but it offered so much more. From Advance Wars to Slitherlink, from the greatest Space Invaders reboot ever to the first Castlevania games I found at all interesting, from quirky obscurities like Scotland Yard and Subbuteo to the sheer batshit majesty of Ouendan and Rhythm Heaven and the oldskool uncompromising brutality of Contra 4 and Metal Slug 7.
The DS single-handedly revived my love of videogaming at a time when it was dying from boredom and repetition, and for that it will always hold a special place in my heart. The torch was passed some time ago, but if any device ever earned its retirement it was Nintendo's twin-screened wonder. That it's still producing quality gaming in its last days, even weighed down with a thousand shovelware developers hanging off its arms vomiting drivel onto its shoes, is testament to its mighty stature.
Farewell, the DS. Your power light is flickering now, but we will remember you the way you were, bright of eye and fleet of foot, and not as the tired and weary workhorse of today. Farewell, and thank you.