Nippon Line 3/11

3 Nov 2008  by   Paul Younger
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Welcome to a special edition of the Nippon Line, where I tell you all you need to know about the weekend’s Japanese DSi launch and the system itself.

Queue time

There were roughly 400 people queuing outside Bic Camera in central Tokyo on Saturday, and all for one fairly obvious reason: to buy the new Nintendo DSi. I managed to get a DSi for myself quite easily by turning up at the store in the early morning, at which time the queue was nowhere near as long as it ended up being. In other words, there were plenty of cheeky latecomers who sauntered in just before kick-off and still managed to nab their DSi consoles, thereby making the really early birds feel a bit sick (and the tiredness didn’t help either).

Anyway, DSi supplies across Japan were surprisingly plentiful. Even the smallest provincial game shops I know of had an average of about 40 units per outlet, while the major inner city retailers such as Bic Camera, Sofmap and Tsutaya had at least several hundred consoles per store.

I got the impression from the shops I visited later on Saturday afternoon that by then all of the initial supply had been bought up, and none of the retailers I spoke to could confirm when the next deliveries would arrive. So I suppose it’s just as well that I didn’t lie in on Saturday morning…

As for who was queuing and what those queuing did to kill time before the stores opened, I was mildly surprised (but not exactly shocked) to see a significant percentage of would-be DSi buyers playing games on their DS Lites. You might think it defies logic that DS Lite owners would be among the early adopters of what essentially is just a modified DS Lite, but you should never underestimate the appeal of New Stuff just for newness’ sake – especially here in Japan, where people change their phones as often as they change their underwear.

DSi hardware impressions

The DSi feels like a higher-grade product than the DS Lite – it’s marginally slimmer, has better shoulder buttons and slightly bigger screens, and the plastic has a nice matt finish – but the new features are at the moment about as gimmicky as the original DS hardware’s Pictochat. (Incidentally, Pictochat is included with the DSi so its legacy continues…)

The camera feature enables you to take photos with either of the system’s cameras (there’s one inside the clam and another on the outside) and mess with the results in all sorts of ways. You can get a kaleidoscope effect on the lenses, splice and invert images, or plant a pricelessly comedic Mario hat-nose-moustache overlay on your own visage. To make you look just like Mario. Brilliant! Ha ha… oh.

I’ll admit to having had about 20 minutes’ worth of playing with the DSi’s camera function, but the novelty value soon plummets. After the photo-antics, the next thing up for consideration is the DSi’s audio playback feature.

It’s great that you can stick an SDcard into a designated slot on the right-hand side of the DSi. This means you can use the DSi to play AAC files up to a bitrate of 320kbps, and the sound quality through decent headphones is thoroughly excellent. Gimmicky features available during audio playback include options for pitch shifting (which is good fun if you’ve always wanted to hear Tom Waits sing in a falsetto), echo, vintage radio effects and NES-style 8-bit texturing.

Rather excellently, the Nintendo DSi Browser is available to owners of the new machine as a free download from the DSi Shop. And, inevitably, the new hardware’s bigger screens make for considerably smoother browsing experiences.

The DSi’s bigger screens also make touchscreen-dependent DS games easier to play, as well as increasing the visibility of what’s being presented. The DSi displays appear very slightly brighter than those of the DS Lite, too, which is again good news.

The only slightly depressing game news for early adopters of the DSi is that there are at present no DSi-specific titles available. Still, even though Nintendo didn’t launch the new hardware with any games that particularly make use of it, sales of the DSi are likely to indicate that there was no need for such attractions. People are willing to wait – and they’ll have to.
DSi – where next?

There’s no doubting the potential for unique gaming possibilities on the DSi, what with the two built-in cameras and all, but it’s primarily Nintendo’s responsibility now to show everyone how the hardware’s features can be applied to create innovative software.

It may be that Nintendo is planning to support the DSi exclusively with games for download via the DSiWare service, which will be open for virtual business at the beginning of December, rather than support it with physical game cards sold in bricks-and-mortar stores. At least to begin with, that approach would appear to make sense, as there are 20-million-plus DS Lite owners in Japan – most of whom would probably like to see more standard DS games before being forced to upgrade for games that can only be played on the DSi.

We’ll have to wait until next month to see exactly what Nintendo has in store for its DSiWare system, but already confirmed are various WarioWare-related mini-games and arthouse titles (similar to the GBA’s Bit Generations range) at 500 yen a shot. Plus, as a freebie, Nintendo will have a game/tool called Ugoku Memo available for DSi users in December. Ugoku Memo (literally, Move Memo) will be a notepad/scheduler type of thing that uses the camera, touchscreen and mic in conjunction. You can check out the very first screen shot of Ugoku Memo right here.

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