DSi – Considering the Possibilities

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So, DSi launches in April for $170. A few of us started to talk about DSi-specific games in the other post. Seeing as how there’s so much ground to cover when discussing the new DS model, I figured I’d throw together a post that could get us (and hopefully developers) thinking about some of the possibilities the platform provides.


Let’s cover the improvements before we get to the more interesting stuff.


The DSi supposedly has extra RAM as opposed to the measly 4MB in the Lite. It apparently also has a more powerful main ARM processor than the old DS, but no one is quite certain yet of its actual clockspeed. The upgraded hardware could be used used to power the DSi’s built-in cameras.


Now, the homebrew scene is going to exploit this to the fullest. Applications that initially required a Slot-2 GBA ram expansion cart will probably be able to make use of the inbuilt RAM for single-cart play. This means those of us who want to play something akin to homebrewed Quake 2 on the DS without the need for two separate carts will probably have something to look forward to.


But the most good in this regard could come from actual developers. While it’s probably going to be a little longer before we see DSi-specific games, it would be nice if developers could use the improved hardware to make games look a little better overall. I’m not technically sound enough to comment on what improvements in particular would be possible; but hey, there’s more RAM in there and both screens are  bigger. Maybe ingame voice-chat is now possible instead of restricting us to lobby chat like in Metroid Prime: Hunters?


Next up is the inbuilt flash memory, which is 256MB. Not a whole lot, but not shabby when you consider the Wii only contains 512MB of internal memory. The system also supports SD cards, which can be used to stream data and music. This means two things are now possible:


1. Upgradeable firmware.


2. Downloadable content for games.


It’s funny how obsessed I’ve become lately with downloadable content. I wasn’t really too keen on it before, but playing Burnout Paradise has made a complete believer in the concept. Of course, the key here is pricing and value for money. While I don’t want to see DSi games follow in the footsteps of Tomb Raider Underworld or Blue Dragon, the possibility of downloadable songs in more music games is a very welcome one.


But that’s not what I’m really hoping for. No, what I’m really, really hoping for – and I know a lot of people are going to be with me on this – is an online RPG with timely quest and item updates. With a little bit of effort and the right pricing, a feature along those lines could help create the equivalent of World of WarCraft on the DS. It’s a little too late for Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time and Phantasy Star 0; but hey, SEGA and Square both love money (especially Square) so new games in those series (or others) aren’t out of the question. I’m almost hoping this is exactly what Sakurai’s new game is, but such hopes are for the naive and gullible. This feature would also abolish the concept of “unlocking” content that’s already on the damn cart – something none of us particularly like.


Coming back to racing games for a second, the 256MB of internal memory would also allow for custom soundtracks in games like Trackmania or GRID, both of which I play obsessively on DS. It also annoys me to no end that you can’t share the tracks you create in Trackmania DS with other people unless it’s over local bluetooth because Firebrand’s track editor is one hell of an impressive feat, and I’ve been enjoying playing around with it a lot. Being able to export to internal memory or SD card as a file would make it possible to share custom tracks in future games via e-mail without the need for developers that are low on time and budget to implement Wi-Fi functionality in their games. Not everyone can pull a Bangai-O Spirits.


All this memory and the lack of a GBA slot has also led to a lot of speculation regarding a Virtual Console for Game Boy Advance or older games, especially since a DSiWare service already exists. Keep in mind though; there is no Slot-2 this time around, so GBA games might need to be re-tooled since it isn’t possible to simply emulate them using the Slot-1 hardware. It certainly would be neat to see Nintendo go this route, but I can’t imagine it being very high on their priority list at the moment.


And then there’s DS-to-Wii connectivity, which hasn’t really found its legs. This could be pushed very hard through firmware updates. The one cool feature I can think of in this regard is being able to use your DSi as a microphone/headset in place of WiiSpeak. Not everyone wants their entire family listening in on their conversations with their online playmates, and this would make for a fun, effective way to arrange for a little privacy. It could also be possible to use the DSi as a standard controller for more games if Nintendo made a few adjustments, but I highly doubt they’d do anything to jeopardize the sales of GCN and Classic controllers.


Oh, and please, for God’s sake Nintendo, pay the royalties for MP3 playback and make it official. Do we really need to rely on homebrew for such basic functionality?


Next up are the cameras. The first thing I could think of in this regard is being able to take a picture of yourself and use it as part of a Nintendo Wi-Fi profile. DSi supports a wider variety of wireless connections as well, so it would be nice to see some sort of profile system that makes for a better online experience. As far as games are concerned, all I have at the moment is some sort of Girls Mode game that lets you “virtually” try on make-up using the cameras’ face-tracking abilities. Sega pulled this off with Project Beauty, a DS game bundled with a camera. Yeah, I know…that’s not exactly what you were hoping for, but it’s probably what they’re going to come up with first and foremost. Personally, I can’t wait to draw whiskers on someone in realtime.


Another cool feature could be ingame weather changes triggered by changes in real-world lighting detected by the camera. And my last idea for a game is a platformer that relies on data for levels that it picks up from the camera about your environment in realtime. Of course, both these features would suck the system’s battery dry in no time at all.


That’s all I’ve got so far. DSi presents some great opportunities for pushing the envelope in the handheld space, and I really, really hope developers warm up to it, especially in Japan because handhelds are what is keeping the Japanese game market alive at this point. I’m probably going to hold off on buying one myself until I see devs pushing it harder than the DS Lite, but I do hope they won’t make me wait long.

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Ishaan Sahdev
Ishaan specializes in game design/sales analysis. He's the former managing editor of Siliconera and wrote the book "The Legend of Zelda - A Complete Development History". He also used to moonlight as a professional manga editor. These days, his day job has nothing to do with games, but the two inform each other nonetheless.