Nintendo DS/Project Nitro
Everything we know. (Or think we know.)
If there's anything we can take away from our experience with working with Nintendo, it's that the company is extremely talented at keeping secrets. Back in January when Nintendo revealed its plans for what the company called the "Nintendo DS," due for release this Fall, we were still privately mulling over exactly what the publisher had in store for the public when the company head, Satoru Iwata, cryptically revealed the company plans for a "unique game product at the end of 2004." And even after the official announcement, we're still trying to figure out what the heck this thing is.
The only real hard detail out of Nintendo was that it had two screens, arranged vertically. Oh, and it will feature two processors: an ARM 7, similar to what's already in the Game Boy Advance; and a much more capable and powerful ARM 9. But this didn't really tell us much, since everything from cellphones to futuristic toasters house an ARM 9, and without knowing which ARM 9 the DS is to use, it's tough to gauge just how powerful the system will be. I mean, when you tell someone how fast your PC is, does it really help them if you simply say "A Pentium IV"? No. It's all about which Pentium IV is in the case...1.4 Ghz? 2.0? 3.4?
Everything else about the DS, outside of cartridge format (up to 128 megabytes) remained shrouded in mystery. It's almost as if that release was Nintendo's way of telling the enthusiast press, "Go on. We dare you to find out more. We double-dog dare you." And we fell for it. We all did.
Nintendo didn't exactly paint a detailed picture. The company definitely (and purposely) left out key elements to keep everyone guessing. After putting the facts down on the line, it's clear that there's something about this machine that once we know the missing pieces, everything about the Nintendo DS will make sense.
This week alone revealed more about the system than Nintendo most likely wanted to let out. First, someone handling Nintendo's internal Wario World development support site let it slip that the Nintendo DS' project name is actually Project Nitro. Not a huge revelation by itself, but it's clear that with this site addition, quickly changed back to Nintendo DS after the public got wind of the posting, meant that we were getting closer to realizing just what the heck this system's all about.
It also brings to light the realization that North American developers are finally getting their hands dirty with the hardware. It's been reported that Japanese game studios, like Sega, Namco, and Capcom (companies that are rather close to Nintendo, in fact) have had development kits on the Nintendo DS since late last year, but development studios in the US and Europe were just as surprised at the announcement in January as the rest of the public...another testament to just how well Nintendo can keep a lid on secrets. When the "temporary" namechange from Nintendo DS to Project Nitro appeared on Wario World last week, developers received an email from Nintendo's development relations regarding system support. The system was getting closer to reality, and the company was getting prepared.
And it's clear that Nintendo still wants to keep quiet on the DS/Project Nitro. Pestering developers who we're normally quite chummy with results in tons of "no comment," "uh, I'd rather not say," and "man, wait until you find out what it is" statements on the other end of the phone. Not even the promise of a year's supply of purple M&Ms could free up a flood of information from those already in the know -- Nintendo has a strong trap on the development community, and nobody that's on the company's side wants to cross the Big N before it has the opportunity to finally lift the shroud on the system at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo.
That's not to say that we don't know stuff about it. On the contrary, with our ears to the community for the past two months we've been able to score a few tidbits of fact about the system beyond what Nintendo has offered.
One unanimous opinion from all sources: the system isn't quite as powerful as the Sony PSP...or at least, the current, announced iteration of the Sony PSP. The hardware abilities puts the system somewhere near the Nintendo 64 in strength, and to prove the 3D abilities to developers it's been reported that Nintendo has created a demo of Mario 64 running on the system, much like the Yoshi Story demo built for the Game Boy Advance.
Sources aren't agreeing on the official number of polygons the DS capable of displaying, but we've heard from 120,000 to as many as 150,000 polys per second (5000 polys per frame in a 30 frames-per-second game, or 2500 polys in 60 frames-per-second). Keep in mind that these are simply specs of what's expected of the system; talented developers can do some amazing things with hardware beyond what they were spec-ed out to do; the GBA, for example, has its fair share of first person shooters and 3D racers that have been written outside of standard hardware abilities. So, while this 150,000 polys number seems low when compared to even what Sony's stated the original PlayStation can do, don't believe for a second that programmers won't be able to squeeze more out of it.
Of course, the fact that the hardware doesn't have to render as many pixels will definitely help the system's 3D prowess; the two LCD screens of the DS will be of lesser resolution than what consoles push, but slightly better than what the GBA can pull off. More importantly, we've been told by nearly every development source that at least one of these screens will be touch sensitive, giving a Palm OS-style control on top of the standard set of buttons and D-pad input.
The system will seemingly focus on 2D as well as 3D, utilizing the ARM 7 processor for this function. Most likely it will be used for the input interfaces on the touch sensitive screen, but it's also been said that the inclusion of the ARM 7 pretty much guarantees that the system will be entirely Game Boy Advance compatible. Sticking with a cartridge format for the system nearly seals that deal.
Wireless network play is a huge obvious considering that the company has been giving away Wireless Adapters for the GBA in specially supported games (namely Pokemon: Fire Red and Leaf Green), showing just how capable and cheap the technology is. Nintendo is pretty set in offering wireless play for its system ever since it launched the Wave Bird for the GameCube, and in the case of Project Nitro, we've been told that the system will be capable of supporting as many as 16 players in a network via its own proprietary format. And most likely using the same wireless technology used in the Game Boy Advance adapters.
Price is still an important factor for Nintendo, and sources are confident that not only that the system be sold "under $200" in the US at launch, but it will sell for a lot closer to where the Game Boy Advance is now. Which leads us to believe that with two handhelds on the market, a pricedrop for the GBA and GBA SP is forthcoming, at least by the time this system ships.
Much of our known information was repeated in a suspicious Japanese document that leaked to the internet, listing off a few key elements of the Project Nitro. We usually take these public leaks with a grain of salt, but when much of the information matched what we had already learned about the system, we kept an open mind. Sure, there's still the chance that this document is a fake...but if it is it's a damn good one and the person(s) responsible really did their Japanese homework. Four megabytes of system memory, 802.11 wireless format, and two 256x192 LCD screens were the main elements featured in this document, all sticking with what we've already heard about the system.
One conflicting statement from some of our sources state that the system will not just be cartridge-based as announced, but also optical disc based using GameCube-sized discs for game media. Discs, as Nintendo has discovered on the GameCube, are far cheaper and more spacious than carts, two elements that make them more third-party friendly. They also take far less time to manufacture than carts. And considering that it's been more than two and a half years since the GameCube launched and the hacking community still hasn't found a way to copy the discs yet shows that going this route would keep piracy of Nintendo DS at bay. But since a disc drive would add to the bulk and cost of the system as well as add to the battery consumption of the portable, we're not ready to jump on this disc drive theory just yet.
Earlier last week CNN/Money reported that analysts have experienced a Nintendo DS demo that showed off the system's ability to play back compressed video on a 128 megabyte cartridge. But seeing that Majesco is already producing video on carts for the Game Boy Advance, you won't find us leaping in joy and anticipation for such a feature on the upcoming handheld. It does show, however, that Nintendo has plans for the Project Nitro beyond simply offering games. Whether this is a good or bad thing remains in just what sort of ideas Nintendo has in store.
But the sixty thousand dollar question: with the Nitro housing Game Boy Advance compatibility, why is Nintendo saying this will be a third supported platform, and not the next generation of its Game Boy property?
Our strongest theory: the Game Boy Advance system will continue to be Nintendo's budget-priced handheld, and will be an even important staple during the time when the company's ready to capitalize on the 20th anniversary of the Nintendo Entertainment System. It's a huge window of opportunity for the company to re-release dozens of outstanding classics as-is on the GBA platform, and don't think for a second that Nintendo's going to let it pass on by. The Famicom Mini series, released in Japan on February 14th to coincide with the platform's 20th anniversary in that territory, has proven an incredible success. It costs very little to produce these games (the original NES/Famicom with a software emulator on the smallest, cheapest cartridge), and Nintendo can work with third-party publishers to keep the series going strong for several years on the handheld.
Oh, sure, with the rumored GBA compatibility gamers will more than likely be able to play them on the Nintendo DS/Nitro system. But that's a side benefit, and not its focus. Its aim will likely be skewed for advanced, innovative gameplay and not simply its ability to play existing games in the GBA's library.
But of everything we know and heard about the system, we're still unclear about the system's "innovation." Necessity is the mother of invention, and we still don't know the ideas that Nintendo has in store that justifies bringing this system to light. We've heard reactions from development sources who have seen the system and some of Nintendo's ideas in action, offering comments that range from "I still don't get it" to "Oh, that makes sense...very cool."
We're assuming that Nintendo is just not content with the direction handheld gaming is going. To make a system stronger isn't enough any more. The Sony PSP will be a powerful handheld system, no doubt, but it's still offering the same exact gaming experience that videogames have done for three decades. Nintendo feels that it's time to expand the market with fresh and new ideas, and offer something that just wasn't possible before. Hence: the Nintendo DS. Two screens, touch sensitive. And possibly more. Much more.
E3 can't get here fast enough.
Rumors: Nintendo DS
Everything we've heard so far.
In late January Nintendo revealed that it was in development with a new "portable device" called the Nintendo Dual-Screen, or DS for short. The machine, which features two screens arranged vertically, two ARM-based CPUs and plays cartridge-based software up to 128 megabytes (current Game Boy Advance sizes are eight and 16 megabytes), is scheduled for release sometime in 2004.
Over the past several weeks IGN has talked with Nintendo and various third-parties in an effort to uncover more about the device. Following, some unannounced features of the portable according to multiple anonymous sources in the know.
Though the information below is considered solid, IGN has been unable to validate all of it by three or more sources and therefore we ask that readers still consider it as unconfirmed.
Here's what we've heard:
Nintendo has remained very hush-hush about whether or not the DS portable, which will be positioned as the "third pillar" next to GameCube and Game Boy Advance, will actually be able to play current GBA software. However, insiders out of Japan have told IGN that the device in fact will be backward compatible with Nintendo's handheld and fully able to play GBA software.
The Nintendo DS features not one, but two screens. According to insiders, at least one of the LCDs will in fact be a "touch screen," or capable of receiving and transmitting input from fingers and pens by the touch. It is not known if the device will also ship with a stylus for tablet-like functionality.
No More Wires
The DS will feature high-speed wireless support. Though it's currently unclear what standard Nintendo will adopt for the DS, we're certain that it will utilize technology similiar to what it has just released on the Game Boy Advance in Japan.
The Issue of Price
Nothing confirmed, but at least one source alleges that the Nintendo DS would retail for approximately $129 in Japan, just slightly more expensive than what the GBA retails for in that market. No word on American or European prices.
It gets a little iffy here. We've heard both that the DS will feature N64-like graphics and that it will deliver mostly 2D sprite-based graphics. Both come from historically reliable sources.
Cartridges Quicker, Cheaper
The DS cartridges feature memory technology by Matrix Semiconductor. This will allow Nintendo to produce cartridges far more quickly and cheaply than what the company is able to do with the Game Boy Advance. Currently third parties must manufacture GBA carts at costs from six to 10 dollars a unit depending on size and save RAM.
No Kits in the US Yet
When Nintendo announced the DS in January most North American developers were as surprised to hear about it as everyone else. This week several developers told IGN that Nintendo said "kits are on the way."
Japanese developers have been working with DS hardware since last year.
IGN contacted Nintendo of America but the company had no comment.
DS Touch Screen Innovation
Sources indicate some great things for the secondary screen in Nintendo's handheld.
As we get closer to the official unveiling of the Nintendo DS, Nintendo's dual-screen handheld scheduled for release by the end of this year, details on the system's touch screen bring to light some exciting gameplay opportunities not yet utilized in the mainstream console market.
Sources familiar with the system tell us that the innovation of the Nintendo DS comes from a touch sensitive screen, similar to what's already available in the Palm and Pocket PC market. Picture a classic Game Boy Advance system -- the touch screen will be positioned between the D-pad and action buttons for easy access. Hinged above it will be the second, but more primary screen of the system.
By pressing and dragging a stylus or finger on the screen, players will have more direct control over certain games than a control pad or action buttons can provide. Directing troops in a real-time strategy game, for example, with the screen above zoomed in for a closer 3D view of the action is an idea that is certainly doable on the Nintendo DS. Or, in a golf game, players can use the touch screen like a mouse control on the PC; drag a finger quickly forward on the lower screen to provide the power and accuracy of the swing. Another gameplay example: a Marble Madness or Super Monkey Ball design with the touch screen acting as the trackball as players maneuver the ball around the different hazards on the upper screen.
Nintendo plans to reveal all about the Nintendo DS at its E3 press conference on May 11. We'll know more specifics as the date approaches.
Interview: Hiroshi Yamauchi
If DS is unsuccessful, Nintendo will be crushed, says former NCL president.
The Nihon Keizai Shimbun recently interviewed Nintendo advisor and former company president Hiroshi Yamauchi, who had many things to say about the future of the videogame industry and how Nintendo will succeed or fail. We've provided some highlights below:
Yamauchi reiterated his longstanding belief that the videogame industry is moving in the wrong direction, but added that it's approaching a critical point. "I have been saying this for some time, but customers are not interested in grand games with higher-quality graphics and sound and epic stories," he said. "Cutting-edge technologies and multiple functions do not necessarily lead to more fun. The excessively hardware-oriented way of thinking is totally wrong, but manufacturers are just throwing money at developing higher-performance hardware."
Yamauchi told the paper that in a move to oppose the "bigger is better" mentality he thought up the idea of the Nintendo DS, a dual-screened portable device set to be shown at E3 2004 in May.
The former NCL president dismissed the quick arrival of a next-generation console. "Nintendo has no plans to release a so-called 'next-generation' videogame console at the next year's Electronic Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas. We will rather make a new proposal that uses the GameCube at its core," he said. "Only people who do not know the videogame business would advocate the release of next-generation machines when people are not interested in cutting-edge technologies." Yamauchi added that Nintendo's leadership shares his view of the business.
The executive said that Nintendo will "give [its] all" to promote the Nintendo DS. He conceded that the device may not immediately overwhelm audiences, but that he hopes it will help ring in a new era, which may revitalize the games industry. "If we are unsuccessful with the Nintendo DS, we may not go bankrupt, but we will be crushed. The next two years will be a really crucial time for Nintendo."