Nintendo has sold almost 170 million Game Boys, making it the top-selling piece of game hardware of all time. Those monstrous sales figures have come without caving to the baser instincts of the gaming public. As the big home consoles have rolled out gorier and sexier titles, the Game Boy’s biggest hits have remained cuddly, goofy adventures starring Mario the plumber and the Pokemon monsters.
The Game Boy’s family values have been driven as much by technological limitations as by choice. Handhelds have always stuck to simple puzzle games or nonviolent jump-and-bonk action titles because that’s all their weak chips and graham-cracker-sized screens could handle. What’s more, since handhelds are played on the go, they’ve always been best for short blasts of not-too-complex games like Tetris or Pokemon.
No one will mistake Nintendo’s new handheld, the DS, for one of the weak sisters of gaming. The DS’s graphics chip is as powerful as the one used in the Nintendo 64—complex artificial intelligence, realistic exit wounds, and virtual D-cups aren’t just for consoles anymore. It also has two screens, one on each side of the device’s flip-it-open, clamshell form, allowing for terrific flexibility in game design. In a complicated first-person-shooter like Metroid Prime Hunters: First Hunt, the top screen shows you the gory action and the bottom one a map. In The Urbz: Sims in the City, a hipster version of the Sims, the bottom screen lets you trade items, chat, and check your goals while you watch your little avatar stumble around up top.
The DS has two other major innovations: wireless networking and a touch-sensitive lower screen. I wasn’t able to test out the wireless, but Nintendo claims that up to 16 players can hook up within a range of 100 feet. I wasn’t expecting much from the touchy-feely screen—how, exactly, are you supposed to play a game with a stylus, particularly the DS’s lightweight, 2-inch plastic stick? (There’s also a little plastic nub you can strap to your thumb, allowing you to use the touchscreen like the trackpad on a laptop.) I was surprised, then, to find that the stylus gives you something handhelds have always lacked: sophisticated, mouse-like control. When I tried to play Metroid Prime with the usual up-down-left-right buttons, I couldn’t aim for beans; when I used the stylus, my aim was fluid and precise—it was easy to look up and down or to spin around and zap an alien.
With all those new features and that heft under the hood, is the DS not just for 8-year-olds anymore? You’d certainly think so, judging by Nintendo’s ribald marketing campaign. An ad in the current issue of Maxim shows a voluptuous blonde purring, “I love a man with a soft, sensitive touch.” Next month, you’ll start seeing television ads in which a sultry female voice coos that “touching is good.” One of the first DS titles, Feel the Magic: XY/XX, is a dating game in which you perform Jackass-style stunts to woo a pixellated chick in a miniskirt. It’s all enough to make that 2-inch stylus feel kinda inadequate.
Nintendo’s grown-up marketing campaign is likely part of a pre-emptive strike against Sony, which is releasing its handheld Playstation, the PSP, next year. Still, after playing around with the DS for a couple of days, I’m not sure that ditching its kid-friendly image is a smart move for Nintendo. When it comes to appealing to adults, the DS has one serious problem: size. Up until now, the Game Boy had been getting progressively tinier—the previous version, the Game Boy Advance SP, looked almost like a powder compact—but this thing is nearly as big as a Walkman circa 1987. As the ever-shrinking iPod and Nokia phones prove, adults—particularly the ones who carry tiny purses—crave small, compact gadgets.
There’s also something about combining the words “Nintendo” and “sexy” that kind of makes my skin crawl. In one round of Feel the Magic, I had to “clean off” a girl by rubbing off the muddy spots that cover her body. The more I stroked her with my stylus, the more she writhed in ecstasy—she was having, essentially, a tiny digital orgasm. When my wife leaned over to figure out what in God’s name was going on, I had to confess the embarrassing truth: I was doing the nasty—with my Game Boy.
When I checked the Nintendo Web site, I found that there’s even hotter fare to come. To see a preview of Sprung, the “game where everybody scores,” I had to navigate past a mature-player warning from a wide-eyed Mario. That’s almost as creepy as getting beckoned into a strip club by Mickey Mouse. Of course, I’m joking. I think. The company’s reputation for family values will probably limit Nintendo’s raunchiness—even Sprung is only rated “teen.” Still, promoting games most people would be ashamed to play on the subway doesn’t seem like the best strategy for dominating the handheld market. Let’s just pray that Nintendo’s marketing plan doesn’t include Strip Tetris.