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The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, Nintendo's last major "hardcore" DS game, sold well but nonetheless landed near the bottom of the system's all-time top-seller list in spite of high production values and innovative new controls. Since then, Nintendo has been more successful reselling established titles and game/software concepts than developing new ones. Third party companies can only follow suit or take greater financial risks by designing and producing hardware add-ons like that of Guitar Hero: On Tour. What other choice do they have? The hardcore niche doesn't exist beneath the mass-market boom, because it's been sucked dry by publishers' unease about flash carts.
Next year, North America will be able to purchase the DSi, the system's second major revision, featuring an SD memory slot, a game-compatible camera and a new Wi-Fi store. But the majority of the system is identical - little increased power, memory or other game-enhancing changes that might necessitate an upgrade. It's no surprise, then, that the DSi blocks the current generation of flash carts (and is future-proofed with firmware updates).
It's a major step toward protecting Nintendo's third-party partners, but is it too little, too late? Eighty million DS owners - particularly all those new minimal-purchase owners - will need serious convincing to spend another $150-plus on an identical-looking DS. Perhaps the new system will have a camera-ready game to attract yet another new audience. Or perhaps the DSi will attract hardcore game makers, comforted by the new piracy prevention schemes. (For example, the bizarre Japanese hit game Rhythm Tengoku almost saw release this season, then was delayed until 2009 - might this niche title turn DSi exclusive?)
In any case, Nintendo still benefits enormously from the current state of the DS. Even if software sales shrank, each DS hardware sale reaps a profit. The emphasis on Touch! Generations titles keeps Nintendo's name at the top of the list for prospective buyers. And for every hardcore sale hypothetically lost to piracy, the company's getting two more from that previously untapped market.
In the long run, however, Nintendo is losing the goodwill of innovative, hardcore game makers, many of whom have already retreated to the safety of digital distribution services like Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network. Those services already traffic in simple, portable-style games, only there's no fear of flash carts. Flash cart makers have already alleged that the DSi is crackable, so the fear may stick.
With stagnant, average-acclaim DS and Wii releases for the past year, one can only imagine how long Nintendogs and Wii Fit can keep the hype machine running.
Sam Machkovech is the games critic for Seattle weekly newspaper The Stranger.