Friday Slide: Wee Games on the DSiPad

I’ve learned two truths since Apple announced the iPad last month. First, like teenagers, big-name hardware and software developers are currently obsessing over objects and anatomy that sit below the human equator (Wii, iPad, Google Buzz). Let’s hope they grow out of it. Second, any major announcement by Apple spurs the rest of the handheld electronics industry to trip over each other in their drive to tell the rest of the world that Apple poses them no threat.

Between my time at Slide To Play and my work as About.com’s Nintendo DS Guide, I spend a lot of time with wee games. Consoles will always have a place in the American living room, and hopefully the Japanese living room as well. But it’s the handheld systems that consistently thrive and break sales records worldwide as people find themselves out of the house more often and stuck behind some grocery store grandmother who’s terrified of the debit machine.

With the iPad coming, the handheld market will gain one more major contendah. Will the iPad’s beautiful screen and ready library of cheap, accessible games spell doom for the Nintendo DS, the Sony PSP and its inevitable successors?

Probably not. A lot about the iPad’s capabilities has yet to be revealed, but thus far it stands to attract the same buying audience that fell in love with the iPhone and iPod Touch. The games media has a tendency to lump iPhone and DS/PSP gamers in one category, which is applicable in some instances (games available on the App Store are showing up frequently as Nintendo DSiWare, and vice versa), but doesn’t fully explore the reasons why people opt to buy iPhones and iPod Touches versus other handheld game systems.

The iPhone is undoubtedly among the most versatile, convenient and culture-defining electronics released in the aughts, which is why it’s not a small investment. A person buys an iPhone because they want a phone, an organizer, an MP3 player and a video viewer in the palm of their hand. The cheap, often maddeningly addictive games are gravy.

On the other hand, anyone who picks up a Nintendo DS just wants some solidly-built games. Sure, the DSi boasts a camera and it can play music, and DSiWare is certainly worth a peek. But those are secondary features. Most veteran gamers who purchase a DS have Mario, Zelda, and/or Pokemon on the brain, plus other series that Apple will never land for the iPhone, barring a major coup.

Younger gamers often have their buying choices made for them by mom and dad, who appreciate the DS’s low price. True, DS games cost more than most of what you’ll find on the App Store, but it’s easier to convince a parent to invest in a cheap system and one moderately-priced game than it is to sell them on one expensive electronic (and in some cases, a phone plan). Moreover, they’re going to be more confident if their sticky-pawed angels are grabbing and dropping a hardy DS instead of a fragile iPhone or iPad (I can’t speak for the PSP; God knows I don’t want to see what’d happen if I dropped mine).

Even though the Nintendo DS, Sony PSP and iPod/iPad seem to attract very different audiences, does that mean Nintendo and Sony should sit back and let retail take its course? Despite their big words to Apple, they have no plans to do so. Earlier this week, The Pokemon Company revealed that there is indeed a prototype build of the Nintendo DS 2, and it contains a pretty complex motion sensor. No doubt Sony is brewing up something similar.

Despite all the debate and squabbling between fanboys (and girls) and hardware developers, nobody in handheld gaming will die when the iPad is released. Instead, the iPad stands to maintain the healthy trinity of power between the DS, PSP, and iPhone. Three competent companies developing new ideas and keeping one another sharp is good for everyone who loves little games.

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