Nintendo’s big bet on small games

July 15, 2008, 9:36 PM UTC
Spore, the highly-anticipated PC game, will come to the Nintendo DS. Image: Electronic Art

By Yi-Wyn Yen

LOS ANGELES – Turns out the next big thing from Nintendo will be new games for its miniature console, the DS.

Despite all the speculation of what’s in store for the major video game consoles – the Nintendo Wii, Microsoft Xbox 360 (MSFT), and Sony PlayStation 3 (SNE) is paying a lot of attention to what they think consumers want: More games for its portable handheld system.

With video game publishers eager to appeal to the DS crowd, Nintendo will release an all-star lineup for the dual-screen console by the end of this year. Electronic Arts (ERTS) will feature its designer-creature game Spore and Take-Two Interactive (TTWO) will release a custom version of Grand Theft Auto for the DS. Activision Blizzard (ATVID) launched a version of its popular Guitar Hero franchise for the DS in June and sold more than 300,000 copies in the United States in its first week.

The DS’s sales growth continues to impress the gaming industry. Thanks to hit games like Pokemon and the new Guitar Hero, analysts expect the DS to have outsold the Wii in June when NPD Research releases its monthly figures later this week. Nintendo executives say lifetime sales of the DS are expected to reach more than 100 million.

“People thought 2007 would be the peak year for the DS,” said Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime on Tuesday. “We’re running 12% ahead of last year’s record [U.S. sales] of 8.5 million.”

Women and girls have been a growing segment of Nintendo’s success with the DS.  They represented 30% of DS owners in 2005 and shot up to nearly half of all buyers in 2007. Over the past several months, Nintendo has been running TV ads with celebrities such as Carrie Underwood and Liv Tyler playing DS titles like Nintendogs and BrainAge.  Fils-Aime said sales of those titles and the new Super Mario Bros. have at least doubled since the ads started running in May.

Nintendo executives said they are looking at new ways outside of video games to add value to the DS. An executive highlighted scenarios in which a wireless-connected DS can provide travel details at an airport or tell you where the nearest Mexican restaurant is.

Nintendo is also releasing new games this year to complement the Wii balance board, which it began selling in May in North America. Olympic gold medalist Shaun White kicked off  Nintendo’s press conference at E3 by riding the Wii balance board to show off his self-titled snowboard game that game publisher Ubisoft will make exclusively for the Wii. “I lean forward to go faster when I ride [in real life],”  White said. “You can do the same in the game.”

Wii Music, an irreverent musical game that will debut later this year, closed the 1 ½-hour event. Nintendo attempted to create suspense with smoke rising on the stage and bright lights bouncing around the Kodak Theater, but it had a goofy effect. A guy with a faux Mohawk waved the Wii nunchucks and tapped his bare feet on the balance board to simulate drumming while Nintendo’s legendary designer Shigeru Miyamoto strolled out on stage pretending to play a saxophone by holding his Wii controller close to his mouth.

Wii Music is the latest addition to the growing titles that capitalize on the music trend. However, unlike games like Rock Band 2 or Guitar Hero World Tour, Wii Music doesn’t rate your performance or allow you to compete with other players. Wii Music uses the controller and balance board to play more than 50 different instruments and players can record their performances. Said Miyamoto through a translator, “We’ve designed Wii Music to experience the joy of performing music.”

Of course, if making melody isn’t your thing, Fils-Aime notes that you can get the Guitar Hero III for the Wii,  which in May outsold the other Xbox and PlayStation 3.