The Nintendo DS was Nintendo’s most ambitious project and its legacy on game design and philosophy cannot be overstated. The DS revolutionised how we play and think about gaming and kicked off a tradition of aggressive innovation that Nintendo continues to this day. Not only is it a piece of gaming history, but it’s a piece of my history.
Half my childhood was spent playing Mario Kart and Pokémon in the dead of the night, hiding under the covers of my blankets so my parents wouldn’t notice the glowing backlight.
DS stands for ‘dual screens’ and the design of the DS is nothing less than ingenious. The two screens and touch screen functionality are ridiculously practical. The DS in many ways democratised gaming—gaming was no longer just buttons and joysticks but also drawing and natural hand gestures, the touch screen lending itself to more artistic and accessible titles. You could play your own Game Boy Advance games on it too, and multiplayer was a cinch with its WiFi capability. Most importantly for young me, the DS goes into standby when you close its two halves together—meaning I could quickly snap it shut and hide it under my pillow if rumbled by Mum or Dad in the middle of the night.
Aesthetically, however, is where the DS revelled. I remember marvelling at how futuristic it looked the first time I saw an ad for it as a kid. A fait accompli of brutalist product design, the DS is a chiselled clamshell, sturdy and no-fuss. Tough enough to stand up to the day-to-day abuse as a children’s plaything, but elegant enough to pass as a PDA or even a BlackBerry.
But Nintendo’s love of the DS wasn’t as everlasting as mine. In 2006, Nintendo released the DS Lite, a supposedly ‘refreshed’ version of the DS, and that was a mistake; a sin I will never forgive Nintendo for. The DS Lite is an abomination that laughs in the face of good design and shits all over the original DS’ glorious legacy.
The DS Lite was intended to be a sleeker, refined version of the OG DS. It’s far less angular than the OG DS, slightly smaller and (allegedly) easier to use. Many people complained the OG DS was too big, but after picking up a DS Lite for this article, I find the DS Lite too small—my hands wrap all the way around it.
I never had a problem handling the OG DS when I was a kid, so why the unnecessary scale down? That’s strike one. Strike two is that the DS Lite is simply less functional than the OG DS. Its buttons are less tactile, its speakers are smaller, and the Game Boy Advance cartridge slot is shallow and the cartridges poke out, unlike the OG where they fit in flush. The DS Lite is just simply less satisfying to use. The OG has a weight to it, the DS Lite feels flimsy. The OG has robust, clean angles; the DS Lite is smooth and bland. The OG clicks together softly, but firmly; the DS Lite snaps together.
Most importantly, strike three: the DS Lite fails aesthetically. One of the biggest supposed selling points of the DS Lite was that it was a prettier product. More modern, more cool; a minimalist improvement to the ‘ugly’ old DS. But this is the core design flaw, that it applies minimalist design principles at the expense of functionality. Brutalism and minimalism are similar but different schools of artistic thought. They both describe a practical, honest and communitarian approach to design that prioritises functionality above all else. And this is where the DS Lite is dishonest — it is form over function, an emperor’s new clothes of a device. Give me the DS v1.0—stoic, iconic, and above all else, fun.