With 154.02 million consoles sold to date, the Nintendo DS is the company's most successful hardware platform, the world's best-selling dedicated handheld games console and the second most popular video games system of all time. Not a bad set of achievements for a handheld which, prior to launch, was debated, contested and even ridiculed by gamers and the press alike. Given the ubiquitous nature of the system during its zenith - even your grandparents probably had one, for Pete's sake - it's difficult to even fathom how so much doubt could have clouded the launch of the DS - and, to a similar extent, the 100 million-selling Wii - but much of this cautious reception was down to Nintendo's standing in the industry at the time.
Back at the start of 2004 when the DS was formally announced, Nintendo was in what could charitably be referred to as a tight spot. The Game Boy Advance was selling well enough - despite not offering any genuine innovation over its forerunner the Game Boy Color, outside of improved visuals and sound - while the GameCube was struggling in the face of Sony's world-conquering PlayStation 2, which would go on to be the best-selling games console ever. Having willingly participated in a costly technological arms race with both Sony and Microsoft, the Kyoto firm was aware that a change of tactics was required; the GameCube, for all its amazing first-party software, hadn't resonated with the gaming public in the same way that the NES, SNES and (to a lesser extent) N64 had done, and something unique was needed to set Nintendo's hardware apart from the competition.
Nintendo's confirmation that its new console - codenamed DS - would not be a successor to the GameCube or the Game Boy Advance prompted a mixture of confusion and scorn. The use of the term "third pillar" - an additional revenue stream which could co-exist with the company's other systems - was perhaps responsible for the initial skepticism which typified much of 2004; was Nintendo really so arrogant that it believed it could create a third market outside of home and portable gaming systems when it had failed to beat its rivals in the living room? To some, it felt like a company grasping at straws and out of ideas.
As if to make matters worse, the news that Sony was developing its own handheld console broke around the same time, and many gleefully predicted that just as the PlayStation had decimated Nintendo's market share in the home console arena, the forthcoming "PlayStation Portable" - with its incredible specs, massive screen, multimedia properties and drop-dead gorgeous design - would do the same in the handheld sector. According to the company's harshest critics, Nintendo's uninterrupted dominance of the portable gaming market was about to come to an end; the Game Boy was for kids, and Sony was here to cater for the grown-ups. "The user who is so accustomed to PS2, which has a very high penetration rate, could migrate to PSP," predicted Standard and Poor analyst John Yang prior to the release of the two systems, and few industry commenters found reason to disagree.
The core concept of the DS, revealed in more detail during E3 2004, appeared to intrigue and amuse in equal measures. The introduction of an additional screen seemed like a gimmick, and fan-made mock-ups quickly appeared online which showed a handheld with a vast multitude of folding displays, playfully poking fun at Nintendo's new idea. At this point it naturally wasn't clear the incredible impact the inclusion of a touchscreen would have on the way we played games; this technology wasn't new by any means and had even been used in the handheld arena beforehand, on Tiger's disastrous Game.com device. Unable to fully comprehend the full picture of the DS until it was demonstrated at official events in North America and Japan close to launch, the gaming world appeared to keep the system at arm's length, and Nintendo's continuing insistence that the DS would absolutely not supplant the popular Game Boy line appeared to suggest that it too was unsure if the idea had merit.
The tide began to turn towards the end of the year, when it became apparent that third-party developers were falling head over heels in love with the system. Almost all of the industry's heavyweights pledged their support from day one; Namco, Sega, Ubisoft and Electronic Arts all had games available during the console's launch period, while Square Enix - only recently reconciled with Nintendo following their much-publicised falling-out during the PlayStation and N64 era - confirmed that it had around eight titles in development for the system before it had even launched. In contrast, at this point in time the company hadn't even confirmed if it had any Sony PSP titles in the works.
Nintendo's message with the DS prior to release had been clear - the company was looking for new ways to connect with players by offering a combination of unique interfaces: a touchscreen, a second display and a microphone, as well as (for the time) groundbreaking connectivity in the form of local wireless and support for online gaming. While this barrage of features may have caused some gamers to furrow their brows in puzzlement - especially when set against the sleek and attractive imagery Sony was peddling for its PSP - it's clear that developers were quicker to realise the potential of the DS, hence the flood of support at launch. This support would be instrumental in giving the console the blistering start it needed in the fight against Sony's forthcoming handheld, which launched shortly afterwards.
Speaking to EDGE magazine at Nintendo of America's Gamer's Summit event at the end of 2004, Nintendo president Reggie Fils Aime outlined the company's aims with the DS:
What we are saying, and I passionately believe this, is that the future of gaming is about the interface and the innovation in the interface that we provide for gamers. That's what's going to get the future gamers excited versus simply focusing on technology for technology's sake. So when we look at DS and the various input devices - touchscreen, voice activation, wireless, two screens - that's certainly a model for how we're thinking about our entire business.
When you look at the impact that the Wii would make in the following year, Fils-Aime's words carry even more weight; the DS was the start of a company-wide initiative to totally re-think the way we play, and resulted in two of the most successful pieces of hardware not only in Nintendo's history, but in the history of the games industry. Speaking to Nikkei prior to launch, the late Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi was famously quoted as saying "If the DS succeeds, we will rise to heaven, but if it fails we will sink to hell." Thankfully the former occurred, and Yamauchi-san - who had taken Nintendo from toy-maker to video game giant and had by this point handed the reins over to the late Satoru Iwata - lived long enough to see the company enter a second golden age of industry dominance.
At launch the DS instantly captured the minds of players. Those who had cast doubt over its chances of success were instantly converted the moment they picked up that stylus and interacted with the screen. Early titles like Zoo Keeper, Yoshi Touch & Go and Meteos look simplistic by modern standards but were perfect at communicating the unique nature of the console; it's worth noting that this was prior to the touchscreen smartphone revolution that would take place after the release of the iPhone. The DS was the first encounter many people had with touch-based tech, and it left an indelible impression. If there was one blot on the console's copybook in those early days it was the way it looked; while the PSP was a desirable piece of consumer tech, the DS looked like a plastic plaything; its uncharacteristically swift gestation (it was on store shelves less than a year after its official announcement) could well be to blame for its rather awkward appearance. No matter - just over a year later Nintendo would take a leaf out of Apple's design book and release the redesigned DS Lite, solving this problem and propelling the system to even more sales.
With the benefit of hindsight it's easy to mock those who predicted the DS would be an experiment doomed to failure, and that Sony would clean up in the portable console war with its sexy PSP system. Yet in terms of pure power, there was simply no contest; Sony's console offered visuals which were close to those seen on the home systems of the period, while the DS looked decidedly last-gen when it came to pure grunt. However, the company's refusal to become bogged down in a graphical arms race and instead focus on the nuts and bolts of why people enjoy playing video games is arguably what assured it success in this particular battle.
The DS was a genuine game-changer for the industry, perhaps even the most drastic innovation the market had ever seen up until this point. It was also proof positive that Nintendo is a company which should never, ever be underestimated - even when all evidence appears to point to an ignominious conclusion.