At Play: Nintendo Bites Back at iTunes

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, April 5, 2009

Open up the latest portable game gadget from Nintendo, the DSi, which goes on sale today, and you'll be able to log onto a new online store carrying a small catalogue of software titles. If you see one that grabs your interest, you can buy and download it to your device on the spot, with prices starting at $2.

This type of purchase probably doesn't seem exotic any more, thanks largely to Apple. Apple's App Store, which offers software for its iPhone and iPod Touch, has had 800 million downloads since it opened last summer. Now, other mobile gadgets like Nintendo's DSi are quickly creating their own retail outlets on the Web. Last week, for example, Research In Motion rolled out an online software store for its BlackBerry users, called BlackBerry App World. Smartphone makers Nokia and Palm have similar offerings on the way.

It's not only mobile gadget makers that are introducing new ways to save consumers a trip to the store for software. One start-up company, OnLive, is seeking to make game consoles such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 obsolete by streaming video game content directly to TVs or PC monitors through a Web-connected device. Pricing for the service, scheduled to launch late this year, has not yet been announced.

Some see Apple's online software store as having hit close to home for Nintendo, which has long dominated the mobile gaming market. The most popular category in Apple's software store, after all, is entertainment-related software.

Scott Steinberg, publisher of gadget review site, said Nintendo's new store, called DSiWare, was "basically a direct response to iTunes." He said, "Apple definitely came up and bit these guys on the rear end, and this is Nintendo striking back."

Nintendo's rear end isn't exactly hurting just yet. The DSi is a slightly revamped version of a popular device, originally launched in 2004, that has sold 100 million units worldwide. Apple's smartphone went on sale in 2007 and has sold 17 million units so far.

But in terms of downloadable content, Nintendo's headstart is reversed. Where Apple's store offers almost 7,000 games, at last count, Nintendo's DSi store launches today with five titles, not including a free Web browser that DSi users can download to their device.

Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime says his company has adopted a different strategy than the competition. Just about anybody who pays a fee and passes an inspection by Apple reviewers can sell his software on the iTunes store, but that's not how Nintendo has approached this market. The roster of titles Nintendo approves for sale on the DSi store will be "more like the content you'll find at a film festival," he said, as opposed to its competitors' catalogues, which are "more akin to YouTube."

Like the first DS device, the new revision features two screens, one of which is touch-sensitive, and a microphone. The device also includes a postage-stamp-sized slot for games in the original DS format.

Like Nintendo's bestselling Wii, this device holds the promise of introducing a fresh type of game experience to its market. During a recent visit to Washington, a Nintendo representative showed off a game in which the gadget's camera placed her in the game as she shook her head and waved her arms to interact with elements on the screen. At the end, the game played back a video it had captured of her bouncing around.

Not everyone will see everything about this new gadget as an upgrade, however. I gave the new DSi to my 8-year-old stepson for an afternoon, and he spent at least an hour playing with the device's built-in photo editing software, which lets you decorate or humorously distort your photos, and playing with the device's nifty voice-recording tools.

He wants the DSi now, of course -- but given a hypothetical choice between the new DSi and the original, slightly chunkier version of the device, he opted for the older one. As forward-thinking as the DSi is, it leaves off one useful feature included in the old DS: a slot that lets him play his collection of game cartridges originally designed for the GameBoy Advance.

The new Nintendo DSi goes on sale for $169. But that older version of this device, priced at $129, will still be available on retail shelves for the forseeable future, the company said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company