For the past few months, the internet has been rife with news, gossip, and speculation about the epic battle raging between the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3, and the Wii. Depending on the type of gamer you happen to be, you might champion any of those three systems. Big fan of the FPS genre? Then you've probably already pre-ordered Halo 3 for your 360. Into family or group games? If you're lucky, you've got a Wii. Have tons of cash to blow on hardware no one else seems interested in? There's a PS3 or seven sitting at a local retailer, no doubt.
In other words, these days the choice of which system to buy is determined by two factors: the games you want to play and cash limitations. The debate about which console will emerge as the victor in this generation continues, and the battle has been defined by surprises. The Wii showed its underdog strength, Sony lost a number of exclusives on the PS3, and Microsoft has actually found a way to sell 360's in Japan (courtesy of Mistwalker).
I'd like to approach the debate from a different angle: what system should the hardcore RPGamer buy? We're a small subset of the gaming population, which is itself a subset of the general population. Video games don't have the widespread popularity of, say, music or movies. And RPG sales do not constitute the bulk of game sales; that dubious honor goes to sports titles (ridiculous, I know, but save it for another editorial).
Yet we may just be the most important people in gaming today. We're way more hardcore than generic gamers. We are some of the most loyal gamers in existence, faithfully anticipating and buying new games based on the reputation of the franchise or the developer. As a demonstration of our devotion to gaming, consider that it's nothing for a single RPG to take 50 hours of our time, or hundreds more for completionists (those RPGamers wanting to wring every last drop from games by collecting all the items, finishing all the side quests, etc.). So, while our numbers may not be large enough to rule the fate of the console wars, our fanaticism is enough to at least sway them.
So, to the question: which system offers the height of gaming goodness (specifically in terms of RPGs) for the best price? I'm only looking at the current generation of systems; that is, I'm excluding the PS2 (despite the quality titles still being released for it, i.e. Rogue Galaxy) because I'm 99% sure that if you're reading this, you already own one, unless you're, say, obsessed with Sega consoles like one upstanding, well-respected member of the RPGamer community.
The answer is the Nintendo DS. That's right, not the Wii. Not the PS3. Not the Xbox 360. The perfect system for the RPGamer fits in your pocket (if you're wearing cargo pants) and costs less than $150.
When the DS was released and the launch line-up was light on RPGs, Nintendo already had a pre-installed library of quality RPGs in the form of Game Boy Advance titles. Putting that GBA slot on the DS may have been one of Nintendo's better ideas. It allows the gamer to carry not one, but two games in a single package that is smaller than a paperback book. There has never been a time when I've left that GBA slot empty. With great RPGs like the Pokémon games, Zelda, and the Final Fantasy ports, there's never been a need to. I've got Boktai sitting in my DS right now.
What about DS RPGs? There are already some games available, such as Final Fantasy III and Lunar Knights, both of which show off the system's impressive capabilities. Some other titles, like Contact, come to mind. The upcoming titles, however, truly demonstrate the weight that the Nintendo DS has in the gaming world: Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings and Dragon Quest IX. The original Final Fantasy XII and Dragon Quest VIII were both PS2 titles; why the switch from Sony to Nintendo?
One word: Japan. Where Japan goes, the RPG world follows. And people in Japan have purchased more Nintendo DS systems than Nintendo has actually made, leading to a space-time rift which RPG developers are trying to fill with DS titles (side note: Before these brave RPG developers can save the universe from being sucked into the rift, they have to assemble a party, stock up on weapons and items, learn some magic, and fetch some medicine for a random NPC; this is why many games are given release dates and then delayed). Since the DS has sold so well in Japan, game developers are focusing on it more, hoping to capitalize on its success. In turn, this will drive sales of the DS, which then leads to more game development...and so on...and so on...
Furthermore, there seems to be an inverse correlation between how hardcore a gamer is and how much he or she cares about slick graphics. Just read a review for, say, Gears of War, for example. One review I read raved about the graphics for a page and a half, spent a page on gameplay, and threw in a paragraph about the storyline. Casual gamers eat that stuff up. Now look at the fact that Square Enix was able to re-release Final Fantasy IV, V, and VI (perfect fits for that Game Boy Advance slot on your DS) with little in the way of significant graphic upgrades from the originals. Another example is Nippon Ichi: that particular studio has released a dozen or so excellent games that don't come anywhere near pushing last-gen systems to their limits. This tells me that, in general, RPGamers care more about great storylines and compelling gameplay than how realistic the blood splatters appear.
Which brings us, once again, to the Nintendo DS. After all, if you don't need a ten pound box of hardware to produce an enjoyable RPG experience, why bother with one? The DS adds the inducement of playing games on the go. I remember the ad campaign for Magical Starsign and Children of Mana: "Take your world with you."
Hypothetically speaking, if you're getting ready to retire your PS2 (blew through Rogue Galaxy, did you?) and you've not yet invested in any new hardware, the DS is the way to go. It's fair to predict that no other current-gen system will deliver as many quality RPGs.
The title of this editorial is a question. The answer (assuming you have a way to recharge the battery) is the Nintendo DS.