Updated on 07.06.09

A Frugal Man and His Nintendo DS / DSi

Trent Hamm

dsiI’m a video game fan, and I’ve been one since I was tiny. During my life, I’ve owned an Atari 2600, a Nintendo Entertainment System, a Super Nintendo, a Sega Genesis, a Game Boy, a Game Boy Advance, a Nintendo 64, a PlayStation, a Game Cube, a Playstation 2, a Nintendo DS (and a DSi), and a Wii. It’s a hobby I’ve enjoyed pretty much my entire life, and I still enjoy it, even in my thirties.

About two years ago, I wrote an article detailing my Wii: how do I maximize my gaming dollars on it? This was a popular topic, one I’m often asked about by people my age who still want to play occasional video games but don’t want to break the bank. Many other readers have requested similar notes on a Nintendo DS, either for themselves or for a friend or a child.

What I’ve found is that for my gaming dollar, my Nintendo DSi is the best bargain I’ve yet found. The Nintendo DSi is a handheld console that easily fits in a pocket. Let’s walk through the details.

First, why a handheld console at all? If you’re a video game fan, why not buy an Xbox 360 or a Playstation 3? If you’re more into casual games, why not just play the games available on your cell phone?

The biggest factor that improves upon the consoles is portability, obviously. Most of the time, when I do actually play with my DSi, I’m out and about. I’ll play it on a long road trip. I’ll play it at the doctor’s office. I’ll play it whenever I’m in line. Although those situations make up the vast majority of my playing time, I can also play it at home on the couch if I so choose.

Why not just play the ones on the cell phones? Frankly, it’s the quality of the games. I’ve played a ton of different cell phone games and not many match up to the quality of even the worst games on the DS. The only cell phone that has even a few quality games is the iPhone, and if you’re looking at the iPhone because you want a cell phone that plays good games, it’s vastly cheaper to just get a low-end Verizon phone for your calls and a DSi for your games – and you’ll get both services better than you would with an iPhone.

Obviously, there is the option of simply not playing at all, which is completely worthwhile as well, but I’m fairly obviously writing to people who enjoy gaming and value it as a hobby.

Second, why a DSi instead of a DS Lite? A DS Lite is currently $40 less expensive, plus it has a slot that lets you play older Game Boy Advance titles – a feature that the DSi lacks. So why is a DSi a better value?

The biggest reason is the downloadable software. The DSi allows you to download very, very good games for just a few dollars each (more on them below), with more appearing all the time. Even better, you’re able to download two of them for free when you first get a DSi, and it comes with a free web browser, too (which I’m using in the picture at the top of this post).

The second reason is it functions as an mp3 player. All you need is an SD card loaded up with mp3s and headphones and the DSi functions as a portable music player – another solid argument for simply getting a dirt cheap cell phone in conjunction with this device.

The third reason is a bit of a knock against the old Advance games – the worthwhile games for the Advance are getting difficult to find. At the used game stores I frequent, it’s almost impossible to find any worthwhile Advance games for a reasonable price.

Finding a bargain on a DSi A DSi currently has a list price of $169.99. How can you shave a bit more off of that?

Suggestion one: trade in any older video games or consoles you don’t play with. I traded in my Nintendo DS Lite and several Advance games that I had thoroughly played to get my DSi for free. Another friend of mine traded in several old played-through games to get one. If you have any older games sitting around that you’ve already played through, gather them up, take them to the local gaming shop, and trade them in.

Suggestion two: wait for a sale on Amazon. If you’re interested, use this trick to automatically find a deal on a DSi at Amazon. You’ll have to be patient, but it’s a great way to dig up a deal.

Suggestion three: be patient. Do some comparison price searching yourself and decide if you really want one or not. Spending some time thinking about the purchase has a good chance of talking you out of it if you’re not truly interested.

Starting Out With a DSi
Unlike any other video game console I’ve ever tried, you can get quite a bit of enjoyment out of the DSi without buying anything else. Pick up the console, take it home, and fire it up. When you log onto the DSi Shop, you’ll automatically be given 1,000 free points, which you can use to download software. I strongly recommend spending those 1,000 points downloading the web browser, Art Style: Boxlife and Art Style: Pictobits.

Boxlife is a puzzle game in which you are given a piece of “paper” with tons of squares drawn on it, like a piece of graph paper. You cut the paper along the edges of the squares, then fold the pieces you cut out into cubes – which means that the pieces you cut out have to be of certain shapes. It also features an amusing simple storyline detailing your rise through the employee ranks in a factory. This is a highly addictive puzzle game.

Pictobits is another addictive Tetris-like puzzle game where you have to match up colored pieces. When you do, the pieces disappear and then reappear above, filling in colors automatically in a picture.

Both of these are great ways to spend five minutes juicing up your brain while you’re sitting at the doctor’s office or on the bus, and since you can get them both for free with the purchase of a unit, why not?

Before I discuss any other purchases, I should point something out: I don’t think a video game is a worthwhile purchase unless you get the cost of the purchase down to $1 per hour of playing it. Ideally, I can do better than that, which I’ll discuss below.

If you decide to make an additional purchase with your DSi, I’d recommend getting a single Nintendo points card (SRP: $20), which gives you 2,000 more points with which to download games – and there are plenty of additional worthwhile games to download. I recommend Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again (800 points), Dr. Mario Express (500 points), and Art Style: Aquia (500 points), then just hold onto the other 200 points for the future.

What about the DS cartridges? There are a ton of games available for the DS, many of which are awful and many of which are incredibly worth playing. My strategy for maximizing my gaming dollar is pretty simple: I buy and trade used games. Occasionally, I’ll receive new ones as gifts (because my wife and my family know what kinds of games I enjoy) and I’ll cycle them in as well.

Here’s how I do it. Let’s say I go to the used game shop and buy two used games which together cost about the price of one new game. I play through both of these thoroughly until I’m truly tired of both games. Along the way, my kids get me another game for my birthday and I play through that one, too. I’ll then take those three games to the used game store and trade them in for two others that I haven’t played. I’ll play through those two thoroughly, then I’ll take those into the used game store and trade them in for two more. Along the way, I might stumble upon a huge bargain (like recently, when I found a game I really wanted to play for the DS, Fire Emblem, for $5 new) and add that into the mix.

I recently calculated that I’ve invested an average of $6 out of pocket per game I’ve played through for the DS (and that includes the cost of the console averaged into each game) – and I’ve played some games nearly to death. That drops a game down into the used paperback range, since I’ll spend much more time on a game than on a single book.

If you’re looking for games to pick up that really maximize bang for the buck, the six best values I’ve found in DS gaming are Advance Wars: Dual Strike (war strategy; I’ve spent more hours on this game than any other, ever), Elite Beat Agents (rhythm tapping game, often inexplicably available for $5-10 on the discount rack at Target), Mario Kart DS (kart racing with a lot of variety, plus this is a must-buy if you have multiple DS owners in the household), Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (distinctive and very fun adventure), Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift (adventure/strategy mix, a HUGE game), and New Super Mario Bros. (if you ever enjoyed playing a Mario Bros. game, this will be tons and tons of fun). All of these were well worth the price, especially if you can get them used.

I’ve had tons of fun with my DS Lite – and now my DSi. The best part is, if you’re careful, it can be a real bargain.

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  1. J.D. says:

    Trent, I was under the impression that you loved your iPod Touch. It plays games, too. And plays mp3s. In fact, you can get much cheaper games for the iPod than purchased used for the DS. I have killed many, many hours over the last three months playing the iPhone version of Pac-Man. Fun fun fun.

  2. I can’t recommend Boxlife and Pictobits enough — they’re both supper addictive.

    One really cool feature that should be highlighted about Pictobits — awesome 8-bit remixes of music from classic NES games (by noted Japanese chiptune group YMCK). you can even close your DS and play the songs through the game’s dedicated music player. Here’s a sample of the soundtrack: http://is.gd/1sCmQ

    And here’s a trailer and more details for Boxlife: http://is.gd/1sCqb

    Note that Nintendo will launch another application for free this summer, Flip Notebook. It’s a neat, free program for creating and sharing little animations. There’s even a YouTube like site where users can upload and comment on the animations. Here’s the Japanese version: http://ugomemo.hatena.ne.jp/

  3. liv says:

    I don’t care about phone games, but I LOVE my DS. I am good to go on Tetris and MarioKart. I set aside Zelda-Phantom Hourglass for a while and it sucks trying to get back into it. I fear I’ll have to start over. I just like the Ace Attorney games and Professor Layton now’adays. I do some serious friend entertaining with the Wii though.

    For trading your DS for a DSi…I would honestly suggest just waiting till your DS dies. DSi really doesn’t seem worth a new purchase and turning in a perfectly good DS for it.

  4. Johnny says:

    I am attracted to all this device does. The wifi, the SD card (big plus)… How is the MP3 playing? I would buy this if it was a competant MP3 player.

  5. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Most of the iPod touch/iPhone games are pretty poor. I’ve tried quite a few and they’re just … not good. Most of them have serious control issues. Cheap does not always equate to good.

  6. ShootDawg says:

    For some reason, I received a DS as a present (didn’t ask for it, wasn’t even considering it).
    Now, my son has more games than I do..all told with have about 15-20 or so.
    For simplicity sakes, I purchased a cartidge called a CycloDS Evolution. Now, this could be used for piracy, but that is not our use.
    It allowed me to copy all of our ds games to a microsd card, as well as the saved game data stored on the catridges. I then place the microsd card into the CycloDS evo catridge..
    Now, I have all of my games on a single catridge. We don’t have to carry our games around. We don’t have to swap out cartridges either. I also loaded a few of my son’s favorite songs on the card so that he can listed to them if he wants.
    currently no DSi version that I am aware of, but time would only tell.

  7. Frank says:

    I sold my DS on craig’s list (got much more for it than GameStop would’ve given me!) and also sold my iPhone and bought an iPod Touch. I think the iPhone games are great….FlightControl, FieldRunners, Peggle, etc. Obviously, it also does other things well too. I couldn’t handle the low quality graphics of the DS anymore…

  8. MKL says:

    I’m still rockin’ my DS that I bought in 2004 when it first came out, and it’s still going strong (I only have a handful of games that I still play that are GBA, but I will go through them on a semi-regular basis, and thus haven’t fully given up on my DS for this purpose. When it dies, and lately that’s more of an “if” than a when (LOL!) ), I may look at the DSi.

  9. thisisbeth says:

    I’ve never been a video game person. That being said, I now own a Wii, and just bought a DSi. I would consider both purchases worthwhile for the amount of use I’ve gotten out of them.

  10. cookie says:

    I have a DSi as well as a DS Lite and a PSP, and I’m not sure that the DSi is the best value of these three yet.

    As of now, the selection of DSi downloadable games is considerably inferior to the selection and quality of the PSP downloadable games (including the old PS1 classics, which have graphics that look fine on the smaller device). Don’t forget that many of the DSi downloadable games are just excerpts from existing cartridge games like Brain Age.

    In general however, the DS family has a large selection and variety of inexpensive games, and there are still plenty of used GBA games for the DS available at low cost.

  11. Tom says:

    The orginal DS (not DS lite) is going for about 79 dollars about 90 dollars cheaper then the DSi.I don’t think the DSi is a good value right now,as with most systems the price should drop ina year or so.

  12. Steven says:

    You mentioned that you liked strategy games. The iPod Touch has a ~$7 game called Lux DLX, which is an iPod version of Risk. It is easier than the box version and is great to play with lots of people! That’s the one game I really like to play on my iPod Touch.

  13. John Davey says:

    Thanks for the review Trent. The kids have been considering trading their DS lites for DSi’s. I heard the music format was actually AAC, not MP3. What about the camera capability. Can you download the photos off the DSi? Can the browser do anything useful, like access Twitter?

  14. Jin6655321 says:

    Peggle is a bit pricey at $30 (new) but DEFINITELY worth buying. If you’re not familiar with it already, it’s like plinko meets pinball.

    If you’re a puzzle fan, I also recommend Exit DS. It’s now $20 new (was $10 new until it became popular.

  15. Benjamin says:

    While this is highly illegal, you could buy a flashcart for your DS. I’m not sure if there’s one out yet for the DSi, but basically a flashcart allows you download games onto it. I I think the price for that is probably around $80 ish.In the long run it will save you money because you can just download games instead of buying them.

    Like i said though! Its illegal unless you only the original copy of the game!

  16. Strabo says:

    “I am attracted to all this device does. The wifi, the SD card (big plus)… How is the MP3 playing? I would buy this if it was a competant MP3 player.”

    Absolutely terrible. Because of the DSi’s function to add effects to whatever you play everything goes through the filter even if you don’t want effects added which adds a really bad background noise to the music, not to mention making it sound flat and shoddy.

  17. Jeremy says:

    The Web Browser is terrible. Complete waste of time to try and use it for anything.

  18. Brian S. says:

    What no comments on the PS3 or the Xbox 360? That’s disappointing.

  19. JJ says:

    360 is cool, especially if you use it to stream Netflix movies. Wiis are easy to hack to copy games to HHDs.

  20. JJ says:

    I meant HDDs. :)

  21. “Most of the iPod touch/iPhone games are pretty poor. I’ve tried quite a few and they’re just … not good. Most of them have serious control issues. Cheap does not always equate to good.”

    I think you were just unlucky. I’ve only bought a few games, and athough they only cost $1-$4 I find that they’re absolutely fantastic. It’ll be a while before many games match the depth of a Nintendo DS game (check out “Real Racing”), I’ve still invested plenty of time into iPhone games.

    A few of the best picks are:
    1. Sally’s Spa (don’t avoid it because it’s aimed at women…it’s addictive)
    2. Flight Control
    3. Knights Onrush
    4. Sentinel 2
    5. Fieldrunners
    6. Hero of Sparta
    7. Blimp

    You may not get a game as deep as something like Phantom Hourglass, but you are paying like 30-50x less (or 70x less if you’re Aussie like me).

    I’ve owned a few handhelds over the years, and have loved them but I rarely felt I was getting value for money. I may have spent $70 AUD on a handheld game and played it for 20 hours, but now I spend $1 for an iPhone game and get at least 4-5 hours out of it.

    I guess everyone has their own tastes though.

    Side note: This comment turned out longer than I’d planned.

  22. prufock says:

    I’ve never thought about the cost per hour of playing time before. It’s an interesting way of thinking about game prices. How did you arrive at that precise number?

  23. Tyler says:

    Elite Beat Agents was a poor performer, sales wise (sad, seeing as it is such a fun game), which is why it is in the clearance rack at many stores. I agree with Tetris DS being on the list, along with any version of Meteos. PuzzleQuest (either Warlords or Galactrix) will also give you a large amount of playtime. Pokemon, if you are a fan, will give a deep experience…Chrono Trigger is also on sale for $20 at GameStop, and has 14 or so endings if you want to invest the time in it.

  24. Sandy says:

    ok..just out of curiosity, how much do all of these games add up to. I’ll admit, our family is TOTALLY out of the tech loop when it comes to games described above. Also, when I think of our younger years, I can’t imagine my husband spending time playing games as much as it sounds like people play games now. He and I were busy with language lessons during our early marriage, and learning about other cultures by travelling, and socking money away for a deposit on a house.
    Everyone spends money and enjoys themselves differently, I suppose. Also, what amount of your time are you playing per day? per week? per month?
    I’m not saying that it’s a bad way to spend your time, and you are all getting something out of it, I’m sure (social interaction, etc…).As long as you are doing things to advance yourself while you are young and not using too much of your time playing games, I have no issue and it sounds like fun…I’m just in the dark on cost and time involvement.

  25. Jen says:

    I love my DS, though I do wish I would have waited for the DSI. I’ve gotten the most enjoyment out of Zelda, Professor Layton, Brain Age, and Lego Batman for the DS, which is just super fun and adorable.

  26. liv says:

    Games can definitely add up. Between downloadable games and console (Xbox, etc) games, they can start from as little as like $4 and go up to $60. I know people who have emptied their pockets for every single console and game imaginable…but then again, they’re really hard core gamers and enjoy it a lot in both social and solo aspects.

    People do spend money on what they are entertained with. That is the most important part. Depending on the replayability of the game, you can spend (I’d guess) a minimum of 20hrs on any given game up to an infinite amount.

    I love how Trent used this comparison with games. I don’t really do this with games as much as I do this with clothes. (Try to get it down to at least $1 per wear) It makes me happy when I’ve gotten a $4 tank top and worn it 100 times.

  27. Sandy says:

    Thanks, Liv. Interesting thought about clothes. I’m not a shopper…most of what I have, I’ve had several years or more. I don’t think it’s possible for me toeven remember what I spent on items that I bought 15 years ago and still wear. I guess whatever I spent on something I’ve gotten that much wear out of,it was a deal!

  28. Kyle says:

    I read this blog to keep from spending money and you are talking me into BUYING something…nooooooooo! Oh well, good article and you do make it a point to address it to those dead set on playing games.

  29. DB Cooper says:

    I don’t know…I see grown man playing video games and my first thought is: loser. Personally, I would rather actually live my life rather than focus so much attention on stuff that’s not real happening on a tiny screen. I’m pretty sure that when I’m on my death bed, I won’t be regretting that I didn’t play more video games.

    As a teacher, I am disheartened by the amount of time my students spend in front of some sort of video screen. It’s a BIG world out there – go LIVE it!

  30. Sandy says:

    One comment on children playing video games and not utilizing all fingers in developmental stages.
    My daughter plays violin in the school orchestra (we live in a great public school system that still supports the arts, thankfully!)and I was talking to her teacher about some issues. According to her, and she has been teaching for 30 years, in the last 5-7 years, a large number of the kids have a terribly difficult time with a particular fingering that is one of the earliest skills the children learn on the violin. This had never been a problem in years past. She said were she doing a Doctoral research paper, she’d do it on the theory that children are not utilizing all of the important finger developmental stages as young children because more and more of them are sitting infront of computer screens or TV screens or video games so much of their childhood now, as opposed to when screen time was much less. I have often wondered, too, how having a Wii in your living room would disuade a child from learning how to (really) bowl, play tennis, and any one of many games that they can just go to a screen to “play”. I’d be really interested in any parental comment on how many hours their children are in front of a screen, and how that may effect their childhood skills.

  31. Shelly says:

    For the DS, there are third party devices that allow you to use a Mini-SD card (CycloDS Revolution that someone mentioned above is one, R4 is the one I have). It allows you to use a DS Lite for all kinds of things (there are many “homebrew” games/applications that people have created for the DS, and if you’re into piracy you can find every DS game ever made online, not that I’m condoning that activity). Because of this, I haven’t found the DSi to really be worth the cost.

    I also agree with those who mentioned that there are a lot of great games out for the iPod Touch that cost far less than the games for the DSi. I could see there being some complaints in terms of the big action games for the Touch, but you mentioned downloading puzzle games — that’s the kind of stuff that the Touch does best! I’ve just been using free applications and have been having a great time with it. My addiction right now is to Wild West, a free pinball application. I also love Tap Tap Revenge, a free rhythm game — they have a whole library of songs you can download to play with it (also free), and you can play against other people online, too. There are a lot of bad apps available as well, but if you can weed through them a bit, there are plenty of gems.

  32. Jesse says:

    @ DB Cooper

    I get that there is a stigma attached to video games. However, is it any different than someone who watches hours of television or movies? I think video games are often mistakenly seen as children’s entertainment, therefore if an adult is seen playing them, you see them as a “loser”. If you’ve got no problem sitting through a two hour movie on a random Saturday night, playing video games shouldn’t be seen as any different.

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