A Frugal Man and His Nintendo DS / DSi

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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