Jesper Juul argues in A Casual Revolution that “The stereotype of a casual player is the inverted image of the hardcore player: this player has a preference for positive and pleasant fictions, has played few video games, is willing to commit little time and few resources toward playing video games, and dislikes difficult games” (8). Juul goes on to relate modern casual video games to arcade games from the 1980s, such as Pac-Man, and ultimately posits that the Nintendo Wii played the biggest role in ushering in this casual ‘reinvention’ of gaming that exists today (2). Steven E. Jones and George K. Thiruvathukal agree with Juul in their book Codename Revolution, a Platform Studies evaluation of the Nintendo Wii, stating even more clearly that the Wii is directly associated with “the rise of casual gaming” (7). In other words, both books discuss the Casual Revolution and its impact on gamers, and both give the Wii much credit in the rise of the casual phenomenon.
Although both texts are correct in that a Casual Revolution of gaming has occurred, and that the Nintendo Wii played a significant role in that movement, neither book properly credits the Nintendo DS, which launched two years earlier than the Wii, with its ground-breaking combination of hardware features; many of which were borrowed for, or inspired, design elements and the social conditions that allowed the Wii to succeed. This essay analyzes both A Casual Revolution and Codename Revolution, and argues that the Nintendo DS was a step ahead of the Wii in ushering in the Casual Revolution of gaming that has increased in popularity since the mid-2000s. To that end, this essay features two main sections: first, a background analysis of the Casual Revolution and relevant literature on the phenomenon; and second, an examination of the Nintendo DS hardware and key software that ultimately revolutionized casual gaming—before the release of the Nintendo Wii. By comparing the DS and the Wii, I ultimately demonstrate that most of the elements that Juul and Jones and Thiruvathukal argue propelled the Wii to the level of cultural phenomenon were already in place in, or similar in thought to, the key components and development strategy of the Nintendo DS.
Before I begin, I would like to provide a brief note on the DS and its revisions. The original Nintendo DS console was released in North America in 2004, and was replaced by the DS Lite in 2006, and then again by the DSi and DSiXL in 2009 and 2010 respectively. Throughout the essay I refer exclusively to the original DS model, which shares almost all features with the thinner DS Lite, but not with the DSi models, which removed some features, such as backward compatibility, but included or expanded upon others, such as the console’s bottom touchscreen and its app interface, respectively. The DSi models also included multiple cameras that the original models lacked. Most DS software (and all that I consider and make reference to within) are playable on all versions of the console.
Some background information on Juul’s book and the Nintendo Wii will help contextualize my argument about the DS since A Casual Revolution defined the Casual Revolution technologically, culturally, and historically, for those, like Jones and Thiruvathukal, who have written about the casual phenomenon since. Juul makes much of the Nintendo Wii’s impact on casual gaming; he even references the impact of the Wii on an anecdote on the first page, noting the appeal of the Wii to “parents, grandparents, [and] partner[s], none of whom had ever expressed any interest whatsoever in video games [sic]” (1). The emphasis on “interest in video games” is paramount to the overall argument about casual gamers, since Juul mentions in a passage I quoted earlier that casual players are “willing to commit little time and few resources toward playing video games” (8). Juul eventually uses two games, Wii Sports and Wii Play, as case studies to highlight the Wii’s success as a casual platform, noting that both games are collections of “minigames” that use the Wii’s motion control interface as a mimetic platform, mirroring on the player’s television screen the approximate actions that the player performs in real space (114-8). Mimesis—the act of imitating or replicating one’s actions, here in a digital environment—is a key component of casual gaming according to Juul. He then lists the other factors that he argues casual video games must consider in order to succeed, which include: “fiction” (a positive emotional setting especially through simple/colourful graphics), usability (a simple control scheme), interruptibility (the allowance for the game to be suspended and returned to with ease), difficulty (lenient punishment for failure), and “juiciness,” or the overall appeal of the game through a generous reward system (50). This model is a helpful way of considering what makes basic casual games compelling to players and is certainly applicable to both of his examples, Wii Sports and Wii Play, which feature simple controls that mimic the action appearing on screen, as well as bright, positive graphics. Moreover, a streamlined, accessible in-game menu features the sports of minigames included in each collection, allowing an intuitive means of beginning each minigame and suspending the game with ease. That these games participated in the Casual Revolution is certainly true, and Juul’s analysis of each Wii game is robust.
Still, Juul’s book fails to make any significant mention of the DS’s role in the Casual Revolution, mentioning it only three times in the book, and even then only in order to discuss one or two individual pieces of software for the console, rather than its active engagement with the phenomenon. One such game that Juul describes is Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, which he argues is an example of a game that combines ‘hardcore’ and casual elements (65-6). Although Juul argues that the game was popular, it is not a top-selling piece of software for the console (probably due to a niche market situation for casual/core hybrid games). Other DS-exclusive games like Brain Age, Nintendogs, and Cooking Mama sold extremely well, and therefore speak to the casual influence of the console in interesting and complicated ways, which I discuss in the second section of this essay. In fact, sales numbers provide a critical insight into the popular reception of the DS, which (combined with its subsequent revisions) is the second-best-selling video game console released to date, selling over 154 million units since its launch in 2004; over 50 million more than the Wii’s 101 million units (Nintendo Co., Ltd Consolidated Sales Transition By Region). Consoles like the Wii and the DS sold well because of their appeal to traditional gamers, certainly, with reputable game series like Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda, but the development of casual software pushed these consoles to sell even more units to the casual demographic as well.
The DS itself was a revolutionary piece of hardware, especially as a portable console, introducing several features that are now common—if not expected—across modern home and portable consoles, such as its successor, the 3DS, and rival Sony and Microsoft’s PlayStation 4 and Xbox One systems. This argument—that the DS ushered in influential hardware features that are now standard across the industry—has received little attention in academic texts about the Casual Revolution. In fact, in the introduction to Jones and Thiruvathukal‘s Codename Revolution, the authors call the Wii the “most influential video game platform of the past decade” before positing the console as a key player in the “retro-reinvention” of modern video games (a nod to Juul’s book and thesis because of the connection he makes between casual Wii software and popular arcade games from the 1980s) (2-3). I argue that the DS revolutionized the gaming industry in more ways than the Wii did, largely because of its unique hardware design and support of casual software—several of which were borrowed for, or inspired, the Wii’s specifications and features.
One such unique feature was the DS’s ground-breaking means of controlling its game software through gesture-based means. Indeed, the Nintendo DS’s touchscreen capability (the console’s bottom screen), and included stylus designed specifically for use on the console’s touchscreen, was an earlier gesture-based form of control than the Wii. Not all DS games used the touchscreen features (and indeed not all Wii games used the motion-sensing capabilities of the Wiimote), but its incorporation allowed for new types of games, which were often casual in nature, to be developed for the console. Simple verb command buttons (“A,” “B,” and so on) were still featured on the DS, but the ability to draw, drag, or otherwise gesture toward elements on the DS’s bottom screen with the stylus allowed for a more precise control experience—especially for casual gamers, who might have found the abstract button layouts on traditional controllers difficult to control.
Additionally, the DS included backward compatibility with Game Boy Advance (GBA) games, and was the first Nintendo console to automatically load an app interface home screen when powered on, rather than immediately booting the inserted game. Backward compatibility is an important factor for casual gamers who could be less likely to keep older consoles to play games purchased on outdated hardware; as such, the ability to play those previously purchased games is a strong selling point for casual and core players alike. Two years after the DS included GBA backward compatibility, the Wii launched with the ability to play GameCube games—that console’s predecessor—confirming that the success of the DS line informed the Wii’s inclusion of backward compatibility features for its release too. The DS’s app interface—although basic—consisted of two game-based apps (one to launch an inserted DS game; the other for an inserted GBA game) as well as its Pictochat messaging app, “Download Play” (the ability to play games wirelessly with other users in close proximity), and basic apps to control the clock, brightness, and so on. The Wii subsequently included a much more robust interface—a natural progression of the feature, especially for a home console with much more computing power—but it remains that the DS’s app screen came first. App interfaces allow consoles to do more than only play games, turning them into multimedia devices with a greater overall appeal to non-gamers. The DS’s clock feature, for example, is one minor addition to the console’s design that set it apart from the GBA, which did not feature a clock or any other app software. By including minor features like a clock, the DS was positioned as such a multipurpose device, which increased its appeal to casual players who might play for brief, controlled amounts of time, as Juul made clear is important to this demographic in A Casual Revolution. Certainly, backward compatibility and app interfaces are two more ways that the DS revolutionized casual gaming for Nintendo, and these successful DS features were later borrowed for, or improved upon in, the development of the Wii.
Jones and Thiruvathukal discuss the Wii’s built-in online infrastructure in Codename Revolution, calling the console’s Wi-Fi capabilities (as well as its Bluetooth and infrared technology) the user’s own “Personal Area Network” and the ability to connect wirelessly is then positioned as being influential in its appeal to casual gamers (11-12). The DS was Nintendo’s first console to feature built-in online connectivity (specifically through Wi-Fi) and featured sequels to established franchises on earlier Nintendo consoles with online multiplayer connectivity as a primary attraction, with notable examples being Mario Kart DS and Pokémon Diamond and Pearl. The home console sequels to these DS games—Mario Kart Wii and Pokémon Battle Revolution, respectively—featured online gameplay and, in the case of Pokémon Battle Revolution, wireless connectivity to the Nintendo DS games in order to import Pokémon characters from the handheld games to the console version. Earlier Pokémon games had featured handheld-to-console connectivity through physical cables, but the introduction of online multiplayer—first in the Nintendo DS games—greatly increased the ability for players to trade and battle with each other, either from portable-to-portable all around the world, or from portable-to-home console via local wireless. Although social interaction was somewhat limited in both the cases of Mario Kart and Pokémon on the Nintendo DS, the ability to play online was a primary component of each game, with “Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection” emblazoned in bright blue on the top- or bottom-left section of the games’ box covers, emphasizing the feature. That the online functionality for both DS games was expanded upon in their home console sequels further illustrates the popularity of these online features included first in the DS games.
Released two years before the Wii, it is unsurprising that the DS informed the Wii’s development, especially in many of the later console’s hardware features, such as gesture-based controls, backward compatibility, and online play. Osamu Inoue’s book Nintendo Magic: Winning the Videogame Wars charts the history of Nintendo and its business practices up to the book’s release in 2010, paying particular attention to the philosophical development of popular Nintendo hardware and software releases. Inoue links the consoles I am considering in the chapter, “The Birth of the DS and the Wii,” and notes that the two consoles were in development simultaneously (although the DS’s development began earlier). Inoue tells the story of their development, quoting Nintendo’s President at the time, Satoru Iwata, as asking “What’s keeping people from touching game machines? What’s making them run away?”—a call to action for the company to reach beyond the established ‘core’ gaming market (35). In approaching the DS as a console not intended to impress with raw computing power, but with an innovative control scheme, Nintendo succeeded in “heading for growth in a new direction,” which Inoue quotes Iwata as saying in a Nintendo investor’s meeting in 2003—a year before the DS launched (37). Inoue argues that Iwata was confident that the Wii, “in the wake of the DS, [would deliver] a new kind of console too,” therefore connecting the two devices in their casual emphases; particularly in light of the pre-launch hysteria surrounding the release of the DS (41). The move away from high performance hardware to ‘new experiences’ at Nintendo certainly began with the DS and continued two years later with the launch of the Wii, and Inoue’s book aptly links the two pieces of hardware from ideological birth, to development, to release, highlighting the DS’s (earlier) role in the Casual Revolution.
The social aspect of the two consoles presents us with another similarity, especially because social gaming is considered at length in Codename Revolution. In that book, Jones and Thiruvathukal argue that Nintendo “conceived of the new [Wii] console as … ‘for everyone’” and claim that the console’s ability to literally bring gamers to their feet while playing revolutionized how developers considered new forms of play (2). One of the key arguments that Jones and Thiruvathukal make is that the Wii increased the extent to which players watched each other perform the video game simply because watching someone move their body was more entertaining (and more integral to the motion controller’s gaming experience) than traditional gaming controllers, which were less interesting to watch in action than the actual game on the screen (141). This player visibility, which the authors argue the Wii promoted as an aspect of casual gaming is absolutely the case, but I would suggest that portable gaming consoles, like the Nintendo DS (and fifteen years earlier, Nintendo’s Game Boy console line), relied on this real visibility long before the Wii released. Portable hardware emphasizes the user’s ability to take the console with them and play whenever—and wherever—they see fit. The rise of smartphone gaming (a phenomenon that has gained in popularity since Juul and Jones and Thiruvathukal’s books released) demands a similar public visibility, proving that modern casual games at least allow for—if they do not promote—the active visibility of the player in real space. Pokémon GO is but one recent example of a mobile game released for smartphones that encourages the user to play the game in real, visible space, confirming the role of visibility in such modern casual games. The DS, with its compact size and its emphasis on touchscreen play, promoted an earlier—but very similar—visibility for players. Therefore, with the DS’s emphasis on visibility in real space, Jones and Thiruvathukal‘s argument that “before the Wii, this was rarely made the focus of attention” (141) is simply not the case in light of the earlier portable console.
The reason that player visibility became an integral component of the Wii was due the Wii’s controller, often nicknamed the “Wiimote” due to its design similarities to common television remotes. The controller’s motion-sensing capabilities marked the first time that such technology had been the main feature of a console’s controller, and the ease with which players could control the software—especially with the bundled Wii Sports game—made the console more appealing to a wider base of users than traditional gaming controllers had before. Accepting the origin role that the Wii played in the Casual Revolution as Juul described it, Mirko Ernkvist’s essay “Console Hardware: The Development of Nintendo Wii” similarly posits that the Wii—due in large part to the gesture-based Wiimote—was the first console to broaden “the definition of what traditionally had been considered video games and enabled the market to reach new user groups” (157). Of course, like most authors writing about the Casual Revolution, Ernkvist also ignores the DS’s stylus and touchscreen, which were gesture-based, as I argued before, and launched earlier than the Wii. To complicate his argument further, Ernkvist includes a detailed breakdown of Nintendo’s revenues as of 2011, which show that both the Wii and the DS “created a rapid increase of revenues and improved the financial performance of [Nintendo] during FY 2006-2009; revenues more than tripled”—due to the successes of both consoles (159). Although Ernkvist calls the Wii “market-expanding,” and the Wiimote “innovative (168), like Juul, he fails to credit the DS with expanding the gaming market before the release of the Wii, even though he gestures towards the console by including it in his financial analysis of Nintendo’s revenues during the peak of the console’s popularity.
In order to better understand how the DS participated in the Casual Revolution of gaming, an evaluation of key software on the console is necessitated. The Nintendo DS featured a range of casual video games, such as Brain Age, Cooking Mama, and Nintendogs—all of which featured at least one sequel, and in the case of Brain Age and Cooking Mama, later adaptations or spin-off games for the Wii. Ian Bogost argues in his book How to Do Things With Videogames that casual games increasingly “offer an alternative … [they] can be used ‘outside entertainment’ in education, health care, or corporate training, for example” (5). Bogost’s argument informs this section of the essay, which argues that the DS games considered as case studies offer players a material benefit rather than simple button-pressing and score-achieving ends. Bogost discusses relevant game archetypes in his book, such as exercise games in one chapter, and the capability of games to relax players in another, positing that such games are appealing to casual gamers due to the quantifiable benefit (for example, in the case of exercise games, weight loss/exercise) for players. Bogost concludes the book by claiming that core gamers have been “disturbed and disoriented” by the Casual Revolution of gaming, making the consideration of such software all the more critical (150).
Some of the most popular (and recognisable) casual games released for the DS were those in the Brain Age series, which were marketed as health-based software, offering brain exercises to players in order to maintain mental stimulation. The first game, Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!, was released in 2006, and was designed to appeal primarily to casual gamers. The game and its sequels made excellent use of the DS’s unique hardware features, including the console’s touchscreen interface, folding hinges, dual screens, and microphone variously in its minigames. Alexander Rusetski claims in his article “The Whole New World: Nintendo’s Targeting Choice” that Brain Age was targeted at “ageing customers” and notes that the game was launched in contrast to traditional ‘mature’ games, which were popular at the time of the game’s release (200). Rusetski also notes the popularity of the game among women, a demographic that, until then, had not typically been targeted by video game marketing teams (200). Certainly, the game’s colourful graphics and simple controls conform to the elements of casual gaming as provided by Juul. The game’s simple progression system is a form of positive feedback, rewarding players for playing every day, and the game’s subtitle, Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!, emphasizes the interruptibility and low commitment from players engaging with the game. Because the game was developed and published by Nintendo for the DS, we see it as a prime example of the company’s focus on casual games for the console. The game went on to sell over 19 million units, confirming its success as casual software (Nintendo Co., Ltd. “Top Selling Title Sales Units”).
The Brain Age games were popular enough to warrant some academic criticism, especially in the fields of psychology and neuroscience. James Butcher’s article “Mind Games: Do They Work?” is a psychological examination of the Brain Age games. Although the article casts doubt on some specific aspects of the games and their genre, a broad understanding of the games’ power is displayed in relation to what Rusetski described as the “ageing consumer,” who otherwise was unlikely to play video games. Whether the game was successful in preventing neurological deterioration in ageing players remains to be seen, as Butcher’s article suggests, but that the game was marketed and sold to this traditionally non-gaming demographic further entrenches the game in the Casual Revolution that took place with the DS.
Another popular game series released on the DS was Cooking Mama, which was aimed especially at a younger female audience. The Cooking Mama games are cooking simulators that chiefly use the DS’s touchscreen to simulate the stirring of pots by drawing circles on the screen, the chopping of ingredients by drawing lines over the given food items with the stylus, and so on. Like the Brain Age games, the Cooking Mama series is well known for its colourful, positive graphics, simple control scheme, and relatively easy difficulty—further suggesting that the game is primarily aimed at children. The “alternative,” taking up Bogost’s jargon, for Cooking Mama players is the potential to learn how to cook new or better dishes—a material reward for users that would be more difficult to integrate in ‘traditional’ games. Few academic sources exist on the Cooking Mama series, but one is Laura Fantone’s “Female Players from Margin to Centre: Female Sociality, Digital Consumer Citizenship and Reterritorialisations.” Fantone confirms the games’ young, female targey audience, and argues,
The Sims [another game] mainly targets young adult women, by using elements appealing to a supposedly mainstream ‘female taste’: pastel colours, collaborative interaction rather than competition and a focus on everyday life activities like shopping and chatting. These features are often associated with pro- ducts aimed at teenage girls, whose main con- cerns are shopping, taking care of babies and pets and anything cute. For videogame mar- keters branching out to adult women meant adopting similar strategies to those used for targeting teenage girls. In fact, if we look at gender in conjunction with age, we discover that videogames designed for younger players (the so-called tweens, 8 to 12 years of age) are not very different in these qualities from adult social games (216).
Indeed, the “pastel colours” and emphasis on collaboration over competition are key aspects of the Cooking Mama software, which are all simulations of cooking—an everyday life activity. Although the article ultimately argues that the gendering of the Cooking Mama games is problematic—which it certainly is—the games remained popular on the DS and, as Fantone describes, drew in a wider audience of women and pre-teen girls who were otherwise non-gamers (216-7). It is unfortunate that the Cooking Mama series domesticizes female agency for its intended audience, but the popular reception of the game proves its success on the console with this casual audience.
Fantone also comments on the gendering of the Nintendo DS, arguing that the “DS in particular … [is] specifically aimed at pre-teens and definitely appear[s] to be gendered. These consoles are now available in black and red to appeal to the boys, and white and pink to appeal to girls (or at least to appear gender neutral in the case of white)” (217). Fantone goes on to say that “The pink Nintendo DS and the videogame box [of Cooking Mama] decorated with stars and hearts engender [the young female player’s] gaming experience before any time is spent playing. The young player is already inscribed in a discourse that gives sense to gender difference and power in relation to knowledge and normativity” (218). Fantone’s emphasis on the coloured consoles informing gender is true, and in the case of Cooking Mama and the pink DS, problematic for female players, but Nintendo’s way of marketing the console to both young boys and girls—and providing ample casual software for each—explains in part the success of the system for this casual demographic too.
The final game series I consider, and the most popular casual software on the DS, is the Nintendogs series, a line of pet simulation games first released for the DS in 2005. Like Cooking Mama, Nintendogs is a simulation game, but of pet ownership rather than cooking. The various Nintendogs releases (which are more or less the same game, but featuring different dog breeds) sold a combined 23.96 million units, making it the second-best-selling DS software release (Nintendo Co., Ltd. “Top Selling Title Sales Units”). As with the other casual games I have analyzed above, we can read the Nintendogs games as being aimed at children due to their positive, colourful graphics and their simple controls. The “alternative” benefit for Nintendogs users is simulated pet ownership without the responsibility of actually owning a dog—a living animal, which, for children, could be of too great responsibility; hence parents potentially turning to the game in order to satisfy their child’s wish to care for a dog. To that end, Minna Ruckenstein’s article “Playing Nintendogs: Desire, Distributed Agency and Potentials of Prosumption” specifically argues that “The Nintendo DS is needed in order to enter a gaming world where relationships are built between children and non-human objects with human-like capacities” (351). Indeed, the definition of “video game” is challenged by Nintendogs since there are few game-like qualities present for players; instead, the game aims to be a 1:1 representation of owning and caring for a real dog.
Still, as the highest-selling piece of casual software for the DS, it is worth considering how the game informed players of the DS’s casual nature. Ruckenstein studies a specific school community from 2007 and notes that one young female student “had shown no particular interest in the [Nintendo DS], but [her] mother acted on the idea that digital technologies are important pedagogical devices” (358-9). In her study, Ruckenstein notes the appeal of the Nintendo DS, and later, Nintendogs in particular, to young female players, confirming that the two (the console and the game) became analogous for many of the game’s consumers. However, Nintendogs appealed to adults too, which is likely why its sales numbers were so high. Another scholar, Kris Oser, finds in “Game Enthusiasm Rises Up from the Basement” that “42% of Nintendogs purchasers were women (not children),” which proves that the game appealed to this casual gaming demographic as well as the younger one (51).
Ultimately, the Nintendo DS paved the way for the rise of casual gaming on Nintendo consoles. The Wii did, as A Casual Revolution, Codename Revolution, and other texts suggest, further the ways non-gamers engaged with video games, but the Nintendo DS did so earlier with software like Brain Age, Cooking Mama, and Nintendogs, and to not properly recognize the DS’s impact on the casual phenomenon is both a misrepresentation of the state of the video game industry in the mid-2000s, and of the cultural power that the DS held as a result of its successes. By incorporating more hardware features than earlier portable and home Nintendo consoles, such as a gesture-base control scheme, backward compatibility, and an app interface, the DS proved to be a considerable console for players who might not otherwise engage with gaming hardware. Much of the software released for the system, including Brain Age, Cooking Mama, and Nintendogs, spoke to these non-gamer demographics, motivating them to purchase the console and specific games, as Kris Oser found in her article. While Jesper Juul’s discussion of the Casual Revolution is useful insofar as it defines and considers the phenomenon for others to subsequently take up, Juul’s focus on the Wii overlooks the history of Nintendo hardware that led to that console’s development—especially of the Nintendo DS, which I have shown to have directly influenced the Wii’s development. Further analysis of casual gaming is warranted, especially in this current age of smartphone gaming, but by contextualising Juul’s claims about the Wii through my analysis of the DS, I hope to have continued the conversation about casual gaming especially as it relates to Nintendo’s consoles and games.
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