Bringing People Together Once Upon A Time: PictoChat and DS Download Play

A 2008 image of two friends, a black-haired male and a brunette female, playing the Nintendo DS outside
Credit: Kevin Podas

A 2008 image of two friends, a black-haired male and a brunette female, playing the Nintendo DS outside
Credit: Kevin Podas

Since 1989, and up until 2017 with the release of the Switch, Nintendo had been known for two main things: being big in the console game, and being big in the handheld game. But, for a very brief period in 2004, they announced what they were calling at the time a “third pillar” to their market strategy: a touch-based, dual-screen system called the Nintendo DS.

Released just three years after the Game Boy Advance, and being backwards compatible with Game Boy Advance games via a second game slot, nobody was buying this “third pillar” nonsense for a minute. So, once the Nintendo DS proved to be a resounding success (going on to become the second highest-selling video game system in history) Nintendo was real quick to be like, “yeah, the Nintendo DS is absolutely the successor to the Game Boy Advance. Go get yourself one right now.”

Not only was the system far different than anything released in Nintendo’s handheld library before it, with unique touchscreen controls and two distinct screens which offered a variety of ways to play different games, it was also their first major foray into online gaming, and provided gamers with a unique way to connect to each other via wireless capabilities such as PictoChat and DS Download Play, both of which many fans have very fond memories of.

Looking Back In Order To Look Forward

I was going through some old photos recently, which is probably a surefire sign that I am officially getting old, and looking back at pictures I’d taken from the mid-2000s where my friends and I would get together every year and go to our local anime convention: Anime Central, located just outside of Chicago. We were in high school at the time, so we'd get dropped off by a parent, or eventually drive there ourselves once we were old enough to get driver’s licenses and responsible enough to ask to borrow the car for the weekend.

Two teenagers in the back of a car playing on the Nintendo DS in DS Download Play, one on the original silver DS and the other on a Black DS Lite
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Credit: Kevin Podas
That huge Titanium-coloured Nintendo DS may not be the first DS most people think about, but it unmistakably the original beast.

I noticed, in several photos taken of us, that we were holding Nintendo DS systems in our hands, unmistakable by their shiny, titanium-colored clamshell designs, which was the only color initially available at launch. Not only was the system a great way to kill time while waiting to get into a panel or merchandise hall, but it was also a great icebreaker and a neat little way to meet new people and connect through a love of gaming.

This was such a unique feature at the time, and honestly it still is to this day. While Nintendo seems to have set these local communication features on the sidelines (at least for the time being, hopefully) looking back on them I can only hope that one day with future console iterations we can get back to this sense of pure, gaming harmony among peers.

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

When I first tried out the Nintendo DS multiplayer with some friends, the first thing we tried was, of course, PictoChat. Wireless multiplayer was fairly new at the time– hell, so were wireless controllers. So drawing a picture and sending it to a friend on your fancy new handheld device was pretty wild. Usually we’d test the waters by drawing something vaguely inappropriate, as I’m sure many teenagers with stupid teenage sensibilities at the time did the same, or just sketching little words and phrases to each other– though usually in the same room.

The DS’ wireless capabilities were limited to 65 feet, according to Nintendo’s support website. Now, you might scoff at this today, and rightfully so. But this meant that interactions were much more organic, and if someone was nearby, that made it all the more exciting. Obviously, this raised concerns for questionable activities, but barring any incidents like that, it was a neat little experiment if nothing else.

Thinking back to those conventions again, the DS actually made it somewhat fun to wait in a long line with friends, hunched over our handhelds, writing goofy messages to each other. Conventions were also places where other people with DS systems would be, so we’d sometimes have strangers join the chat, all the while killing time with each other, sending silly messages and evening gaming with each other.

A group of friends holding the Nintendo DS up high as if it is some form of messiah
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Credit: Kevin Podas

Only One Cart Needed

If you grew up playing Game Boy games, then you know how complicated it was to play multiplayer together. You needed two systems, two games, and a link cable. And probably a handful of double-A batteries for good measure, too. This worked better sometimes if you wanted to play against a friend who also happened to have the same game, but try explaining to your parents that both you and your little brother need copies of Mario Kart: Super Circuit in order to play against each other. The look on their faces? Priceless.

The DS changed the game quite a lot in this regard. Getting to play against a sibling or a friend in Mario Kart DS with only one cartridge felt like you were getting away with something you weren’t supposed to. Granted, this came with obvious limitations, like only certain tracks or modes being selectable, and one person delegated to racing as Shy Guy. But hey, there was no other way to play as Shy Guy in the main game, and you even get to pick your own color! A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, they say.

If you wanted a friend to try out a game you liked, but weren’t willing to hand over your system because you were too busy playing it, sometimes they could even download a demo of it to their system to try it on their own! The same went for store kiosks and the like. You could download demos of games to try at the store, and if you liked it? Well, go grab a copy and have the cashier ring you up right away!

Something like this was obviously a big deal for Pokemon, but it came with its own limitations. You couldn’t trade or battle Pokemon with someone who didn’t have a game themselves, which of course makes sense. However, obtaining legendary event Pokemon had never been easier (up until that point). I remember driving to Toys R Us with my friend in high school, and downloading a mythical Pokemon to my system. Before, you’d have to hook your system up to a physical device or even send your game cartridge in the mail to obtain a special Pokemon, but now all you had to do was go into a toy store and not even talk to anybody.

Sure I felt a little embarrassed to be walking into a Toys R Us as a vulnerable, insecure 16-year-old, but hey, I really wanted that Darkrai.

Even with its numerous limitations, DS Download Play was a great way to try out games without forking over your hard-earned allowance money. You could even play games while waiting in line with strangers. For example, I remember playing Mario Kart DS with people I couldn’t even see but were in the same area as me while waiting in lines at conventions. Little moments like these felt special.

Two friends playing DS download play games on the nintendo DS at what appears to be a high school party?
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Credit: Kevin Podas

Wireless Through The Years

With the release of the 3DS, Nintendo took these ideas set in place on the original DS and absolutely ran with them. PictoChat had evolved into the tragically short-lived SwapNote, which offered a less-immediate responsive chatting system but on a global scale. No longer were we tied to drawing silly pictures to people within a range of 65 feet– the world was our canvas now.

Download Play continued on in a similar fashion on the 3DS. Multiplayer games with limited functions and capabilities could still be enjoyed with others, and the really cool thing was that you could even play a DS game on a DS system against someone using a 3DS! That kind of backwards compatibility via multiplayer was rare even back then.

The real jewel in the 3DS’ wireless capabilities crown was of course StreetPass. Having your system connect to other systems while either active or in sleep mode was one of the most charming features Nintendo has ever implemented into one of their consoles. Dress up your Mii, collect puzzle pieces, and even play minigames with others you encounter on your daily real life journeys.

I was fortunate to age up with Nintendo handhelds. I was in college when the 3DS came out, and I remember bringing it with me in my pocket to classes and lectures, StreetPassing people who I had no idea who they were, trying to figure out who I walked by each Tuesday morning based on how their Mii looked. I also continued to bring it to conventions, where I racked up tons of puzzle pieces and interactions, way more than any other time of the year. I was constantly refreshing my Mii Plaza in between hangouts, and it really added a fun little element to these trips we’d take together each year.

The Future Is Remote

While the Switch may have ditched some of these elements, or at least flirted with them in some small capacity, I can only hope that they bring them back to implement them into future iterations. Whether that’s this generation, the next, or the one after that.

As an alternative currently, there is an in-browser, fanmade version of PictoChat that some people are using called PictoChat Online. Currently it’s still a work in progress, but the fact that it exists at all is a testament to the little program’s staying power.

In the age of social media, it may seem quaint or antiquated to look back on. But at the very least, it is a neat little relic. Technology and culture move so fast these days, so it can be humbling and nostalgic to look back on what we once thought was advanced, and what once brought us a unique form of joy. And hey, PictoChat was important enough to inspire a stage in Super Smash Bros. at the very least. I’ll be keeping an eye out to see if Nintendo ever brings it back again in some form or another, that’s for sure.

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