Since the release of Brain Age in Japan, Nintendo has turned their attention toward casual, nontraditional fare for adult audiences. Much of it, like Brain Age, is casual game material with a slight educational slant, but other successful DS releases, like Cooking Navi and Eigo Zuke, are not games at all, but rather educational aids and tools designed to use the DS's unique interface. They're all doing massive business, which makes it difficult to laugh at them no matter how silly they are.
But Nintendo was not the first company to attempt to sell application software on a gaming system, however. That distinction probably falls on BASIC Programming for the Atari 2600. Nintendo wasn't even the first company to sell application software on a Nintendo handheld. In fact, Game Boy non-games appeared in 1991. They didn't change the face of gaming. But they make for an interesting historical footnote now, and isn't that better than selling millions of copies? It is for us!
In 1991, between Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy games for every system capable of displaying Alex Trebek's moustache, GameTek released a series of utilities for the Game Boy, called the InfoGenius series. It included French and Spanish dictionaries, a personal organizer, a travel guide, and a spell checker/calculator. Not a dictionary-- a spell checker.
All of these products suffered from a fatal flaw: they assumed that the original Game Boy was portable enough to be on hand when needed. Unlike the DS, which in general can slip into bags and pockets unobtrusively, the brick Game Boy required a conscious decision and considerable shuffling of stuff to carry. If you wanted to look up a good restaurant in New York City (one of fifteen cities detailed in the Frommer's Travel Guide) or translate the menu of the French restaurant on which you decide, then you had to commit to lug the bulky Game Boy with you-- and if you're thinking that far ahead, you may as well have just looked up the information at home in a book. For that matter, books are often printed in pocket-size editions that take up less space than the Game Boy and require less direct sunlight exposure and fewer batteries.
Remember that hilarious scene in Austin Powers in which Dr. Evil added and subtracted some numbers and then printed a very small amount of text? If you do, then you probably worked for Rockstar Games in 2000. They apparently got a special cut of the movie that featured lots of calculating, word processing, and personal-organizing, because that is what the two tie-in Game Boy Color games are about. No, seriously. Hmm, seriously doesn't quite seem like quite the right word to describe this. Oh, Behave featured, in addition to some horrid minigames, an Austin Powers-themed calculator (called the Shagulator, an offer we didn't take him up on), a personal organizer, and a word processor that printed text to the Game Boy Printer. Welcome to My Underground Lair was similar, with a Dr. Evil theme (the Shagulator becomes the Frickulator). The saddest thing we can think of is the look on a kid's face when he tried his new Austin Powers game for the first time, and discovered a calculator. Well, that's not true. Here's the saddest thing: Rockstar found a way to disappoint people who knowingly bought an Austin Powers game for the Game Boy Color. That takes talent. If only they'd used their powers for good!
Why are utilities succeeding now, and why didn't they back then? We don't think we need to explain the lack of excitement over the Austin Powers games. But in general, we think it has a lot to do with the form factor of the DS Lite -- it's a lot more portable than the original Game Boy was, and the sleek form factor makes it more attractive to people who aren't as used to the categorical ugliness of game systems as we are. In addition, the touch screen interface actually makes these things useful, allowing for easy navigation of the endless menus that make up this kind of program. But perhaps most importantly, the average age of gamers is rising, as well-- in 1991, there weren't that many adult Game Boy owners, and kids already had their own Travel Guides. They called them "mom."