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Nintendo to Launch DS as Sony's Player Is Delayed

September 21, 2004|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Seeking to head off a challenge from video game rival Sony Corp., Nintendo Co. said today that its dual-screen Game Boy player will hit U.S. stores just in time for the crucial holiday shopping season.

Nintendo executives in Japan said the DS, its first new hand-held player in three years, will be available in the United States on Nov. 21 with a suggested retail price of $149.99.

That will give the Kyoto-based company at least a temporary jump on Sony, whose own hand-held game player has been delayed until at least the first quarter of 2005. Though Nintendo's Game Boy franchise dominates the genre, Sony's popular line of PlayStation game consoles provides it with a wealth of game expertise and a ready-made fan base.

"This is Nintendo going on the offensive and being very aggressive, which they haven't had to do," said analyst P.J. McNealy of American Technology Research in San Francisco. "They've owned the hand-held gaming space."

Nintendo has sold 170 million Game Boy players since the line was introduced in 1989, according to the firm. At least a dozen other portable game devices have been introduced since then, and nearly all have died quickly.

The most recent major challenger was mobile telephone maker Nokia, which introduced its N-Gage portable player in 2003. The company said it had shipped 1 million of the units as of earlier this month.

But Sony's long-awaited PlayStation Portable could prove a formidable opponent.

Scheduled to be available in the U.S. in March, the PSP will feature a larger screen than those on the DS. Unlike the DS, which is geared exclusively toward games, analysts expect that the PSP will also function as a digital music and video player. Analysts also predict that it will cost as much as $300 -- about twice the DS.

Sony has scheduled a news conference in Tokyo today. Speculation is that the company will disclose more information about the PSP.

Nintendo has reason to be worried. Its Nintendo Entertainment System cartridge-based console ushered in the modern era of video gaming in 1985. Sony didn't enter the fray until it introduced the original PlayStation in 1994, but within five years it dominated the field.

Nintendo and Sony introduced their latest consoles in 2001. Nintendo has shipped about 16 million of its GameCubes since then, according to the company. Sony says the number of PlayStation 2 consoles in the marketplace is about 72 million.

"Sony has an extremely strong brand in gaming," McNealy said. "Anyone would be nervous about them getting into their market."

Nintendo is hoping that the DS' dual-screen format will keep gamers from straying to Sony. The pair of screens can be used to view games from two angles or to allow two players to go head-to-head via a wireless connection.

The DS will also be able to play the approximately 600 Game Boy Advance titles already on the market. But Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo's vice president of sales and marketing, said that compared with Game Boy Advance, the DS was designed for "an older demographic that wants more complexity, more intricacy in game play."

Analysts said the imminent DS debut was signaled this month when Nintendo shaved $20 off the price of its Game Boy Advance SP, the latest player in the line. It now sells for $79.99.

"They didn't want the price point too close," said Michael Pachter, who follows the video game industry for Wedbush Morgan Securities in L.A.

Nintendo said it would ship 4 million DS units worldwide by the end of its fiscal year in March 2005. One executive close to the situation said about 2 million of those would ship to retailers in North America and Japan by the end of 2004.

Pachter said the prospects for selling them during the holiday season were good.

"There's a lot of gamers out there who will have it just for bragging rights," he said. "The thing will be completely sold out by Dec. 1."

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