Touching Has a Dark Side, Too...
Sure the DS has brought us lots of genuinely innovative & fresh gameplay experiences, but it's brought us an unprecendented number of gimmicks, as well. We take a look...
Responsible for something outrageous like 10% of the game industry growth in the last year, the DS (and its sexy little sister the DSLite) has become an immense, leviathan-esque success for Nintendo. Outselling the PSP at every turn, it represents the best current argument for innovation over hardware, and is partially the reason that some are quite content to go ahead and hand Nintendo the victory in the next-gen console wars.
There was a time, however, when Nintendo's future looked far less bright. Back in 2004, they had most recently brought us the GameCube, a system with some fantastic games but dismissed by many as too cute. Critics and gamers alike were skeptical about a company whose track record with 'innovative' designs and control schemes was littered with complete flops, from the Power Glove to the Virtual Boy. The DS looked like a perfect candidate to continue this tradition. The extra screen seemed unnecessary and touch controls were for PDA's, not dedicated gaming machines. Critics coming from the other direction jeered the lack of media support, much the way they are now jeering at the Wii's inability to play DVD's.
Nintendo stuck by the design, insistent that the DS (which was not a Game Boy) represented a new page in console history. Now, after the launch of the Lite, they have certainly shown they were on the right track, but with the upcoming launch of the Wii I see a very large pitfall that no one seems to be addressing. While the innovative dual-screen design and touch functionality of the DS have resulted in some ingenious gameplay, each of these successes has been balanced by another game with horrible design. What I ask is this: Is it possible for "touching is good" to be taken too far?
Well, before waving any "the end is near" signs at you, here are some games that use the abilities of the DS perfectly, each in their own unique way:
Kirby's Canvas Curse:
The first true 'killer app' for the DS, this game could not (and will not) work without the stylus. Controlling Kirby by painting rainbows is a heck of a lot more fun than it sounds, which was a relief to many of us who worried about taking the series in such an odd direction.
Animal Crossing - Wild World:
While walking around on your island is often best done by way of the d-pad, using the touch screen for inventory management and writing letters (which is a large part of the game, if you didn't know) makes things a hundred times smoother than the Gamecube version.
Weird, beautiful, and completely unique, this wouldn't be anywhere near as impressive without the touch screen. Thank you Toshio Iwai!
Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney:
Adventure gaming like this just begs for something that works as well as a mouse, and the DS happily gives us just that. Making menu selections via the touch screen makes almost all of the gameplay simpler, and hunting for clues is a lot more fun when you are spraying to detect blood or dusting for prints by actually interacting with the room around you.
So, innovation can make gaming better... but it can also make it worse. Whether by adding unnecessary gameplay elements or questionable control schemes, developers have managed to take games that should be quite good and turned them into something less fun. Some of these still manage to be counted among the best on the system, but that doesn't make them any less broken. Want some examples?
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow:
This game made wonderful use of the dual screens and was a blast to play. Having to seal the bosses at the end of the battle got annoying, however, and using the stylus to clear away ice blocks was just a bad idea from the get-go. It only made it worse that you had to earn the ability to use the stylus in this way, making for one very disappointing boss reward.
To be honest, I have no idea how to fix this game, but it is broken. The actual content is fine, but the control scheme has a flaw that kept me from enjoying things, and I bet that those of you who did find enjoyment only did it by ignoring what bothered me... hand cramps. I could play for about 15 minutes at a time before having to put the DS down, and I have come up with three possible reasons: I have big hands. The stylus is very small. You have to keep the stylus touching the screen the entire battle. Regardless, the system doesn't work for me, and the fact that the designer decided not to even include the OPTION to use the d-pad means that this game is very broken indeed. I know it's more lefty-friendly, but I've done at least enough programming to know it wouldn't have been rocket science to include at least one other control scheme.
New Super Mario Brothers:
I KNOW putting this in the "bad" category probably surprises some of you, but the touch controls for 95% of this game are terrible. Why? Because all you usually do is use the screen for accessing your stored power-up and moving from area to area. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, I just hated it because laziness dictated using my thumb instead of getting the stylus out and my thumb left the bottom screen looking like crap. The bigger problem? Much like Starfox, the designers didn't even give you the option to hit a button instead. Bad design.
The three games I have just listed were well reviewed and sold many thousands of copies, but that doesn't change the fact that they would have been better without the unnecessary touch-related changes, and that is what truly worries me. If the designers of these games only put in touch control because they felt they had to, then where is this obligation coming from... is it the answer to a call from the gaming community? Perhaps it it's to pre-empt reviewers who use phrases like "doesn't really make use of the touch screen?"
Regardless, the biggest danger I see for Nintendo at this time is that they may become too enamored with their success, taking established and effective gaming standards and changing them unnecessarily to fit the abilities of their new wunderkind. While Kirby's first outing into the world of touch controls ended up being a joy to play, Mario and friends were not quite so lucky. This leaves me worried about certain upcoming games, so I await the day that I have "The Phantom Hourglass" in hand and find that the touch-screen controls work wonderfully and I wouldn't have it any other way. Until then, I leave this last part as an open letter to any and all developers for the DS:
Hardware shouldn't be shaping your game, although the game can be shaped with the hardware (and everything it's capable of) in mind. The DS may have touch functionality, but please don't tack on extras or create complicated controls just because you can. The DS stands for Dual Screens for a reason, so maybe you can think of it this way: Touching is good, but sometimes it's better to see, and not touch.