It’s often said that to have a truly great game on a system like the DS, one must fully embrace its input capabilities. I’m not so sure that’s true — I enjoyed Drill Dozer as much on the DS as the GBA — but there is something to that statement. I think the crux of it is not the game itself, but rather the overall experience surrounding the physical hardware.
Nintendogs was the first title to really take advantage of the DS’ capabilities. The touch-screen and stylus were perfect for petting your dog, the device-clock kept track of the commitment to your canine(s), and the algorithms behind the microphone recognized basic speech. This last feature allowed you to record your own voice and summon your dog by speaking his name — by far the best use of the mike to date.
Brain Age took the device-clock integration even further with all sorts of scheduled events, and created a new perspective of sorts by forcing the player to hold the DS vertically by its spine, i.e., like a book. Hotel Dusk did the same, but also included a journal where the gumshoe protagonist could make notes.
This scribbling mechanic became much more involved in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. Not only was it used to jot down clues, but it also served as your ship’s navigation system. In addition, it was utilized in numerous puzzles that required tracing patterns and pinpointing locations, all of which had an immediate impact in the gameworld. Phantom Hourglass also had an interesting segment where the DS’ two screens were used as a stamp. The upper screen held a pattern, and by closing the device itself — effectively nestling the two screens against each other — the pattern would become mirrored on the bottom screen.
Now Nintendo isn’t fond of anyone messing around with the default suspension that’s activated when the device is closed, but another game got away with it — Looney Tunes: Duck Amuck. Aside from all the clever ways in which you could play the sadistic cartoonist, Duck Amuck also included an interesting minigame that was played with the DS closed. Daffy would give you audio cues as to his orientation in a pitch-black area, and you’d control him using the L and R buttons.
While the overall quality of these titles is debatable, they all managed to — at least in part — turn the DS into a multimedia portal. They used the device’s various input and output capabilities to facilitate interaction and provide feedback, and, in a way, transport the player into a virtual gameworld.
But there’s something of an alternative: bringing the gameworld to the player.
Various DS titles like Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars utilize full-screen minigames. These are typically quite zoomed-in, approaching the scale of the scenes’ real-life counterparts. No scrolling is involved either, removing that “portview” sensation of looking into an artificial world. The controls used in these minigames are also quite intuitive, emulating the interactions expected in real life. The end result is subtle, but it gradually gets away from the feeling of reaching into the game and replaces it with a DS-created construct that exists in “our” world.
Of course consciously trying to achieve this is rarely logical or feasible, but it’s an interesting approach with its own pro’s and con’s. It’s also becoming quite popular in iPhone/iPod Touch “lifestyle applications,” which would partly explain the success of all those dice rollers.