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Feature Hungry

by Jonathan Metts - November 24, 2004, 11:33 pm PST

Are Nintendo DS games making good enough use of the system’s new features?

With Nintendo’s introduction of the Nintendo DS and its radical new features, there is a new question surrounding the system’s launch that we don’t normally see when new hardware is introduced. Read some reviews around the Internet, or hop into our DS forums. You’ll find many people enjoying games like Super Mario 64 DS and Asphalt: Urban GT, but also complaining that these games don’t make very convincing use of the touch screen, dual displays, microphone, or wireless multiplayer. The dual display feature is particularly underused in many of the DS launch titles; both Mario and Asphalt show a simple map at the bottom, as does the upcoming Mario Kart DS and many other games. Then there’s Spider-Man 2, which barely uses the touch function at all. And almost none of the launch titles use the microphone. There are no games in sight expected to take advantage of Wi-Fi online play. Some fans are asking themselves whether these features were worth including on the system if developers aren’t going to take advantage of them.

The truth is, it’s normal for launch titles to underutilize a new system’s capabilities; we just don’t normally hear so much gnashing of teeth about it, because most new systems are promoted as graphical upgrades and little else. On the N64, the ubiquitous Super Mario 64 made groundbreaking use of the controller’s analog joystick, but it had no multiplayer mode for the system’s four controller ports, nor was the D-pad (and its associated controller positions) used at all. The same could be said for Luigi’s Mansion, which leaned heavily on the addition of a second analog joystick, but had no multiplayer. Super Smash Bros. Melee, released a couple of weeks later, was tailor-made for multiplayer but barely used the C-stick and ignored the new analog-plus-click shoulder buttons. No one complained then, but these features were not being used to sell GameCube as a revolutionary new system.

Every Nintendo DS game available this year, and probably every one ever to be released, will use at least one or two of the system’s features. It may be a rarity to play a game that uses all of them and incorporates all of them deep into the game design. After all, what do a touch screen and microphone have to do with each other? Not much, unless you can get very creative during game development. The truth is that Nintendo has included all these features in order to create a playground for developers, with many tools available that can be used for many types of games. It’s not necessary for every game to use every feature; in fact, that would just lead to watered-down, gimmicky games. The choice of what to use and what to save for other games is up to the developer, and neither Nintendo nor we fans should be pushing for a feature like the touch screen to be used in a game where it has no useful function, like a fighting game.

Fueling this "backlash" (it’s not that strong, but the complaints are being heard) is the fact that one of the system’s most potentially fun new features cannot yet be played by many fans. Wireless multiplayer, even for a utility like PictoChat, is a huge new feature of the Nintendo DS, and some fans seem to be forgetting it when they look at these games and don’t see the system’s features being incorporated into launch titles. Systems are so few in number right now, most DS owners probably don’t live near anyone else to play with. That will slowly change as the installed base grows, and wireless will become a more palpable feature when looking at upcoming games or those already on the store shelf.

Throughout the life of the DS, we’re going to see games on the horizon that literally could not be done on any other system. Some of them may be terrible games anyway. Some of them may be awesome and help us appreciate the DS that much more. Many other games will come along that could be done, with minor modifications, on PSP or GBA. Did it bother us when Nintendo released Metroid Prime, a game that doesn't use any of the GameCube's unique hardware features and, truth be told, probably could have been pulled off on Xbox or the PC? No, we don’t care that it could have been released on another system; we are satisfied that it is being released on Nintendo’s system. That’s the attitude we should adopt for the many Nintendo DS games that will be incredibly fun but won’t use the system’s unique features to any great effect.

Please visit our Talkback forum to discuss this editorial with the author and other PGC readers.

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