Revolution, innovation, and boring dogs

1up.com has an interesting piece up about the possibilities for games using Nintendo’s upcoming Revolution controller. The controller looks like a remote control and can use motion sensors instead of buttons — you could move the whole controller to the side to move a player or look around, instead of pressing on the D-pad or analog stick. The piece keeps coming back to a key problem with video game innovation: it may seem like fun to be able to cast a spell as Harry Potter with the flick of the controller, or to use the controller as a lightsaber, but if that’s all there is to a game the fun will wear off in a hurry.

The Nintendo DS  gives plenty of examples of this problem. The DS has the most innovative, varied games of any system. Nintendogs is a pet simulator that lets you pet your dog and throw it tennis balls and frisbees with the touch screen; you can blow bubbles and teach your dog tricks using the microphone. There’s no goal, no way to beat the game; you just take care of your puppies. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a mystery game that puts you in the courtroom as a lawyer. You see a crime happening and then go to trial as Phoenix Wright, where you listen to testimony, see evidence, talk to an incompetent judge, and have to find the inconsistencies between testimony and the evidence. In Lost in Blue, you play as two shipwreck survivors who have to find food and items to make tools and fire. You use the touch screen to clear brush and pick up crabs on the beach, or to shake a palm tree so a coconut falls. Trauma Center: Under the Knife puts you in the operating room, and you use the DS stylus to perform surgery.

I haven’t played Trauma Center, but the other three games don’t go much beyond their high-concept cores. Nintendogs gets boring after running through the few things you can do with your dog. Phoenix Wright turns out to be as easy as Encyclopedia Brown “mysteries” and seems like Japanese anime-camp more than anything else. Lost in Blue quickly gets tedious and frustrating as you have to constantly find food to keep your hunger and thirst at bay, leaving little time to do anything else. Being able to pick up a potato through a touch screen doesn’t make it fun.

DS games are small enough to make these one-note experiments viable. But when the Revolution comes out, will it support unique, random and downright goofy games like these? More importantly, will it support unique games that go beyond a central conceit and are actually fun? Judging by the Xbox 360’s launch, the next generation will be even more constricted than the current one. On the other hand, Nintendo has put out games like Pikmin and Animal Crossing for the GameCube, and doesn’t hesitate to remake its flagship series like Metroid and Zelda. And the company’s entire strategy for the Revolution is to give gamers something different than the Xbox 360 and PS3.

In the meantime, gamers need to support the experiments that work, like We Love Katamari, Shadow of the Colossus and Guitar Hero (three of the titles in my holiday game guide, coming Monday). The better those games do, the more we’ll see other titles like them instead of endless franchises and recycled ideas.

— November 25, 2005

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