The rumor just came out that the DSi will be arriving in North America in less than 4 months, fitting neatly into the window that Satoru Iwata hinted at just before the system launched in Japan. Somehow I missed this comment and had held the earlier statement by President Meat in the back of my mind, and all this time I'd been prepared to see new hardware on these shores in October at the earliest.
Now I'm caught with my pants down and I'm freaking out.
Not really, but please, feel free to entertain that mental image if it excites you. I'll wait.
Back? I'll continue. One thing this news means is that the days of the GBA cartridge slot in the bottom of the DS are numbered, and it's not as high a number as I'd thought. Many gamers aren't happy with this and have ruled out purchasing the DSi as a replacement for their current Lite or original models any time soon. I'm one of them, but not being able to play my GBA games on the toilet is only part of the story. I'd miss the Rumble Pak.
While I'm sure I'm not the only one, it's likely that many of you wouldn't miss the Rumble Pak for the simple reason that you probably don't own one or more than a few of the games that use it. You're missing out, dammit, and here are a few reasons why:
Metroid Prime Pinball
For those like me who actually have a Rumble Pak, you probably obtained it bundled with Metroid Prime Pinball. It's also quite probable that this game proceeded to shack up in the slot in the top of your DS for several months, as Pinball is one of the finest pick-up-and-play games ever. It wisely enough also serves as the perfect showcase for the Rumble Pak. A number of actions in the game result in force feedback, the most common being just about every time Samus collides with something on the table. What this does is give you the feeling that you're holding an actual pinball table in your hands: You have both hands on the DS in sort of the same way you hold them against a full sized machine and action plays out in the space between them, both visually on the screens and physically from the Rumble Pak. I don't feel I've ever felt force feedback in any other game that so closely mimics the real experience, and a big part of that has to do with that synergy brought on by the positioning of the elements on the DS.
To get a better idea, contrast this with how rumble works in Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection for Wii: the left hand holds the nunchuk, right hand holds the Wii remote, only the remote has rumble capability, and the field of play is a screen that's likely several feet away. It's a great game, but I play with the rumble off and don't miss it at all, whereas Metroid Prime Pinball loses quite a bit if I don't have the Rumble Pak in.
It's a bit of a shame there aren't many pinball games for the DS.
You wouldn't expect a grid-based puzzle game to bother at all with rumble. I didn't. And I sure as hell didn't expect that it would enhance the experience in any way. Picross DS, in addition to being another unforeseen addiction of a game, proved to be a pleasant surprise on both counts.
On a basic level, the Rumble Pak turns solving a puzzle into mathematical bubblewrap. Every "punching" or marking of a square is punctuated with a satisfying little kick. The best moments come when a puzzle has a high number in one of the rows or columns, signifying that you must punch out a bunch of continuous squares in that row or column. These moments are especially great if you are female and have the DS in your lap.*
Picross DS doesn't call it a day there, however. The puzzles are grouped together in different themes (animals, vehicles, flowers, and so on.) In addition to dictating what the solution to each puzzle will resemble, each theme comes with a skin for the puzzle board that changes it into a different material (water, metal, wood, grass, etc.), and when you punch out a square the Rumble Pak actually reacts differently depending on the material. Granted, a large part of the difference in perception is likely due to the distinct animation cues, but the vibration ties in perfectly with these, and the difference between the quick thunk of chipping away at stone versus the constant whirr of mowing away a grass tile is clear by feel alone. It adds a level of character that helps keep a game that doesn't change much throughout the whole experience from becoming too repetitive.** Much like Metroid Prime Pinball, I really do feel like I'm missing something if I don't have the Rumble Pak in the slot for this one.
*I'd imagine. And I do. **I wish the Rumble Pak could do the same for my sentence structure.
Space Invaders Extreme
One of the complaints about the Rumble Pak when it first came out was the level of noise that comes out of the thing when it's doing its job. For some reason it's a noisy little gadget, much louder than vibration functions typically are in console controllers. But what has the potential to be an annoyance in most games turns out to be an asset to the experience of Space Invaders Extreme.
Like Rez before it, Space Invaders Extreme's sound design replaces traditional shot and explosion sound effects with musical tones, marrying the player's action in the game to the soundtrack. Extreme also borrows the techno music and rave-inspired visuals from Rez, along with the use of vibration to provide the physical kick one feels from the beat in a club. Unlike Rez however, vibration on the DS adds one more element: more noise, or more accurately another instrument. Whether by intention or simply a bit of good luck the emphasis on rhythm in Space Invaders Extreme's design takes advantage of the Rumble Pak's volume and turns it into part of the experience.
It's kind of strange that some of the best uses of force feedback I've come across have been for a handheld system. Then again, perhaps it isn't so strange. I alluded to the uniqueness of handheld games being, well, experiences held in your hands, and maybe simple proximity strengthens the connection between vibration and what happens on the screen. Too bad the picture is looking quite grim for the chance of any future DS releases making good use of the Rumble Pak.