Doing it right: How to use DS features properly

As someone who travels a lot, and who until recently had a job that involved plenty of boring, unsupervised office...

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As someone who travels a lot, and who until recently had a job that involved plenty of boring, unsupervised office hours, portable videogames have become my bread and butter. I spend a lot of time with my PSP and DS, likely a lot more than I do with home consoles. Having invested so many hours into them, I like to think I know a little bit about what makes a fun handheld game.

The Nintendo DS is a very unique piece of kit with the potential to house all sorts of fun portable experiences. Over the years, it has provided many interesting and brilliant games, but there is no denying that it’s home to a lot of crap. One of the main problems is that, no matter how long the system has been on the market, some developers still don’t seem able to use its interface and gimmicks properly. 

With two screens, touch sensitivity and an in-built mic, there is a lot of potential for invention. There is also a lot of potential for misuse and bad design choices, some of which shouldn’t still be happening. In an attempt to try and curb the silliness that goes on in DS development, Destructoid now offers this: An incredibly easy guide to that tells you how to use the DS properly. Stop doing it wrong, and start doing it right!

Read on for more …

Don’t make the stylus do 100 things:

We get it — the DS’ touch screen is fun. That’s a given. You don’t have to hammer that point home with a ridiculous amount of overuse. The stylus can only do so many things at once, and if you try and implement a control scheme that relies on it exclusively, you are going to have problems. 

The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass is a prime example of what happens when you dump too much responsibility onto the stylus. Touch screen controls are used to make your character move, swing his sword, pick up items, throw items, roll, throw boomeranges and fire arrows. That’s a lot of functions to dump on one little plastic stick. It can also lead to confusion. 

When you’re relying on pressure gestures to control any aspect of a game, it has to be clear and seperate from any other gestures otherwise the whole system will get muddy. This happened in Zelda, as moving around would sometimes see you inadvertently performing a roll, or stopping entirely to slash your sword for no reason. 

The simplest way to make stylus controls clean, clear and easy to use is simply to reign in your desire to make it do everything. 

360 degree character movement via the stylus does not work. Ever:

This is a particular bugbear of mine, and if anybody plays a lot of DS games, I trust they’ll agree. Using the stylus to control on-screen movement in a 3D plain is, invariably, a terrible idea. It didn’t work in Animal Crossing: Wild World, it didn’t work in The Phantom Hourglass, and it doesn’t work in Sonic Chronicles

First of all, there are very obvious practical issues in effect here. The most glaring is the simple fact that if you have a stylus constantly pressed onto your playing space, you can’t see all of the screen. Sure, the stylus is a thin piece of equipment, but it is still capable of obscuring your view. Having to use the stylus consistently in such a manner is also physically uncomfortable for the player. 

It doesn’t work on a technical level, either. The stylus is too unwieldy an implement to provide efficient movement. Dragging a stylus to make a character turn leads to a far slower arc than if you merely have to press a button, while lifting the stylus and replacing it in the direction you wish to go not only presents an inconvenience, but usually results in your on-screen avatar having to re-adjust itself for a moment. 

It also doesn’t help when the favored control scheme dictates that holding the stylus close to your character makes them walk slowly, while holding it further away lets the character run swifter. The screen is barely two inches long — that’s not exactly a large space to be factoring distance into the equation. What this leads to is having your character too close to one end of the screen and then slowing down because there’s nowhere for your stylus to go. 

Anybody who has had trouble moving from one in-game screen to another will know exactly what I’m talking about here. 

Remember it’s a handheld device:

Elite Beat Agents is a terrific game, of that there is no denying. I like quirky rhythm games at the best of times, and EBA is definitely one of those. However, as great as it is, that doesn’t help the fact that it’s really not all that suited to portable play. The best way to play it is with the DS lying flat on a surface so you can huddle over it and effectively tap the screen in time. Trying to hold it up on a shaking bus doesn’t quite gel with the EBA experience. 

Elite Beat Agents is still playable on the move, but you get something like The World Ends With You, which requires your hands and eyes to be everywhere at once, and you realize that sometimes, DS games aren’t really tuned in to the system. The best DS games are ones that can be played just as well in the home as on a train. Having an overly complicated DS game certainly isn’t a deal breaker, but it’s definitely not in tune with what most people own a DS for.  

Offer alternative methods of control:

While using the stylus for almost everything is a pain in the backside, the best developers will know this and thus use them only as an option. Developers that are not so good will leave 90% of the system’s buttons completely unused and force the touch screen interface onto you exclusively.

It’s painfully obvious to anybody that the stylus is not as efficient as the D-Pad, yet in several games, there is no alternative control methods that could let you use the pad instead of the stick. It’s illogical not to offer traditional controls on a system that allows for them — especially if the buttons required aren’t being used in the first place. To not do so is ignorance, arrogance or both.

Don’t make the player have to switch between the buttons and stylus on the fly:

Crystal Chronicles: The Ring of Fates is a good example of how not to merge button and touch screen input together. While fighting and movement were controlled with the face button, magic attacks were selected on the touch screen in real-time. In order for this to work, you had three options available to you:

1. Clumsily grab your stylus in the middle of a fight.

2. Always hold your stylus, even though both hands are hitting buttons.

3. Use your thumb. 

None of these are ideal. In the case of Crystal Chronicles, I found that the third option was the best one available to me, but I am also someone who doesn’t like having fingerprints all over his handheld screens. However, it was something I had to put up with if I didn’t have to hold both the DS and the stylus awkwardly, or pull the stick out of the machine every single time I wanted to cast a fire spell. 

If you can’t make everything work in harmony, perhaps you should find an alternative method, or not do certain things at all. 

Just because something is there, that  doesn’t mean you have to use it:

Gaming critics do very little to help out here, as there seems to me that there’s this assumption that if a DS game doesn’t use all the features of the console, it’s not doing something right. However, if the game works perfectly without using everything that the DS has to offer, then why does it matter? 

The prevailing attitude seems to be that if something is on the DS, then it must have some sort of stylus implementation, or you simply need to use the microphone. Really? If you can’t think of a good use for the stylus, don’t use it. It’s just that simple. 

A good example of a game detrimentally shoehorning in touch screen controls is Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. The only time the stylus is required is at the end of each boss fight, where you must doodle a special symbol on the screen to “seal” the monster and finish the fight. Not only is it a thoroughly pointless addition, the later boss fights have some difficult symbols that don’t even seem to get recognized properly and you end up having to fight the boss some more before you get another opportunity. Not to mention that it quite jarringly takes you out of the game. However, if Dawn of Sorrow hadn’t included something, you bet some people would have complained, as if DS software isn’t justified unless it makes use of everything. 

If you’re making a DS game and all you can think to do with the extra screen is stick a map up there — that’s fine. If you don’t want to use the stylus, don’t worry about it. Just trying to cram what you can into a game simply because it’s there is like having a cook put custard on the hamburgers, just because there was a spare packet of ready mix in the cupboard. 

Have the game make a little noise if you close the DS on it:

Okay, this is a silly one, but it’s fun. Whether it’s Mario chirping away in New Super Mario Bros., or Lock’s Quest making the sound of a chest being closed and locked, it’s a simple yet thoroughly winning joy, as far as I’m concerned. One that not enough developers take advantage of. 

If a feature is going to make the game worse — LEAVE IT ALONE:

The final point is pretty much the recurring theme for this whole guide. If you’re going to actively make your game worse with the DS features, then either use something else, or develop it for a different system entirely. The touch screen is there to add to a game, it should never take something away. Same goes for the microphone and the second screen. These are additions, not subtractions. They are there to be a benefit, not a hindrance. 

The Nintendo DS is an amazing system, but its features need to be carefully balanced and its games need to work in perfect harmony with what it offers in order to create the best possible experience. If you’re going to make an old school point-and-click style game, then go hogwild — stylus controls work great for that type of thing. If your gameplay is rooted in something more traditional, then there are traditional methods sitting right there in front of you. 

The DS is incredibily versatile, but that versatility is being stunted because people are inventing their own restrictions. They are mentally bound to the mindset that a DS game always has as much touch screen control as possible, or that you have to blow into the microphone at any given opportunity. This is just one little guide from one single DS player, but in the more I play on my DS, the more I wish that people would stop trying too hard to conform to their own self-constructed rules and concentrate simply on crafting some fun. 

Make it a good game first, and a good DS game second.

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