Multiplayer: Not A Breath Of Fresh Air

Our gamer says DS' Huff-n-Puff Controls have to go.

I sat down next to my girlfriend on the subway this morning and told her what I might have to do during the ride. She asked, incredulously, if I was serious. I told her to feel free to switch her seat. I might have to blow some air at my Nintendo DS.

I was gorging myself on “Wario: Master of Disguise” on Sunday, trying to finish the thing, when I choked on the discovery that I’d have to wheeze at the game to complete it. That’s the only way to make Wario flap his wings once he makes a late-game transformation into a little devil. To beat the game, you must breathe on it.

I like innovation. I welcomed the DS’ novelties from the day the machine was released. Two screens to play games on instead of one? Great. Advances in touch-screen gaming? Splendid. A built-in microphone for voice controls? Sounds good. Using that same mic for mini-games powered by heavy breathing? Today, I cast my vote, and cast it breathily, with a forcefully exhaled “no.”

It is possible you have yet to experience what, in the spirit of control-scheme nicknames like “Total Team Control” and “EA GameFace,” I now call Huff-n-Puff Controls. You could have played the Huff-n-Puff platform of choice — the DS — since the system came out and never been asked to submit your Nintendo handheld to a breeze of CO2. But they have been around since the start. Sega’s launch-window DS game, “Feel the Magic XX/XY,” allowed players to blow at the DS mic to extinguish a row of video game candles. Then Nintendo’s “WarioWare: Touched” offered a suite of breath-based mini-games: blow bubbles, blow bubble gum, steam up windows with some hot breath … and more! (See the portion of the game’s guide labeled “Mike 3.07″ for the rest.)

Sega’s “Feel the Magic” sequel, “Rub Rabbits,” introduced a four-player wireless Huff-n-Puff balloon toss. That would have worked had the three DS owners I rounded up not been so uncomfortable breathing into their systems within a few feet of one another. The first “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney” on the DS gave me the option of yelling “Objection!” into the machine’s mic or just pressing a button. But it gave me no choice when it came time to dust for fingerprints. As I wrote in Multiplayer on Dec 7 (see “Multiplayer: Gaming Underground — Literally” ), I had to Huff-n-Puff to crack the case.

I’ve enjoyed a lot of game-control innovations. I liked rumble the first time “Star Fox 64” shook my controller. I liked tilt when I first used it in “Kirby: Tilt n Tumble” on the Game Boy Color. I gave the voice-controlled PS2 game “Lifeline” a shot, had fun with the EyeToy camera on the same system and would love to see more of the apparent offspring of the two, the PS3 camera-and-mic-enabled “Eyedentify,” last seen in a trailer at E3 2005. I even thought the solar-powered Game Boy Advance series “Boktai” was a worthy experiment, if only it had been possible to get bright sun rays to shine on the sensor without washing out the GBA’s screen.

Rumble is nice for giving the player an extra note of feedback. Tilt control is intuitive for many people who can’t comprehend steering a car, flying a dragon or rolling little round Kirby with a joystick. Voice and camera control suffer only for being as good as we can easily envision they someday will be.

Huff-n-Puff gaming is different. As best I can tell, it doesn’t make gaming easier. It doesn’t offer a meaningful new way to control actions that up until now were just fudged with buttons and joysticks. It has yet to open any doors that didn’t have a goat behind them. Short of a breathalyzer mini-game in a “Grand Theft Auto,” I don’t see the point. What I see is embarrassment at having to hyperventilate over my DS while riding the subway. I see a mess of germs in having to hold the system inches from my mouth as I wheeze — hopefully dryly — on it. I see not being able to see, as in: I’ve had to hold this DS so close to breathe on it that I can’t really appreciate the game’s graphics anymore.

If I have to inflate a balloon in a video game, I’ll settle for pressing a button. I don’t usually call for an end to innovation, but today I’ve found where I draw my line. I should save my breath for something else.

— Stephen Totilo

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