Multiplayer: In Praise Of Sketchy Controls

How does DS stylus compare to Wii remote?

s the pen mightier than the remote? So far it seems that way to me.

Having finished "Hotel Dusk: Room 215," I've switched to another game in my Nintendo DS backlog, "Wario: Master of Disguise," a side-scroller released a couple of weeks ago. The game got mixed reviews. One of the main criticisms was the controls, which require the player to move Wario with the buttons with one hand and use the DS stylus in the other to draw shapes on Wario, transforming him into a painter, spaceman, dragon and other disguises. Reviewers found the sketching controls a bit ... sketchy.

I'm in chapter four of the 10-chapter game, and I think the drawing controls are fantastic. To turn Wario into a spaceman, I start the stylus on his neck and draw a circle around his head. To turn him into a sailor in an inner tube -- yes, you can turn him into that -- I put the stylus on his torso and draw a long bump on his belly. To make him into Arty Wario, a painter who can't move or attack but can draw blocks and teleport doors, I have to start the stylus on Wario's face, then draw a rectangle, and then slash a diagonal line from one corner to another. These might sound like complicated etchings, particularly the last one, but they are surprisingly easy to execute.

What's striking about this system is that I can even see how badly I'm drawing these things and how little the game seems to mind. Any line I draw on Wario briefly is actually briefly drawn onto the screen, as if written in magic, shiny ink. Quite a few times I've seen that my rectangles are kind of pudgy, my circles kind of blocky and my belly-bumps a bit sloppy. "Master of Disguise" has no trouble reading them. Consider that I handwrote a birthday card to my father Wednesday morning (March 28) -- while riding the New York subway, no less. I suspect "Wario: Master of Disguise" will prove to understand my scribblings better than my dad when he gets my chicken-scratch greeting.

One of the "Wario" levels I played Tuesday required me to quick-change through several disguises in the span of 30 seconds. I was a dragon to melt an ice bubble, a thief to run fast over a chasm, a doctor to look for a secret cave and a spaceman to shoot bad guys in my way. If you were sitting across from me on the subway and could only see my hand moving across the screen, you would have thought I was dashing off a note to someone using my stylus pen. Every transformation worked.

Essentially what I find successful with "Wario" are the gesture controls. Compare that to the other type of video game gesture controls many people, myself included, are writing about these days: the way you play games on the Nintendo Wii. On that home system, gesture controls remain unproven. They work well in some games (the tennis in "Wii Sports" being the most popular example). But I'm not the only one who has been vexed by the gestures asked of players in games such as "SSX Blur" and "Cooking Mama: Cook Off" or even parts of "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess." In those titles and others, I've had problems great and small executing certain gestures. For example, a recurring problem I've had with "Blur" is that I sometimes can't tell what I'm doing wrong. The game asks me to draw a "Z" in the air or a complex loop. I draw the pattern I see on the screen, but nothing happens, or I get a notice that I gestured wrong.

Part of what makes the Wii gestures more difficult is that I'm making these moves with my hands in midair. No magic Wario-ink patterns appear onscreen to indicate how the shape I'm making compares to the shape I'm supposed to make. That's what gets me wondering if the Nintendo DS stylus pen may prove superior to the remote for intricate gesture control. On the DS, I can see what I'm doing. On the Wii, I can't. Wii developers do have some options available to alleviate this. They could marry the gesture controls to the remote's laser-pointer functionality and program games so that the way players tilt and wave the remote is "drawn" onto the screen. The problem is this would require the player to point the remote at the screen all the time, a potential inconvenience incompatible with free-motion play. Developers could try to use the remote's speaker and rumble feedback to tell players when they are deviating from the proper course of movement, but that feedback will be vague, at best.

When the DS was in its infancy, I had similar doubts about how useful and how intricate stylus-based controls could be. The new "Wario" is just the latest of a line of games that have proven me wrong, including "Kirby Canvas Curse," "Trauma Center" and "Elite Beat Agents." Will I find myself wanding the remote through the air like a world-class graffiti artist a year from now and laughing at this article? Or is the stylus truly mightier?

-- Stephen Totilo

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