A few features have made it easier to play more conventionally-designed games on the go: Quicksave and sleep mode functions are standard for any game that requires your long-term attention, like the Castlevanias. Other designers might choose to find compromise halfway: Treasure's Gunstar Super Heroes is designed so that each level is comprised of a few mini-levels, and the player's progress - including score, damage and time elapsed - is saved after the completion of each mini-level, each of which takes a few minutes at most. Rather than the epic battles of shooters like Contra, GSH adjusts its required attention span to the very real possibility that the player is simply picking up the game for a quick shot at beating his high scores. They're not so friendly as to be playable one-handed, though. Fighting games are, likewise, out of the question; while there are fairly compelling Guilty Gear, King of Fighters and Street Fighter titles out for the GBA, they're just as technically demanding as their console counterparts. I thought I was dedicated because I practiced Dee Jay combos on the way to work; real winners have to fight hard enough to get one of the coveted corner spots by the train doors so they can lean against the wall and play with both hands.
Other games, however, aren't nearly as fun until you start playing them on public transportation. I generally consider my time to be too expensive to bother with level treadmills in any roleplaying games. However, for the player on the go, it's not such a drag. Pokémon's design made a lot more sense after getting used to a regular bus ride. Sitting down in front of your TV and mindlessly leveling up or hunting for rare Pokémon isn't that fun, but as something to do while I'm taking the bus, it feels pleasantly productive. And when I can maintain a slightly longer attention span, beating a level of Advance Wars 2 on my way to work is enough to make me feel downright accomplished. Perhaps I could have picked my battles a little more wisely, though: Missing my train stops and getting to class late introduced an unfortunate meta-game element to the fight.
Getting used to the portable lifestyle puts some otherwise radical game design choices into a certain kind of context, too. Wario Ware and Rhythm Tengoku both share a mini-game structure that seemed much more alien and innovative until I tried playing it en route to school. They're already so disjointed that to take a break to switch trains or get off the bus doesn't disrupt my flow in the least. Likewise, the Bit Generations series keeps the graphics and gameplay so simple that they're ideal for picking up and playing, no previous time investment necessary. I don't even have to play it on the john.
Kind of humbling, isn't it? We can spend days sitting and reflecting on lofty theories of game design, attaching highfalutin academics to explain why we like what we like. But sometimes what we play is simply a function of where we are.
Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long. Stop by his blog, Token Minorities, for more on race and videogames.