There is a reason why I managed to finish Mother 3 on a Tokyo train.

There is also a reason why I managed to finish Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on the toilet.

My Animal Crossing DS town has long since been overrun with weeds, my Ouendan save file is stuck on Ready Steady Go, my Mario Kart DS time trials are old and Mr. Driller can’t get past India. But I managed to finish Mother 3. Yes, Mother 3 was a labor of love that shows in the writing, animation and game design, and I say that even though I have more or less moved past the stage of my life where I have the patience for Japanese roleplaying games. I really, really liked it.

But that wasn’t why I finally finished it on my way home to Matsudo-shi, Chiba, about an hour or so out of downtown Tokyo. The reason why I made it through Mother 3 has very little to do with its game production values and much more to do with the L button on my Game Boy Advance SP.

Those of you who played Mother 2 might remember that the R button on the SNES pad was the default Action button. It’s more of a natural fit for a gamepad, really; your left hand is busy with the directional pad, and your right hand is free to control five of the six main gameplay buttons. Mother 3‘s default control scheme keeps the Action button set to L. To those of you who are sitting down and playing it right now in the comfort of your own homes or offices or schools or buses, this might seem rather unusual. After all, unlike most roleplaying games, Mother 3 requires a fairly strict command of rhythm to hit combo attacks during battle sequences, and for most of us right-handers, we’re going to be at less than full musical capacity if we have to rock out with our left hand.

But to me and the development staff of Mother 3, and perhaps even to the producer, Shigesato Itoi, this makes perfect sense when we’re standing on our packed Tokyo trains with our GBAs in one hand, the overhead handles in the other and our Nintendo DSes sitting mournfully in our backpacks. For all of the DS’s potential for innovation, it simply can’t overcome the environmental pressures of Tokyo’s 12 million people, unless you’re one of the lucky few who can consistently get a seat on your morning commute. And the PSP doesn’t handle much better; holding up that beautiful screen with one hand is work enough, never mind playing games.

Finishing Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on the toilet had nothing to do with its plot or art direction or character design, though I didn’t particularly like a whole lot of those. This had everything to do with the fact that I had to spend five minutes remembering my skills, equipment, missions – basically, whatever I was thinking of the last time I played the game. And since most of my opportunities for quality time with the GBA came in at approximately five to 10 minute increments, that relegated FFTA to a year or so of toilets all across the world. To FFTA‘s credit, that year’s bathroom breaks were comparatively epic.

Designing a game for one or two players sitting in front of a TV or an arcade cabinet is a challenging enough task; what about designing a game for a crowded subway car? I don’t know a whole lot of Americans with long commutes via public transportation – cars are common, and the public transportation options tend to be sufficiently roomy compared Tokyo’s notoriously packed trains. What other design choices get, well, lost in translation?

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.

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