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?