Ah, gimmicks. You gamers out there probably know exactly what I’m talking about. “Gimmick” has become somewhat of a dirty word in the gaming scene as of late, usually referring to a game that relies on a cheap trick or whiz-bang mechanic to create the entire gameplay experience. Games of this gimmicky type are most easily found on Nintendo consoles lately, specifically on the Wii, and the DS that came before it. A couple of examples of gimmicky games can be found in Nintendogs—a game that relies on the ability to interact with your pixilated puppy via the DS touch screen for most of its play value, and Wii Sports Resort—a collection of mini-games that rely solely on flicks of the wrist and strange, unnatural contortions performed with the signature Wii Remote for gameplay. Now, to their credit, those gimmicky games are good. They’re unassuming, light games with a very simple premise: namely, “pet your dog,” and “hit the ball/target/other person.” I have personally sunk many hours of enjoyable playtime into both. So why are so many people hating on gimmicks? What’s wrong with a little mechanical variety to help make old concepts new and fun again?
Nothing, if it was truly a new phenomenon. Gimmicks, however, are nothing new, strange as it may sound to say that. Think back to recent history: remember the PS2 EyeToy? How about the microphone included with the N64’s Hey You, Pikachu!? Or, going even further back there was the Virtual Boy, with its monochrome red stereoscopic 3D effects; as well as the SNES Super Scope and the Sega Menacer—bazooka-sized light guns used to blast on-screen targets. Even those were nothing new, however; as they simply replaced the Sega Master System Light Phaser, and NES Zapper—used to play that old classic, Duck Hunt. If you can believe it, the roots of gimmicky gameplay go back as far as home gaming itself, as the Magnavox Odyssey, arguably the first mass-produced home game console, made in 1977, included a light gun attachment in the shape of a realistic hunting rifle. Clearly, gimmicks, much as developers deny it, are nothing new.
Are they necessarily bad, though? Let me answer that question with another question (infuriating, I know): when was the last time you played Duck Hunt? If that example is too old for you, how about Time Crisis or The House of the Dead? I’m willing to bet that the answer is: “a while ago,” which hints at the underlying issue with gimmicky games and gameplay. Gimmicky games, in the simple act of relying on a light gun, a cheap 3D effect, a touch screen, or a motion-sensitive remote, limit both their own creative potential and replay value. Sure, we all love rubbing our little fuzzy-wuzzy puppy pals until they sparkle (no joke—you actually do that in Nintendogs), but there are only so many ways to make the puppy shine with delight before you run out of options. Sticking with Nintendogs for a moment, which I would call one of the best gimmicky games, when you’ve pet the puppy a thousand times, won all possible contests, bought every item in the game, and can renovate your house once per weekday, while making two or three trips daily to the pound to give each of your seven puppies the love they deserve… you’ve run out of options! Sure, it might take two or three weeks to achieve god status among dog trainers, but there are only a finite number of possibilities to explore, even in the best of gimmicky games. Mind you, few of these games were designed as well as Nintendogs, so you can literally play through every combination of circumstances that a common game can throw at you within the space of ten to 20 play-hours, if that. Can you imagine literally running out of ways to play the game in any other format imaginable? Final Fantasy? Super Mario? Even Call of Duty, a game based around shooting people with less than 50 types of weapons, still manages to pull off more variation with its online multiplayer features! Add in the fact that few gimmicks actually work like they’re supposed to, and you’re left with a flashy bauble that distracts you for ten hours on average, after which point you never pick it up again.
This is not to say that gimmicks can’t be used to enhance an already good game. New Super Mario Bros Wii, for instance, has you shake the Wii remote to pick up items and use certain powerups. It’s a gimmick, sure, but it’s well-integrated into the core gameplay experience, and doesn’t break the flow. Similarly, Zelda Ocarina of Time 3D uses the 3DS’s inner gyro to allow you to look around a stage at will simply by tilting the 3DS; again, an unobtrusive and neat use of the console’s hardware. The problems with gimmicks come when they begin to replace core gameplay elements, instead of serving enhancing roles. Can you imagine having to shake the controller to make Mario jump? What about having to swipe your finger on-screen every time you wanted to swing Link’s sword? You can expect to see these, and other gimmicks, make their way into Sony’s PS Vita late this February—at least, that’s my prediction. Perhaps developers will be smart or mature enough to use the Vita’s front/back touch screens to enhance gameplay rather than dominate it—expanding games’ play value rather than limiting it. If history has taught us anything, though, I think that’s about as likely to happen as the release of Megaman Legends 3.