Strip everything else away, and all videogaming is about hitting the correct buttons on a controller with proper timing. When you hear David Jaffee discuss his dream-game, sometimes you get the idea that the holy grail of his game design theology is the production of what he once called “pure play”-- his aim is to mine all the pleasures of hitting buttons in the correct rhythm. But for my money, Nintendo's WarioWare games are the closest anyone has come to this goal.
I think that the distinctive pleasure of gaming comes from the enjoyment we get in learning rules and putting them to use in problem-solving. But I'll make a distinction in that motto and add some definitions, because it'll help me explain why I love these games so much. There are two sets of rules that govern a game. “Interaction” is governed by a set of rules that describe how movements made with the controller are translated into movements on-screen. So one set of rules is basically all about how you manipulate your controller in order to get your representative in the game to jump. “Gameplay” is governed by a set of rules that describe the macro-level goals that count as successful progress the game-- what sort of jumping will keep you alive, what sort of jumping will kill your enemies and get you to the end of the level. Now, in my opinion most of the fun of long-form modern games comes from on the enjoyment of learning the gameplay rules. Usually you just want to learn the interaction-rules as quickly as possible so you can turn them to your advantage and get about conquering the world, fragging noobs, saving the princess and so on.
But the makers of WarioWare had a genius idea: Why don't we make a game that's 90% figuring out how to interact? Instead of constructing up a longer game that continuously elaborates on a basic set of actions and offers a series of more complex goals-- making another Zelda, say, or even a shorter game-- why don't we just make scads of miniature games that each have their own new and different conrols, and then challenge the player to figure out their rules in five seconds?
This line of thinking gave birth to WarioWare: Micro MegaGame$ for the GBA in 2003. WarioWare stripped all the adventitious elements from modern games-- continuity of plot, character, visual style, controls, everything-- and replaced it with just one task: figure out how to do something. Each level is made up of 15 or so “micro games.” In each microgame, the screen flashes a verb at you: “avoid!” “jump!” “shave!” “don't get caught!” “pet”! “feed!”, and then the game appears. You have seconds to figure out how it is that you make this verb happen, or else you fail.
As the verbs indicate, the games themselves present the player an assortment of arbitrary and bizarre tasks; because there is no need to sustain any narrative among the games themselves, the menu of interactions and verbs open to the designers are nearly inexhausible. The art team capitalized on this freedom, and as a result the parade of bizarre gameplay scenarios that whip by at a dizzying pace have this inspired lunacy to them. Because the underlying game play mechanics are just as mutable and random as the madcap collage of differing visual aesthetics-- photos, cartoons, classic 8-bit games, anything. It's a smart marriage of form and content. This is difficult to get across in words so here's an example for the uninitiated:
What I discovered by playing WarioWare is that learning rules can be made even more fun by keeping 'em simple and then forcing the player to learn them fast. Sometimes you happen upon the correct move by chance (when all else fails, hitting “A” a bunch of times is a good policy), and even then your own accidental competence can be amusing.
Since the series has branched out to other platforms, the Warioware team has kept it fresh over various iterations by building the new games around new control mechanics. WarioWare Twisted!, maybe the best of the series, adds new controls into the mix by attaching a gyroscope onto the cart itself. It sounds crazy, but it's amazing to run Mario across world 1-1 by physically spinning your GBA around in space. In this way, the WarioWare games perfectly suit Nintendo's hardware philosophy, which has won this console generation by showing how essential the basic pleasures of control and interaction are. (Don't be surprised if WarioWare: Balance Board Redonkulosity appears in stores this Spring.)
The WarioWare team are also responsible for the Rhythm Tengoku series, which will be making an appearance on DS in America this fall in the form of Rhythm Heaven, unlike its great GBA predecessor. (Still the only game I've ever imported, and worth it.) You should keep a lookout for the game when it comes over, I feel it will fly under the radar unless the critics get some word of mouth going. So, Listen to your friend Stephen Totilo.