Chrono Trigger, DS, Fire Emblem - Shadow Dragon, Mario and Luigi - Bowser's Inside Story, Mario Kart DS, Nintendo, Professor Layton and Pandora's Box, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, Professor Layton and the Lost Future, The Legend of Zelda - Phantom Hourglass, The Legend of Zelda - Spirit Tracks, Yoshi's Island DS
Every game system has an identity, a defining characteristic or style of game that comes to mind whenever the platform is mentioned. The DS is something of a jack-of-all-trades, a handheld that pioneered new ways to play opening up bold new areas of design and gameplay that boasted exciting opportunities for developers of all types of games. The intuitive touch-screen interface paved the way for a slew of accessible casual games from Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training to endless Imagine games whilst also paving the way for more challenging concepts like Elite Beat Agents. In this sense the identity of the DS is fairly loose, neither entirely casual or hardcore and there’s something for gamers of all tastes and skill levels to choose. The console is an all-rounder, one that has seen more than its fair share of shovelware clogging up its back catalogue but a system is not usually judged according to its worst output but its best. The following are, in my opinion, the ten best experiences available for the Nintendo DS.
What better place to start than arguably the defining piece of software for the DS? Arriving in localised form in 2008 The top-hatted gentleman archaeologist with a penchant for brain-teasers quickly hooked everybody including the casual mums looking for their next fix after Brain Training and dedicated gamers charmed by the polished presentation and intelligent story. Part point and click adventure, part mystery novel the game follows the professor and his pint-sized assistant Luke to St Mystere to uncover the mystery of the Golden Apple when they are quickly drawn into a murder investigation. As they explore the town they meet plenty of odd locals all of whom seem to have multiple puzzles for you to wrap your synapses round on your way to unravelling the mysteries of the place. A beautifully paced story, quirky hand-drawn art, an excellent and thoughtfully integrated array of puzzles, several lovely FMV sequences from Production I.G. and a mirror-shine level of polish from developers Level-5 combined with the game’s near universal appeal to make this the best new IP to grace the DS and a byword for quality on the system. And it didn’t end there…
9. Professor Layton and the Lost Future
Laytonmania quickly took off and the great success of the first game gave rise to several excellent sequels, the second of which (so the third game in the series) was Lost Future which became many people’s favourite thanks to its emotional and dramatic story. This time Layton and Luke are attending a public demonstration of a time machine created by Dr Alain Stahngun which goes awry leading to the disappearance of both Stahngun and the Prime Minister Bill Hawks. As they begin their investigation Layton and Luke receive a letter signed by someone claiming to be Luke from the future who invites them to the location of another time machine that seems to transport them ten years into the future. While this is easily the most complex story yet in the series I have to admit I thought the wildly far-fetched ending jumped the shark but the atmosphere of future London and the traditional air of mystery are palpable. More importantly the puzzles never disappoint and the mini-games are the best in the series making this game well worthy of the number nine spot on this list.
8. Mario Kart DS
What’s a Nintendo console without a Mario Kart game? Well, an NES I guess but since Super Mario Kart debuted on the SNES an appearance from the most successful spin-off in video games on a new machine from the big N has become as predictable as the changing seasons. Super Circuit on GBA opened the way for the series to dominate handhelds and before the DS reached its first birthday the dual-screened platform received the same treatment. But what is there to say about Mario Kart DS? It’s Mario Kart, it’s great. The game was the first to feature a range of retro courses from multiple previous games in the series and the first to be playable online. The tracks are largely excellent and the roster fairly surprising (R.O.B?) and although it’s been well surpassed by Mario Kart 7, the tight, addictive gameplay ensures that it remains one of the better reasons to own a DS.
7. Professor Layton and Pandora’s Box
For my money this second entry in the Layton saga is the best of them. The story revolves around the Elysian Box aka Pandora’s Box, a mysterious artefact said to kill anyone who opens it. When Layton’s old mentor Dr Schrader comes into possession of the box he and Luke pay him a visit only to find that he too has snuffed it and the box is missing. They make use of the only clue to the thief’s identity, a ticket for the Molentary Express and board the decadent train on a hunt that takes them to several locations. The Orient-Express style setting lends the story a classic air of mystery and affords the game some welcome variety in the changing locations eventually unravelling into the most satisfying payoff the series has yet produced. Naturally the puzzles are the star of the show as usual and the whole package feels more well-rounded than the original title. The only slip-up is the tea-brewing minigame which is as bland and pointless as real tea.
A Zelda game with a no-button interface that is controlled entirely with the touch screen? Madness! Heresy! Or not as it turns out. Although Phantom Hourglass is held back by a few limitations the translation of the series’ varied and sometimes complex mechanics to an exclusively touch screen interface is one of the handheld’s greatest triumphs. This sequel to the Gamecube’s Wind Waker featured the same cel-shaded visuals and whimsical charms of the popular predecessor and tasked you with liberating Tetra from the mysterious Ghost Ship. Weapons make very thoughtful use of the touch controls and you scribble notes on maps to aid you in solving the game’s frequently ingenious puzzles. It may be a little light compared to other games in the series but that shouldn’t stop DS owners making the most of this one.
5. Yoshi’s Island DS
The original Yoshi’s Island is one of the all-time greats so this sequel was cause for much celebration for Nintendo fans. Once again it’s up to the Yoshis to protect Baby Mario from Kamek’s magikoopas only this time babies Peach, DK, Wario and even Baby Bowser are along for the ride each bringing their own unique abilities to help their dinosaur defenders negotiate the colourful levels. The game oozes quality from start to finish and captures so much of what made the original a classic from the pastel visuals and bouncy music to the smooth, flowing gameplay. If you missed this one be sure to track it down as it’s far superior to the better-selling New Super Mario Bros.
There is nothing on Nintendo consoles as addictive as the Fire Emblem series and so it proved to be on DS too. Shadow Dragon is a vastly updated remake of the original game featuring series figurehead Marth in his struggle against Medeus the Shadow Dragon. With 25 chapters to get stuck into the game is excellent value for money and the gameplay remains as tactical and complex as ever playing out like a hyper-evolved game of chess only the consequences of losing a piece carry an emotional weight thanks to the trademark inclusion of permadeath. The graphics are moody and detailed, battles play out with 3D sprites and in a first it is possible to reclass units to completely customise your army. The game might not carry the weight of Path of Radiance or Radiant Dawn but that’s no reason fans or hardcore RPG players shouldn’t get a serious kick out of this remake.
3. Mario and Luigi – Bowser’s Inside Story
Mario and Luigi – Partners in Time, the first DS game in the comedic RPG series made excellent use of the dual screens and was a lot of fun but didn’t touch the GBA original’s quality. This third outing packed more meat on the bones and delivered much more invention. The story sees the extremely welcome return of Fawful, Cackletta’s sidekick from Superstar Saga, one of the funniest characters in video game history, this time taking the role of lead villain. His diabolical designs are spreading the Blorbs, an illness that causes sufferers to swell to enormous size, to epidemic levels. More still he forces Bowser to inhale the Mario brothers and so begins a decidedly odd adventure for the plumbers exploring the Koopa King’s innards. You also control Bowser in other sections and can engage in a handful of oversize battles that require you to hold the DS on its side. It’s a clever, funny and memorable game from the off and one of the most downright entertaining ways to use your DS.
2. The Legend of Zelda – Spirit Tracks
The success of Phantom Hourglass led to this clearly superior follow-up set decades later after Link and Tetra have settled the new Hyrule. Another bright young lad bearing the moniker of the perennial hero sets out on an adventure to restore Princess Zelda’s spirit to her body after she is exorcised by the nasty Chancellor Cole. The journey takes them across Hyrule together by train again descending into devious dungeons and battling foes all controlled by the DS stylus. Having Zelda accompany you the whole time in the traditional Navi role is a treat for fans and the world of Hyrule is much better realised than the previous DS title. The dungeons too are a step up and the soundtrack is the finest to grace the handheld.
1. Chrono Trigger
It wasn’t even close. Like the Game Boy Advance before it which featured Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island and A Link to the Past the best piece of software available for the DS is not a DS game. This Square-developed SNES RPG is rightly regarded as one of the all-time classics of both the genre and video games generally. However this port is actually the first time the game has seen the light of day in Europe which makes this purchase all the more essential. The story involves a diverse group of unforgettable characters travelling through time to spare the world from the terrible catastrophe brought down by the gigantic monster Lavos. The innovative gameplay allows you to combine special Tech moves for various effects and is extremely satisfying and deceptively simple to use. Everything else about the game from the graphics and music to the world design and presentation is of the very highest quality and the multiple endings and deep side quests extend the game’s life far beyond a single playthrough. Chrono Trigger is a masterpiece and the best game available for the DS by an embarrassingly large distance.