This is the first in a series of shameful SEO-milking articles that should hopefully still at least be helpful to you.
These articles are also important to me in a personal sense because they mark the first time I’ve ever been able to write my own definitive ‘top games’ lists, rather than contributing to collaborative lists on ONM, CVG and the like.
The eventual result will be a number of platform-specific articles that, when combined, will list my personal favourite games ever, something I’ve never been able to share in such detail.
Because of this, there will be blatant omissions and odd decisions. But I’m not going to add a game I’ve never played just because it’s widely considered a classic. These are my lists, paying homage to the games that I personally had a great time with.
The Nintendo DS turned 10 years old in the UK yesterday. On 11 March 2005 Nintendo’s chunky flip-case handheld arrived in Britain to a relatively muted response.
Many gamers, feeling Nintendo was losing steam with GameCube sales slowing to a crawl, were more focused on Sony’s upcoming handheld, the PSP.
Offering significantly better graphics and games that could pass as slightly low-res PS2 titles, the PSP was far more appealing to gamers than the DS’s N64-era visuals and its touch screen, which appeared to be no more than a gimmick.
And yet, a decade later, nobody can deny the DS’s eventual impact on the gaming world. With over 154 million units sold worldwide, it’s the best-selling handheld of all time and was around a million shy of overtaking the PS2 as the best-selling video game system ever.
The first game I ever reviewed professionally as an employee of Future Publishing was a DS game. Granted, it was the abysmal Dragon Booster, but the DS will always hold a place in my heart for that reason regardless.
So, since it celebrated its 10th birthday in the UK yesterday, and since it was where my career began, it’s only fitting that my first ‘best games’ article should celebrate the best Nintendo DS games I’ve ever played.
In the six years I spent at Official Nintendo Magazine I reviewed hundreds of DS games, arguably more than any multi-format journalist (since their publications wouldn’t have touched half the shite we covered). So trust me when I say these 30 must have done something special to get in here.
Annoying notes and that
This list is in alphabetical order. Much like it’s pretty pointless deciding whether a game’s getting a score of 72% or 73%, it doesn’t really matter if Mario Kart DS is my 23rd or 24th favourite DS game. Everything in this list was deemed good enough to make the cut, so I recommend them all with similar enthusiasm.
Also, where possible, I have included links to buy these on Amazon if you’re interested in a particular game. I won’t bullshit you: these are affiliate links.
This means if my list has tempted you to buy a game, if you do it through Amazon by clicking my link then I get a few pence (literally) of Amazon’s revenue for referring you to them. It doesn’t cost you any extra, so it’s a win-win situation. Be sure to check the New & Used sections after clicking the link though: often the main price shown is some indie store charging silly money. In the New & Used section you’ll often find it far cheaper.
A warning, though: many of these games will now be more expensive than they used to be. We’re past the point where shops were selling DS games off at dirt cheap prices to clear stock in preparation for the 3DS: now we’re at a point where everything is out of print and therefore costs a little more. Don’t be surprised, then, to see some DS games still going for around £20 despite their age.
Finally, just a note: this list only counts retail titles. There’ll be a special list for DSiWare and other eShop titles later.
And remember, all these games work on the 3DS too.
The list *drum roll*
1) Ace Attorney series
What it is: Capcom’s lawyer ’em up series originally started in Japan with the Gyakuten Saiban trilogy on the Game Boy Advance but fans enjoyed them so much they were ported to DS, complete with English localisation. As their popularity grew global, more DS-specific entries were released.
Why it was chosen: At their heart the Ace Attorney games are little more than fancy visual novels: although the aim is to defend numerous clients and help them avoid prison sentences, you don’t actually have much room for experimentation here and the story follows a strictly linear path.
This doesn’t stop you feeling like the impossible lovechild of Sherlock Holmes and Atticus Finch every time you expose a contradiction in a witness’s testimony, mind. They’re also genuinely funny, offering some of the best localised dialogue you’ll ever see in a game.
Buy it: There are four main DS games in the series: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice For All, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials And Tribulations and Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. All are very similar in terms of gameplay but I’d recommend playing them in order for storyline purposes. There’s also a spin-off, Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth, which is worth a look.
2) Animal Crossing: Wild World
What it is: The second game in Nintendo’s life sim series (well, the third, if you want to get arsey and count the Japan-only N64 one), in which you move to a new town and get to know your animal neighbours.
Why it was chosen: I’m terrified to think how many hours I put into Wild World. For the first ten hours or so you begin to get the feeling there isn’t much more to it, but never has a game contained so many hidden secrets that uncover themselves literally months later.
The now-dead Sega blog UK Resistance wrote the ultimate love letter to Wild World: read that, because it explains the game so much better than I ever could. It has since been surpassed by the even more time-consuming Animal Crossing: New Leaf on 3DS, but for those still rocking the DS there’s far more than enough here to keep you busy for a long time.
Buy it: Animal Crossing: Wild World
3) Castlevania series
Why it was chosen: When you hear games described as Metroidvania style, this is the ‘vania bit. Although the non-linear exploration style had featured in other console Castlevania games, it really shines in the handheld titles. They’re also surprisingly difficult, which makes it all the more satisfying when you take out one of its enormous mini-bosses.
4) Chrono Trigger
What it is: Originally released on the SNES back in 1995, Chrono Trigger is widely believed to be one of Square’s finest RPG games ever. It was never released in Europe, meaning us Brits either had to look on jealously or buy an obscenely priced import. This DS version, then, marks the game’s first ever UK release 14 years later, and it was still worth the wait.
Why it was chosen: I have to admit, I never played Chrono Trigger back in the SNES days. It was released when I was 12 and I didn’t really ‘get’ RPGs back then: I was more into platformers and action games, so I tended not to bother with the genre in general.
My first time playing it, then, was reviewing the DS version for ONM, and I fell in love right away. Its branching storyline is the work of genius (there are fourteen different endings), and it really does remain one of the finest examples of the RPG genre all these years later.
Buy it: Chrono Trigger
5) Contra 4
What it is: Gamers of a certain vintage will know Contra (otherwise known as Probotector and Gryzor in the UK) as the definitive hard as nails run ‘n’ gun shooter. Despite its title, Contra 4 is something like the eleventh game in the series, and the first developed by WayForward Technologies.
Why it was chosen: Contra 4 takes me back to the good old days when a game was allowed to be hard as fuck and simply getting to level 3 felt like a massive accomplishment. This game will frustrate you immensely but as you see countless Game Over screens and try again and again, you’ll slowly make progress inch by inch and it’ll be immensely satisfying.
Buy it: Annoyingly, Contra 4 was only released in Japan and the US. But hey, the DS was region-free, so handily you can get the US version.
6) Custom Robo Arena
What it is: Imagine playing a Pokemon game, only instead of little monsters you raised little robots instead. And instead of giving them commands in turn-based battles, you actually controlled them in real-time scraps. And you could add new parts to them.
Why it was chosen: I’d have thought “it’s Pokemon with robots” would have been sufficient explanation. For some reason, Custom Robo is a Nintendo franchise that has been by and large ignored over the years: Arena was the fifth title in the series and, following poor sales, was the last. But as a game that’s essentially an RPG version of Robot Wars, it’s really worth checking out.
Buy it: Custom Robo Arena
7) Elite Beat Agents / Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan series
What it is: Before it was doomed to karaoke hell when Microsoft signed it up to make Singstar rival Lips, Tokyo developer iNiS was one of the kings of rhythm action. It was responsible for the incredible PS2 cult favourite Gitaroo Man, and then went on to create DS title Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, a game about a squad of all-male cheerleaders who help the world through rhythmic encouragement.
Why it was chosen: Ouendan’s core gameplay was so well suited to the DS’s touchscreen that its ‘tap the targets when the circles pass over them’ mechanic has been imitated countless times since.
Since Ouendan offered a range of Japanese songs, when it came to porting it to the US and Europe iNiS instead created Elite Beat Agents, an entirely new game with all new stories and a west-friendly pop soundtrack. Elite Beat Agents will probably appeal to you most then, but you should really check out all three if you can.
Buy it: Again, it’s worth bearing in mind that DS games are region-free so you can play the whole series if you wish. Here’s the order they were released: Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, Elite Beat Agents, Moero! Nekketsu Rhythm Damashii Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan 2.
8) Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Why it was chosen: Ghost Trick’s central mechanic lets you freeze time and use your spirit to jump between nearby objects in a room. By using poltergiest-like abilities to piss around with some of these objects, you can change what happens and alter the course of history.
It’s basically The Butterfly Effect, only it’s a fantastically stylish and humorous Japanese DS puzzler instead of a shit Ashton Kutcher film.
Buy it: Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
9) Hotel Dusk: Room 215 / Last Window: The Secret Of Cape West
What it is: Two beautiful graphic adventures telling the story of former detective turned salesman Kyle Hyde. In the first he investigates a hotel with a room said to grant wishes, while in the second he receives a note telling him to look into the mysteries of his apartment block before it’s demolished.
Why it was chosen: Never mind Michael Jackson or Princess Diana, the most tragic death of the past 30 years is that of Fukuoka-based developer Cing. Okay, maybe Jackson’s was a wee bit sadder, but still.
Initially impressing DS owners with the lovely Another Code: Two Memories, Cing flat out stunned them with Hotel Dusk, a gorgeous adventure with a unique rotoscoped brushwork art style. Both it and its sequel Last Window are fantastic games.
Buy it: Both games are thankfully relatively easy to find. Get Hotel Dusk: Room 215 first then, if you like it, get Last Window. The latter is slightly more expensive because it’s often imported by Americans: it was released in Europe but Cing went bankrupt before it made it to the US.
10) Lego Rock Band / Rock Band 3
Why it was chosen: The best DS ports of console games are the ones that don’t try to imitate their more powerful siblings but instead accept the handheld’s limitations and try something completely different instead.
The DS versions of Lego Rock Band and Rock Band 3 play more like Harmonix’s cult PS2 game Amplitude, with players juggling four different instrumental tracks at the same time and ensuring they’re all playing properly. Surprisingly addictive.
Buy it: Because most multi-format mags ignored them, the glory of Lego Rock Band and Rock Band 3 on DS passed a lot of people by. Because of this you can easily get them from Amazon’s New/Used section for only a couple of quid.
11) Mario & Luigi series
What it is: The second and third games in developer AlphaDream’s brilliant RPG series. In Partners In Time, Mario and Luigi travel to the past and team up with their baby selves, whereas in Bowser’s Inside Story the pair are accidentally swallowed by their nemesis, who they then assist in defeating a greater evil.
Why it was chosen: There are a lot of haters out there who constantly say “sigh, more Mario games”, but those people have empty little humour-holes in their lives that the Mario & Luigi series could fill ten times over.
Both DS offerings are packed with brilliantly funny dialogue and a wide variety of enemies to meet, beat and defeat. Easily among the funniest games I’ve played.
12) Mario Kart DS
Why it was chosen: Not to go on about it, but those same people who accuse Nintendo of releasing the same stuff over and over fail to realise that some of its key franchises only appear once per console. Mario Kart is the prime example of this (Virtual Console versions aside, of course), meaning if you’re craving some karting action on the DS this is your one and only option.
Just as well it’s brilliant then, offering the ability to select your kart for the first time and the addition of R.O.B. as an unlockable character. Bloody R.O.B. the robot. Come on, it’s worth buying for that alone.
Buy it: Mario Kart DS
13) Mr Driller: Drill Spirits
Why it was chosen: If you’ve never played Mr Driller before, you owe it to yourself to check it out. There’s nothing more satisfying than drilling your way through a massive chunk of coloured blocks, and nothing more tense than realising your air is running out and you can’t find any more oxygen power-ups.
This DS version (Drill Spirits = DS, geddit?) adds some interesting new alternative modes, including the interesting Dristone Driller mode which replaces the need for speed with the need for strategy and completely changes the way the game is played.
Buy it: Some dick on Amazon is looking for £50 for this. That’s mental. Go to the New & Used section where you’ll find it for the same price as a decent iOS app, which is well worth it because it’s better than almost any of them.
Why it was chosen: No game has better captured that ‘one more go’ feeling for me than N+. Some of its later levels are infuriatingly difficult but the whole thing is so fast-paced and restarting so quick that many a time I’ve happily spent half on hour on a stage that, once I’ve nailed it, is completed in all of 20 seconds.
Its sequel N++ is coming to PS4 in the future, but get the DS predecessor now and be one of the cool kids who knew it existed before its follow-up inevitably becomes massively successful in the age of Twitter.
Buy it: N+
15) New Super Mario Bros
Why it was chosen: Last time I’ll have a go at the moaners, but a lot of people forget New Super Mario Bros was actually the first brand new side-scrolling Mario game since Super Mario Land 2 a ridiculous 14 years prior. To say it was long-awaited by Nintendo fans is something of an understatement then, and for many it was worth the wait.
Granted, it’s a little easier than its NES and SNES predecessors, but in terms of level design, character design and general joy it’s still a winner in my eyes. 30 million copies sold can’t be wrong.
Buy it: New Super Mario Bros
16) Pic Pic
Why it was chosen: Pic Pic sold about twelve copies when it was released, but it’s actually one of the best puzzle games on the DS. Or, rather, three of the best.
You see, Pic Pic actually offers three different types of puzzle, entitled Maze Pic, Magipic and Drawing. Each of these features completely different rules, but the result is always the same: when you’ve finished the puzzle, the lines you’ve drawn will have made a picture.
Similar in concept to Picross, then, but with an insane 1200 puzzles to play through (400 in each category). And given that some of the Drawing ones can take up to 15 minutes to finish, you’re literally talking hundreds of hours here.
Buy it: Pic Pic
17) Picross DS
Why it was chosen: I am an unashamed Picross fan. If I was stuck on some odd version of a desert island that somehow was able to provide me with an endless supply of Picross puzzles, I would die old, alone and happy.
Much like Pic Pic, the idea is a simple one: use the numerical clues to decide which squares on a grid should be filled in and which should be left blank, and by the end you’ll have drawn a picture. At first it’s bewildering but after a while it ‘clicks’ and you start learning tricks and methods that will soon have you zooming eagerly through each puzzle.
This DS version is the best one ever released, because it not only offers over 300 puzzles but splits them into categories, each with their own skin and music. So by the time you reach the end of the game you’re drawing Mario sprites by breaking 8-bit blocks. Brilliant stuff.
Buy it: Picross DS
18) Picross 3D
Why it was chosen: I was initially dubious when Picross 3D was announced. I just wanted more Picross and I was worried that by completely changing the rules everything would be ruined.
What I actually got was a game that feels completely different, but still has that brilliantly fulfilling Picross feeling when you finish a puzzle. Here, rather than colouring in squares on a grid you’re chipping cubes off a big rectangular block, rotating it with the stylus to read the numerical clues written on the sides and using a process of elimination to decide which ones stay and which ones go.
Picross is still my one true love, but Picross 3D is its hot cousin.
Buy it: Picross 3D
19) Pokemon HeartGold & SoulSilver
Why it was chosen: Asking someone what their favourite Pokemon game is is essentially asking them how old they are.
Many gamers in their early 20s will point at the GBA ones, younger players will say it’s one of the DS titles, older folk like me will say it’s the Game Boy original because A) we think we’re cool as fuck and B) we’re too old to remember more than 151 Pokemon at a time.
HeartGold & SoulSilver at least bridged some of these gaps by remaking the best Game Boy era game (Gold & Silver) in the game engine of DS game Diamond & Pearl. I reckon it’s the best purely because, by adding the entire region of Kanto from Red & Blue just as you think you’ve finished the game, its story is twice as long as most modern Pokemon games.
20) Professor Layton series
Why it was chosen: The first Professor Layton game came out of nowhere to become a massive success, selling out all over the place and ultimately shifting over 4 million copies. Obviously deciding if it isn’t broken it shouldn’t fix it, developer Level-5 went on to release three more Layton adventures on DS, each with a new adventure but similar puzzle-solving gameplay.
If you have to only pick one, I’d go for the third game, Professor Layton And The Lost Future. It’s got the best story and may have you in tears by the end.
Buy it: If you want to play through them in order, it’s Professor Layton And The Curious Village, Professor Layton And Pandora’s Box, Professor Layton And The Lost Future and Professor Layton And The Spectre’s Call.
21) Puzzle Quest: Challenge Of The Warlords
Why it was chosen: By now you have gathered I’m a bit of a puzzle game fan. Well, by now you’re also 21 games into my list so you might as well put up with it. Puzzle Quest is a brilliant little game that did the whole match-three RPG mash-up long before the likes of Puzzle & Dragons made it popular.
By stopping you blindly matching any old shite and making you think carefully about each move (the more of a specific colour you match the more of certain spells you can cast), each battle in Puzzle Quest is slow-paced but compelling. Don’t get its sci-fi sequel Puzzle Quest Galactrix, it’s pish.
22) Retro Game Challenge
Why it was chosen: I feel bad recommending Retro Game Challenge because you’re going to have a bastard of a time finding a copy. But I love it so much.
It was originally released in Japan as a video game spin-off of the ace Japanese TV show Game Center CX, but since that doesn’t air in the west it was renamed Retro Game Challenge. It’s essentially a collection of eight NES games, none of which actually ever existed.
You’re given a number of achievement-style challenges for each game (a bit like NES Remix) and have to read through the manual and Game Fan, a fake magazine you subscribe to, to find tips and cheats that will help you. It says a lot that this captures the feel of gaming during the 8-bit days more than compilations of genuine retro titles do.
Buy it: Sigh. Here’s an Amazon link but don’t expect to have much luck getting it for under £60(!). Retro Game Challenge only made it as far as the US, but it only sold 100,000 copies so it’s pretty rare to import now.
23) Rhythm Paradise
Why it was chosen: Look, just watch this video and you’ll see why you should get Rhythm Paradise. It’s okay, I’ll wait.
See what I mean? Now, imagine that spread out over 50 bizarre mini-games and you should already be getting your credit card out.
Buy it: Rhythm Paradise
24) Space Invaders Extreme
Why it was chosen: It could be argued that Space Invaders is a game that hasn’t really aged well in the 37 years since its initial release. It still serves its function but these days feels pretty slow and plodding.
Space Invaders Extreme is what Space Invaders would feel like were it a modern game, with fast-paced graphics, waves that can be wiped out in seconds, a pumping soundtrack with effects that trigger to the beat of the music and beautiful visualisation effects in the background by Jeff Minter. I can’t recommend it enough.
Buy it: Space Invaders Extreme
25) Taiko No Tatsujin DS series
Why it was chosen: If you aren’t familiar with Taiko No Tatsujin (better known as Taiko Drum Master in the US), it’s a rhythm action game made popular in Japanese arcades by its massive drum controller.
Its rules are straightforward: if you see a red circle hit the drum, if you see a blue circle crack the side of it. And that’s it.
Despite this simplicity, it can get surprisingly difficult: check this video of its Super Mario Bros stage being played on the hardest difficulty to see what I mean.
Buy it: There are three games in the series, but they were only released in Japan so you’ll have to import. In order, you’re looking for Taiko no Tatsujin DS: Touch de Dokodon!, Meccha! Taiko no Tatsujin DS: Nanatsu no Shima no Daibouken! and Taiko no Tatsujin DS: Dororon! Youkai Dai Kessen!. They all have completely different soundtracks, though I’d recommend the first one because it has some good retro Nintendo and Namco tracks tucked away in there.
26) Tetris DS
Why it was chosen: There have been more Tetris games released over the years than there have been posthumous 2Pac albums, which at the last count is over 600. Tetris DS is one of my favourites because, unlike many others, it has a personality.
As you reach each level of its Marathon and Endless modes, the background changes to pay tribute to a different retro NES game, meaning fans of Mario, Zelda, Metroid and the like get to enjoy a little nostalgia wink as they play.
It’s also got some brilliant alternative modes, from the Zelda-themed Mission Mode to Push Mode, a new take on Versus with a Donkey Kong background. If you’re a Tetris fan and the recent soulless offerings from Ubisoft have left you feeling cold, track this one down.
Buy it: Tetris DS
27) Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land
Why it was chosen: I’m a big fan of Tony Hawk games: at least, the ones released during the PlayStation and PS2 era before they started to lose focus and became gimmicky.
American Sk8land is one of the last games that felt like classic Tony Hawk, wisely opting to go with cel-shaded visuals to make up for the lack of detail on the DS. To this day I still start it up every now and then for the odd combo run.
Buy it: Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land
28) Trauma Center: Under The Knife series
Why it was chosen: Trauma Center is hard. As in “piss off you prick, I stitched the bastard properly” hard. But for some reason, despite being one of the most frustrating games I’ve ever played, I still find myself coming back to it because when it all goes well, you basically feel like George Clooney. As in when he was in ER, not when he starred in the coffee ads.
By the way, if you can, play it on an XL: the bigger screens make for greater accuracy and less frustration.
29) WarioWare DIY
Why it was chosen: Ever since the first WarioWare game was released in 2003 the series has been synonymous with simplicity, its basic microgames offering five-second bursts of chuckle-stuffed gameplay.
WarioWare DIY turns this entirely on its head, instead offering a stunningly in-depth tutorial on how to do Intelligent Systems’ job and make your own microgames.
By the time you’ve sat through its entertaining lessons you’ll be drawing and animating sprites, setting AI paths and instructions, creating collision detection rules and even composing the music. The results really depend on your own creativity: as an example, here’s a collection of microgames Nintendo Gamer made back in the day, based on Christmas movies.
Buy it: WarioWare DIY
30) The World Ends With You
Why it was chosen: When I first tweeted that I was working on this article at least four people threatened me with death (maybe an exaggeration) if I didn’t include The World Ends With You. This is how much some people care about this game.
I don’t blame them: its story is fantastic, its art style is beautiful, it has a brilliantly catchy soundtrack and once you get over the initially tricky battle system – using both the touch screen and buttons is a little like patting your head and rubbing your tummy with a stylus – the whole thing becomes pretty bloody compelling.
So don’t worry, Twitter maniacs, I agree with you. Now please don’t kill me.
Buy it: The World Ends With You
What’s that? Thirty games isn’t enough? Fine, here’s another brief list of 15 more I still reckon are worth checking out if you can find them cheaply enough.
Advance Wars: Dual Strike
The best entry in Intelligent Systems’ turn-based strategy war game. Its sequel, Days Of Ruin, is a little too moody.
Another Code: Two Memories
Before Cing made Hotel Dusk and Last Window, it released this lovely wee game about a young girl searching for the dad she thought was dead.
Big Bang Mini
A quirky little shooter that has you tapping on the touch screen to shoot fireworks at enemies on the top screen. Visually pleasing.
If you didn’t think the DS was powerful enough to handle an FPS, Dementium II will change your mind. An effectively creepy first-person survival horror.
Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels Of The Starry Skies
Dragon Quest was to Enix what Final Fantasy was to Square, and this ninth instalment shows why it’s still one of the best RPG series around.
Final Fantasy III & Final Fantasy IV
Speaking of Final Fantasy, these full polygonal remakes of Square’s much-loved NES and SNES titles show that with a lick of paint they still hold up decades later.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
A top-down GTA that harks back to the days of the original PlayStation game. Gloriously offensive, and packed with action.
Illust Logic DS + Colorful Logic
Hudson Soft’s take on Picross, offering both black & white and colour-based puzzles. Look, it’s more Picross, that’s why I’m mentioning it. Deal with it.
Jam With The Band
A first-party Nintendo offering allowing up to eight players to choose an instrument and play together. A widely scaling difficulty system makes it anything from stupidly easy to insanely hard.
Jump Ultimate Stars
Imagine Smash Bros with over 300 manga characters (56 of whom are playable) instead of Nintendo characters. Only released in Japan and hard to get through the language barrier at first, but worth the effort.
The Legend Of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
Phantom Hourglass was fun, but Spirit Tracks is better. It’s less repetitive than its predecessor but offers dungeons that are just as well-designed.
Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis
There have been a few Mario vs Donkey Kong games now but this is my favourite because it offers greater control over the Minis, making it less frustrating.
Sonic Rush Adventure
Anyone who thinks Sonic games have been universally shite for 15 years should take a look at Sega’s handheld offerings. This is one of the better examples.
Released shortly after the DS launched, this was the first game that truly showed what the touch screen was capable of. It’s still a great laugh after all these years.
It wasn’t on the DS, but it’s worth mentioning anyway.