Long the 800-lb gorilla of handheld gaming, the DS is in its twilight, besieged by smartphones and pushed aside by the 3DS. And, yet, you got one, you old softy.
Here are 12 excellent games as a nice reward for showing an old handheld some love.
Advance Wars: Dual Strike
Making the leap from Game Boy to DS let dev studio Intelligent Systems throw more visual information at players than ever before. That’s a great thing since Dual Strike packs in more depth and flexibility than its predecessors, giving you an almost boundless elasticity to thwart the enemy army in this strategy game.
A Good Match for: To beat Watson, or Deep Blue, or HAL 9000. The AI antagonists in this Advance Wars installments are no joke, reading the weaknesses of your defensive strategies and working around your offensive forays. You’ll really have to plumb the depths of human ingenuity to win consistently against the computer opponents.
Not for Those Who Want: New designs. Lots of the visual elements in Dual Strike seem to be lifted from previous Advance Wars.
Art Style: Pictobits
This downloadable DSiWare game hits the sweetest spot possible on the 8-bit nostalgia map by tasking players to recreate the blocky sprites of old-school characters like Mario. The falling blocks title isn’t just rosy-eyed memory lane trip, though; it’s also a challenging puzzler that will force you to re-wire your spatial perceptions.
A Good Match for: NES cartridge collectors. If you’ve still got a fannish devotion to Nintendo’s old school hardware, then drawing whole scenes from retro Legend of Zelda games will hold a special warmth for you.
Not for Those Who Want: More of the same. Pictobits was an overlooked gem in 2009 and it’s sadly never been followed up with a sequel. C’mon, Nintendo!
You play the role of a benevolent, extradimensional god in this quirky release, as you help a stranded scientist and his clueless assistant Terry repair an orbiting spacelab. The conceit is that the Professor’s contacted you — the actual You — through the DS and you need to shepherd the inexperienced Terry through his exploration and battles.
A Good Match for: Fans of metanarrative. Contact represents an interesting meditation on control methods, coming as it does on stylus-driven platform where you’re more steering than fighting. You can also have friends’ characters show up in your games, so they can witness your benevolence.
Not for Those Who Want: Direct input. You’re never really performing as Terry so much as you’re telling what to do. The remove may prove boring to folks who’ve played similar games before.
Elite Beat Agents
For months in 2005, word spread westward from Japan about this crazy male cheerleader/good Samaritan rhythm game called Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan that just had to be experienced to be believed. Import storefronts in the West did a brisk business shuttling Ouendan to foreign shores until developer iNiS and Nintendo re-tooled the concept into a brand new game, as Elite Beat Agents. The main characters were changed into Secret Service-styled operatives but the tap/swirl/slide beat-matching gameplay stayed the same. And, lo, it was good.
A Good Match for: West Side Story fans. Really, any fan of song-and-dance-based storytelling should dig Elite Beat Agents for the wacky situations the operatives help out on and the twists that iNiS put on the rhythm matching genre.
Not for Those Who Want: To keep their hands in one place. You’ll need to tap spots all over the DS’s touchscreen but you’ll screw up sometimes because the icons you need to hit pop under the same hand holding the stylus. It’s the touchscreen equivalent of tripping over your own feet.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
A spiritual sequel of sorts to the mega-popular Ace Attorney games, Ghost Trick‘s superb animation puts players in the role of a newly-minted ghost named Sissel, who learns from a talking lamp that he can possess inanimate objects and manipulate them. By doing tricks while inside of objects, the player goes about preventing the deaths of other innocents and solving the mystery of Sissel’s own mysterious death.
A Good Match for: Aficionados of classic adventure games. Ghost Trick updates the point-and-click formula to become tap-and-move but, really, it’s got the same kind of one-of-a-kind charm that imbued classics like Grim Fandango and The Secret of Monkey Island.
Not for Those Who Want: To play it all over again. As fun as it is making Rube Goldberg life-saving machines out of the stuff you possess, there’s only one chain-reaction solution to each giving you little reason to re-visit Ghost Trick once it’s all said and done.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
The debut of Rockstar’s bawdy, outlaw open-world franchise on a Nintendo system seemed like a sign of the apocalypse when it hit in 2009. But the world didn’t end. In fact, it got better as the touchscreen gave Rockstar new ways to implement criminal hi-jinx like lock-picking with the DS stylus.
A Good Match for: GTA addicts. It’s not the same thing as sitting in front of a console, but much of what fans love about GTA — the huge world, pedestrian chatter and traffic-filled streets — is all there in the palm of your hand.
Not for Those Who Want: People who want three-dimensional, polygonal GTA‘s — you know, the famous ones — because this is strictly old-school, top-down.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
Drawing on the cartoony style of Wind Waker, this 2009 top-down adventure sets Link on far-ranging journeys for the usual Tri-Force wrangling. In addition to its train focus, Spirit Tracks also diverges by letting you control the series’ titular princess, who’s got loads more charm than ol’ Pointy-Ears.
A Good Match for: Locomotive lovers. The trains in Spirit Tracks are more than just ways to get around. They’re also manageable resources that let you ferry stuff around and battle enemies in a brand-new way. Bringing supplies from one town to another winds up changing the whole gameworld, making it a worthy successor to any train sets you played with as a child.
Not for Those Who Want: D-pad controls. Most of Spirit Tracks‘ play happens via stylus and as it goes on, you’ll find yourself testing the limits of your dexterity. Get ready for hand cramps!
Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword
How do you bring the adrenaline-hungry action of the modern Ninja Gaiden games to a touchscreen handheld platform? Turn that DS stylus into a sword of sorts and have players slash madly at the screen. You have to hold the DS like a book to engage Ryu Hayabusa’s smallified swordplay, but there’s nothing nerdy about all the fighting you’ll do.
A Good Match for: Acupuncturists. Granted, most of the poking and prodding you do in Dragon Sword launches attacks. But it’s still moving energy around in a positive way, especially considering that it keeps Ryu alive with the whole “not dying” thing.
Not for Those Who Want: the challenge of Ninja Gaiden on console. Given the difference in format, it’s probably a good idea that this title isn’t as hard as its Xbox 360 or PS3 brethren. But it still feels too slight to really give much challenge.
The 3D in this game’s title has to do with the additional dimension folded into Nintendo’s puzzle-carving franchise. You’re supposed to chip away at the non-descript grids of blocks presented to you in order to tease out shapes hiding in each. But you only get a specific number of tries to reveal the virtual figures inside each shape. If it sounds maddening, that’s because it is. If it sounds genius, that’s because it’s that, too.
A Good Match for: Sculptors. Artists who approach a slab of granite sometimes say that their work already exists in there and is calling to them to carve it out. Picross 3D will make you feel the same way, pulling out at some hidden intuition — with the help of some clues — to see reality differently.
Not for Those Who Want: Conceptual footing. Even though the game’s basics are well explained, there’s still a high level of abstraction that you have to wade through to get good at Picross 3D. You never quite know when you’re really going to “see” the puzzle and that might prove frustrating to some people.
Pokémon: Black and White
A Good Match for:Black & White
Not for Those Who Want: Their old Pocket Monsters. The evolutions of the powered mutant creatures are a lot less predictable in Black & White, so some users may need to retool favourite strategies when fighting each other.
The first Scribblenauts felt, basically, like magic. The 2009 critical darling had players helping plucky, hat-wearing Max collect magical Starites by typing out nouns. Those words generated characters that came to life on screen or objects that could be used. Type out dragon and watch a cartoon firebreather fly Max to his goal. The Super sequel expands the franchise’s spellbook by introducing adjectives, adding more nouns and refining the controls
A Good Match for: Improv comedy lovers. The entities in Super Scribblenauts have limited artificial intelligence, so part of the fun is in throwing random words together and seeing what happens. Will a sad blue clown eat green popcorn? Only one way to find out…
Not for Those Who Want: …intuition to be enough. Some of Super Scribblenauts‘ puzzles will tie you up in knots as you conjure all manner of objects and persons to help you reach a Starite. You’ll spend a lot of time being clever only to realise that more basic logic is what does the trick.
The World Ends With You
This portable JRPG differs from its dozens of peers by speaking to the time in which it was made. As opposed to the plucky quasi-medieval lads & lasses of similar games, the heroes and heroines of The World Ends With You could have walked right out of Akihabara and, moreover, come across just as fashion- and culture-obsessed otaku like the many gamers controlling them.
A Good Match for: Multitaskers. TWEWY‘s other innovation is in its symbiotic combat system, where two party members share health while fighting enemies. Complicating things even further are the actual inputs, where main character Neku is controlled with the touchscreen and the partner character is controlled with the D-pad. You need to split your focus in a way that few other games demand.
Not for Those Who Want: Grown-up protagonists. The characters in this RPG channel the energy and anxiety of teenagers, complete with enemies who represent post-modern anomie. There’s angst and self-discovery aplenty, so go the other way if you’re not trying to revist high school.
NOTE: This list will be updated if and when we discover better games. We will only ever list 12 games, at the most.