This Friday June 23rd sees the release, at long last, of the Nintendo DS Lite in Europe. Priced £99.99 and available in black and white colours, it's arguably the slickest, most fully formed handheld Nintendo's ever made - with virtually no drawbacks. That was certainly my view when I took it to pieces after a few days of ownership - and unusually the intervening weeks haven't offered any cause to revise the view. Console quirks typically become most apparent after a bit of sustained usage, but the DS Lite appears to be an exception.
In other words, it's a worthy purchase. But more than that, it's very probably an ideal time for some of you to pick up your very first DS, and with this in mind we've put together a guide to the very best games in the DS catalogue - with a few honourable mentions thrown in as well - based on our playing habits since the console's original release in the US in late 2004. This is by no means a top ten - think of it more as a best-of. And if you'd like to make a case for something not included, this is the place.
Eurogamer's Favourite Nintendo DS Games
Easily our favourite Mario Kart game since the original one, the DS version includes extensive options for solo players with a huge range of unlockable characters and carts, and online racing only let down slightly by a four-player limit and occasional delays in hooking up with rivals. From the review: "Played alone, it's another satisfying Mario Kart game. I doubt anything will ever dislodge Super Mario Kart from the throne in my mind, but it comes close as the best of the series. But the beauty of Mario Kart DS is that it's really, genuinely practical to play with other people, wirelessly or online. There's not much more to say. Except that if the DS in Mario Kart DS stands for anything, perhaps it's 'default state', because it's hard to imagine a time when I'll be reluctant to return to the multiplayer racing - and as long as there are people who feel likewise, it'll be a game that richly rewards anyone's investment."
A lovable reimagination of the GameCube game, Wild World is about building a quirky little community of animals, forging relationships, planting things, fishing, digging, trading turnips and inviting people around wirelessly to see the excellent hat you just bought from the shop. Difficult to explain, almost impossible to stop playing. From the review: "I'm playing this version through with, if you can't tell, my girlfriend, and the aspect of simply playing the game with others, either on the same cart, of across Wi-Fi, is a whole new experience, one absolutely fraught with joy, laughter and loveliness. If you have never, ever played Animal Crossing in any form before, I can't hesitate to recommend it."
Not the most imaginative reworking of the classic GBA series, and perhaps a bit complicated for absolute newcomers, but Advance Wars is also one of those games that, once you get your teeth into it, you'll probably struggle to put down until its over. Tactical strategy at its most finely planned. From the review: "As long-term fans might expect, Intelligent Systems' uncanny knack of being able to come up with fresh ideas and more challenging maps and missions is the reason we keep coming back. Whether you've played it before or you're a newcomer wondering what the fuss is about, it stands out as one of the finest handheld games ever."
Historically, it's the only game that ever made me join in the "whooping" when it was announced. The GBA original was a funny, intelligent and brilliantly knitted together little RPG. This is better. Funnier, prettier, all the rest. From the review: "Twenty-seven hours. Without getting stuck. It's HUGE. It's like getting the most wonderful box of chocolates, and then finding that there's a second layer of them underneath the first tray. And then a third. And a fourth. I didn't mention this until now, but it's unquestionably the best DS game so far. And I suspect it will be the best for a long time to come."
The debate about whether it actually makes you any smarter or not rages on (boringly), but there's no question that Prof. Kawashima's Brain Training is one of the more entertaining little games available on the DS - with a price that reflects the fact you can't really play it for that much longer than a few minutes each day. A pile of sudoku puzzles adds to the value, but really it's the fun of testing yourself and your friends that proves decisive. From the review: "Given the hype, you might dismiss Kawashima as some sort of Atkins for brains. In the game, he's more like a lively science teacher; likable, and at the very least he's taught me, once and for all, that six sevens are 42. Plus, whether it works or not, you'll have fun playing it; lots of fun; and that, more than anything, is why you should buy it, and watch out for Big Brain Academy, due out later in the year, which'll tell you whether you're more diplomatic than Ellie 'shouts at cats' Gibson or not. Frankly, I rather suspect you are."
When we first saw the screenshots and it was clear Konami had used one of the screens for the map, there were lots of scowls. After playing through Dawn of Sorrow, we changed our minds. Being able to glance at it all the time removes one of the few remaining niggles in this little sub-genre - pioneered by the likes of Castlevania and Metroid and delivered here with enough zip to keep even the most hardened Belmontalista interested. From the review: "Dawn of Sorrow, like its predecessors and the Metroid series to some extent, is one of those games that initially seems to contradict accepted wisdom about mechanics becoming tedious when you can see through them, because while on the surface it's about roaming round a castle collecting weapons and triumphing over evil, that's not what its hooks are snagging you with. At one point, you're faced with a sliding puzzle that controls the rooms - this is far more of a microcosm for whole game. It's not that it relies on a healthy suspension of disbelief to overcome its contrived elements; it's about bringing order to foggy chaos. This, it does with aplomb."
A game that we liked so much after a while, we went back and wrote another review slagging off the first one. The DS version of Zoo Keeper - itself a simplish take on Bejeweled - is about sliding tiles into lines of three to delete them, but the quality of the control system and the range of modes (particularly the infamous Time Attack) means that once it's settled into a DS cartridge slot for the first time it's seldom dislodged for many weeks. We still play it now and then, 16 months later. From the review: "Zoo Keeper is deceptive. But the key point for me is that while it won't reveal all of its charms immediately, it has enough of those charms - and enough that you can't get for free - to keep you happy for a very long time. It's not perfect. There are things that could make it better. But it's good enough to warrant a better score than I gave it originally, and it's good enough to be worth buying if you're in need of a puzzle game for your new handheld.
The Tetris of old gets a few new twists, and they prove divisive. The now-standard ability to spin a block endlessly - effectively allowing you to play the game indefinitely without succumbing to an onrush of blocks from above - robs it of some of its charm, but with many new modes (some of which are actually pretty decent) and ten-player multiplayer available on a single game-card, it's hard not to recommend to puzzle funs bored of Zoo Keeper. From the review: "There will be complaints that you can't turn off the things that have changed about Tetris since it was the main reason to own a Game Boy - namely the store option and ability to see six pieces in advance - and for those without the ability to take their DS online, it's slightly less essential - the new modes are fun but the old one is still the most important. Regardless, this feels as welcome as any of Nintendo's recent DS reworkings, and, given that I had to pay for my own copy, I feel like I can say that with a bit more conviction than I ever did when heaping guilty praise on GBA releases. It's 'Tetris with the Nintendo touch!' the box declares. Touché."
You buy a puppy and look after it. That's the whole game. But it's such a convincing illusion of a puppy that it's hard not to feel some empathy for the little fella and put time aside each day to deal with his, well, crap. The addition of countless unlockable items found whilst out for walkies guarantees that there's much in it for you as well - and it remains one of the best uses of the DS's microphone interfaces to date. Worthy of its 21st-century-Tamagotchi label. From the review: "The basic feed-train-compete mechanics are always there no matter how many puppies you own. And if you're lacking in patience, you're likely to get frustrated with the endless walking and dodgy voice recognition. But we challenge any child, dog lover or generally soppy individual not to enjoy Nintendogs, and not to fall in love with their fluffy little bundles of fun. Not a perfect game, no, but one of the freshest, most innovative and all-round entertaining titles we've played for a while."
When Nintendo chose to begin its touch-screen odyssey with a retread of an old game, a lot of us thought "uh-oh". But it hasn't been like that, and now we can look back on Super Mario 64 DS, one of the system's launch titles, with a bit more than the guarded affection we had for it at the time. It's a lovingly fleshed out port with new stars to find, and a range of mini-games for four players. The latter are done better in New Super Mario Bros., the 2D platformer due out later this June (and using just one copy of the game too), but Super Mario 64 DS remains an excellent example of what's possible on the DS - and if you can get your head around the analog-nub control system then you'll be well equipped to take on a lot of the system's fiddlier games. From the review: "The genius move in this instance is to use SM64 as something of a Trojan Horse to showcase the touch-screen capabilities of the DS. And we're not talking about the rather contentious and not altogether satisfying control system for a game that was never designed to use this input, but more the remarkable array of mini-games that serve not only as a mini-glimpse into the future of handheld games, but help drag you through one of the best platform games ever made too."
Games about the law are few and thankfully far between - but Capcom's madcap attempt to capture the drama of the courtroom is best described as an amusing adventure with a legal background than Kavanagh QC: The Game. Responsible for most of my friends running across the pub to greet me by pointing dramatically and yelling "OBJECTION!!!" From the review: "Unlike Another Code, this is a hefty game. There are at least ten hours of play up until the end credits, and even then there's a little (read: very big) extra bonus. Well, ok, a vast, epic bonus. Another entire story has been written for the DS version, lasting about as long as the rest put together. Astonishing. The bumper extra even implements new features, such as a 3D inventory and DS gimmicks like blowing on the mic to dust for prints. It's like being cuddled by fun."
Sadly never destined for the kind of success its studio stablemate Lumines enjoyed on PlayStation Portable, Meteos is nevertheless a surprisingly gripping game. Essentially a falling blocks puzzler, it's about sending stacks of blocks flying off the top of the screen by using the stylus to arrange them into rows, and that's just the start. With great music and tons of unlockables, the only slightly jarring thing is that you can cheat at it to a certain extent by scrubbing the screen with the stylus. But people who do that should be rounded up and killed, so that's alright. From the review: "When you think about what it's like to play Meteos, you understand why men like Tetsuya Mizuguchi are so revered. Because they thought about it. They thought very hard. And if you respect that the same way we do, and see it borne out the way it is here, you'll play it the best way, and you'll likely agree that it rockets into 9/10 territory with fuel to spare."
Kirby's not been at his best in recent years (as anybody who played Kirby Air Ride can attest). Leave it to the DS to sort that out. It's not one I've played yet, but if I needed an impetus to do so then the coming summer months and the release of DS Lite ought to see to that. From the review: "It's difficult to over-stress how wonderful it is to have a complicated and intricate platform game that's so remarkably relaxing to play. It's a rare treat, and very appreciated. Kirby: Cursed Canvas comes from nowhere, but deserves to go everywhere. It's another absolute proof of the validity of the DS as a unique gaming platform, and sets a new challenge bar for relaxing platform gaming."
Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan
For the most part we've tried to stick to European releases here, with a Coming Soon section later on, but if we're going to make a concession to imports then it's going to be for this brilliant example of rhythm-response at its most engaging. Simply, you tap icons on the screen in time to J-Rock. And out of that you get one of the most ludicrously addictive games on the system. Perfectly playable in its native Japanese, there's talk of a European release later this year, but it wouldn't be quite the same if you knew what was going on. So buy it like this. From our impressions: "It's denied the honour of an import review score only by our caution - as we haven't been able to try the multiplayer mode, and our lack of Japanese language skills means we haven't worked out whether the non-linear level-selector is actually prompting us to play in a certain order, which would doubtless inform our views on the difficulty curve differently. If we did score it, it seems obvious what we'd give it though: three cheers."
Worth A Look
The success rate may be quite impressive, but not everything on the DS hits the mark. Some games, though, come close, and merit inclusion in this list if only because there's every chance, as you stumble out of the shop clutching your brand new DS Lite, that some bargain-bin somewhere or other will contain them.
Originally high up on our most-wanted list, Polarium - a puzzle game about drawing lines to convert and eliminate tiles - didn't quite do enough to hold our interest, but remains worth checking out. Keep an eye out too for the excellent GBA version, which focuses more on the one-screen puzzle aspect than the rolling challenge mode. From the review: "Perhaps the biggest challenge for Nintendo is managing to convince its audience to give the game a second glance. With some of the most basic visuals seen since the days of the ZX81 and mind-numbingly uninspired audio it's not going to woo gamers looking for the quick thrill that other eye-candy laden DS titles will. Hopefully the prospect of another compelling, involving and satisfying puzzle title which could only work on the DS will provide the hook and convince one or two sceptical gamers of its slow-burn appeal. Okay, it's not the best handheld puzzle game we've played this year, but it still deserves praise for being one of the DS' hidden gems."
Ultimately a bit inconsistent and short, Project Rub nevertheless deserves a look if you fancy a mini-game compilation with a bit of heart about it. From the review: "It does demonstrate better than either Super Mario 64 DS or Metroid Prime Hunters that the DS has something different to offer, and that directing matters with the stylus can be more than just a novelty or a reinvention of the wheel. It can make a discernible difference to the way you appreciate the game you're playing, and on the basis of this and the evidence in Mario 64's mini-game collection, the DS is a console that's going to be brilliant at providing short, sharp thrills, whatever the quality of the more traditional game design aimed in its direction."
Every system has games that are merely good, enjoyable examples of a particular idea. Pac 'n Roll is one such game - you roll Pac-Man around mazes collecting objects and racing through goals, unlock time-attack options and take as much or as little from it as you want. Never essential, but never less than good either. From the review: "Pac 'n Roll is a triumph of interaction. Rarely does the connection between control method and in-game result feel so solid. And the often excellent Challenge levels remind of the brilliance of '80s classic Marble Madness or the Monkey Ball games. In fact, PNR makes you certain that the DS is the machine on which Monkey Ball was always destined to appear. It remains a huge shame that the main game fails to engage quite so severely once the first few chapters are complete. A lack of imagination, or imagination put into all the wrong places, means that no number of extra ways to play a level prevents the game from feeling woefully short. There are some pleasant hidden treats, such as the unlockable full version of the original Pacman, but none of it feels connected enough to provide the grandiose of a gaming classic."
Without the impact of its GBA predecessor, and with little to offer besides a few variations on a basic stylus control, Warioware Touched! never hits the heights of this kind of mini-game extravaganza. Nintendo's tactic of not releasing the far better GBA Warioware Twisted for about a billion years afterward didn't impress us much either. What it does offer, though, is plenty of enjoyable, five-second fun. From the review: "Like much of what we've seen on the DS, the appeal of Touched is rooted in novelty value. But after a dozen or so touch screen games, what you really want is a game you can come back to and get more than the initial novelty rush from. Sadly we're more likely to be found returning to the far superior original or WarioWare Twisted. The bottom line is that there are better ways to experience WarioWare, and that Touched! is simply too lightweight and way too easy to prove very satisfying for most gamers over time."
Never really caught anyone's attention at the time, despite being excellent, varied fun in a manner unlike anything else on the system, and ultimately sank without much of a trace. Which means it's quite cheap now, and if you spot it you'll be doing yourself a favour for picking it up. From the review: "If you want something to lighten a commute or keep you occupied between courses this Christmas, don't be dissuaded by the relatively indifferent reaction elsewhere - Drill Spirits may not use the DS's new features to conduct a symphony orchestra whilst penning sonnets and bringing democracy to Cuba, but when the underlying game is this gripping we refuse to sit around using its relative lack of invention as a stick to beat it with. Buy this, give it time, and you'll love it."
Opinion's always been a bit divided by this one. Kristan never took to it, and ultimately gave it a bit of a panning, while others saw past its shortcomings and fell in love with some of its ingenious puzzle solutions. Worth a look if you can find it cheap. From the review: "If you know what you're dealing with, then Another Code can be a hugely immersive experience that's totally unique among handheld games. Sure, adventure games have appeared on handhelds before, but none have been so perfectly tailored to the strengths of the system. If you need you thirst for adventuring quenched, Another Code is an essential purchase, but novices need to bear in mind that this style of game is very much an acquired taste, and experts should be mindful that compared to the adventuring greats it's not exactly in the same league. That said, it's a very welcome release and stands alone, making it a great curiosity purchase if nothing else. Now pass me the solution before I go completely nuts..."
It's only had about four reader-score votes and you get the impression they were the only people who bought it, too, but Nintendo's Touch Golf game is definitely the best example of the sport available on the DS (miles better than Tiger Woods, at any rate). From the review: "It's not big or boisterous, the characters don't squeak at you in comedy accents and you don't get to unlock Bowser or anything (at least I should hope not), and that's what high-end golf is often like: quietly dignified, a sport of concentration. The occasional lucky chip-in is satisfying, but the real pleasure comes from getting it right because you thought about it. Complacency is the biggest threat you face. Don't buy it if you just want to smash a ball around, hole distant putts and collect obscure rewards for impossible feats; buy it if you want to play golf on your handheld. Because right now, it's the best way to spoil a good sit."
A bit too hard for its own good is probably a fair diagnosis. Trauma Center begins strongly, with a neat range of medical techniques available to the player, but soon falls foul of repetition and difficulty spikes - with some levels in the linear story mode so difficult to overcome that they made me stab the stylus down on the table so hard I cut my hand. It was rubbish for cleaning up. From the review: "Easily the most frustrating thing about Trauma Center is that it isn't just a failed experiment. It's a good idea, well measured and put together. Its problems are spiking difficulty and mechanical obstinacy. In a genre of one or two, that might be forgivable, but the truth is that DS owners can be better served - by Phoenix Wright in the story-driven stakes, and by whatever falls of the shelf when you kick it in the reactions race. You'll definitely need confidence, deftness of touch, sharp reflexes and superhuman concentration if you're planning to scrub up here, and it never! Gets! Any! Easier!"
Bored already? Then keep an eye on this lot, because, as with the DS Lite, you're unlikely to run out of fun in the immediate future.
- New Super Mario Bros. - 30/06/2006. Due out next week and already reviewed, it's the best 2D Mario game since Super Mario World.
- Big Brain Academy - 07/07/2006. Not quite as much fun as Brain Training, as you'll know from the review, but worth a look for multiplayer.
- Electroplankton - 07/07/2006. Bizarre music package that's not really a game, but could just as easily engulf your spare time as any of the real ones. Or not. Our review offered conflicting views.
- Star Fox DS - August in the US.
- Contact - Summer 2006 in the US. Weird aliens-ate-my-teacher RPG fun.
- Mario Hoops 3-on-3 - 11/09/2006 in the US. Basketball Mario-style(-us).
- Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis - 25/09/2006 in the US.
- English Training (working title) - September. Another one from Kawashima and co. Keep a close eye.
- Final Fantasy III - September. Square-Enix's DS update of this never-before-translated NES title has caught a lot of attention.
- Harvest Moon - September.
- Children of Mana - 30/10/2006 in the US. A new Mana game for the DS. We're too excited to type anything meaningful. Wibble.
- Pro Evolution Soccer 2006 - Autumn. It might not be as technically competent as the other versions, but this has been built from the ground up for DS and played pretty well at E3.
- The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass - Q4 2006.
- Yoshi's Island 2 (working title) - Q4 2006.
- Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Justice For All - Q1 2007.
- And quite a lot more. Which we'll happily tell you about as and when.
Now get out there and buy a DS Lite. We're quite happy with our Andrex version, thank you.