A good point
Beyond having two screens, the next most distinguishing feature of the DS is obviously its stylus. While there's little more irritating than the person who spends their life on trains tapping away on the touch screen of their mobile phone-cum-sat-nav Raspberry, bellowing at some poor unseen secretary that they'll have to make the 5 a 6 because of squash with Martin, seeing someone use it to play a game changes everything. Nintendo's belief that this manner of input might be the primary control mechanism for a gaming device was... Brave? Insane? Probably both. But impossibly right. It just flipping works.
Whether its making an FPS viable on a handheld with the wonderful Metroid Prime: Hunters, or tapping at targets in the decidedly mediocre Point Blank, the stylus has proven itself. But of course it's also bred its own brood of lunacy. A set of buttons can be assigned to pre-ordained commands, but a pen in your hand inspires creativity. Add in a screen receptive to your imagination, and there's suddenly room for something new.
While the disgustingly perfunctory Yoshi's: Touch & Go did it first, two games stand out as embracing the pen-like qualities of the stylus. Yoshi can sod off for being two levels long. First is the much underrated Pac-Pix. Definitely too short (but still infinitely longer than that bastard turtle's premature offering), Pac-Pix offers something that no other game has ever come close to, and no other medium could allow. You draw the Pac-Man, and he comes to life. Engaging with the magical nature, the game's loose story is about an invasion of children's books by evil ghosts, who must be removed by adding Pac-Man to the page. An outline of Pac-Man is drawn, and no matter how poorly you scrawl him, that exact wiggly monstrosity springs into animated action, chomping ghosts in his path. The sight of some abortive Pac-Man mutant, inexorably dragging his Elephant-Man-alike design across the page, is bizarrely disturbing. But he's your abortive mutant Elephant Pac-Man.
The other is of course Kirby: Canvas Curse. We say "of course", because we've played it. But who could have expected boring old Kirby to come good. Kirby, like Pac-Pix, doesn't cast you as the character, but as the person sat in front of the character holding a stylus. He's little more than a helpless pink ball, and you are his protector. The stylus once more draws ink on the screen, this time from a limited, but replenishing reserve. Kirby rolls along them in the direction you draw, and is further propelled by giving him a prod. Draw a ramp and then poke his tummy and he'll go flying off the end. Draw a vertical line and he'll bounce to a stop. And it's beautiful. It's like nothing else. Certainly a PC's mouse has been used in somewhat similar ways, but it creates nothing of the immediacy and intimacy of just drawing the line right there on the screen, and having the game respond perfectly.
A deliberate subterfuge
The infectious nature of the DS' oddness isn't exclusive to the more esoteric games. While some make less inspired use of the stylus, or have throwaway attitudes to the second screen, there's still a drive to be in on the joke, in with the gang. Have a look at this list of DS games:
- Guilty Gear: Dust Strikers
- Tao's Adventure: Curse Of The Demon Seal
- Castlevania: Dawn Of Sorrow
- Advance Wars: Dual Strike
- Dig Dug: Digging Strike
- Mr Driller: Drill Spirits
- World Championship Poker: Deluxe Series
- Lunar: Dragon Song
- Resident Evil: Deadly Silence
The subtitles. See?
And then there's the even more subtle recurring appearance of characters' hands reaching toward you on the box covers.
While these two are the most distinct, check out Luigi's left hand on the front of Super Mario DS (or Mario 65 as I prefer to call it) and Mario & Luigi: Partners In Time (a game deserving of a weird games feature of its own, despite almost ignoring every aspect of the DS). And then there's the covers for Rayman DS and Another Code.
A touch of madness
As we finish this celebration of why we're so ludicrously in love with our flip-top flipped-out handheld, there are still so many games we should rant on about.
What about Trauma Center: Under The Knife? You're a trainee doctor, except you've seemingly received no training at all. It's in at the deep end in DS Land! Wield a scalpel, slice open your patients, and begin the frantic business of injecting, lancing, extracting, cauterising, and sewing away at their vital bits with your stylus. Get yelled at by nurses and read through pages of superb hyperbole/story, and then find the whole business far too hard and stressful, and decide to become a lawyer.
And is there a game more full of joy than Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney? As everyone knows it's really an uber-port of the GBA's Gyakuten Saiban, but this time in English. But this is no GBA game stuck on the DS. This is everything that makes the DS so wondrous. Embracing the point and click adventure abilities, and combining them with a how a legal system would work if Daffy Duck wrote it, it's one of the funniest and most endearing games to appear on any system. And you can yell "OBJECTION!" right into the mic. Sure, it's ridiculously linear - objectionably ("OBJECTION!") so at times - and yes, little is more frustrating than the game's not having thought of the incredibly obvious connection between the witness statement and contradictory evidence you present, but the happiness transcends it all. With its beat-em-up sound effects insanely transposed onto courtroom antics, and the bouncy-cheeriness of sidekick Maya (oh, and of course her ability to channel the spirit of her dead sister Mia), it offers no sense of reality, and yet an internal illogic that fits perfectly. And play through to the end and you'll reveal a fifth, brand new, super-long chapter that embraces the rest of the DS, from the mic to using the stylus to rotate objects in a 3D inventory.
We've failed to mention the brilliantly silly and delightful Nintendogs, or the realisation that Advance Wars was always meant to be on a DS with touch-screen control but we just didn't know it, or how Animal Crossing is made so much more lovely, or pushing Pac-Man around in Pac'n'Roll. And this is to entirely ignore the current epidemic of brain training games. The DS, in its infinite weirdness, seems intent on making you more clever - in interesting, involving and most of all, unique ways.
A stylish ending
Will this be enough? Will we get over our infatuation with the DS's abnormal nature, or even grow used to them? Will we be in control of our hyperbole as we crack computers in Project: Hacker, or cook up a storm in Cooking Mama? What about when Contact arrives later this year, and we help an alien professor retrieve his spaceship while playing as a young man unaware that the professor is aware of our playing...? No, no it won't. Obviously not. But that's ok. Because this is why we care: the DS is invigorating games development. It's shaking things up, throwing in a twist of lemon, and then pouring it on the carpet. It's the antithesis of the stagnation found in so many other areas of gaming. It's about tactile intimacy. It's about imaginative innovation. We are gamers, and we really love games. It's clear the DS inspires others of the same mind, and for that we're madly grateful. Thanks, little guy.