It's hard to think back to a time when the all-consuming success of Nintendo's DS was in any doubt. But, as with so many new and different things, videogame consumers at first struggled to put their faith in what appeared to be an unfocused hotchpotch of whimsical design ideas.
The first iteration of the machine was ill-served by its chunky, plasticity Fisher-Price build quality and with its strange dual screen set-up and on-board microphone it looked as though Nintendo had spent its money in all the wrong places. Less generous commentators claimed the company was consolidating its position as out-of-touch toymakers offering little more than a gimmicky toy. Had a mistake been made in ignoring consumers' perceived desire for faster, sleeker, more technically impressive handheld specifications (those the rival the PSP so eloquently embodied)?
For a while, with few games arriving for the system, and with many of those that did tacking the hardware's new functionality onto established mechanics in pointless or uncreative ways, it appeared as though the detractors were correct: the DS was another Nintendo handheld curio, a Virtual Boy for the 21st century.
But then came Brain Training, Animal Crossing: Wild World, Nintendogs, New Super Mario Brothers, Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time, Elite Beat Agents, Slitherlink and Phoenix Wright, and a hundred other innovative, inventive, exciting and soulful games that transformed the system from interesting novelty to absolute necessity.
Since those early days, the machine's steady, assured dominance - bolstered by the Lite hardware redesign - over the three global territories has been unstoppable, culminating in last week's announcement from Chart Track that the DS has overtaken the PC and PS2 as having the highest current market value of all videogame systems in the UK for the first time.
The system has revitalised an ailing Japanese videogame market (indeed, nine of the ten games in this list originated in Japan), a country that's accounted for 18 million of the DS' total 47.27 million hardware sales worldwide. Last October Nintendo announced a 20.5 per cent rise in net profit forecast - attributed almost entirely to the handheld. It's a success story of heart-warming proportions and one that's in no small part thanks to an astonishing line-up of software that appeals to a broad demographic.
In a sense, then, the system has little to prove from here on out but glancing ahead over the next year's release schedule - and there's an impressive number of enticing title that seem to be further broadening the machine's remit. Here are just some of them. Enjoy.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
It seems a little superfluous to try to try to add anything to this week's thorough exposition of the latest Zelda game from our own Oli Welsh. As he points out, no matter how impatient you might be feeling, non-Japanese speakers should wait for the Western version or else miss out on much of the subtlety, humour and flavour that makes the gives the game its inimitable character.
A direct sequel to the GameCube's Wind Waker, both games share many attributes, character and locations. Phantom Hourglass is set several months after its predecessor and features a cel-shaded Link on a quest to rescue his pirate friend Tetra. Featuring seven dungeons (strung together in a new way for the series) the game's viewed from a top-down perspective like the classic 2D titles but showcases fully 3D character models and environments.
Unlike some of the more recent Zelda games Phantom Hourglass places a heavy emphasis on self-depreciating humour and this, combined with the game's various mechanical inventions and overhauls had Welsh touting it as "the freshest Zelda in years, and the most complete game on the DS."
Freshly-Picked Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland
Developer Vanpool has, in its time, made music software, toys, and one or two extremely obscure videogames. Whether the fact this relatively obscure team has been trusted with a Zelda off-shoot action RPG says more about its latent potential or Nintendo's flippancy towards gaming's least-loved fairy is, as yet, unclear.
Few would argue that the eponymous hero from the Zelda series (he debuted in the N64's Majora's Mask) is one of the most annoying sidekicks to come out of Japan. But with Freshly-Picked Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland perhaps we might better come to understand the reasons behind his irritating demeanour.
The story begins when an ordinary middle aged man (named Tingle) is transformed by an ordinary old man with a rupee for a head (named Uncle Rupee) into a green-suited, moustachioed fairy who must throw rupees into a stream in order to find paradise.
That's quite the premise. Read it again and imagine what the childhood of the designer who came up with that idea must have been like.
Split between 11 islands, the aim of the game is to work your way through each one's Zelda-style dungeon, collecting as much money as possible, bargaining with NPCs for information and conversing with Pinkle, Tingle's very own assistant fairy (who will presumably enjoy her own spin-off series at some point in the future...)
One of the most frustrating things about the rhythm action genre is that while they purport to be music games, they're really just Simon Says tests of hand-eye co-ordination. You trigger the samples that have been predetermined and there's no room for creativity, style, composition or much flair outside of Guitar Hero's pitch-shifting whammy bar.
Jam sessions, (the gentler moniker for Japanese dev Plato's Hiite Utaeru DS Guitar M-06) is looking to change all of that by providing a bona-fide composition tool for the handheld. Pitched as a kind of songwriter's portable notepad the 'game' allows users to simulate strumming on a real guitar (by striking the stylus back and forth over the touch screen) while selecting different chord permutations by using the d-pad. The DS can even be plugged into an amplifier, surely paving the way for the first DS-based battle of the bands.
Up to five different songs can be saved onto the cart and you can record a vocal track over your backing using the microphone, should you so desire. For users lacking in compositional creativity, the game will come with a number of well-known songs for you to play along to in Challenge or Freeplay modes.
In the States you can already pick up a set of plectrums that attach to the stylus for added authenticity. While that might be a gimmick too far, Jam Sessions looks to be a serious tool kit of use to commuting songwriters everywhere.
Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations
Released next week in Japan it's a pleasingly short wait for this, the third Phoenix Wright to reach the rest of the world. Capcom's inimitable adventure series has found a fond following in Europe thanks to its quirky game mechanics, endearing lead character and humorous tone. Mixing the supernatural with cold hard science the game once again casts players as Phoenix Wright, now a seasoned defence attorney with a penchant for taking on hopeless cases.
Split into five chapters, each one focuses on a different case, tied together by an over-arching narrative. The game's form and function is now well established, and players looking for new stories and puzzles rather than new mechanics should be more than happy.
As with the earlier titles, each chapter is divided into an Investigation Phase (in which Phoenix and his team gather clues and evidence) and then a Trial Phase, where the player must submit appropriate evidence, facts and contradictions to confound the prosecuting team.
With characters such as Jean Armstrong, proprietor of the French restaurant 'Tres Bien' and a defendant known only as Bikini (a plump old woman), the game's irreverent tone should provide players yearning for the next Phoenix fix with everything they desire.
Boulder Dash - Rocks!
It's one of gaming's classics and a title well-suited to an update on the DS platform. Originally released on the C64 in 1984, Boulderdash was one of the few titles of the time to start life on home computers before being ported into arcades.
Lead protagonist Rockford is a prospector whom the player must guide through a network of caves while tunneling from gems and diamonds. Risk is introduced to these rewards by way of enemy creatures (such as butterflies and fireflies), falling rocks and underground explosions.
This DS remake will recreate every element of the original game that made it so beloved by gamers of a certain age (*cough* Kristan *cough*). Boulder Dash - Rocks! is being developed by First Star software, the company who has held (and milked) the rights to the Boulderdash name since 1983 and are looking to convince a new generation of the game's timeless qualities.
Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings
- Release Date: late 2007
Japanese developers and consumers alike have traditionally shied away from the Real Time Strategy genre. But with titles such as Nippon Ichi's forthcoming PS2 game GrimGrimoire and this, Square-Enix' Revenant Wings, perhaps change is afoot. Either way, it seems strange that the RPG giant would choose this genre for the first spin-off to its acclaimed PS2 title, Final Fantasy XII.
But spend some time with the straightforward mechanics and it all makes a little more sense. With a story focusing on Vaan and Penelo, the game takes place a year after Final Fantasy XII's conclusion in the sky world of Lemures. Tapping the 2D characters (overlaid onto 3D backgrounds, a la Xenogears) selects them while then tapping an enemy or location will send your character toddling off to wage war.
Thanks to its select box tool, it's easy to order groups of characters into tightly defined groups as the DS reveals the ongoing benefits of its touch screen construction. There are concerns over the game's apparent easy difficulty, although this reflects Square-Enix's openly conscious decision to court mainstream and casual players. Whether the game is able to hold the interest of Final Fantasy's all-important core fanbase remains to be seen.
Flash Focus: Vision Training in Minutes a Day
Drawing alongside Nintendo's Brain Training and Face Training comes Namco Bandai's own stab at the increasingly populated self-help videogame genre: Vision Training.
The game's been produced under the watchful eye of another named expert, Hisao Ishigaki of the Aichi Institute of Technology - a professor in the field of sports medicine specialising in vision research. Ishigaki-san has helped develop computer-assisted vision training programs for professional athletes in the past, and so players who need to bolster their hand-eye reaction times for Halo 3's multiplayer modes should obviously apply.
The mini-games we've so far seen include live action footage of a baseball game. You play the part of the hitter and must tap the screen at the moment you think the character should swing to strike the ball. In this way the game can alert you to deficiencies or biases in you co-ordination in order to hone your reactions.
Whether the game can move beyond testing reflexes towards actually correcting problems with your vision is unknown, but with Nintendo overseeing the project it's certain to be another worthy addition to the popular genre.
- Release Date: TBC
The logic is understandable: humans can tone and improve their torsos through the repetition of appropriate exercise so why wouldn't the same physical cause and effect work on our faces? If Brain Training was designed to appeal to our intellect then with Face Training (or Otona no DS Kao Training as it's currently known in Japan) Nintendo is after our vanity.
'Facening' is, like everything quirky, big in Japan according to The Internet and not much else. But if the success of Dr Kawashima's assault on the global IQ is repeated here, perhaps the rest of the world will become a little more beautiful, too. Dr Kawashima put a persona and guide to Brain Training's otherwise functional and clinical presentation, and Face Training is looking to make a similar star of Fumiko Inudo, a Japanese beauty expert.
Brilliantly, the title is being developed by Intelligent Systems, they of Advance wars and Fire Emblem fame. This, in our minds at least, is a little like setting Bungee to work on a Crochet 'Em Up. A new DS camera will plug into the GBA slot on the DS which, presumably, will enable Inudo to tell you how much weight you've lost off your jowls each week while tracking the number of chins in your neck combo.
Subarashiki Kono Sekai
- Release Date: Late 2007
Fans of Jet Set Radio will instantly recognise Shibuya's busy and futuristic streets in this, Square-Enix's attempt at an entirely new type of action RPG. But, as we pointed out following our favourable playtest of the game at Square's Japanese event earlier in the year, here Tokyo's most fashionable locale is used for its aura of youthful cool rather than its gameplay facilitating architecture.
Artistically styled by the company's virtuoso character designer, Tetsuya Nomura, the game oozes vim and vitality, a fašade matched by the underlying mechanics.
Indeed, this is a complex and furious game which requires of its player the ability to process and manage information from both DS screens in a manner seldom explored on the machine. You must use the stylus to control one character on the bottom screen while the d-pad controls another on the top screen - both of whom are engaging in separate battles simultaneously.
Initially overwhelming, you eventually focus and settle into the all-encompassing mechanics. With an interesting story, collectible badges to upgrade characters and a 35/40 score in Famitsu a couple of weeks back, the game is certainly worth watching
Professor Layton and the Mysterious Village
- Release Date: Late 2007
This, the first installment in an intended trilogy based around the exploits of Professor Layton and his sidekick Luke, comes from Level 5, the team behind PS2 titles Dragon Quest VIII and Rogue Galaxy. The game has a delightful and unique illustrative art style, and its mechanics are built up of a series of mini-game style puzzles interlinked by narrative and simple exploration.
The game's puzzles seem to major on those infuriating mental conundrums beloved of schoolchildren and Boy's Own annuals. In one example you're presented with the task of carrying three chicks across a river using a two-man raft. Three wolves also wait on the riverbank: leave a single chick with a wolf unattended and it will be eaten, so you must work out the order in which to carry the units to ensure their safe transport.
As you work through puzzles, you build up hint points which can be used to gain tips towards solutions. It's a refreshingly different take on the ubiquitous DS puzzle game and, combined with the game's wonderful art style presents a welcome departure from the JRPG for the talented company.