What comes to mind when you think about the DS? Endless Brain Training knock-offs? Patrick Stewart with his funny beard in the TV advert? Various disturbing budget games in which little girls look after genital-free babies? The DS has become so successful, so ubiquitous, in recent years that it's easy to forget that when it started out, pre-Lite, it was something of a kooky oddity. We wrote an entire love letter about how delightfully strange it was just two years ago. Now the DS' image has suffered; we've forgotten that it's the console that inspired weirdness and creativity like no other, because all we see is endless, imagination-devoid shovelware aimed at either your mum or your daughter.
It's a side to the DS that many of us have forgotten about, and yet there are still many odd, lovable games being released for the system, games that just wouldn't fit anywhere else - many of them adventure games. The DS has become something of a second home for this wandering genre. Interactive-novel style text-based storytelling and obscure puzzles are perfectly suited to a portable gaming system, and the touch-screen has given the genre opportunities that it never had before. Aside from the obvious ease of pointing and clicking, the DS offers easy note-taking, myriad touch-based puzzling, and a dual-screen format that has been put to delightfully unobvious use. DS adventure games have become a genre all of their own, retaining many of the strengths of traditional point-and-click but distinguishing themselves in style, tone and inventiveness.
The first hint that the DS might be something a bit special for the adventure genre was Another Code, a Cing-developed early point-and-click for the system that gave an early indication of how the DS can be used as an object within games as well as a system for playing them. This is a good place to start for DS adventure gamers; at the time of its release it left us wanting more, tantalised by the prospects it offered for DS-unique puzzles but unsatisfied by its length and slightly light plot. Nowadays it serves as an appetiser for the other, more complex delights that are also now available. That's not to say that Another Code is without its own merit - two or three of its DS-based puzzles are still without equal, leaving you stuck for hours before you realise the elegantly simple solutions.
Cing really excelled itself a little later with Hotel Dusk: Room 215, which took a darker, character-driven and more in-depth route than Another Code's inventive but short-lived, puzzle-driven narrative. As its unusual, effective visual style attests, it's an astonishingly ambitious game for such a little system; as bitter, battered ex-cop Kyle Hyde, you explore the seedy, dead-end Hotel Dusk in almost-3D, talking to its fleshed-out and well-written inhabitants whose visual depictions, conversely, are never more than sketched outlines. This is one of the only games I can think of in which conversations with characters feel like actual interaction; discussions run off on tangents and characters have depth and guarded secrets. The in-game notebook is a stroke of genius - it makes you feel like you actually are Kyle Hyde, playing his part and discovering things along with him, rather than driving him along a path towards the end of a story. The art style, too, is hugely effective; to Kyle Hyde, no person is much more than a sketch, and only as you get to know him and Hotel Dusk's other guests better does your imagination begin to colour the picture. And, of course, it's full of excellent puzzles.
Hotel Dusk is so successful that it makes us sad that other DS adventure games opt for a more irreverent, light-hearted tone - Hotel Dusk shows us that there is room for real character-driven, text-heavy pieces of interactive fiction on the DS, and I for one would be glad to see more of them. Perhaps its polar opposite in tone are the Touch Detective games, which have somehow escaped the notice of pretty much everyone despite their considerable charms and genuinely great humour, possibly because the series is a niche Japanese import. This is our niche, though, and Touch Detective holds a prominent place within it.
Touch Detective and its sequel, Touch Detective 2, combine rock-solid, item-based, pixel-hunting point-and-click puzzling with a sense of humour and style that is up there with the best on the DS - even the best in the wider genre, actually. Touch Detective comes across as weird-for-the-sake-of-it at first, until you realise that this is genuine, effortless wackiness that takes the piss out of itself just as often as it mocks the player; it's self-referential, irreverent and infused with a knowledge of what makes gamers giggle.
Like any good adventure game, the writing is key to the entertainment, and Touch Detective is unusually well-translated. The games star mini-detective Mackenzie and her pet mushroom, who are together on a quest to become members of the Great Detective Society by solving the mysteries about town. The very first one concerns a hysterical rich girl whose dreams are being stolen for use as a cake ingredient by some dastardly fiend, and it gets odder from there. The bottom screen shows the action; the top displays main character Mackenzie's incidental thoughts and accompanying facial expressions as she wanders off on amusing mental tangents and responds matter-of-factly to unendingly absurd situations - another excellent use for the DS' two screens that really ought to be put to use elsewhere.
The series' weakness is the item puzzling, which is ridiculously obscure. Solutions rarely have much at all to do with logic, in keeping with the rest of the game. But this is an exploration of adventure games, not a review for the general reader, and any gamer with a soft spot for point-and-click will find Touch Detective irresistible, obscure puzzle design and all, and forgive it its design faults.
It's impossible to talk about DS adventure games without raving about Phoenix Wright, of course, which has become something of a defining series for the console. Name me another system that could possibly pull this off, cries of 'Objection!' and all: there simply isn't one, and consequently loveable, funny Phoenix Wright has become the figurehead of this new genre, the DS Adventure. If you're reading this then you'll almost certainly have played it (although it's unlikely that you'll have developed as profound a love for the series as I have for Edgeworth), but it's still worth mentioning: it gives good old text-based storytelling a new format and new life on the DS, and though it's not immediately recognisable as a descendant of the point-and-click adventure, it has all of the central tenets of the genre - storytelling, characterisation, humour and excellent writing - at its heart.
There's a recent new arrival at the DS Adventure party in the form of the lovable Professor Layton and the Curious Village, which further diversifies this burgeoning new genre. No other system could possibly have housed this charming sequence of quaintly old-fashioned puzzles so comfortably; portability is key to its design, and it relies on nothing more than the occasional ten minutes of time to spend on a puzzle and the ability to follow the mild intrigue that drives the plot. Again it distinguishes itself in visual style and the imagination evident in its puzzles; again, it's evidence that the DS does much to inspire the imaginations of adventure developers.
That's the defining element of this new genre, I think - imagination, and a willingness to apply traditional story and puzzle ideas to a new format. The DS hasn't simply provided alternative accommodation for the story- and puzzle-driven adventure, it's redefined it, and given willing developers the opportunity to tell their stories in ever-increasingly engaging and inventive ways.