Even the way you say the word (Dah-Tss: like checking your breath for the threat of halitosis before hissing at a pantomime villain) feels unkempt and low culturish. It's one of those sports, like Rugby Union, Polo or pitbull-fighting which, when played in Britain, comes with a heavy sort of social baggage. These are all games intrinsically linked to the type of people who play them and the environments in which they're played. Darts is a game about fat men, gold chains, ropey pubs, peroxide blondes and beery carpets; Polo is about prissy paddocks, pure-bred horses, fox-hunting aristocrats and voting Conservative. Pay no attention to the virtue of the gameplay and let the broad brush strokes of prejudice painted by your upbringing dictate whether you approve or not.
Thankfully, in their other-dimensional presentation, videogames have a cute way of bypassing these sorts of tired class considerations of sport to reveal the underlying game for what it really is. Which, in the case of Touch Darts, turns out to be a pretty excellent one all told. Of course, this isn't the first game to try players' hand at the sport. However, for console gamers at least, the most recent iterations have mostly taken the form of minigames tacked on to larger projects. Be it in the game parlours of Sega's multi-million pound camp soap opera, Shenmue, or deep in the belly of Nintendo's 42-All Time Classics, Darts has usually played insignificant sideshow to another game's main attraction. So it's good to see Sega focus its efforts to bring us the definitive package onto Nintendo's handheld.
The rules of the game, for those who only frequent wine bars or gentlemen's clubs of a weekend are straightforward: two players compete in a game of physical accuracy and mental arithmetic to reduce their starting score of 501 or 301 points to exactly zero before their opponent. During your turn you can throw three darts which must hit a segment on the dart board to score. Each segment has a score marked at the edge of board which is subtracted from your current total when hit. If the dart hits the narrow outer ring you score double points while the inner ring scores treble points. Wires separate the segments and your dart will bounce off these if it hits one. The centre of the board is the bull's-eye which has an inner and outer part worth 50 points and 25 points respectively. The final dart, that which reduces your score to zero for the win, must land either in the outer ring of the board (i.e. a double) or on the bull's-eye otherwise it's counted as void.
And, for the main part of Sega Presents Touch Darts, these are the rules you'll play by. The presentation is cartoony and easy-going as you're charged with working your way up through four stages of professionalism (from Rookie up to Professional) taking on other cockney caricatures and unlocking new darts and characters along the way. While you start off playing in your shed or bedroom to an audience of one it's not long before you're in a pub, loud bits of sentences swirling around you interspersed with cries of support from the bar.
Where the game really succeeds is in that all important sense of control afforded the player. To play you touch your stylus at the point on the dartboard you ideally want to hit before drawing it back and gently flicking your wrist upwards in a vague approximation of the real-life action. In a sense it works more like a classic golf videogame in that, once you've picked your direction, it's mostly a case of setting the correct power.
Of course, it's possible to add subtle modifiers to your throw by, for example, pitching the angle slightly when you throw, or by throwing very gently so that the dart drops below your aim point but it's a lot more simple and streamlined than the 42-All Time Classics version. Indeed, while it will take you a few goes to learn the right sort of power to inject into your throw, soon you'll be turning out treble twenties without too much effort. That's not to say it's easy however, as you need to maintain a decent amount of concentration for those all important final doubles and, as the excellent crowd noises ooh and ahh behind you in, the game does a fine job of applying pressure at key points in the game.
There are two factors that drag the game down a little. Firstly, the AI is literally hit and miss throughout. Pitching this kind of difficulty for a developer one of the very hardest things to do. While it's extremely simple to make a perfect AI opponent, making a believably fallible one is far harder. The game mostly fails in this regard as it's very easy to play through at least half of the single player career without losing so much as a single set. Secondly, while various multiplayer modes exist (both standard 501/301 games as well as various minigames (Round the Clock etc) there's no wireless function so you're left with having to pass the DS around the room - hardly a perfect set-up.
The game's not going to win any awards for technical achievement. The audio samples repeat themselves unapologetically and, while the different styles of dartboard and dart are many and varied, it's couldn't be described as a beautiful game. But where it counts Sega Presents Touch Darts is a triumph. Whether idly playing through the various mini-games or bucking down to a tricky leg in a long tournament the game is perfectly accessible, easy to pick up but hard to master and, even without wireless multiplayer or an adaptive AI this is still comfortably the best Darts videogame going.