The Nintendo DS is one of the best-selling video game systems of all time, and it really represented a golden age of handheld gaming. From The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass to The World Ends With You, the DS had countless first-party and third-party hits. Like many others, I have a ton of fond memories with the Nintendo DS, and it kept me occupied on many a family vacation or outing.
The Nintendo DS family of systems had a lifespan of nearly ten years, which is a lot of time to build up a sizable library. With such a flood of titles, there are naturally going to be some that slipped under the radar, and boy does the Nintendo DS have a whole host of hidden gems. From tower defense to first-person shooters, the DS has experiences that you can’t get anywhere else.
Infinite Space is the second title from the now-famous Platinum Games, and it’s a far cry from its usual action-packed fare. More of an RPG than an action game, Infinite Space tasks you with designing and controlling your own space ship, choosing from a massive selection of over 150 models as well as over 150 different crew members to staff it. While the story and exploration are more of a point-and-click affair, Starship battles play out in real-time, letting you issue attacks with a command gauge. During space battles, you can board enemy ships and take the fight to them, with melee battles that use a rock-paper-scissors formula.
The story follows a young starship captain named Yuri, and it’s split into two different parts that are ten years apart. Interestingly, Infinite Space’s story is completely nonlinear and features a multitude of branching paths based on player choice. It’s certainly not the easiest game to pick up and play, but there are some seriously deep mechanics and choices at play throughout the experience. Sadly Infinite Space has always been a tough game to find, even when it launched in the early days of the Nintendo DS. A physical copy is expensive these days, but if you can find a way to play Infinite Space it’s one of the most unique experiences on the system, and a fascinating title from Platinum.
Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings
Revenant Wings is a fascinating game, serving as a direct sequel to Final Fantasy XII. Although it is a sequel, the game has a drastically different art style and tone than the Final Fantasy XII, but it doesn’t suffer for it. Revenant Wings picks up one year after the original, following Vaan and Panelo as they’ve become full-fledge Sky Pirates with their own ship. The duo discovers a long-forgotten floating continent called Lemures, home to the human-like winged beings known as Aegyl. With the promise of boundless treasure, Vaan and Penelo once again get embroiled in a conflict.
While the story goes some interesting places, perhaps most interesting is Revenant Wings’ gameplay, which takes the form of a handheld RTS. Battles take place in small open areas with both the player and the enemy team having a summoning gate. The goal of each battle is to summon an army of Espers and command them, along with your characters, to take over the enemy summoning gate. The RTS gameplay is an absolute blast, and Revenant Wings is the best example of how the genre can work on the Nintendo DS. Elements of the classic turn-based systems return, like how Gambits can be set for each character to define how their AI reacts during battles. You’ll also need to know the various elements of Espers, and which elements beat others. Battles feel like involved affairs that give you a ton of options to play around with, and finding the balance between using characters and Espers can be challenging.
Revenant Wings’ story is much more lighthearted than the original Final Fantasy XII, and the cartoony art style matches that wonderfully. It’s a blast to see characters from the main game pop back up and see where the world is at a year later. Whether you’re a fan of Final Fantasy XII or not, Revenant Wings is a light, but fun role-playing experience.
Ninjatown is an adorable tower defense game that released years before the genre flooded the mobile market. Based on the Shawnimals line of art and products, Ninjatown tasks you with defending the home of the Wee Ninjas from an army of devils. There’s a lighthearted tongue-in-cheek narrative that runs throughout the game, and while it’s nothing serious it remains consistently hilarious. Where Ninjatown really shines, however, is on the gameplay front.
In traditional tower defense style, you have a host of melee and ranged Ninjas to choose from, with new classes getting added later on, like the charming Business Ninja that wears a tie and fights with a cell phone. Each level is designed to allow for a lot of choices in terms of strategy, and there’s no one right way to go about building Ninja huts. While Ninja fighters make up your main repertoire, you’ll also have access to a host of Ol’Master Ninja Powers as well as tokens that can impede enemies. At every level, Ninjatown is brilliantly designed, and while it might not be the longest game, there’s so much charm and strategy crammed into its ten-hour run-time.,
9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors
9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, also known as 999, is the first game in the Zero Escape trilogy, casting a group of strangers into a deadly game of life and death. 999 is a visual novel mixed with elements of puzzle-solving, tasking you with figuring out the solution to escape the various rooms onboard a sinking ship. The story of 999 does a fantastic job of setting up a universe and building a fascinating mythology, that would then tie into the next two titles.
Each of the characters has their own motivations for surviving, and playing through once won’t reveal the entire story, as choices can split off into six branching storylines, each of which reveals a bit more of the overall narrative. While not as gory as something like Saw, 999 goes to some incredibly dark places thematically, with quite a few twists and turns along the way.
Apart from the story, the puzzles are designed quite well, often requiring you to think logically about the situation. 999 takes a while to get into, especially because of how generic its cast of characters outwardly appears. However, after spending a few hours with 999 it starts subverting its tropey cast and really doing some interesting things. Between a gripping main narrative and fantastically designed puzzles, 999 is one of the very best visual novels out there, and it’s worth playing through the next two games, Virtue’s Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma, as well.
Elite Beat Agents
Just one glance at Elite Beat Agents tells you how much of a wonderfully weird experience it is. The quirky rhythm game follows a fictional government agency whose sole duty is to help motivate those in need. The agents use dancing to help motivate people to overcome obstacles, and each scenario has multiple endings to correspond to how well the agents dance. For example, one scenario has the agents helping motivate a young girl with her babysitting, all so she can get the kids to sleep and ask her boyfriend to go steady.
The rhythm gameplay is pretty standard, requiring you to hit notes on the touchscreen in time with the music, but it’s the presentation that really elevates Elite Beat Agents. The game has a bright comic-book style, with top-notch drawings and animations that highlight each song. It might also be surprising to hear that every song in Elite Beat Agents is a cover, usually of American pop or rock music. Some of the tracks include Sk8er Boi by Avril Lavigne, Highway Star by Deep Purple, and September by Earth, Wind, and Fire.
Elite Beat Agents is such a surreal experience, and it’s honestly impossible to accurately describe just how strange, but endearing everything is. It’s a game that you’ll absolutely never forget after playing.
Hotel Dusk: Room 215
Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is an utterly gorgeous gem of a game that looks like a hand-drawn sketchbook. The point-and-click adventure follows a former detective named Kyle Hyde, as he investigates the disappearance of his old partner. This leads him to Hotel Dusk where he’s given room 215, which is rumored to grant wishes.
Hotel Dusk is one of the few games on the DS that requires you to hold the system sideways, playing out almost like an interactive book. There’s a slow, methodical pacing to the game that requires you to investigate the hotel at large, speaking to the various patrons and piecing the overall narrative together. It’s not so simple, however, as Kyle can anger the other patrons by asking the wrong question or behaving rudely in general. Choices made can even result in Kyle being thrown out of the hotel, meaning his investigation comes to an end.
The writing in Hotel Dusk is absolutely superb, and the way the mystery comes together is truly memorable. Each character in the hotel has their own story to tell, and Hotel Dusk is easily one of the most overlooked games in the entire Nintendo DS library.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective comes from Shu Takumi, the director, and writer of the Ace Attorney series, and it sports the same kind of ridiculous humor. You take on the role of a man named Sissel, who wakes up in a junkyard only to see his dead body lying on the ground. With no recollection of what happened, Sissel learns about a power spirits have called “ghost tricks,” which lets him return to four minutes before a person’s death, and save their lives by inhabiting bodies and objects. After Sissel saves a detective named Lynn, the two start piecing together the truth of what actually happened to him.
Much like Phoenix Wright, a lot of Ghost Trick’s charm lies in the characters and writing, with a particular highlight being the ghost of a small dog named Missile, who’s actually based on Takumi’s real dog of the same name.
Ghost Trick’s gameplay entirely revolves around that concept of having four minutes to save someone’s life. During that time Sissel can swap between the Land of the Living where things play out in real-time and the Ghost World where time stops. While in the Ghost World you can possess a multitude of various items and influence them with a Ghost Trick, in an effort to get events to change. Each scene forms a sort of puzzle as you have to piece together which items to possess, and how to save the life of the person that was murdered.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is just such a unique experience that you can’t find anywhere else, and the writing excels just like with Shu Takumi’s other work.
Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure
Henry Hatsworth is a surprisingly endearing mix of 2D platformer and puzzle game, coming from the developers at EA Tiburon. The game really puts the dual screens of the system to use, making you juggle events on the top and bottom at the same time. The top screen plays out like a typical 2D platformer, but when you defeat enemies they get sent to the bottom screen and turn into a puzzle block. From there, the bottom screen is a match-three puzzle game, and any enemies blocks that reach the top of the screen will respawn as enemies that attack Henry again.
It’s a fascinating system that really requires you to juggle different gameplay systems, and it’s something that’s only possible on the Nintendo DS. Outside of the fantastic and frantic gameplay there’s a quirky story and set of characters. Henry’s final goal is to find the Gentleman’s Suit, which allows its wearer to control the Puzzle Realm and claim invaluable treasures. The game also does a great job of mixing things up visually with its environments, from a dank swampy forest to an old-timey London-style city. Henry Hatwsorth is simply a charming experience that’s a blast to play from beginning to end, and you’ll never find anything else quite like it.
The Nintendo DS isn’t exactly the first system that comes to mind when you think of first-person shooters, but Moon manages to embrace the system’s limitations for the genre. Moon takes inspiration from classic tropes of the horror genre, casting you as a soldier sent to investigate a catastrophic event that has left a series of Moon bases abandoned.
More than anything, Moon absolutely nails the creepy tone of sci-fi horror, with an unsettling atmosphere akin to something like Metroid Prime. In terms of controls, you use the touch screen to help aim, and somehow the developers got Moon to run at a crisp 60fps on the DS. While the story manages to provide some interesting twists and turns, the environments can feel a bit repetitive after a while. Still, Moon is the absolute best example of how an FPS can work on the DS, and it’s no surprise considering the game comes from Renegade Kid, the developers of the Dementium titles. It’s incredibly impressive technically, and any fans of sci-fi horror will find a lot to love with Moon, as it wears its inspirations on its sleeve.
Despite the lack of a proper 2D Metroid entry on Nintendo DS a few other games managed to fill that niche, like Aliens Infestation. As a tie-in to the film series, Infestation takes place after the events of Aliens 3 and sees a group of Colonial Marines boarding the USS Solaco, which is now adrift in space. There are 19 total playable marines, but at any time you choose a team of four to explore the Solaco. There are serious consequences to losing a marine, however, as Aliens Infestation has permadeath for each character, and if you lose all 19 that’s it.
The closest comparison for Aliens Infestation is honestly Metroid Fusion, as there’s a sense of mystery and horror that permeates the halls of the Solaco. In traditional Metroidvania fashion, you’ll need to find new skills and weapon upgrades in order to piece your way through the ship. There are five different areas of the ship, although Aliens Infestation isn’t quite as freeform as a mainline Metroid title. Still, the pixel art does a fantastic job of heightening the tone and creepiness, and it’s no surprise since it comes from the talented team at WayForward, known for the Shantae series.
Aliens Infestation felt retro even when it released in 2011, but in the best way possible. It’s quite interesting how the game ties into the actual Aliens canon, and the Xenomorphs manage to be as terrifying as ever.