Game websites and blogs are awash in end-of-the-year reflection stuff, and I probably shouldn't let myself get dragged into the undertow. But I just can't help it. Something about a pending new year always makes me stop and take a look at where I've been and what it all means. Well, where I've been anyway.
In the spirit of year-end reflection, here's a thought. The platform that produced some of the most solid games in 2009 is the one we often forget to include in our GOTY roundups: The Nintendo DS. Five years and 115 million systems into its lifespan, the dual-screen wonder is showing few signs of slowing down, at least when it comes to delivering new games. Whatever we might say about PS3 momentum or the sustained appeal of the Xbox 360, neither system can match the DS library of high-quality games, many of which appeared this year. Of course, neither can match it for bad games either, but I won't pursue that point. :-)
Looking back over this past year, several DS games impressed me and sustained my interest far longer than most of their PC or console brethren. In fact, if I add up the total number of hours I spent playing games this year, I'm fairly certain I spent more time with my DS than any other system. Portability is a big factor here because I traveled more than usual in '09. My schedule also lends itself to playing games whenever short bursts of time open up, and the DS is uniquely able to deliver that experience. Ironically, the game system that many adults feel self-conscious playing in public is the system best adapted to our active lives.
I know what you're thinking. What about the iPhone? 15,000 games in the app store - surely some good ones in there, right? Of course, and Spider is one of my favorites of the year. But I have to say I'm still not a true believer in iPhone gaming, for many of the reasons I noted back in March. Ergonomics go a long way with me, and most games on that device still require my index finger as a primary input device, obscuring the screen and forcing me to hold the iPhone in a way that's uncomfortable to me. I know millions of people play games on their iPhones and apparently love it. I prefer the DS.
Sort of got off the subject there, didn't I? Sorry.
Here, in no particular order, are my favorite DS games of '09. The list includes a couple of recent releases I'm playing now, as well as others I've mentioned or written about here previously. They represent an impressive array of genres and gameplay styles, and all are worth a look, especially if your DS has been sitting on a shelf feeling lonely and forgotten lately.
GTA: Chinatown Wars - The incongruity of Rockstar software on a Nintendo handheld may have confused consumers, but Chinatown Wars is one of the best GTA games ever made. CW returns the franchise to its core design philosophy: plunging the player into an amped-up world of depravity, mayhem and speed and wringing as much giddy gameplay out of it as possible. I played this GTA through to the end, which is something I hadn't done since Vice City. Hats off to the designers who managed to smartly integrate the stylus and touchscreen into gameplay and avoid gimmicky foolishness.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor - A Dragon Age fan will surely throw a shoe at me for saying so, but Devil Survivor is the most successful RPG released this year - if success is measured by making big promises and delivering on them. Devil Survivor succeeds because it does three things remarkably well: 1) it cannily combines the best features from other genres; 2) it streamlines gameplay without oversimplifying; 3) it presents an adult story in which player choice feels genuinely meaningful. Longtime RPG players will appreciate the way Devil Survivor honors the genre by insisting on a thoughtful and strategic approach to resource management and tactics. But in keeping with Atlus' balanced design, newcomers will find many of the traditional RPG corners rounded, with less grind, micromanagement, and repetition. Devil Survivor also has the best battle system I've ever seen in an RPG...and I've played a few RPGs.
Clash of Heroes - I never saw this one coming. A ridiculously addictive strategy-puzzle-RPG tucked, for no apparent reason, in a Might & Magic wrapper. Clash of Heroes is a deep, challenging, and enormously rewarding game that will have you tapping away at your DS screen till the wee hours. If you've had your fill of formulaic turn-based combat, or you're simply looking for a game that breathes life into several stale genres at once, you've got to get your hands on Clash of Heroes. Few games these days actively reward patience and imagination from the player. This one does. Clear your calendar.
Retro Game Challenge - One of the most pleasant surprises of '09 and a wonderful gift to old-school gamers. RGC is an inspired homage/parody of 8-bit and 16-bit classics cleverly tied together by a sublimely wacky story in which you are transported back in time to the 1980s and forced to play video games by the vengeful Game Master Arino. Your only way back to the present is to overcome challenges Arino throws at you from an array of retro games, including 2D shooter, sidescroller, racing, and even a surprisingly deep RPG. The games are terrific (in some cases better than the originals), and RGC's cheeky self-awareness is a big part of its appeal.
Korg DS-10 Plus - This one's the wildcard of the bunch. It's not a game, nor has it even been released yet here in the states. Korg DS-10 Plus is a full-fledged powerhouse musical instrument and mixer in the pocket of your jeans. This update to the original Korg DS-10 adds twice as many analog synthesizers (now up to four) and drum synthesizers (now up to eight), plus the ability to lay down twelve tracks with real-time editing and two extra effects layers. If you don't know what you're doing, this astonishingly complex program won't help you release your inner Brian Eno. But if you can harness it, there's no end to the creative possibilities this tiny cartridge can unleash. An truly amazing piece of kit.
Rhythm Heaven - Possibly the most underrated and under-appreciated game of year. Yes, Rhythm Heaven is hard. At times, brutally so. It expects perfection, and anything short of that means fail. Yes, Rhythm Heaven is 'just' a collection of mini-games. And yes, it's full of activities that really don't qualify as games at all. This is a game you both play and play with. It's a toy in the richest and most delightful sense of the word. What sets this game apart from others, including the WarioWare games that inspired it, is a beautifully unified sense of design. Despite its disparate elements, everything in Rhythm Heaven fits together and creates an experience that feels organic. Wacky and maddening, but coherent. So many games play it safe. This one doesn't. The haters missed the point.
Big Bang Mini - This little gem combines elements of Space Invaders, Meteos, and Geometry Wars to create a terrific genre-combo shoot-em-up game that thoroughly seduced me. You launch fireworks to fend off enemies, all the while dodging debris falling from the upper screen. Each level contains its own art style, music, and special abilities...and, of course, a boss battle that unlocks the next level. The gameplay is frenetic, but fair, and it induces the kind of in-the-zone feel that few games seem to get right anymore. Big Bang Mini got roughed up by some reviewers who criticized its basic gameplay mechanics. Shooting and moving your ship are designed as two separate activities that must be coordinated by the player. Suggesting that the game is flawed because you can't move and shoot at the same time seems wrongheaded to me because it insists on a gameplay design the developers clearly rejected in favor of a different kind of challenge.
Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story - the latest Mario & Luigi game suggests its predecessors have essentially been rehearsals for this culminating masterpiece. Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is the finest and most fully realized Mario RPG ever made, and that's saying something for a highly regarded franchise that includes the original Super Mario RPG, the Paper Mario series, and two previous Mario & Luigi games. Aside from its top-to-bottom graphical polish and colorful interface, (aesthetically, this game sets a new standard for sprite design and animation on the DS), the game distinguishes itself through its sharp canny dialogue and self-aware conceit that establish a playful link between game and player. Plus, it's really fun.
Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks - Yes, the Zelda series has grown increasingly conservative over the years, but the magic still works wonders. Spirit Tracks delivers such a blissful combination of whimsy and rock-solid gameplay that once you've crossed the threshold and learned your first song on the Spirit Flute, there's no turning back. This is what a highly refined and expertly-crafted game looks like. I have a strong suspicion that if Spirit Tracks appeared in another skin from a different developer, we'd all be singing the praises of a handheld Zelda that does Zelda one better. But arriving as it does and looking like a Phantom Hourglass carryover...well, ho hum.
Scribblenauts - Mired in pre-release hype and hyperbole courtesy of the E3 games press, Scribblenauts was bound to disappoint, and so it did. Control issues and design dead ends snuffed the excitement out of a title that promised to redefine how we interact with games. But I included Scribblenauts on my list because the marvelous things it did manage to deliver felt so fresh and imaginative. I can't think of a game that so quickly and easily raises the eyebrows of non-gamers who see it for the first time. Imagine a solution, scribble a word, and watch what happens. Maybe Scribblenauts was little more than a proof of concept, but it's a really cool concept that deserves praise.
Happy portable gaming!