Monday, 1 August 2011

Nintendo: 5 Landmark DS Games

As you approach the end of a console generation it is often a time of mixed emotions - anticipation and excitement for the new coupled with a sometimes sad farewell to the consoles that have you kept you entertained for the past few years. With the release of the Nintendo 3DS it does seem that the Nintendo DS' days are numbered. Although the console will probably have a long tail as a result of its continuing popularity with the Primary School contingency, it seems safe to say its best days and best games are now behind it. So now seems the best time to take a look at some of the landmark titles that have graced the system and helped make it the fantastic success that it is - Nintendo's original money printer.

New Super Mario Bros.

With the passing of years and the subsequent release of New Super Mario Bros. Wii it can be all too easy to forgot what a revelation the DS' original New Super Mario Bros actually was. The first true side-scrolling Mario title in 14 years, it cunningly combined the mechanics of classic Mario titles with a modern aesthetic while borrowing some of the more recent home console Mario's signature moves such as the wall jump. New Super Mario Bros. was and continues to be a joy to play - a game that offers right mix between the new that keeps you interested and the nostalgia inducing old. Although open to the criticism that it is a little on the short side and lacking the challenge of older titles (a criticism tackled in its Wii sequel), it succeeds where all Nintendo's best first party titles do - the sheer joy factor.

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies

Square Enix's support of the DS platform has been consistent and wide-ranging, including full remakes of Final Fantasy III and IV, a re-release of the SNES classic Chrono Trigger and remakes of earlier Dragon Quest titles. The release of Dragon Quest IX, however, was something a little special. It was the first time Square Enix had released the latest title of a flagship franchise on the handheld.

And it delivered.

Dragon Quest IX proved to be a charming, expansive and rewarding experience. The game hits so many right notes, from the beautiful art direction to the humorous and offbeat script it is genuinely a delight to play. It features a well-executed learning curve that ensures the game becomes more complicated as the gamer grows in competence. Although the through-plotline lacks some of the dramatic highs and lows seen in some of Square Enix's other titles, it provides a more than adequate framework on which to hang the games enjoyable RPG mechanics and uniquely endearing world and characters. Make no mistake - Dragon Quest IX is a brilliant game and a singular achievement.



Professor Layton and the Curious Village
Layton's a dashing chap...

The DS' touch screen led to a resurgence in a genre that had been somewhat stagnant - the puzzle-based adventure game. Games such as the Ace Attorney series and Hotel Dusk: Room 215 saw the format and genre reach a greater level of public consciousness but it was Professor Layton that managed to not only strike commercial gold but, in doing so, transcend the traditional gaming demographic. Layton not only presented a range of challenging puzzles but tied them succinctly in with an intriguing Homles-esque whodunnit and a presentation that, from its visuals to sound design, oozed atmosphere. In the UK the game was marketed by Nintendo with the celebrity-endorsed casual-gamer friendly vignettes common to the DS and the Wii, Layton receiving the spurious honour of being promoted by Cheryl Cole and Kimberley Walsh. Such was its success in Japan, the US and Europe that it spawned three further sequels on the DS, an as of yet Japan-only sequel on the 3DS and an upcoming crossover title with the Aces Attorney series. 

Brain Training

Dr. Kawashima wasn't so much a square as made of them..
Those looking for evidence of Nintendo's evolving strategy in targeting a wider-demographic than the traditional core-group need look no further than Dr. Kawashima's Brain Training. Released in Japan in 2005, a year and a half prior to the launch of the Wii, and Europe in 2006, the game offered a range of exercises intended to stimulate the brain - although, that said, Nintendo took care to avoid explicitly stating that there was a scientific basis for this. The game itself has sold something in the region of 17 million copies and, like Layton, was part of a targeted marketing push by Nintendo to expand the demographic. Brain Training is perhaps an example of a game more notable for what it achieved than the game itself - a combination of puzzles that includes calculations, reading, "Stroop Tests" and word memory.

Mario Kart DS

There were some gamers who felt a little aggrieved by Mario Kart: Double Dash's tinkering with the core Mario Kart gameplay - it's those gamers who most ardently fell in love with Mario Kart DS. A more 'pure' Mario Kart experience, Mario Kart DS was distinguished by its straightforward racing that relied less on gimmicks and more on race-mechanics - a number of which were brought back from previous titles, for example, the reimplementation of the slipstreaming used in Mario Kart 64. 

That said Mario Kart DS did take one significant step forward for the series and Nintendo in general by introducing online-play. Although by no means a perfect experience - the friend code system significantly hampered social play, matchmaking did little to differentiate by ability and cheating has been rife - it was a bold step in the right direction.


Conclusion

Perhaps more so than the Wii, the DS has played host to a good balance of good core titles and demographic-widening casual games. Through the platforms various iterations, including the original, the 'Lite', the 'DSi' and the 'XL', there has been a steady stream of quality titles, only a handful of which have been touched upon here. Although Nintendo's handheld business never reached the doldrums of its home console business circa the GameCube, the DS' success was something else entirely. Indeed, it is the top-selling handheld platform of all time, no easy feat considering many had predicted Nintendo to finish second when Sony entered the handheld market. Although support is now tailing off, with only 13 listed releases for the rest of 2011, the Nintendo DS will be fondly remembered as a great platform that trod new ground and played host to soem great titles.

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