Weird Games Made The Nintendo DS Great

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, March 18, 2011 at 9:00 am
When I look at my video game library it is easy to see which console is the closest to my heart. Some shelves are crammed tighter than others. The Xbox 360 game spill over onto into the PlayStation 3's territory, where Valkyria Chronicles and Demon's Souls stand watch over a bunch of other games I'm saving because I'm supposed to. The oddball stack of PSP games rise up on the left side of one shelf. And the sparse Wii games share space with old Gamecube games I can't bear to part with.

It's the Nintendo DS games that dominate. Stacked two rows high the games stand as a testament to the breadth of experiences available on the seven-year-old handheld. I have saved nearly a hundred games -- stuff that I found so interesting, innovative or just worth having that I couldn't bear to part with them. As we near the release of the Nintendo 3DS bear with me a moment while I wax nostalgic.

I still remember the first time I played the Nintendo DS. It at the E3 expo in 2004. There was a little roped-off alcove in the Nintendo booth. We were ushered into the dimly lit room where locked-down, tank-like versions of the Nintendo DS prototype were set up. We played demos of Pac 'n Roll and the submarine demo that would eventually evolve into Steel Diver. I was skeptical at the time. I wasn't sure how touch screens would go over. And the launch games were kind of rough. 

Super Mario 64 was no fun to play with the stylus and d-pad. And games like Feel the Magic XY XX, though sufficiently weird, felt strangely thin. Strangely it was an extremely casual game that found first found the most action in my DS. Zoo Keeper, a simple match three game published by Ignition burrowed its way into my DS and didn't budge for quite some time. We played the game incessantly, somewhat predicting the way casual games would come to consume so much free time.

Thanks to NeoGAF and online import stores I made a timely appearance at the Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan party. The quirky music game was released in Japan in 2005. And it was obvious that the game would never see the light of day in the States. The game, about male cheerleaders who use serenade everyday citizens out of their little ruts was just too weird and too steeped in Japanese culture to ever be marketable here. iNiS would eventually remake the game as Elite Beat Agents complete with American music and a more palatable, Blues Brothers-inspired theme. Both games are insanely hard and totally worth seeking out.

I was thrilled when Advance Wars came to the Nintendo DS. I'd spent hundreds of hours playing the first two games on the Game Boy Advance. But somehow the magic was missing in Advance Wars: Dual Strike. And the series completely jumped the shark with the emo sequel Advance Wars: Days of Ruin. It wouldn't be until 2007 when another tactics game would take over my life. Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift remains the best introduction to Square's tactical role-playing games. It's a handsome game -- all retro styled sprites -- and it features a story meant to be ignored. The lead character even says that he'd rather just go out and hunt than try to find the magical book that'll take him home. 

As I look at my pile of treasured Nintendo DS games it becomes clear what I valued in that little machine. I loved the weird experiences like plucking out sounds with the experimental music game Electroplankton. I loved engrossing little yarns like Hotel Dusk: Room 215 and the exquisitely written and animated Phoenix Wright games. I loved meaty retro obscurities like Mystery Dungeon: Shiren The Wanderer. And I became obsessed with new games that paid tribute to the old like the fabulous dungeon crawler Etrian Odyssey. 

Maybe most of all I treasured the games with unique visions. The off-beat adventure The World Ends With You might be the only game with Tetsuya Nomura's name on it that I can stand playing. That's because its setting and theme -- grounded in contemporary Japanese youth culture -- was so vivid and earnest. Flower Sun and Rain, a re-released Suda 51 joint, was the best worst game before Deadly Premonition taught us to appreciate camp. And Retro Game Challenge, a woe-fully under-appreciated tribute to old-school gaming by inventing a parallel universe of classic games.

retro game challenge.jpg
Sadly more than a few of the games I've mentioned here are now hard to come by. And my worst fear is that the next generation of portable games won't be half as strange, exciting and new. If you'd told me in 2004 that I'd find so much esoteric fun on the Nintendo DS I probably wouldn't have believed you. Here's hoping that the Nintendo 3DS can surprise me half as much. If not, I'll always have my shelf.

Pretension +1 is a weekly column by Gus Mastrapa that explores the cultural impact of video games. This week that impact was mostly personal. But you get the idea.
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