Over 75 million lifetime sales. 1343 games. 9 years. 4 iterations.
It’s finally happened. The 3DS was discontinued as of September 2020 after a near decade of gaming goodness. This is my ode to the magnificent 3DS. While this console has not quite matched the overwhelming sales records of the DS (and frankly nothing comes close amongst handhelds), there is simply something special about this pocket-sized wonder. There were many features that made it sparkle: the headliner stereoscopic 3D effects; new social capabilities with StreetPass and Miiverse; even the updated form factor of Nintendo’s sleek clam-shell design. These things were advertised on the shelves, but for me – for many, I expect – the games were the true show-stoppers. And, my, does the 3DS have a ton of imaginative, timelessly brilliant games – not to mention the cornucopia of DS software available due to the system’s backwards compatibility.
I’d play day and night curled up in blankets. This was the system that introduced me to Fire Emblem (Awakening kept me sane while I was wrangling with my BA finals). It showed me ambitious new perspectives in Pokemon X/Y, as well as the potential scope for refreshing beloved classics with Pokemon Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire. I have so many warm memories of playing the excellent 3DS catalogue. There are almost as many ‘best 3DS games’ lists as the number of games on the system. ‘Hidden gem’ lists are probably not far behind. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to write my two bits on some lesser known titles that are worthy of your time then and now.
Obvious disclaimer: this list is my opinion only and in no particular order. So with that out of the way, move over Switch – today, we’re focusing on the big mama of handhelds!
1) Stella Glow
Let’s start with a swan song for a swan song. Stella Glow is a turn-based SRPG. The final game of Imageepoch and a spiritual successor for their also wonderful Luminous Arc series. Following a familiar story of misguided knights locked in conflict with vilified witches. The narrative is intriguing, the twists impactful, characters lovably emotional. Music is the theme uniting plot and gameplay, as the influence of song in the story is mirrored in the game’s systems. Quite fittingly then, where Stella Glows sings is in its spectacular sound design (the composer is Yasunori Mitsuda of Chrono fame) and heartfelt performances from the witches’ VAs. If you like well-polished, thoughtful tactical JRPGs, don’t skip a beat on this one.
2) Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
As a massive fan of top-hats and courtroom shenanigans, I had to include this game, which slams togethers two modern cult classics of the adventure genre to produce an even more niche but brilliant offspring. Capcom and Level-5 affixed Layton’s puzzles to the testimonial shredding of Ace Attorney with neither side overshadowing the other. It’s a crazy blend that somehow captures their unique charms whilst appearing completely on par for each series. It helps that both share similarities like off the wall bonkers plots. This crossover follows tradition with a beguiling tale of witch trials in the mysterious city of Labyrinthia and plenty of narrative curveballs to catch the player off guard. The game makes more tweaks to Ace Attorney’s formula with multi-witness testimonies in new mob-style trials and animated cut-scenes, the latter of which was carried over into Phoenix’s next installment, Dual Destinies. Oh, and no objections to the soundtrack either – hats off to that!
3) Fantasy Life:
Fantasy Life is a life sim but with many lives. Bored of playing adventurer? Why not try your hand at becoming a cook or an alchemist or a tailor? Why not try all of them? The great thing about this cheerful game is that you can easily switch between the twelve life classes on offer and each one has their own rewards and style of play. Some involve conventional monster bashing, others task you with performing rhythm mini-games. Like a MMORPG (but without people to deal with), Fantasy Life nails the sense of progression that keeps you coming back for more. Although I spent many days living the sweet angling life, I was honestly the fish in this situation. It’s a Level-5 game so you can expect a wholesome experience wrapped up in an adorable bobble-headed style that is fun for all the family. In sum, Fantasy Life is Animal Crossing with more JRPG goodness and an actual story. It’s top of my list for great games to shut off and enjoy.
4) Crimson Shroud:
If you are looking for an eshop wonder with ambition that far outstrips its budget, look no further than Crimson Shroud. Despite not receiving much attention at time of its release in 2012, the talent behind it should make you pause. Yasumi Matsuno, veteran designer behind Tactics Ogre, Vagrant Story, and Final Fantasy XII is the brain behind the scenes and you’ll see his influence drip through the game’s tactical challenge and style. This game is a love letter to tabletop, distilling a DnDish experience into a single-player RPG. The dice are king of the dungeon, controlling everything from the damage of your swing to the outcome of status effects. There’s a wonderful physicality to the presentation as the game makes good use of the 3DS touchscreen, which sees you ‘roll’ the dice around. The narrative is classic grimdark fantasy, a brief but poignant tale of a stoic swordsman, mysterious mage and wisecracking archer trawling through a damp dungeon. It’s a short game that can be finished in a long evening, but like the best campaigns, Crimson Shroud lingers for much longer after the adventure’s end.
5) Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology
Perfect Chronology is a remake of Radiant Historia, a DS game that was the brain-child of Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) and Radiata Stories staff. I played Perfect Chronology without knowing its pedigree and, while the game’s love for traditional JRPGs is apparent, it stands on its own. I personally think Perfect Chronology lies amongst the best JRPGs with time travel plots and mechanics. The player navigates a flowchart system, jumping between timelines to solve problems and create a better future for the war-torn party. The combat system puts an interesting spin on typical turn-based fare by making the position of allies and foes a core part of the strategy. You can essentially ‘bowl’ the beasties around to do more damage. The remake adds extra story content with another hypothetical timeline, new character artwork (the original sprite work is available via DLC), UI smoothing as well as a few other improvements. Make sure you’re in the timeline that plays this game.
6) Project x Zone:
Project x Zone is the best kind of crossover. A fever dream conjured up by someone who said: ‘What if Jill Valentine and Dante paired up to fight dastardly forces? With Heihachi Mishima?! And throw a few robots in there too!!’ I’m sure that conversation happened when Bandai Namco knocked on Capcom and Sega’s doors to borrow some of their most beloved franchises. Calling on twenty-nine new, old, little and widely known series, it’s a wonder that this game even made it to Western shores. Evidently Namco underestimated fans’ appetite for niche Japanese games since the game apparently beat sales expectations by ten times over here. It is such a treasure trove of nostalgia that I wish I could say more about the ludicrous story and dull battle system but that’s not why you should play the game. Play it for the feels, star-studded soundtrack, and nudge-nudge skits between characters with no business interacting with each other. Project x Zone has its flaws but it’s a favourite for making me play even more games after I was tantalised by its voluminous glossary of characters and series, many of which I had heard of but a measly number I’d played.
7) Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked
Megami Tensei fans are a different breed. Contrary to the uplifting bond-fest that is Persona, don’t expect the same from Atlus’ devilish sister series. SMT games are notoriously macabre, challenging affairs, often dealing with numerous ethical conundrums, religious references, and lots of death. This SRPG entry sees the player quarantined in Tokyo after a demonic outbreak. Band together with friends and other dubious folk to survive as progressively more dangerous demons hunt down the protagonists each day. Like other SMT games, the decisions you make have great repercussions for how the story (and world) ends. I was at odds whether to put SMT IV or IV: Apocalypse on this list but I consider Devil Survivor Overclocked to be less well-known and slightly ‘friendlier’ for the uninitiated in terms of difficulty progression. All the games are essential in modern JRPG lists. Between the upcoming SMT III: Nocturne remake and SMT V, there’s no better time to jump into hell than now.
8) Yokai Watch:
A wild ‘mon game not Pokemon or Digimon has appeared! Jokes aside, Yokai Watch was a runaway phenomenon in Japan, spanning an ongoing multi-media franchise of games, anime, and toys. Yes, it has cute critters and child heroes to save the day. The story is the same but the execution is unique enough to deserve its own corner. What I like about Yokai Watch is just how much it leans into its Japanese roots, despite some of the westernised localisation choices. From the small town aesthetic, evident inspiration of mythology (yokai is a term for traditional Japanese monsters of folklore), and general focus on collective harmony. Yokai live in nature and objects, bringing fortune and mischief to people’s everyday lives. This quiet coexistence is how the game charms, because you don’t catch spirits. You befriend them, chat with them, solve their problems and in doing so discover a rich world beyond the mundane. Just remember: phantoms are friends, not fodder.
The 3DS was great for puzzling on the go and many other games of this genre could have earned a spot on this list. I chose to highlight Pushmo for its mixture of squishy charm, unique concept, and gentle climb in challenge that makes it suitable for a wide audience. The game sees you control Mallo on a mission to rescue children by pulling (and sometimes pushing) different blocks to form a path to the top of various colourful structures. It’s a bit like the block manoeuvring puzzles of Catherine only slightly less creepy or bizarre. You’ll be climbing spring chicks and Nintendo icons rather than an impending tower of doom for one. Aspiring pushmo level designers could also create custom puzzles that could be shared with friends, although you might have missed that boat by now. Nevertheless, with over 250 puzzles in the main game there is plenty of head-scratching left to enjoy.
10) Rhythm Heaven Megamix:
The touch-screen era refreshed interest in the ‘mini-game’ game with addictive curios like the WarioWare series, Elite Beat Agents, and various party games. Rhythm Heaven Megamix is up there amongst the zaniest on offer. Sometimes you’ll be rolling over arctic seals; next thing you know, you’re practising your golf swing with a baboon cheering you on. Like most rhythm games, it would be unfair to simplify the game as mere ‘button-pushing’. Catchy earworms, boldly crude graphics and sheer wackiness ensure your fingers will be itching for just one more try. This game is brilliant for distraction, both within it (trust me, you’ll fumble your perfect run with a few ‘WTF is that?’ moments) and outside (‘Where did the day go?!’). It isn’t the most memorable game on this list but as an experience it’s absolutely determined to make you leave with a smile.
There you go – ten awesome games for a system that’s gone out with a bang. These are games that I have personally played and loved but I’m sure there are plenty more hidden gems. So spread the love and let me know about any I’ve missed in the comments below.
And keep an eye on this space! As mentioned, one of the best features of the 3DS is its backwards compatibility, so look forward to Part 2 with a list of my Favourite DS Hidden Gems soon!