As promised, I’ve returned with a post about my hidden gem picks for the DS! Last month I touched upon some awesome games from the 3DS, so give that a read if you haven’t yet. Now we’re moving to the Big Daddy of handhelds, the best selling DS.
From the mid-noughties to not that long ago, the DS made waves with its iconic dual screens, touchscreen capabilities, and backwards compatibility with Game Boy Advance cartridges. All this at a reasonable price point, which made it worth getting multiple to stop bickering siblings! The DS signalled quite an experimental era with developers testing the creative boundaries of the touchscreen. The beauty of this tactile interface is that it opened up new styles of play alongside the traditional D-pad and buttons. Puzzling point-n-clickers and rhythmic minigame-a-thons are much more accessible with a dainty stylus. Many games on this list seem like they could’ve only been made during this exploratory period, although some received sequels on other systems and their appeal has clearly endured beyond the console’s ten-odd year lifespan.
It was difficult limiting myself to a meagre ten games from the 2000+ DS library, but I hope this list demonstrates part of the system’s wonderful legacy and perhaps even inspires you to try something
Obvious disclaimer again: this list is my opinion only and in no particular order.
1) Touch Detective 1 and 2 ½
Touch Detective and its sequel is what you get when crossing Nintendo’s playfulness with a point-and-click adventure. The game follows Mackenzie, a kid detective who solves bizarre mysteries in her small town. Oh, and she’s accompanied by a living mushroom for a sidekick. Because. The creepy-cute visuals and soundtrack haven’t aged a bit, but what I love most of all is how unashamedly weird it is. Cases include dream robbery (okay…), snow fairy saving (aww) and MURDER at a flea circus (?!?). No explanations why. Just roll with it. The general consensus is that the puzzles are obtuse, as is often the case within this genre, but I believe its charms are well worth whipping out the walkthrough. It’s a shame that the third game (Touch Detective Rising 3) never made it West, since the series scratches that itch for outlandish mysteries like the brilliant Ace Attorney and Professor Layton games. Nevertheless, Touch Detective’s legacy still spawns on the Switch today, albeit in a Match 3 game that sees Funghi take his rightful starring role.
2) Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Saying anything about the narrative of this unique puzzler verges on spoiler territory. Trust me – you don’t want to be spoiled about this game. Shu Takumi of Ace Attorney fame directed this gallows humour adventure so you’re in good hands. Since it’s in the name, I’ll reveal that you’re a ghost, who uses their new time-hopping powers to prevent some untimely murders as well as spook some goons with poltergeist hijinks. The unique mechanics have you possessing and moving objects in a span of four minutes to change fate. Finding the optimal solution and seeing former victims narrowly escape death in a domino effect of apparent ‘coincidences’ is immensely satisfying. The art style is also banging – a cross between Viewtiful Joe and Spy vs. Spy. Go in blind and play tricks to your heart’s delight – the twist will almost make you want to go back and do it all again.
3) Trauma Center: Under the Knife
Oof. The first game of the Trauma Center series released in 2005 and was set in 2018 – how time flies! Play as greenhorn but genius doctor, Derek Stiles, whose ‘healing touch’ (read: slo-mo stylusing) is dispatched against a bioterrorist attack called GUILT. Yes, it’s a little on the nose but the stakes genuinely feel high when you’re in the operating room, time limit ticking away, suturing and extracting parasites from patients you’ve grown fond of. Half visual novel, half surgeon simulator without the comic buffoonery. Trauma Center uses the touchscreen imaginatively as surgery involves a great variety of puzzles and stylus actions. The anime visuals and well-realised characters have also aged well. I was especially fond of the dynamic between Derek and the strong-willed Angie, his assistant nurse, who learns to trust him. An unexpected success in the West, a bunch of sequels followed on the DS and Wii but none of them would be here without that first tentative outing.
4) Pokémon Conquest
What is a Pokémon game doing on a hidden gems list? Well, have you ever seen one set in the Sengoku period? Pokémon Conquest is the unholy child of Pokémon and Nobunaga’s Ambition, a tactical grand strategy RPG that tasks you with unifying feudal Japan. Although unification is also the goal in this game, Pokémon Conquest doesn’t possess the gameplay of either parent and is a grid-based strategy RPG instead. Key Pokémon features are effectively translated into a tactical formula. For example, you capture more critters by winning over their
trainers warlords, who usually join your party when conquered. Rather than levels, battling increases one’s ‘link’ with their partner Pokémon and each warlord has an ideal partner they can maximise their link with. This system is rewarding as a kind of affection system, by emphasising the bonds between warlord and partner – possibly even more than mainline Pokémon games where gratuitous capturing and team optimisation can make your ‘mons feel dispensable at times. I’m still not sure why this curio exists but I’m sure glad it does!
This is a contentious one. Reviews are middling but I personally found an interesting premise behind the iffy localisation and poorly explained systems. The concept feels straight out of a Japanese mystery anime as the player is transported to Kisaragi City, a seemingly normal town that hides a harrowing history. Gameplay includes scouring for ‘worms’, manifestations of negative emotions, in people’s brains by digging around with your stylus. Not the most medically sound idea but it’s pretty gratifying to physically unpick characters’ psyches as you gradually learn the truth. The protagonist is a bit of a blank slate, although you can express certain emotions during conversations, which determine how other characters feel towards him. Lux-Pain requires more involvement than your standard choice-based visual novel. If you can stomach typos and are the type of player that enjoys burrowing into backstories within an ample in-game database, have a look. It’s a psychological mystery that won’t solve itself.
6) Avalon Code
Avalon Code appeals to keen-eyed explorers who love logging their findings and creative packing. Rather than record that new species of flower with pen and paper, however, you can promptly thwack it with the mysterious Book of Prophecy to create new entries. Expect to smack a lot of flora, fauna and people round the head. Each page is made up of different elemental blocks – codes – that affect the specimen’s nature. These manifest in various ways, such as stats for equipment, health points for enemies, or personality traits in NPCs. The ‘packing’ part comes into play when you shuffle around these blocks between entries. For example, you can take an ‘illness’ code from a sickly girl and stick it into a monster to weaken it. Unfair? Perhaps, but extremely fun. Fulfilling quests and gifting presents will also endear you to characters, which may even blossom into romance. Avalon Code starts slow but there’s an innovative and deep world to discover if you’re willing to make the journey.
7) Hotel Dusk: Room 215
I love a good detective noir. The first thing that caught my eye was Hotel Dusk’s gorgeous brushwork graphics that look like a rough sketch come to life. The story sees moody former detective Kyle Hyde confront his past as he investigates Hotel Dusk and the titular Room 215, which supposedly grants wishes. This is an adventure game that scratches the noggin in inventive ways, like the Trace Code and the Zero Escape series. Hotel Dusk stands out with immersive puzzles that sometimes break the 4th wall by using the console’s touchscreen and microphone. You hold the DS like a book and I remember being blown away by one solution where you reveal the back of an object by actually closing the console’s lid. It was an illuminating moment that made me see the DS in a completely new light.
8) Glory of Heracles
This is where my bias as a classicist shows. As a fan of all sorts of legends, but especially those of the Greeks and Romans, I didn’t blink twice getting this JRPG interpretation of classical mythology nearly a decade ago. Taking tropes and multiplying them by five, Glory of Heracles makes your whole party a bunch of wandering amnesiac immortals trying to find their place in a fantastical world. This is the sixth game in the Glory of Heracles series and unfortunately the only one to have been localised. Alright, the silent protagonist and by-the-book combat is ancient history, but the rich setting, nudge-wink references, and narrative twists are timeless. Here’s hoping that this year’s roguelike darling, Hades, and Immortals Fenyx Rising, Ubisoft’s open-world take on gods and monsters, ignites a Promethean fire, because I desperately need another turn-based myth simulator.
9) Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth
It’s no surprise that this game is here, considering I will gab about the Ace Attorney series until I’m frothing if given the chance. Phoenix Wright’s adventures have received cult acclaim, but Edgeworth’s spin-off is objectionably stuck in the dock (yes, I’m still salty that Investigations 2 was never released this side). After numerous games on the defence’s bench, it was refreshing to go to the ‘dark side’ and play from the prosecutor’s perspective as everyone’s favourite cravat-wearing stick in the mud. While you can expect the familiar wacky interwoven plotlines, ace music, and lovable characters, kudos must be given to the reworked gameplay. There’s not a courtroom in sight. Instead, Edgeworth investigates crime scenes and uses ‘Logic’ to deduce the correct perp to haul to jail. This game’s gimmick lets you reconstruct holographic crime scenes. An excellent mechanic that I wish had returned in later installments. Fans will get the most out of this game with its silly cameos, but Investigations is a criminally underrated game that not only shows a softer side to the demon attorney but a daring departure from Ace Attorney’s usual formula.
10) The World Ends With You
Lovingly shortened to TWEWY by fans, this is almost too much of a cult classic to count as a hidden gem but if there are any MUST PLAY DS games, I’d forward this as an easy contender. TWEWY takes place in punkish Tokyo, where newly-dead Neku is forced to compete in a reaper game for the chance to live again. Wander around the monuments of real-life Shibuya and once you’ve had your fill of the striking proto-Persona 5 style and bopping soundtrack, you’ll be even more engrossed by the characters and story. TWEWY has one of the best casts and character development in modern JRPGs in my opinion. Initially an antisocial brat, Neku and his friends are wonderfully flawed but bond with each other in a terrible situation. Melodramatic yet genuine – it’s ‘anime’ in the best way. The combat system is also one of the most inventive, albeit fiddly, amidst the DS line-up. Using the touchscreen to perform different actions, you equip Neku with various psychic abilities in the form of pins and unleash combo attacks with his current companion. Don’t just take my word for it, TWEWY’s legacy is clearly going strong. An announcement for a sequel called NEO: The World Ends With You recently dropped last month. Now, that’s zetta cool.
There you go, another ten games that are worth rescuing from the backlog. After finishing, I realised that this is yet again a list of Japanese games (clearly my preferences are showing!) Are there any fellow fans here? What other games should make this list? Let me know in the comments!