Wow, has it been a year already? Yes, exactly 365 days ago we compiled a list of the most impressive DS games of 2008, to celebrate the games that pushed the envelope on the aging console. And 2009's been another big year for the two-screened behemoth: two new iterations of the hardware, DSi and DSi LL, were launched, so people could pick up their third version of the system. It also easily outperformed the new PSPGo, with another year of millions more handhelds sold.
Was its software picture as rosy? Nintendo launched a new service, DSiWare, so people could download games to the DSi, but 99 percent of the library is forgettable at best, and useless garbage at worst. Retail continued to be choked with shovelware, such as Petz, My Baby/Horse, and movie tie-ins galore. Still, as dire as that sounds, the DS had more than a few enticing games sporting some goshdarned new ideas. And even when the results fell a little short of the game's promise, we appreciated them just for trying.
The DS’s year got off to a strong start with this lovely import, which hit the US in February. Based on the Japanese TV show Game Center CX, the game traps the player in the '80s, where you must overcome challenges in old games to defeat Arino, the host of the show. Now, on the show, they play actual classic releases, but Retro Game Challenge takes it a step further by creating new, NES-like titles. Each game comes out chronologically, with a plot that starts in 1985 and goes till the decade's end, and you’ll get to watch the graphics and gameplay mature with each new release. It's a very clever idea done almost flawlessly.
You start with Cosmic Gate, a very clear Galaga homage, which is followed by other titles made with strong references to Dragon Quest and Star Soldier. But some, like our favorite of the bunch, Haggleman, feel brand new and have no clear real-world inspiration; they're just old-school awesome. And on top of all that, you have the world outside the games, in which your player character and a friend – actually a young Arino – read through then-current game mags for tips, cheats and previews of future games. We loved nearly every minute of it, were especially impressed by its translation and localization for US fans, and recommend it not only for old farts who want to relive the '80s, but as a virtual time machine for younger fans who'd like to know what that era was like.
Yes, we often rant and rave that not only does the DS have too many remakes, but it also has too many RPGs. That's still true, but we wholeheartedly forgive it in the case of Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride. Firstly, no previous incarnation of it has ever been released in US or UK stores before, so we'll give it a pass on being a remake. As for why it belongs in a feature about impressive games, it was one of the most different and envelope-pushing RPGs of its time, something we're only just finding out now.
Unlike the fairly rote plots of previous Dragon Quests, Heavenly Bride takes many sharp and surprising turns, and has some real tearjerker moments. Plus, there are a couple times when the player is given an actual choice that can alter the direction of the game, such as choosing a wife, which is alluded to in the title. As you follow the lead character from youth to manhood, you spend so many in-game years with him that you come to feel more ownership of the guy than the heroes in any JRPG before it. To think that this came out in Japan in 1992 for the SNES is incredible. It's barely dated today, and all JRPG fans should play it to discover just how much it did for the genre.
Still, publisher Square-Enix wasn't all remakes this year when it came to the DS. This spinoff of one of its lesser-known franchises, Valkyrie Profile, was a real breath of fresh air. Made by longtime VP developer Tri-Ace, CotP takes the core series’ action-RPG tendencies and adds them to the classic, grid-based strategy-game formula.
When one character attacks another, it turns into a real-time, button-based attack, which has to be timed just right to pull off the best combos. Additionally, the order in which your characters attack is immensely important, because if multiple allies are in range, they can each attack the baddie during a turn. As you can only deploy four team members to a battlefield at a time, planning each assault is key to winning, especially after you’ve hit the unfortunate difficulty spike later on. Covenant of the Plume is a rare case of action being added to a strategy game and deepening it, instead of dumbing it down.
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