2009's most impressive DS games

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.

Excellence in virtual time travel:
Retro Game Challenge

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.

RPG missing link:
Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride

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.

Best melding of strategy-RPGs and action:
Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume

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.


  • stealthmog - December 20, 2009 10:24 a.m.

    Why no love for Phantasy Star Zero? I thought it was pretty dang impressive what they packed into the game.
  • Xeacons - December 19, 2009 6:59 p.m.

    Yeah, can't argue with the quality (or lack thereof) of the DSiWare. Best one's were the utility programs: Web browser, calculator, notebook (I'm still waiting on the spreadsheet). But there's no denying, Flipbook is worth BUYING a DSi for, especially if you're in the cinema/animation business!
  • FanofSaiyan - December 19, 2009 9:48 a.m.

    I can't believe they didn't put Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days on this list. That game was awesome!!
  • zanthox - December 18, 2009 9:51 p.m.

    I litterally JUST finished Spirit Tracks... It has a few control flaws but other than that... It is perhaps the best Zelda game to date...
  • crumbdunky - December 18, 2009 10:10 a.m.

    Played, as ever, a ton of jrpgs on my DS this year(thought Devil Survivor was a little overrated,mind)and sadly NOTHING was as food as last years high water mark in TWEWY, imo, despite there being the usual plethora to wade through. Didn't play the VP strategy game though and will when I see a copy. Otherwise a great little list with GTA:CW being an opus and ode to the DS and it's abilities(it remains a far better game on Nintys handheld than on PSP-where it's still cool). It easily stands up to full size GTA releases and is something the people at R* Leeds should be proud of. The only other game on the list I haven't played at all is Bowsers and I'm getting it for my little lad for Xmas so some fatherly indian giving seems on the cards. Don't make that face -when you have kids you'll find that buying the games you want as presents for them is about the best way of keeping a decent library while not annoying the other half(who despite being a gamer herself does get angry at over five games per month). And besides, my dad used me as an excuse to tracel to Chelsea games throughout the 70's and 80's. And we were crap then-so the lad gets off light and still gets the games-when I've finished "helping" him.
  • GameManiac - December 18, 2009 7:03 a.m.

    I could NOT agree more with Scribblenauts, Bowser's Inside Story, and Spirit Tracks.
  • McSpermie - December 18, 2009 2:53 a.m.

    I understand, I didn't catch that the list was meant to be most innovative but it makes sense now. I haven't tried Valkrie Profile for the DS I'll give it a go though
  • GR_HenryGilbert - December 18, 2009 2:16 a.m.

    @McSpermie A couple things. First off, I almost put Devil Survivor on here, I reviewed both and it's a better game than Valkyrie Profile, but this was a list for inventive and impressive games, not strictly a best of list. Still, anyone who likes strategy-RPGs or summoning demons and fusing them should buy Devil Survivor immediately. Same goes for Layton. I had the first game on last year's list, and while this year's entry was very good, it wasn't all that new.
  • McSpermie - December 18, 2009 1:12 a.m.

    woah woah woah, there are a few things missing here. First off as said by sveini22, Professor Layton should have been there which you guys gave a 9 while you gave Scribblenauts a 7. Secondly Devil Survivor was also very good (you gave it a 9 also) and I was surprised not to see that on there. Lastly though I understand that most wouldn't agree with me here I loved Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days and was really hoping it would be on here. So anyways nice article I just would get rid of Scribblenauts and put those in.
  • sveini22 - December 17, 2009 8:26 p.m.

    i personaly think that professor layton and pandoras box shoud have made the list
  • Kaz993 - December 17, 2009 5:23 p.m.

    Big titles only? what about Phantasy Star Zero? Packing all the gameplay of Phantasy Star Online into a game pack, complete with a 14-hour storyline, amazing graphics for the DS that run smoothly in full-rendered 3D, and online play to boot?
  • Migglez - December 17, 2009 3:48 p.m.

    scirbblenauts is great haha was there even a story i just drew whatever and it was still hella fun
  • rxb - December 17, 2009 1:25 p.m.

    I got China Town Wars for my bros birthday. He loved it.
  • Cyberninja - December 17, 2009 12:08 p.m.

    sprit tracks is awesome i am about to finsh the ocean temple and i think scribblenauts will be fun a holiday partys, i think the best dsi ware game is march of the minis or might flip champs but i also love flipnote studio and i want to find VP:CotP for $20 again that would be nice
  • Romination - December 17, 2009 2:45 a.m.

    A tear shed for Henry Hatsworth... It's interesting that you guys like Haggleman so much since I didn't think it was so great. Hm. Some of these categories felt ODDLY loaded...but I'm sure you had the game and then came up with the category, RIIIIGHT?
  • Spybreak8 - December 17, 2009 2:20 a.m.

    Nice article, I have been playing GTA: Chinatown Wars off and on for a while now. I could do everything in the game but I have way more games to play to find all the security cameras lol. Just grabbed Spirit Tracks and I will probably grab the Mario & Luigi title sometime. I knew Scribblenauts was going to be on the last page lol.
  • nik41507 - December 17, 2009 12:09 a.m.

    @SuperGoomba64 I am sorry, there is a cookie shortage You do not get a cookie Maybe next time Nice article
  • Ransom - December 16, 2009 11:59 p.m.

    A system can never have too many rpg's! Or maybe that's my rpg-deprived, PS3-playing subconscious talking.
  • Shadowhatchi - December 16, 2009 11:42 p.m.

    In scribblenauts, wings are easier to use then a jetpack. Just saying.
  • SuperGoomba64 - December 16, 2009 10:56 p.m.

    I played Chinatown Wars and Retro Game challenge do I get a cookie? I was pretty mad though when GTA erased it save data right after I beat the game.V_V

Showing 1-20 of 22 comments

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