To some, the idea that Nintendo would abandon its lucrative GameBoy series of handhelds for the Nintendo DS was pure madness. Here, let me give you an impression: "What is this? This ugly, obtuse, gray thing with two screens? Two screens? Why would you ever... oh hey, this is pretty cool, actually."
Innovative and enduring, the Nintendo DS gave us some of the finest handheld experiences in all of gaming. Long before smartphones and tablets, it was the device you needed with you at all times to kill time and enjoy games on the go (or just in bed or on the toilet).
To those looking to one of gaming's greatest devices of yesteryear we proudly present: 25 of the best DS games of all time.
25. Kirby Mass Attack
Kirby meets Pikmin. It's a weird hybrid to be sure, yet somehow in practice it makes perfect sense. Kirby Mass Attack may have been Kirby's last jaunt on the DS, but it's also tied for his best with the excellent (but wildly different) Canvas Curse.
The game's level design and puzzles are brilliant, using the multiple Kirby idea to its full potential. Couple that with the expected charm of a Kirby game, and we have an adventure that rivals any of the pink marshmallow's previous exploits.
24. Radiant Historia
To an outsider, Radiant Historia may look like any other JRPG. Brooding hero? Check. Fantasy setting? Check. Turn-based combat? Check. However, this game takes serious risks with the formula, concocting an original and thorny experience.
The three-by-three grid battle systems allows for an infinite number of strategies and flashy combos, while the branching, time travel-based storyline keeps the plot interesting. As the game stretches on, you'll find yourself wishing that it never stopped.
Special note also goes to Yoko Shimomura's lovely score. Man those are some good tunes.
23. Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2
Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2 does everything it can to prove that you are not fit to be a surgeon. Surgery is hard, lives are at stake, and using the touch-screen capabilities of the DS has never been quite as fun as when it puts you into terrifying medical emergencies.
Sweating buckets trying to kill an infection, gritting teeth as you sew a patient back up, freezing in tension while trying to mend a broken bone. If nothing else, Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2 does an incredible job of conveying the agonizing pressure of being a surgeon while also being an incredibly fun game. This sequel perfected the original's novel ideas and inspired successors like Surgeon Simulator years later.
22. Sonic Rush
Sonic the Hedgehog games tend to be hit and miss, but luckily for anyone who owned a DS, Sonic Rush was very much a hit. Sega's blue blur was as fast as he's ever been on Nintendo's portable system, featuring lush, colorful stages rendered in 2D and beautiful animations for Sonic and Blaze, who were 3D.
"Rush" is certainly the right word, as the game gave you a boost ability that turned you invincible and made smart use of the DS' two-screen setup to give a sense of momentum. One minute you're rolling along the hills on the top screen, the next you're plummeting at high speed into the bottom. There isn't a more quintessential handheld Sonic game than this.
21. Dragon Quest 5: Hand of the Heavenly Bride
For 17 years, Japan alone experienced the joy of Dragon Quest 5, one of the largest, grandest RPG experiences on the Super Nintendo. When the DS became the series' new home in the '00s, Square Enix thought it right to finally bring Dragon Quest 5: Hand of the Heavenly Bride to the West. Thank the Goddess they did, because it is not to be missed.
Little did we know that things like plot-changing choices and major twists could be found way back on the SNES, but Dragon Quest 5 has them in spades. By following the hero from birth, we witness every little turn his life takes, both good and bad. Why it took so long for Americans to finally get this is anyone's guess, but we're more than happy to be able to play it.
20. Super Scribblenauts
The first Scribblenauts was an idea we absolutely loved... until we actually got hold of it, at which point we realized that most of its puzzles could be solved by just typing in the word jetpack. Super Scribblenauts, released a year later, worked around that problem by offering puzzles that - while still solvable in a variety of different ways - were more complex than just grab the star.
Rather than just dangling a shiny object in front of us, Super Scribblenauts made you work for it by meeting certain conditions; getting a lion to fall asleep, for example, or waking up an astronaut so they could put out a fire. The sharper puzzle focus made Super Scribblenauts infinitely more interesting than its predecessor, and kept us fascinated even after we'd gotten bored of the game's real draw: experimenting with bizarre objects on the title screen.
19. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
Link's first DS adventure took us back to the open seas in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. The Wind Waker-style graphics translate perfectly to the DS, and the touchscreen controls give you a whole new way to play a Zelda title.
Everything else about Phantom Hourglass is classic Zelda but a little different. Exploration, dungeon-crawling, and new gear all make keen use of the DS touch screen, microphone and even its clamshell shape for solving puzzles.
Just get used to the Temple of the Ocean King, because you'll be going there seemingly forever.
18. 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors
"You are going to participate in a game. The Nonary Game. It is a game... where you will put your life on the line."
These chilling words best describe the puzzle masterpiece known as 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. 999 shares a lot of what makes the Saw movies scary: strangers locked together in a tight space, and a deadly game being played that they've no idea how to win, with seemingly no way out. The story is intense, the puzzles are masterful, and the game will stick with you long after you've finished. Not many games sneak up on us and grip us like 999 did, which, considering the storyline, is more than appropriate.
17. Retro Game Challenge
The love and care that went into Retro Game Challenge wins over who ever plays it. It's a minigame compilation, but each game directly rips off an '80s classic and turns it into a 15-minute abridged version perfect for a handheld system. Best of all, each game comes with a fictional backstory told through a series of made-up articles that read exactly like game magazines of the '80s and '90s.
So yes, it appeals directly to aging gamers who long for their lost youth. But even post-1990 players should be able to carve out some new-old memories with copycats like Robot Ninja Haggle Man, Cosmic Gate, Guadia Quest, and Rally King. Each comes with a quartet of goals to achieve before moving on to the next, though each is substantial enough to keep you playing well after those challenges are met. All the while the floating head of the real-life Japanese TV show's host eggs you on.
16. Picross 3D
Years ago Nintendo implemented a clever new way to combine aspects of both Sudoku and crossword puzzles into its unique brainteaser. Picross (short for Picture Crossword) adapted the Japanese creation of nonograms into a treasured series of games.
You start each puzzle with a hint of what the final image of the puzzle will be, and then see how many squares within a line should be filled in. Combining logic with trial and error, you eventually create a picture out of what's left; that challenge was deepened immensely in Picross 3D by adding a third dimension to the previously flat puzzles. If you've played all the other predictable puzzle games on the DS, pick up this to get a taste of something different.
15. Animal Crossing: Wild World
The first sequel to follow the excellent GameCube game, Animal Crossing: Wild World brought everything we loved about the original game to a portable console, while throwing in both IR and online pathways to visit friends' towns. Gone were the days of needing two memory cards in one system, we could now travel through the air itself. What a beautiful thing.
We're not sure what makes Animal Crossing: Wild World so appealing. It may be the cute little animals themselves, chatting away like there's no tomorrow. It may be the satisfaction of paying off a house, something that may never happen to us in real life. Perhaps it's just plain old fun, something that will never go out of style. Whatever it is, we love it, and we always will.
14. Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
Between this, Order of Ecclesia, and Dawn of Sorrow, we had a hell of a time deciding which Castlevania could truly be named the DS' best. Aria of Sorrow remains one of our pics for best GBA games, so it's more than fair to split the difference and go with Portrait of Ruin, which is truer to the original Castlevania spirit: a guy with a whip, tearing ass through a haunted castle. Portrait also introduced Charlotte, a magic-wielding second player you could swap to at any time. Between the two of them, magical and physical attacks were covered, and they could also trigger tag-team Dual Crush assaults. Pity they were drawn in a weak anime style instead of the usual, lustrous art from Ayami Kojima.
Perhaps most notable are the locales; instead of being confined to one murky castle, you traveled to distant lands via demonic paintings made by the game's artistic villain (spoiler: he summons Dracula). This mix of new vistas with old tropes make the journey both familiar yet new, breathing fresh air into a series that, while always fun, needed something to see beyond stony hallways and damp dungeons.
13. Chrono Trigger
A game many have called the best JRPG ever made, the DS remake of Chrono Trigger is much more than a slapped-together port. Unlike some of the more primitive revamps of SNES games seen on Nintendo portables, Square Enix took great care when reintroducing its role-playing classic to the world. The publisher readjusted the SNES title to fit on the two screens of the DS beautifully, making everything we loved about the game shine even brighter, and theres a lot to love.
The story spans a dozen lifetimes, and is filled with beautiful character moments alongside grand spectacle. The characters are so well-realized and have so many important moments, you'd be hard-pressed not to adore all of them by the end. The 16-bit graphics have aged incredibly well, and the music remains some of the greatest ever. Chrono Trigger DS is the best version of one of the best games ever, nuff said.
12. Kirby Canvas Curse
Early experimental games on the Nintendo DS were exciting but not lasting experiences. Kirby Canvas Curse, a colorful, enticing platformer that made full use of the touch screen, was one of the first games to truly prove the Nintendo DS was the real deal. The game demanded almost exclusive use of the touch screen, as you could only guide a limbless Kirby by drawing him a path to follow. Sounds limiting, but in that limitation came a brand-new way to play the game, and in a roundabout way, a new way to even conceive games. Curse? More like a blessing.
11. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Without the DS, the world would never have known Ace Attorney outside Japan. Despite the passive nature of the series' gameplay, its courtroom drama is still actively and intensely satisfying. As Phoenix, you feel a rush of power each time you yell "Objection!" to press a witness on their testimony until they sweat with nervous terror. You gleefully tear their story apart to find a fatal flaw and delight in throwing evidence of guilt in their face, yelling "Take that!" until they cave under the pressure.
And although it's often cheesy and not at all realistic, Ace Attorney's puzzles still require a careful logic and attention to detail that any fan of the murder mystery genre will immediately appreciate, not to mention fans of the old point-and-click adventure genre who should be delighted to solve puzzles that actually make sense. The series refined its formula for years, but the original is one of the best DS games that has to be in everyone's library.
10. The World Ends With You
Square Enix put out its fair share of remakes and sequels on the DS, but the developer's originality should also be celebrated, and few games are as unique as the The World Ends With You. The game takes place in present-day Japan, specifically the high-fashion Shibuya district where mopey adolescents hang out, and right out of the gate it looks like nothing else.
The plot, backed by an eclectic soundtrack, focuses on dejected youth Neku playing in a high-stakes game of death and rebirth against other lost souls. The controls might be too complicated for some, as the mind-bending battles have you controlling characters on both screens, demanding ambidexterity and lateral thinking at all times. With one hand you maneuver the main character using the stylus, while the other members of the party reside on the top screen and are controlled by a series of inputs with your other hand.
Not every technique paid off, but few games challenged expectations like TWEWY, and we tip our collective hats to Square Enix for such strong innovation.
9. Elite Beat Agents
On a handheld filled with weird games, it says something that Elite Beat Agents stands out as memorably bizarre. Primarily a rhythm game, you tap and slide the stylus across the touch screen, hitting markers in time with a licensed soundtrack - but it's the story and presentation that really set this one apart.
Each level of Elite Beat Agents sends a trio of goofy-looking government agents out to dance, clap, and encourage people in need, ranging from a TV weatherwoman trying to make the sun shine, to a sprinter's white blood cell (represented as a syringe-wielding nurse) and a little girl who wanted her father's ghost to come home for Christmas. The music is catchy as hell, and the chorus of claps and bass thuds earned by staying on rhythm make it even more so.
8. Professor Layton and the Unwound Future
Professor Layton's puzzle diversity is unparalleled in the genre. From logic, reasoning, spatial visualization, mathematical word problems, to all manner of brain teasers, it's the most rigorous brain workout possible that doesn't involve any kind of specialized knowledge. And it's remarkable that the level of quality remains consistently high from puzzle to puzzle and sequel to sequel despite how wide-ranging the content is.
While we strongly recommend that anyone interested in the series start at the first entry (Professor Layton and the Curious Village), Unwound Future is our favorite. Not only does it surpass its predecessors in the sheer volume of puzzles but so much is at stake for the characters. The beautifully animated cutscenes go far to make that story shine too. The overall presentation, including the music and art, is flawless.
7. New Super Mario Bros.
When New Super Mario Bros. arrived in 2006, it was the first real 2D Mario game since 1991's Super Mario World. So, you can understand how elated thousands (millions?) of gamers were to see Mario returning to his side-scrolling roots; thankfully the game lived up to expectations.
It was a welcome return to form that was handled as well as it could have been, and went on to become one of Nintendo's best-selling games of all time. The secret to its success is clarity. Levels that at first seem too simple and spare compared to games like Super Mario Bros. 3 reveal themselves to be expertly laid out challenges just the right length. The more time passes, the more New Super Mario Bros.' elegant simplicity shines.
6. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Anyone who has played Ghost Trick walks away the next morning gushing about the story, characters, and tear-jerking ending. Not many other games, DS or otherwise, have the same effect. You play as Sissel, a man who is killed in the game's opening moments. As a spirit, you can possess and manipulate various objects on the screen.
Thing is, in 24 hours, your spirit will fizzle and you're dead for good; that leaves precious little time to figure out exactly how and why you died. The journey takes you to some weird places, and the puzzles can veer into dreaded trial-and-error territory, but they gel into an inspired experience that easily ranks as one of this generation's top tales. The animations, backgrounds, and music also kick ass.
5. Advance Wars: Dual Strike
The guts of Advance Wars: Dual Strike are the same as the GBA games: armadas of tanks, planes, troops, helicopters, and anti-air artillery duke it out for the fate of the free world, and the series eccentric, captivating characters are every bit as charming as before. Right out of the box it comes with our highest recommendation.
Just because it's remarkably similar to the GBA games doesn't mean Dual Strike phoned it in. Your colorful commanding officers now combine their special powers for insane battle effects that can turn the tide in one turn. The skirmish can also spread across both screens, with the top housing a separate - but related - warzone that requires just as much attention as the primary fight on the bottom screen. It's slightly more welcoming to new players and the characters and music cant be beat.
4. Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story
Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story uses the DS to the best of its abilities. Jumping between both screens, using the touch screen in battle, and Godzilla-scale battles between Bowser and his enemies; it's magical stuff to play.
Inside Story also has one the best Mario RPG stories. Fawful, a midboss from Superstar Saga with some of the funniest dialogue of all time, is out for revenge on the Bros and the whole Mushroom Kingdom, which he traps within Bowser's guts. To save the day, the brothers have to secretly work within Bowser's perilous body to battle Fawful and his minions, which involves switching between germ-sized plumbers and Bowser himself.
With some of the series' best writing, Inside Story was at the forefront of Mario-centric story and gameplay, and it only could have been done on DS.
3. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Previous attempts to cram GTA onto Nintendo platforms did not go smoothly; both Game Boy Color and Advance saw compromised versions of Rockstar's signature series, neither of which captured the seedy and melodramatic atmosphere the franchise is known for.
Chinatown Wars, on the other hand, felt like the real deal, custom-built for the DS and shrunk down for on-the-go homicide. The gameplay is pure Grand Theft Auto: you play as Huang Lee, a spoiled, entitled son of a Triad gang boss, who (in GTA fashion) is swept through a violent power struggle filled with betrayal and revenge.
In addition to some extremely creative missions (hiding in a parade, tossing Molotovs from a helicopter, etc.) you can also lose entire hours to Liberty City's burgeoning drug trade. Yes, a narcotics sim on a Nintendo platform famous for games about puppies and brain training.
2. Pokemon Black and White
The common misconception is that every new Pokemon game is the same as the last. While it's true the core ideas of the original Red and Blue have been preserved from sequel to sequel, the Pokemon series has greatly benefited from improvements and additions with each new game.
Pokemon Black and White stands on the shoulders of the Pokemon games that came before it, but there's something to be said for the kind of refinement and depth that you get when a series has had over a decade to evolve. Even as the series has moved on to Pokemon Sun and Moon as well as Pokemon Go, Black and White stand up thanks to their selection of monsters and fun story.
1. Mario Kart DS
What is the best Mario Kart? The debate continues but Mario Kart DS is a strong contender even now, a game that acts both as a great introduction and compilation of the series' best aspects. Miss the old SNES tracks? They're in here. Want more than basic racing? The mission mode places a series of challenges at your feet and introduces a whole new wrinkle to the Mario Kart formula.
The game's biggest feature is also one of its most problematic. Mario Kart DS helped kick off the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection service, finally enabling people all over the world to join in online races. It's definitely welcome. The world wanted online Mario Kart forever. Problem is, Friend Codes and laggy play made the feature almost worthless. Sadly even a Virtual Console release couldn't fix the problem on Wii U since it strips out online functionality.
Still, this hindrance was overcome by the deep, immensely replayable single-player package, not to mention all the joy of local wireless matches.
Did we leave off one of your favorites? We'd love to read your opinions in the comments!
And if you're curious how other Nintendo handhelds rank, check out our other lists detailing Nintendo's portable history. There's the best GBA games, the best 3DS games, the best Game Boy Color games, and the best Game Boy games.