The best DS games reflect just how unstoppable Nintendo's dual-screen system was. The handheld console launched in 2004 and was supposed to sit between the GameCube and Game Boy Advance, although it didn't take long for the DS to eclipse both. As it stands, the Nintendo DS has shifted over 154 million units, making it the most successful handheld console of all-time. Perhaps that has something to do with its fantastic and diverse library – honestly, this list of the 25 best Nintendo DS games only scratches the surface of what's available.
Many of the best games on DS were built around that distinctive stylus – a method of play that made the console more accessible and approachable – and made smart use of both screens. Nintendo wanted the system to be appealing to players outside of traditional circles, and as a result the library spans over 2000 games. Given the breadth of options, it made putting together a ranking of the 25 best DS games of all-time somewhat difficult... but not impossible. Let's get into it.
For more definitive rankings of Nintendo games throughout the years:
Best Nintendo DS games
25. Hotel Dusk: Room 215
Developer Cing may have long since disbanded but its legacy lives on thanks to titles like Hotel Dusk and its equally enjoyable follow-up, Last Window: The Secret Of Cape West. Played with the DS held vertically, Hotel Dusk feels like a virtual book where you read engaging dialogue but can use your stylus to traverse the titular hotel and solve numerous clever puzzles. The mystery behind the hotel unfolds beautifully thanks to engaging characters, a strong narrative, and great pacing, while the distinctive art style also helps it stand apart from similar games on Nintendo’s system. Cing’s Another Code: Two Memories, is equally worthy of your time.
24. Viva Pinata: Pocket Paradise
The original Viva Pinata was planned for Pocket PCs, so it’s nice that Tim Stamper’s original idea has come full circle and is now playable in your hand. One of the most impressive aspects of Pocket Paradise is not only its distinctive isometric visuals but just how similar it is to the original Xbox 360 release. Granted, it lacks its spectacular aesthetics and certain elements have been cut, but the core game is all here, allowing you to tend your garden and breed new Pinatas to your heart’s content, while the clever stylus controls and context-sensitive top screen makes it easy to tend the needs of your many cute critters.
23. Pokemon Conquest
Developer: Tecmo Koei
Nintendo’s decision to pair its popular Pokémon series with Tecmo Koei’s Nobunaga’s Ambition franchise makes a lot more sense when you realize just how popular Koei’s strategy game is in Japan. While some will be disappointed that only 649 Pokémon are included and that many of their special moves are missing, you can’t fault how solid the game’s many battles are or the balanced combat mechanics at its core. Like the best crossovers, it pulls key elements from both games but isn’t afraid to forge its own identity as you explore the gorgeous Ransei Region with your loyal Eevee.
22. Trauma Center: Under The Knife 2
Turn your humble stylus into a scalpel, laser, or even a defibrillator as you attempt to patch up patients in Vanguard’s enjoyable sequel. Set three years after the events of the DS original, the plot is delightfully absurd and focuses on returning Doctor Derek Stiles, who is struggling to use his famed Healing Touch (which allows you to slow down time during play). Each patient you encounter requires various techniques, from blitzing viruses and suturing up wounds, to performing delicate skin grafts and even fixing broken bones. It makes for a ridiculous blend of pressure and fun as your trembling fingers and sweating forehead would happily trade it all in for a simple game of Operation.
21. The Legend Of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass
Interestingly, Zelda’s DS adventures didn’t quite match the majesty of the earlier Game Boy games, although they remain compelling releases in their own rights. We’ve opted for The Phantom Hourglass over Spirit Tracks because we feel it makes far better use of the touchscreen and we like the way you continually have to return to and explore a gigantic dungeon rather than tackling smaller ones like in other Zelda titles. It looks lovely too, retaining the distinctive cel-shaded look of The Wind Waker and its mechanically rich, offering new items to use, while the Phantom Hourglass of the title gives you a unique way to explore the vibrant game world.
20. Planet Puzzle League
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Nintendo’s dual-screen console is awash with great puzzle games, but this is the puzzler that rarely leaves our console’s cartridge slot. Known as Panel De Pon in Japan this gem of a title from Intelligent Systems requires you to match colored tiles into groups of three or more before your bin fills up. Blocks can be moved with a simple swipe of the stylus and there are a number of different gameplay modes to enjoy as well that range from clearing all the blocks above a Clear line to scoring as many points as possible in a set time limit. Throw in some fantastic multiplayer modes and a fun selection of Daily Challenges and Planet Puzzle League becomes incredibly hard to put down.
19. Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors
Chunsoft’s first entry in its Zero Escape series is a cracking adventure and a brilliant entry point to the visual novel genre. The strength of 999 is easily its expertly crafted story, which focuses on Junpei, who wakes up in a cabin on a cruise liner and discovers he’s trapped with eight other victims. The writing throughout is excellent, but it’s complemented by some truly masterful puzzles in the form of Escape sections which will truly test your grey matter. Filled with twists and turns and requiring multiple playthroughs in order to reach its true ending, 999 is a slice of brilliance that shockingly never received a European release.
18. The World Ends With You
Developer: Square Enix / Jupiter
Granted this collaboration from Square Enix and Jupiter is available on iOS and Nintendo Switch now, but neither can fully replicate the uniqueness of playing it on DS. Aside from its modern-day setting, highly stylized characters, and energetic soundtrack, the thing that really sets TWEWY apart from its peers is the utterly unique combat system it uses. Combat takes place across the DS’s two screens and you need to manage both at once using face buttons and the stylus. It’s maddingly frustrating at first, akin to rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time, but when it finally comes together it delivers an experience that’s every bit as special as its unique-looking characters.
17. Animal Crossing: Wild World
Who would have thought Nintendo’s world of cute anthropomorphic critters would work so well on a handheld? Wild World took everything that was great about the GameCube game and introduced online aspects to make visiting the villages of friends and family even easier. While the loss of classic NES games was a bitter pill to swallow, its solid online aspects and high level of customization meant you still had plenty to keep you busy. It also highlights just how suitable the franchise is for gaming on the move, as the ability to go for a quick fishing session or dig up some fossils ensures none of your spare time is ever wasted.
16. WarioWare Touched!
While Project Rub is another great selection of stylus-based mini-games, WarioWare pulls off the same concept with much greater style. It largely follows the same template as earlier games in the series, giving you a few seconds to complete a specific task, but as you’d expect, the zany games on offer here make excellent use of the DS’s unique abilities. One minute you are prodding cats and swatting flies, the next you’re covering food in ketchup or controlling a remote control car as you attempt to escape an infant. It’s ridiculously silly and while it lacks the inventiveness of Project Rub, its sheer diversity and range of games more than compensates.
15. Pokemon Black & White
Developer: Game Freak
Radical overhaul and Pokémon aren’t typically words that go together, but Game Freak did at least attempt to inject numerous new ideas into its hugely successful series. The most obvious is the new battle mechanics that have been introduced and it’s now possible to throw out three Pokémon at once for scraps to create a formidable line-up. Rotation battles are similar, but allow you to rotate your cute critters at will, to give you a better chance in battle. Aesthetically the games are a big improvement over Diamond and Pearl and there are numerous new sidequests and cool new mini-games. Pokémon games have always been ambitious in their scope and Black & White set new standards for Junichi Masuda and his team to improve upon.
14. Chrono Trigger
While we don’t typically like to feature remasters in lists such as this, every gamer needs to experience Chrono Trigger as it’s one of the best JRPGs of all time. While the DS version is rapidly rising in price, it’s still a far cheaper alternative to the US SNES release and features numerous enhancements, too. It features all the extras from the later PlayStation port, makes great use of the DS’s touch screen controls, boasts a default run option, and numerous other quality of life tweaks. It’s the perfect way to enjoy Square’s impressive time-spanning adventure and is one of the best RPGs to be found on the system.
13. Tetris DS
Aside from its simplistic and evergreen game mechanics, one of the greatest strengths of Tetris is just how versatile it is. This 2006 release from Nintendo SPD marries the popular tile-rotating game to some of Nintendo’s most beloved franchises and the end result is one of the system’s best puzzlers. There are six distinct modes that range from the standard version of Tetris to fun offerings like Mission, which requires you to complete specific challenges in a certain amount of time, and Catch, which has you blasting Metroids while manipulating a central tile. It’s all augmented by an excellent multiplayer mode, meaning Tetris DS is a game that will last you for ages.
12. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Capcom’s series remained consistently solid on DS and the first five made it to the west (only Ace Attorney Investigations 2 was a Japanese exclusive). We’ve chosen the original game not just because it introduces many of the characters who will constantly crop up in the later games, but also because it’s a solid improvement over the GBA original (which was also a Japanese exclusive) and has some excellent cases. The courtroom battles have always been a highlight of the series and you’ll feel tremendously smug when you’re able to trip your opponent up and prove that they’re telling you a pack of porkies. Best of all however is the final case which fully utilizes the capabilities of the DS to make you feel like an actual detective as you investigate crime scenes.
11. Kirby: Canvas Curse
Developer: HAL Laboratory
Some of the greatest DS games are those that treat popular franchises in new and interesting ways and Kirby’s first adventure on the system is a perfect example. Rather than directly control the lovable pink blob, you instead use your stylus to create rainbow paths to guide him through each stage. You only have a limited amount of ink to create paths, so you need to ensure your reserves stay full by managing Kirby as effectively as possible. Enemies are also dealt with via stylus abuse and you’ll soon find yourself frantically rubbing and poking the screen so you can reach the next stage. The end result is one of the most inventive games in the series.
10. Professor Layton and the Unwound Future
The third game in Level-5’s popular puzzle series remains the best one to date. Professor Layton and Luke’s new adventure doesn’t just impress thanks to the cleverness of its puzzles, but also in their sheer diversity. There are over 160 different puzzles here for the pair to solve, which will have you tackling everything from number-based conundrums and visual-based headscratchers, to simple sliding puzzles and cerebral logic ticklers. Even if you do find certain puzzles too tricky to manage there’s a generous hint system in place which means you’re never too far away from enjoying the excellent unfolding story at the heart of the game.
9. Castlevania: Dawn Of Sorrow
All three Castlevania DS games are worthy of your collection, but Dawn Of Sorrow is the one we continually return to the most. While its touchscreen uses are poorly implemented (you draw seals to finish off bosses) everything else is pure Metroidvania and it’s a worthy follow-up to the GBA hit, Aria Of Sorrow. Protagonist Soma Cruz returns and so too does the Tactical Soul system, which has been enhanced in numerous ways so souls can be also traded in to upgrade and create new weapons. Graphically it’s a staggering update over its GBA predecessor thanks to atmospheric locations and some gargantuan and loathsome-looking bosses.
8. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
In addition to creating the Phoenix Wright games, Shu Takumi also bamboozled gamers with this excellent adventure. Protagonist Sissel is an amnesia-stricken spirit and it’s your task to discover what happened to him as you traverse both the Ghost World and the real world. Being a spirit Sissel has to rely on inanimate objects to move around in the Ghost World, but he can also possess corpses and even question them to learn clues about their deaths. Once armed, he has four minutes to go back and potentially prevent them from dying. It’s a neat mechanic and Sissel can perform similar feats in the real world where he can use his tricks to manipulate events that will help progress the excellent story.
7. Bangai-O Spirits
The DS is very underserved when it comes to shoot-’em-ups but it does have this wonderfully chaotic offering from Treasure to even things out. Everything about Treasure’s game is absolutely crazy, from its absurd plot to the insane amount of missiles that can fill the play area when things get heated up. It effortlessly blends hardcore shooting with clever puzzles and constantly keeps you on your toes with inventive curveballs that ensure no two levels ever feel the same. And when you do get bored of the 160-odd stages that Bangai-O Spirits throws at you there’s the option to create your own, cleverly encode them as sound files and then share them with others.
6. New Super Mario Bros.
As Nintendo continued to push Mario’s 3D games to outrageous new heights, his traditional side-on adventures fell by the wayside. When New Super Mario Bros made its debut in 2006 there hadn’t been a mainline side-on game since Super Mario World in 1990. You soon forget that lengthy gap once you dive into the game’s cleverly constructed levels and discover delightful new power-ups like the mega mushroom that causes Mario to increase in size, destroying anything he comes into contact with or the Mini Mushroom that shrinks him down and is essential for reaching certain levels. It’s a brilliant return to form for the popular plumber and 30 million copies were sold as a result.
5. Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story
The DS has a huge number of great RPGs, but none of them can compete with the brilliance of Nintendo’s dynamic duo. Alpha Dream’s achingly funny adventure continues to build on the combat mechanics introduced in the earlier games but mixes things up by introducing Bowser as a playable character, who doesn’t realize that Mario and Luigi are carrying out their own adventure inside his body via the bottom screen. It’s a superb set-up for a game and the action routinely switches between the two screens as the trio attempt to take down Fawful. Filled with inventive touches - enemies Bowser inhales are then sent to the Mario brothers to fight - and blessed by a razor-sharp script, Bowser’s Inside Story is the most fun you can have on Nintendo’s dual-screen console.
4. Advance Wars: Dual Strike
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Dual Strike gets its moniker because it’s the first game in the series to let you take two Commanding Officers (or COs) into battle. It also introduces a wide range of new units, including the powerful Megatank, adds a number of new COs to the roster, and even lets you wage war across both screens during certain battles, which makes them even more strategic as a result. All the original game modes return, including the continuation of the story introduced in the GBA games, as well as two new modes: Survival and Combat. A sequel, Advance Wars: Dark Conflict arrived in 2008, with a brand-new story and stark aesthetic style that divided gamers as it wasn’t in line with the cheery look of earlier games. Both games are tremendous strategy releases.
3. Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan
Developer: iNiS Corporation
We’ve seen the DS stylus used in a number of unique ways, but using it to power the skills of a cheerleading squad is easily one of the most entertaining. While many rhythm action games are content to simply let you bash buttons in time to the rhythm of a song, Ouendan’s design goes a step further as you use your stylus to follow patterns and tap different areas of the screen. It’s mechanically perfect and bolstered by some incredible tunes that complement the on-screen action and the often engaging stories that take place on the top screen. The English alternative, Elite Beat Agents is also fun to play, but the tracklisting is nowhere near as strong. And don’t worry about the Japanese barrier, it’s easy to break through for both Ouendan and its 2007 sequel.
2. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Only Rockstar would have the stones to ship a drug deal simulator on a Nintendo console. Even more impressive is the fact that Chinatown Wars’ sideline in drug peddling is just that, as the main drive of Rockstar’s game is a polished revenge story focusing on Triad member Huang Lee who is left for dead in the game’s explosive opening and must retrieve the family heirloom that was stolen from him. Chinatown Wars not only features some truly memorable missions, but it also makes excellent use of the DS, from using the stylus to break into vehicles, to whistling into the DS’s mic to hail a cab. Graphically impressive and steeped in Rockstar’s typical polish and swagger, it proved once and for all that a Nintendo console was more than capable of containing the impressive worlds that Rockstar can so effortlessly create.
1. Mario Kart DS
Nintendo’s fifth main game in its popular series introduced a number of firsts that helped it stay ahead of the competition. It was the first game in the franchise to allow players from around the world to battle each other (although it wasn’t always the smoothest of experiences), new items like the Bullet Bill and Blooper make their debut and there’s a fun new battle mode called Shine Runners, which will lead to plenty of arguments with your mates. 16 brand-new tracks are spread across four cups and there’s an additional 16 retro tracks featuring classic courses from the earlier SNES, N64, GBA, and GameCube releases. Mario Kart DS is absolutely drowning in content and we’ve not even mentioned the exceptional and exclusive Mission Mode that stretches the game’s longevity even further. Add in the tight racing mechanics that have remained a mainstay of the series since its inception and you have the best DS experience money can buy.
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