Oh look at that, I’m finally crossing the 50 post threshold! I knew I was close, but I didn’t realize how close until I happened to glance at my stats page. Seems like an occasion for which I should do something special. So this post is going to be a tribute to my favorite games on the Nintendo DS, a handheld with which I had a lot of great times.
The Nintendo DS is the machine that (perhaps to everyone’s surprise) kicked off a second golden age for Nintendo. When the two-screen handheld was announced, I think the new device was met with near universal bafflement. The GBA was still very young (especially when compared to the extensive lifespan of the GB/GBC family), and it was also fairly commercially successful. No one knew what to make of a new Nintendo handheld launching in that context. Nintendo also promised it wasn’t a replacement for the GBA (the infamous “third pillar”), which seemed to indicate that the company itself wasn’t particularly confident in the DS either.
It took some time for the DS to take-off in popularity to become the titan it’s remembered as. The original Nintendo DS model wasn’t the most attractive hardware, and it didn’t have many compelling games either for the first year or so. But around the time of the DS Lite redesign and the release of Mario Kart, the platform really exploded. Not just in sales and popularity, but developers also came to grips with the unique creative potential of the DS’s features to create a rush of great new games. There was a period there where a hardcore gamer could probably be content only playing new DS releases. There were so many acclaimed and unique games released in this boom period like Ace Attorney, Ouendan, Hotel Dusk, The World Ends with You, and Kirby: Canvas Curse. And Nintendo became ascendant again in the eyes of a lot of gamers who had strayed to the Playstation juggernaut.
As for me, I was a huge enthusiast of the Nintendo DS platform. The little machine accompanied me through some tough years, at a time when I really needed something that would allow me an escape. And even with all the time I’ve put into the DS and it’s library now being legacy titles only, there’s still so many games that I want to check out. Particularly a lot of late in life games like Picross 3D, Aliens: Infestation, Kirby Mass Attack, Dragon Quest VI, and Monster Tale. But among the many games I have played, the following three I would rank as my most favored:
Mario Kart DS
Some consider Mario Kart DS to be the first major hit for the platform. Not only was it an excellent excuse to to jump in with the recently released DS Lite, but it was also the flagship game for the DS’s online gaming capabilities. To be honest, I usually don’t enjoy the handheld Mario Kart games so much. I was left deeply apathetic after playing both Super Circuit and MK7. I think the reason why I’m indifferent to the portable skein of the series is that, to me, Mario Kart is best enjoyed playing against friends and family in the same room. It’s one of the last great bastions of local multiplayer. And Mario Kart is the only video game series I know that *everyone* enjoys playing, committed gamer or not. I mean, you can play these handheld entries locally, but that requires everyone have a DS handy, which is a condition that is exceedingly rare to find. (I will say I finally got into online Mario Kart in a big way with MK8.)
All that said, I surprisingly did really enjoy MKDS. I think it was because the tracks were so imaginative. For Mario fans, the themes they chose were really fun and great throwbacks, like the desert with the fire snakes, the SMB3 airship complete with Rocky Wrenches, and Luigi’s Mansion. Compare this to Double Dash, the previous title in the series, which I thought had really boring ideas for tracks (what does a cruise ship have to do with Mario?). Also, this was the title that introduced the retro circuits, meaning that the track count went from 16 to 32. All that said, I think this game just may be the most influential of its series, introducing a number of features and ideas the would carry over for all Mario Kart releases that would come afterward.
Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story
I’ve often mentioned on this blog that I’m a huge fan of Mario RPG in all its many forms, and Mario & Luigi is probably my favorite of the three series. And within a group of series that are known for having a fair few titles with incredibly high quality, I think Bowser’s Inside Story is one of the best ones. Maybe not as good as Thousand Year Door, but probably the best of the Mario & Luigi’s, at least.
I give the game this high credit due mainly to the presence of two characters, Bowser and Lord Fawful. Bowser becomes a playable protagonist in this game and is on a parallel quest to that of the mustachioed brothers, so a lot of time is spent focused on his character. And this version of Bowser is a ton of fun. You know, there’s been many different approaches to Bowser’s personality over the lengthy history of Mario, from the bestial King Koopa of SMB to the doting dad of Sunshine and to the megalomaniac of Galaxy, and his personality in this game is more in-line with the comedic tone of this particular series, where he’s depicted as an arrogant yet buffoonish alpha male jock. Which makes the highly intelligent and cunningly vicious Fawful an excellent foil to the dopey Koopa boss. If you don’t know Fawful, he was originally a henchman from the first M&L who managed to outshine the main villain in most gamers’ eyes. In Bowser’s Inside Story, he gets his time in the spotlight as the primary antagonist, and his devious schemes don’t just subvert Bowser, but utterly humiliate him. That is to say, Fawful is the ultimate Bowser troll.
Beyond Fawful and Bowser’s interactions, there’s a ton of great story moments in this game. M&L has a sense of playfulness, whimsy, and humor that you just don’t find in the standard platforming games that are laser-focused on highly-polished run-and-jump gameplay. And the battle system is a a lot of fun as is usual for M&L. I’ve always enjoyed the reflex-based aspects that Mario RPG injects into its battle system. It goes a long way to keeping me engaged and preventing combat from starting to feel like a grind. And the ending is also one of my favorite game endings where we finally see Bowser get his just desserts.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
If I had bothered to rank this list, I can without a doubt say that Ghost Trick would come up as number one. I honestly think that the DS’s excellent adventure games, like Hotel Dusk, Ace Attorney, Layton, and Ghost Trick, will be the most fondly remembered aspect of the platform, and Ghost Trick is easily on the top of this heap. Ghost Trick was the next project for director Shu Takumi after he led the enormously well-received Ace Attorney series. The game stars a recently-murdered amnesiac ghost who attempts to solve the mysterious circumstances of his demise. While the setup is fairly simple and rather cliche, the story that follows is actually fairly complex and original, with many twists and turns that I honestly didn’t expect. Furthermore, it is a story with a lot of heart, and I really felt for the characters and the struggles they went through. Despite all the convoluted supernatural weirdness that envelopes the plot, the characters felt very real and human to me.
Despite its lineage, Ghost Trick actually strays fairly far from the template of the simple visual novels that chronicle Phoenix’s adventures. Gameplay is greatly different. As opposed to the dialogue-based gameplay of Phoenix Wright, the story in Ghost Trick plays out in cutscenes mostly independent of the player’s input. The gameplay portion is centered instead on Sessile’s time-warping ghost power. Many people die during the course of the story, and Sessile has the power to rewind time to just moments before their death. This allows him to try to change the course of events that led to their untimely demise with the goal of preserving their lives. Saving them is not just for the sake of charity, but often because these people are leads in the mystery of Sessile’s murder. These time-bending rescues are accomplished by poltergeist-ing numerous objects to influence the characters and the sequence of actions that occur in the vicinity of the murder/accident victim. Consequently, it is more of a puzzle game than Ace Attorney, and the ways in which the game ultimately expects the player to utilize this simple ghostly possession mechanic actually get very inventive. There are many “a-ha” moments to be found here.
The art is another major difference between Ghost Trick and its predecessor. Ace Attorney makes use of very simple graphics with still character portraits and backgrounds. But Ghost Trick presents its world from a cross-sectional perspective (like a sidescroller), and the sprite work in this game is *amazing*, especially when it comes to animations. Character movements are impressively fluid, complexly-detailed, and full of whimsical personality. Just take a look at Inspector Cabanela below. I may even be willing to go out on a limb and say Ghost Trick has the best sprite work of any game I’ve ever played.
All-in-all, Ghost Trick is an amazing experience. For a platform that had so many endearing and heartfelt games, I think this one ranks at the top and is a must-play for enthusiasts and newcomers to the platform alike.
The Club Nintendo rewards program is something I’ve finally started to keep up with this past year. Previously, I had never bothered with it, as I had never really bought enough Nintendo products within a single year to really qualify for any rewards. But last year, I picked up a 3DS XL(which was an excellent time to get into the 3DS) and a handful of games, and, consequently, decided to register everything and fill out the multitudinous mimetic surveys in the hope of accruing enough points to finally get some free stuff. And free stuff I did get, although nothing overly exciting. Not managing to reach the highly exclusive, super-elite “platinum” tier, I instead was treated to the reward options of the lowly “gold” tier, which consisted mostly of virtual console games. To be fair, they did choose some cool virtual console games to offer members at this level, but it still felt a little anticlimactic after filling out all those surveys and copy-pasting into the suggestions box my go-to request of “PLZ BRING GBA GAMES TO 3DS LOL!” In the end, I settled on nabbing Super Mario Land 2, a game I had a blast with when I was younger.
As with its predecessor, Super Mario Land 2 feels a little off-beat for a Mario game. This is on account of it being the product of the team that masterminded the Game Boy, Nintendo R&D1, as opposed to the team behind the monumentally significant console titles, R&D4. I’ve heard that internally the Nintendo development teams were fiercely competitive with each other, a behavior which was greatly encouraged by Nintendo’s upper management. It shows in SML2, because R&D1 was clearly not interested in simply trying to make an imitation of the console games but rather venture into creating a Mario title that feels very unique and idiosyncratic. But, on the other hand, they did succeed in creating something that has the feel of a Mario game which cannot be said about Super Mario Land 1. You can definitely tell that they had mastered developing for the portable’s hardware by this point. The game possesses the polish, length, and creative flair of a “real” Mario game. As is classic to Mario, you run, you jump, and you stomp on enemies and ram your head into question blocks for powerups and coins. But there are a few little tell-tale differences that clue you into its origins. You don’t attain a 1-up after collecting 100 coins. Rather, your coin count keeps going up after 100, and you use the coins to gamble for lives and powerups in a minigame available from the overworld map. (Using coins to gamble for prizes would be a major part of the Wario games which R&D1 later developed.) The game also breaks from the standard Mario level themes and allows travel to the moon, a submarine, a haunted cemetery, a giant clockwork Mario robot, and several other original locales. Also, I find the bosses are somewhat “out of left field” for a Mario game. I don’t think Mario games have ever really had notable bosses aside from Bowser and the Koopalings. In Super Mario Land 2, on the other hand, the boss fights get a little strange and include battles against the three little pigs, a witch, a giant rat, and Tatanga (the boss of the original SML) amongst others. The game climaxes with a battle against Wario, who sees his introduction in this game.
One thing I think gamers who played this game as a kid will notice when picking it up on Virtual Console is that the game is really easy. After replaying this game, I had the same sort of revelation I had after replaying Final Fantasy VII a few years ago. For both of these games, I actually found them very tough when I was much younger, but now as an adult, I find them to be absolute pushovers. I was particularly amazed at the ease of FFVII. I remember grinding for hours in that game as a kid to prepare for difficult bosses like Air Buster, Reno at the top of Sector 7 pillar, and the Materia Keeper. During my replay, I blew through all of those bosses and the rest of the game with incredible speed. I can’t understand how I could ever have been so bad at that game to need grinding, especially considering that it’s turn-based. But that’s how it goes I guess.
That leads me to wonder how new players to Super Mario Land 2 would receive it today. Despite the ease, I still really enjoyed replaying SML2, as I did with FFVII. But a lot of that has to do with how important the game is to me. The only Nintendo console I owned as a kid was the NES, so the Game Boy provided a valuable link to Mario, one of my favorite gaming series, during the Genesis and PSX years. For new players with perspectives not clouded by such personal attachment, they may find the game simply too easy and too off-beat for a Mario game (especially if they are comparing it to modern titles in the series). But I feel that some may appreciate the off-beat nature of the game because it is the result of there being a fairly large amount of creative levels and enemies on display here. The music is also really great, truly on par with the mainline Mario entries. And while the game may not be particularly challenging, there are a fair few secret exits in the game which open up hidden levels on the overworld map. The secret exits aren’t extremely well hidden, but you won’t stumble upon them unless you’re specifically hunting for them. These secret exits are good at creating an impetus to take time and explore the levels, instead of just blowing through the areas because they are so easy.
In the end, I think new players with an interest in exploring retro gaming will probably find a lot to appreciate in this game, but those not so attracted to gaming antiquity likely won’t be as absorbed. As for me, I find that I still rank SML2 among my favorite Game Boy games. The only other game I feel that could possibly compete with it for my number one favorite on the platform would be, of course, Donkey Kong.
Donkey Kong on Game Boy; or, Why Can’t Mario Be Weird Anymore?
The Donkey Kong arcade machine was a really cool game in its day, but with four relatively simplistic, single-screen levels, it has been almost completely eclipsed by its descendants, Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong Country. While I think new gamers today could get in and enjoy the old SMB and DKC games, I think the original Donkey Kong would probably fail to make an impression.
Fortunately though, in 1994 (the same year as the release of Rare’s Donkey Kong Country), a new version of Donkey Kong was released for the original monochrome Game Boy. This version begins in a familiar way, four levels, starting with the iconic barrels and ladders stage. But this time, after what should be the romantic reunion of Mario and Pauline, the defeated beast climbs to his feet, grabs the dame, and tears across 10 unique worlds of a much greater and expanded quest for Mario. These new levels are far more faithful to the original idea of Donkey Kong than perhaps Super Mario Bros. ever was. While SMB was composed of left to right obstacle courses, terminating in a flagpole, DK GB levels are generally much smaller, mimicking the arcade original and mostly never exceeding 2 or 3 screens in size. The goal is relatively simple; in each short level there is a key which you must bring to a locked door to successfully exit the level. Complicating this task is that while carrying the key, Mario’s movements are greatly restricted. He can’t jump as high, climb ladders or ropes, or enter tight spaces. Ultimately, a bit of puzzle solving is usually required to get the key to the exit. While puzzle platformers are super common today, they were less so in 1994, which the game somewhat unique.
When this game came out, I think it surprised a lot of people with how epic of an adventure it really was. The smaller level designs felt like Donkey Kong, although being more puzzle like in nature, and the concise and focused arcade style gameplay felt like a natural fit for the portable Game Boy. The puzzle-like levels are also filled with a ton of creativity, constantly revealing surprising new elements as the game progresses, which is not especially unusual of Nintendo game design even today.
In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Mario was utterly weird. The Mushroom Kingdom is a bizarre place, filled with an inexplicable network of green pipes (used for transport?) and torn by a conflict between the turtle-like Koopa tribe and the peaceful mushroom people race (strangely called Toads), led by an inexplicably human looking princess and her champion, a portly middle-aged plumber. People have kind of become desensitized to the strangeness of the Mushroom Kingdom, but in those days it fell in alongside other bizarre Mario settings, such as Sarasaland, Subcon, Dinosaur Island, and his Wario-conquered island getaway from Super Mario Land 2. Amongst these locations, the world of Donkey Kong feels unusual in just how normal it is, taking place seemingly on modern Earth. For instance, after completing the first four arcade levels, Donkey Kong whisks off to the second world, simply known as “Big-City.” These levels take place among modern urban streets and skyscraper rooftops. This is to be sure an unusual place to find a plumber whose exploits are mainly known to occur in the surreal, cartoonish Mushroom Kingdom.
I guess that kind of brings me to a problem I have with modern Mario games. There is a pervasive lack of new settings to fuel new adventures. The standard Mushroom Kingdom setting, which was initially mystifying, has become routine. In the age before the N64, Mario visited a ton of wild places that we don’t see today, and fought a slew of enemies that weren’t in Bowser’s standard retinue. The Super Mario Land games are a good example of Mario striking out beyond the Mushroom Kingdom’s borders. Nowadays, there is a widely professed lethargy with Mario games, particularly identified with the New Super Mario Bros. series. Unfortunately, most of these games are the same grass-world, desert-world, ice-world blah blah blah archetypes that are regurgitated over and over again. Even Paper Mario has become infected by this lazy trend. Thousand Year door lets you visit a ton of cool setups, like a haunted pirate island and train ride caught in a murder mystery. Super Paper Mario isn’t exactly the height of the series, but it has imaginative chapters like a prehistoric world where cavemen fight a hostile plant race, a spaceship based level, and the private fortress of a giant geeked-out chameleon. The latest release, Sticker Star for the 3DS, however, strips away all that creativity and sticks you in the same grass-world, desert-level, etc. tropes we’ve been playing since SMB3.
Nintendo doesn’t seem super interested in reversing course here either. I kind of hold up Super Mario Galaxy as my ideal in this regard. Shooting Mario off into space offered them a huge playground upon which to foster new ideas. For me, the game did a lot to reinvigorate my lifelong love of Mario, a task for which the more standardized New Super Mario Bros. for the DS fell short. When I started playing Mario as a kid, the thing that drew me most to his adventures was just how inventive and offbeat they were. I kind of wish I could go to my six-year old self while playing SMB3 and tell him, “If you think this is crazy, wait till he goes to space.” But Super Mario Galaxy doesn’t seem to have created a lasting impact. Now we have the 3D Land/World games, which while sometimes inventive, are composed generally of the SMB3 archetypes situated in abstract spaces. While those games have a serviceable fun to them, I don’t feel they do a lot to inspire the imagination.
So I guess what I’m saying, is that Nintendo needs to tap into its foundational weirdness to really refresh Mario. Leave behind the rote grasslands and deserts and islands to show us something new. Let the goombas and cheep cheeps and koopas have a little bit of a rest while new enemies decide to take up the futile quest of defeating Mario. Let people make new memories of these games, instead of just trying to rustle up sympathy with the old ones. Even if Nintendo isn’t ready to create a radical new invention with Mario, maybe they could at least give a fresh breath to some of their lesser used older ideas. Wouldn’t it be great to return to a 3D envisioning of Subcon, replete with turnip hurling, shadow world, vengeful Phantos, and rocketships that grow in the ground. Or maybe we could see a new envisioning of Donkey Kong for the Game Boy. Imagine Mario chasing DK through a lively modern cityscape!
Although… now that I think about it, Sonic started getting really bad when they entered into real world settings, so maybe we should be careful what we wish for here. But I still have faith in Nintendo. They constantly prove their creative edge, and I feel if they put their heart into it, they could create something great that didn’t rely so heavily on the tired tropes. But nonetheless, DK for the GB is a great game!