If there’s one thing that DS did better than any of its contemporaries, it was pumping out one creative title after another. In all my years of gaming, I’ve never seen a system with so many unique and different titles. When compiling this list, my goal wasn’t to catalogue the titles with the greatest stories, graphics, or sales numbers, but the games that stood out for trying something new with gameplay. Here’s a breakdown of the top five most creative DS games and what made them special!
5) Cooking Mama
Developer: Majesco/Office Create | Release: 2006
The touch screen-only gameplay of Majesco’s Cooking Mama might seem ubiquitous now, but when this first game in the series launched back in 2006, it was unlike almost anything else on the market. The goal of the game was to follow the titular “Mama”‘s instructions in order to craft a variety of dishes. The recipes could be a little weird, and the controls weren’t always perfect, but the sheer fun of virtually chopping veggies and manipulating a frying pan were undeniable. The various stylus movements required to cook were surprisingly authentic compared to their real world counterparts, which made the experience even more enjoyable. It was a surreal experience seeing something mundane come to life so vividly, which is really reminiscent of Harvest Moon, in a way. Cooking Mama was a perfect example of how goofy and alt gaming could be and opened the medium up to a whole new audience of players.
4) Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Developer: Capcom | Released: 2005
Visual novels were uncommon on American consoles in 2005, which was especially true of the handheld scene. Enter Phoenix Wright, Capcom’s game of farcical courtroom proceedings and crime investigation. Players used the DS stylus to navigate through different environments to find clues to solves crimes and engage in simple logic problems during trials to discern lies from truth. The combination of intuitive controls, rich sprites, and incredibly clever writing made Phoenix Wright a hit and spawned a number of sequels as a result. Games like Professor Layton and Ghost Trick might have (arguably) done it better than Phoenix, but this first game was in a league of its own when it landed and was a major turning point for me, as a player. It really opened my eyes to what gaming could be about beyond Mario and it had a lasting impact on me as a gamer.
3) Hotel Dusk: Room 215
Developer: Cing | Released: 2007
Oh, Cing, we hardly knew ye. The now-defunct developer was responsible for Hotel Dusk, an engaging title that had players hold their DS open like a book. The odd orientation of the handheld was intentional though, as Hotel Dusk cast players as a detective trying to solve a mystery, with a tone every bit of what a person would expect from an old Chandler or Hammet story. The game’s scratchy, illustrated-looking characters also contributed to the game’s gritty, thriller vibe. Players used their styluses to flick and pan the screen, exploring the old hotel to look for clues, solve puzzles, and interact with characters. Part visual novel, part first-person adventure, Hotel Dusk remains a unique experience on DS that was never quite replicated by anyone else. Too bad the Wii sequel never made it West.
2) The World Ends With You
Developer: Square Enix | Released: 2008
The World Ends With You was the perfect example of how to properly merge a tried and true genre like RPGs with the quirky touch controls of DS. Along with its engaging story and vibrant graphics, World Ends featured an innovative touch battle system that practically crackled with energy. The game also introduced interesting concepts like rewarding XP for not playing it! World Ends has created something of a cult following in the years since, but it was a game that any player who tried it found intoxicating. In a world of stale JRPG conventions, World Ends went against the grain in almost every way it could, and was a better game for it.
1) Kirby Canvas Curse
Developer: HAL Laboratory | Released: 2005
While one of the earliest titles released for the console, Kirby Canvas Curse remained one of its finest all the way until the end. Relying only on the stylus for control by drawing ethereal lines to guide Kirby with, Canvas Curse was a revelatory gaming experience. Somehow, HAL was able to take everything that players loved about Kirby and translate it into an almost entirely new experience. The controls were intuitive, and while clearly designed to highlight the new touch screen, never felt gimmicky. As ever, Kirby brought fans a game unlike any other, and it’s the marquee example of what made DS the center of creativity in the video game industry!
Believe me, there are a TON more games that deserve a place on this list. Guitar Hero: On Tour (with it’s awesome guitar peripheral), WarioWare: Touched!, Picross 3D, 999, Okamiden, and more, but this little handful always stands out to me, in particular. List any other great DS games that you think got the creative juices flowing!