Welcome to 2009

If your New Year’s Resolution is 256×192, you’re probably playing a Nintendo DS. Having played mine extensively in 2009, I wanted to mention the best DS games of the past year that nobody played.

First up is Retro Game Challenge, a nostalgia-filled time warp back to the 80s. However, the specific games will not give you a sense of nostalgia, for they completely made up. What’s impressive is that the feel of the 80s is preserved and bottled up for today’s gamers to experience through a series of NES-styled game designs, but what fleshes it out are in-game issues of a fictional gaming magazine that contains previews, cheat codes, and strategies for the included games.

The games themselves (shown in this corny trailer) are introduced one-by-one with a series of four challenges to complete before unlocking free play. The games make many references to real games from that time period. For example, the Dragon Quest styled RPG starts with a blue scrolling story screen reminiscent of Final Fantasy.

If you have fond memories of gaming in the 80s or want to see an era you missed, you will enjoy Retro Game Challenge. A sequel was released in Japan that includes a much wider assortment of games and platforms, but it is currently not expected to get a North American release.

Next is Knights in the Nightmare, which is probably the most beautiful looking and sounding DS game (see trailer), and was designed by one of the most innovative development teams in the world. KitN combines the depth of a strategy game, the character advancement of an RPG, and the frantic dodging of a bullet-hell shooter to create a deep and replayable gaming experience unlike anything else on the market.

KitN is played solely with the stylus controlling a flying wisp that animates knights to attack, recruits knights, collects items, brings weapons to the knights, dodges enemy fire, and switches between a Law and Chaos world. It’s a lot of things to keep track of and it all happens in real time. The game’s biggest drawback is it’s complexity which is also it’s greatest strength. The steep learning curve will turn away some people, but it will also provide rewards as players continuously learn new subtleties to the gameplay and strategy. The battles are tied together with a non-linear story that is fairly difficult to follow on the first playthrough. Yes, even the story is complicated.

If you’re getting tired of sequels and retreads of the same ideas, Knights in the Nightmare might just be new experience you are looking for.

I rarely talk about video games without mentioning Shin Megami Tensei, so Devil Survivor is my next topic. Devil Survivor is a spinoff of the Shin Megami Tensei series that bring’s SMT’s impressive bestiary, demon fusion, and character customization into the world of grid-based tactical RPGs like Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics.

The story revolves around the protagonist and his friends receiving COMPs (looks like a Nintendo DS) shortly before the government locks down all of Tokyo. It turns out that the COMPs have been modified with the ability to summon demons and receive e-mails that predict the future. Using this power and information, they are fighting to survive a catastrophe that will happen in seven days. Complicating things are government agents, a mysterious religious cult, an escaped vampire, thugs who also have modified COMPs, a war for the demonic throne, and a vast assortment of characters who all have their own problems.

There is a lot of player choice in this game, especially further in. The game progresses in half-hour increments with discussions and storyline battles advancing time, and there is not enough time to do everything. The battles also tend to offer a choice of objectives for the player which can impact how the story unfolds leading to one of six possible endings.

The combat system is a unique blend of grid-based movement and classic menu-driven RPG combat infused with SMT’s weakness and extra turn systems. It works quite well, but I don’t have room to explain it beyond saying that there is a pleasantly large amount of strategic depth and decision making all points in combat. The game also offers Free Battles which don’t advance the clock for people who want or need to level grind a bit.

Check out the trailer to get a feel for the game’s mood and visuals. This is, in my opinion, the best tactical RPG on the DS.

Another hybrid game design, Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzing Adventure mixes a classic platformer with a match-three puzzle game like Yoshi’s Cookie or Planet Puzzle League. However, the two games are kept mostly separate on the two screens of the Nintendo DS, but actions in one game affect the other. It’s fun and it’s under $20 if not on clearance.

Space Invaders Extreme 2 is the last game I am going to mention. It’s new and I do not have it yet, but the first one was fantastic and by all accounts, the sequel is even better. This game is for people who want highly replayable arcade action. Moving, dodging, shooting, collecting power ups, etc. Online leaderboards, multiplayer, multiple courses through the game, puzzle-like elements in the alien formations, and a scoring system with some depth to it provide lots of incentives to continue playing and learning new things.

This one needs two trailers:
Trailer One
Trailer Two

Lastly, I just want to say that Yūzō Koshiro, perhaps the most celebrated classic game music composer, is doing fantastic work on Etrian Odyssey 3. Just listening makes me feel like it’s 1993 and I’m fighting monsters in a dungeon. Japanese release is going to be in March 2010. I hope to see a US release by the end of the year, and I will definitely be buying the soundtrack and game. Keep your eyes open for this if you like classic dungeon crawls, or hunt down the first two.

I tried to keep the descriptions short to not bore people, but I’m always happy to talk about games with anybody so don’t hesitate to ask if you want to know more. Beyond that, I hope you all have a great 2010.

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