The premise of our new “Best of the Best” column is quite simple. We’re going to take a look at all the games that have won various awards over the years and them rank them from best to worst to crown what is, well, “The Best of the Best.” The purpose of this is twofold. The first is to generate some fun (AND CIVIL) discussions between readers and staff as they agree, disagree and make their own rankings of the award winning games. The second is to look back at the history of Diehard GameFAN and see if we can find any trends in what’s won over the years. Obviously any “Top Whatever” list is highly subjective, so keep that in mind. After all, if you give ten people a list of ten games, the likelihood that even two have them in the same exact order is quite small. So anyone taking this as SERIOUS BUSINESS and getting butt hurt that Game A is ranking higher/lower than Game B will be given a pat on the head and reminded that we’re talking about something as inconsequential to the world as video games and that they should really just relax. Our previous renditions looked at our Game of the Year winners and Platformers. This time we’ll be looking at the winners of the “Nintendo DS Game of the Year” award.
I chose to do the DS award for this issue because of my other column, “What’s Worth Keeping?” where I mentioned the DS was the only portable I couldn’t think of twenty games I felt were worth holding on to for the long term. I’m the polar opposite of a packrat, so a game really has to impress me for me to keep something. Other handhelds like the GBA, Game Gear, NGPC and even the Wonderswan all have twenty games (or more) that I own in my attempt to pare back my collection. Not the DS which has…eighteen and I could probably jettison four of those without any problem. That’s not a good sign, especially when the system has over 1,300 games available for it. Now that doesn’t mean the DS doesn’t have a lot of good games – just not a lot of great ones that I feel stand the test of time and offer strong replay value. So I felt looking back at the previous GOTY winners for this system might help me think of other games to add to my collection, which at this point are looking like Strange Journey, The Dark Spire and/or Order of Ecclesia – all of which I’ve owned and traded in, which is why I’m hesitant to reconsider them. I have to admit though, after looking at the list of nine winners, I can’t honestly say I’d own any of them say for the two I already have. Ah well, it was worth a shot. Now, let’s count down the nine DS GOTY winners from best to worst.
9. Feel The Magic: XX/XY (2004’s DS Game of the Year)
Well, this should be no surprise. The DS launch in November of 2004 and there weren’t a lot of releases to choose from in the month and a half of options. Feel the Magic won with Super Mario 64 DS taking the runner up spot, so obviously, the pool of potential candidates wasn’t an especially strong one. Feel the Magic won because it was the only new IP for the system (save for THQ’s Ping Pals) and it was a really great tech demo for what the NDS could do, similar to how Wii Sports wowed everyone upon the release of the Wii. Feel the Magic really was the best launch game for the DS, however it hasn’t aged well and by now many of the things in this game have been done better countless times over. The romantic storyline was cute but feels a bit dated now. Feel the Magic was a fun game and one I personally enjoyed playing (I even voted for it in the 2004 awards), but like a lot of DS games, it simply doesn’t stand the test of time and I feel it’s the weakest game on this list.
8. Dragon Quest IX: Protectors of the Starr Sky (2010’s DS Game of the Year)
This is another example of a game that won only because there wasn’t a real quality selection that year. Pokémon Heart Gold & Soul Silver came out that year but as a remake, it wasn’t eligible. Strange Journey was far superior, but at the time, only Mark and I had played it. Only Aaron voted for Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth. This was not a good year for the DS. It was the year 1UP gave their DS GOTY award to a Duke Nukem title after all…
DQ IX suffered from the same problem most of the latter DQ games are. They have an interesting story, start off great…but then ramble on forever. It’s like people just don’t know when to say “Maybe we put in TOO MUCH padding.” DQVII started this problem by being over 100 hours long with much of that grinding and backtracking without a lot of story and VIII and IX followed suit. It was also extremely easy to the point of being a cakewalk, which meant that the experience was also boring after a while. This was also the first game to offer DLC which…can’t be accessed any more so a big draw of the game no longer exists. Ugh. Yeah, Strange Journey should have won this hands down.
7. Yoshi’s Island DS (2006’s DS Game of the Year)
I never really cared for Yoshi’s Island DS. There’s not much more I can say about this game other than what I said in last issue’s Platformers piece, so I’ll repeat myself here.
Yoshi’s Island was a lot of fun to play, taking the core concepts of Super Mario World 2 and improving them in nearly every way. My two big complaints about the game are the story (which was dull and uninteresting) and the fact it felt paint by numbers at time. Still, looking back at 2006, this was an easy winner for the Platformer of the Year award and it would go on to win the Best DS game of the Year award as well, although I disagree with that one because there were far better games released that year for the system. Yoshi’s Island DS ends up with the number eight spot for one big reason: that damn blind spot. If you haven’t played the game than you may recall that the two DS screens don’t match up perfectly, creating a blind spot between the two where stuff is going on, but you can’t see it. This has caused every gamer who has ever played it to lose/die/whatever repeatedly and you would think of all companies, that Nintendo would have prevented that from happening. It was their system after all. Still, aside from that boneheaded move, the game is worthy of being an award winner. It’s a platformer I didn’t hate and that says something.
Seriously, this should not have won this year. Best Platformer? Sure – there weren’t a lot of options, but best overall DS game? Oh, god no. Paint by numbers platformer with notable design flaws or one of the actual quality games that did something new and different which released that year like Pokémon Ranger (won our best Action RPG of the year award) or Pokémon Mystery Dungeon (which won both our GBA GOTY and Turn Based RPG of the Year awards!), Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (Best Audio of the Year), Elite Beat Agents (Best Rhythm Game and Best Gameplay) or even NIntendogs deserved the award.
6. Radiant Historia (2011’s DS Game of the Year)
Radiant Historia was a real interesting concept in that it was a typical linear JRPG but the trappings gave it the illusion of being so much more. I do think Pokémon Black and White should have won here, but only slightly. History and hindsight seem to prove me right as nearly every other site chose Generation IV as their DS GOTY and some even made it their overall GOTY, but Radiant Historia would have been my runner up, so it’s not a choice I’m really going to quibble with. This was a fine little turn-based RPG with a story rife with political intrigue and sported some neat time travel/control mechanics. The White Chronicle was an interesting concept, the soundtrack was terrific and I loved seeing all the different paths I could create by altering past events. However, the game was bogged down by some bits I didn’t like. The game is actually VERY linear for a time travel concept RPG, and having to watch the same cut scenes over and over again was annoying beyond belief. I also didn’t care for Atlus’ translation which has become an increasing problem with the company as years go on. Still the game was well done, but not well enough that I would play it again while I (and millions of others) still pick up Black and White regularly.
5. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (2007’s DS Game of the Year)
2007 was an odd year for the DS. The only other game I’d have considered a contender for this award was Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, which I preferred but I can’t fault the choice here. I’ve always found I preferred the portable LoZ games like Link’s Awakening and Oracle of Seasons to the console versions and Phantom Hourglass is no exception. I preferred it greatly to its predecessor, The Wind Waker and had a lot of fun with this title…although not enough to keep it around after I beat it. I know some people didn’t (and STILL DON’T) care for the more cartoony style of this LoZ offshoot, but I rather like it. It’s unique and there’s nothing wrong with having more than one art style for a franchise.
There’s so much to praise about this game. I liked the map function and that I didn’t have to pause the game to see where I was for the first time in a Zelda game. I thought the story with the ghost ship and the Sands of Time was a very interesting one and I appreciated that this was one of the few direct sequels to a previous LoZ game instead of being in its own vacuum. The game looked great, sounded better and is one of the better LoZ games in the franchise. My big complaint, however, is that it pretty much relied on the same exact trappings as we had seen in every other game. Walk walk walk. Enter a dungeon. Complete the dungeon. Walk walk walk. It was so much of the same thing over and over again – not just in this game, but for the series as a whole that I really couldn’t rank it any higher than this.
4. The World Ends With You (2008’s DS Game of the Year)
Man, what a fun game this was! I have to admit I love Shibuya for people watching so to have a RPG set in the area was fantastic. The whole concept of the undead offering up what is most important to them to have another shot at living was such an intriguing one that you’re hooked from beginning to end. Over the three in-game weeks you get to know Neku and his comrades/friends/unwilling allies, and you really grow to care about them. Just the relationship between all the characters and the constant twists and turns they face really keeps you glued to this game. I’ll admit I tend to find the vast majority of Square-Enix RPGs to be overrated, but this is easily one of the better ones and a game that definitely deserved to win in 2008.
Really, the Stride Cross Battle System is what really made me a fan above even the story and music. I loved that you can play as either the top or bottom screen character (or manage both) and how different of an experience they both are. Neku’s pin system is my favorite as it’s like a weird updated version of Pong with more lethal results. It can get pretty intense and that’s how I like my Action RPGs ala Shadow Hearts or Time and Eternity.
I feel a little weird “only” ranking this game at #4, but there are three games I enjoy better and that’s really what it comes down to.
3. Trauma Center: Under the Knife (2005’s DS Game of the Year)
The Trauma series from Atlus has always been hugely popular with the staff here at Diehard GameFAN, in both its DS and Wii incarnations. I loved it because it reminded me of an old Apple 2e game called Surgeon that I played a lot of in the early 90s. That game, however, was a pure simulation of how to perform various operations but we tended to see how badly we could screw a person up and then save them. Trauma Center is an entirely different beast as it gives you an ongoing storyline in addition to episodic bits, a full cast and crew to interact with and some really outstanding stylus based gameplay. Remember how I said Feel the Magic was fine as a launch tech demo but that it was quickly surpassed by other games? Well Trauma Center was one of them. Although the simulation isn’t entirely accurate regarding medical science and procedure (like GUILT), the game is set far enough in the future that you can give it a pass in those regards. Each mission has you saving a patient from a disease or condition and at the end of the mission you are graded on time, accuracy and the health of the patient. The gameplay is exceptionally fun and once you beat the game, you unlock extra hard “X-Missions.”
I really loved Trauma Center but once I cleared everything, there was no reason to go back to it. Trying to replay the game just failed to recapture the magic I felt on that first playthrough. However it’s the most fun I’ve had with any of the games on this countdown so far and really, that’s what matters most. At the end of the day if a game is a technical masterpiece but boring as hell, it’s the boring you’ll remember most. Trauma Center was definitely one of the best and most beloved early DS titles and it’s also the second ATLUS game to make the list. There’s still one more to go though…and it’s next.
2. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor (2009s DS Game of the Year)
The only reason this is number two and not number one (as I love both games equally) is that the 3DS has a remixed version with more content and that is a lot easier…although I found the original to be a cakewalk, but I appear to be in the minority there. I guess I’ve played way too many SRPGs for my own good, eh?
We’ve seen Megaten games primarily as first person dungeon crawls, but also action RPGs like the Devil Summoner series for the PS2. Devil Survivor, however, was the first tactical RPG in the series and between the story, gameplay, graphics and music, it quickly became one of my favorites, along with both Persona 2s, Digital Devil Saga 1, Soul Hackers and the original Shin Megami Tensei.
I love the story behind it, which is basically, “THE INTERNET DESTROYS THE WORLD!” and yet it’s the demon summoning devices that somehow help the world get back on track. There are multiple endings, each very different, and it’s worth replaying the game multiple times to see what you can get. However, I’m a SRPG fan through and through and I loved the gameplay here. Not only is it the usual grid based combat, but each character is actually a set of one to three warriors (for your side it’s a human and up to two demons) that set out to survive the demon scourge and change their fate from being marked for death to well…hopefully living another day. I can’t recommend this game enough and for those with the 3DS, you get more story and an easier time of things.
1. Pokémon Conquest (2012’s DS Game of the Year)
If you know me, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Do I love Pokémon? Hell, I worked for them for six years. I was Professor freakin’ Oak at one point, so of course I love this series. Do I love SRPGs? Oh my yes. It’s my favorite type of RPG. Do I love Koei’s simulation series like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga’s Ambition? Indeed I do. So do combine all three things into a single game and have it be done so amazingly well that even Pokémon naysayers fell in love with this game? Well it’s no surprise that this was our most recent (and unfortunately last ever) DS Game of the Year Winner. Of course it also won our awards for Best Story and Best Gameplay proving that sometimes you need to take Pokémon far away from the “eight to ten year old goes through eight gyms collecting badges while also saving the world” storylines the turn based games have reused to the point where it’s hard to take them seriously plot-wise.
The plot is simple – unite the region (Ransei) that you are in through Pokémon induced war and save the world from the vile Nobunaga and his evil machinations. You’ll be engaged in kingdom management, Pokémon battles, attempts to find and recruit new Pokémon and warriors and managing resources of your conquered areas. You’re a benevolent dictator, but one nonetheless, so you do have to keep track of all aspects of this game or things fall apart. Each Warlord also has to maintain and improve their Link with their chosen Pokémon, as the better the bond they have, the more powerful the team becomes. Sure the storyline is darker than most Pokémon games, but the spin-off series tend to be far more mature than the core RPGs – just look at the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon and Game Cube titles. The end result is simply a game that won awards all over the world, sold like hotcakes, received critical acclaim and proved that Nintendo will only screw over Tecmo Koei’s games if the words Fatal and Frame are in the title. It’s an incredible game for all ages and it’s definitely a great game for younger or casual gamers to learn the basics of what SRPGs are all about.
There you go. All nine Nintendo DS Game of the Year winners counted down from worst to best. I do admit that writing this does make me consider tracking down TC:UtK or TWEWY, but I also know I got rid of them because the tales both told were good, but linear and nothing I truly need to experience again. Besides, I can always get TWEWY on iOS these days.
We’ll be back in two weeks with another look at the history of DHGF award winners and then ranking them from best to worst. I’ll see you then, but for now we’ll leave you with the statistical breakdown of the award.
Developers That Won the DS GOTY Award:
Jupiter – 1
Level 5 -1
Sonic Team -1
Tecmo Koei -1
Publisher that Won the DS GOTY Award:
ATLUS USA -3
Sega – 1
Square Enix – 2
Genres that Won the DS GOTY Award:
Action RPG -1
Mini-Game Compilation -1
Platformer – 1
SRPG – 2
Turn Based RPG -2