Even Nintendo was unsure of how gamers would react to the DS. Initially marketed as a “third pillar” that would stand side-by-side with the Game Boy Advance and Gamecube, the first dedicated two-screen handheld was initially seen as a gimmick. It was Nintendo’s last-ditch attempt to fend off the impending Sony PlayStation Portable which seem poised to conquer the market.
But if the initial doubters learned anything, it’s to never bet against a Nintendo handheld. Not only did the DS go on to be a massive success; its final sales figures made it Nintendo’s most successful console ever, handheld or otherwise. The addition of a second screen worked remarkably well and inspired developers to create one of the best libraries in gaming history.
These are the 20 best Nintendo DS games ever.
20. 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors
The initial DS launch lineup was largely made up of typical fare like ports and sports titles, but the unique dual-screen design turned out to be the perfect home for genres that previously saw little attention, such as visual novels.
While the handful of visual novels previously released in the West were largely ignored by mainstream gamers, 999 blew the genre open with a winding story about nine strangers stuck on a sinking cruise ship and dozens of tricky escape room style puzzles. It takes some real brain power to get through the game without a guide, but if you do, it will keep you guessing until the very end.
19. Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride
The DS is home to a surprisingly robust collection of Dragon Quest games, and while it’s tempting to declare Dragon Quest IX (which has yet to be ported anywhere else) as the best offering on the handheld, even that game still comes up short against Hand of the Heavenly Bride. It’s hard to compete with an epic storyline told over decades of the main character’s life. It’s arguably the very best story in the franchise
And yes, the graphics may be less detailed than Dragon Quest IX, but they’re still a massive improvement over the original SNES game, and the slightly retro look holds up incredibly well more than a decade after its release.
The all too short-lived Q Entertainment is still fondly remembered for the Lumines series, but the studio’s other puzzle game, Meteos, may actually be the superior game (even if it can’t quite match Lumines’ style). The genius of Meteos is just how well it leverages the capabilities of the DS. As blocks continually fall, you have to use the stylus to match three and create structures that will lift off into the cosmos displayed on the top screen.
It’s fast, furious, and pays respects to some of the best games in the puzzle genre while creating something wholly original. While a sequel made its way to Xbox Live Arcade, the series has been dormant ever since, though a Switch version would be more than welcome at this point.
17. Elite Beat Agents
Elite Beat Agents is another game that made fantastic use of the DS hardware. Essentially a rhythm game with style to spare, it’s still a lot of fun to plug this one into a DS only to find yourself tapping and spinning along with hits from the likes of David Bowie and Earth, Wind, & Fire hours later. Even the game’s offbeat storyline about secret agents helping random people in need is surprisingly charming.
Based on the Japanese game Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, which was deemed unfeasible to localize due to its heavy use of Japanese culture and music, Nintendo put a lot of money into Elite Beat Agents hoping to turn it into another hit franchise. Unfortunately, the agents never quite found the same success as other rhythm games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and the agents have been relegated to little more than cameo appearances in Smash Bros.
16. Pokémon Conquest
As anyone who has plumbed the depths of the Pokémon series can tell you, the quality of its various spin-offs varies considerably. Pokémon Conquest, a combination of Nintendo’s massively successful monster-collecting RPG series and Nobunaga’s Ambition (a hardcore history strategy RPG series) certainly sounds like a really dumb mix on paper. However, the results exceed all expectations.
Somehow, it seems completely normal to see Pokémon next to the warriors and warlords of feudal Japan, like they’ve been there all along. And the game’s lengthy campaign remains compelling until the end. This is one Pokemon spin-off that’s badly in need of a remake or sequel.
15. Radiant Historia
Like most handheld consoles, the DS enjoyed more than its fair share of RPGs. Of all the handheld’s role-playing games, though, Radiant Historia stands out for its dark tone and daring design choices. The game’s branching storyline focuses on a complex time travel set-up that features two main timelines and numerous other smaller branches. The need to contain the possibilities that set-up offers can make the game feel more linear at times, but it still offers way more variety than the typical RPG.
Thanks to a unique battle system that focuses on your character’s positions on a 3×3 grid, combat in Radiant Historia rarely get boring, even across the whole of the game’s lengthy story. Unlike too many games on this list, Radiant Historia did get an equally excellent re-release on the 3DS, but it’s still a game well deserving of a full-fledged sequel.
14. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
The two Legend of Zelda games on the DS have rather mixed reputations among fans for their mandatory touchscreen controls and other deviations from the series’ usual gameplay. If I’m being completely honest, Spirt Tracks probably won’t top a lot of lists of the best Zelda games. Still, even a divisive Zelda game deserves to be among the DS’s best titles.
Drawing train tracks to move Link around Hyrule is one of the more creative uses of the handheld’s features, and the touchscreen does allow for some very cool puzzles, even if the game can drag on at times. It’s a creative deviation from Zelda norms that takes advantage of the hardware’s unique capabilities.
13. Kirby: Canvas Curse
One thing that is easy to forget now is just how skeptical a lot of gamers were about the DS when it was first released in 2004. A lot of people had no idea what to make of the dual-screen setup, and were still quite happy with the Game Boy Advance (which was released just three years earlier). But Kirby: Canvas Curse was the first great DS game that silenced those doubters.
What’s incredible about the game is just how much it innovates on the well-worn platforming genre in ways that still haven’t been copied by many other games. Yes, this is a sidescroller at heart, but having to draw a path for Kirby to follow and continually use the touch screen to attack remains innovative and as fun as ever almost two decades after release.
12. WarioWare Touched!
The WarioWare series got its start on Nintendo handhelds, and the franchise has always found fun new ways to use the advantages offered by new handled hardware. WarioWare: Touched! is no exception, with a whopping 180 microgames, all of which demand lightning-quick use of either the hardware’s touchscreen or the DS’s microphone (a cool feature that way too many games ignored completely).
All that’s wrapped up in the usual WarioWare trappings of ever-faster challenges, homages to retro classics, and just plain weirdness like unrolling toilet paper and tickling people as quickly as possible.
11. The World Ends with You
Hands down, the most innovative RPG on the Nintendo DS, The World Ends with You took some of the basic ideas Square Enix previously explored in the Kingdom Hearts series and cranked them to 11. At the heart of it all is a dark, stylish exploration of an alternate version of Tokyo’s Shibuya district steeped in Japanese youth culture.
But what most people will always remember about this game is its unique battle system that sees you simultaneously control Neku and a partner on both screens. Even with the game now making its way to multiple systems, this is still the definitive way of experiencing The World Ends with You. It’s a fine example of a game that wouldn’t even exist if not for the innovations of the DS.
10. Professor Layton and the Curious Village
Professor Layton is yet another game that probably wouldn’t have worked on any other system besides the DS. Perfectly marrying the adventure and puzzle genres with some beautiful European-style animation, this little mystery title was an instant hit with anyone who played it thanks to its clever (but never unfair) puzzles.
The Curious Village was followed by three more sequels on the DS alone, and while they’re all enjoyable titles in their own way, they never quite matched the thrill of discovery that came with the very first game.
9. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Is Phoenix Wright realistic? As an actual attorney, I can vouch that real legal work is way more boring. But hey, that’s what video games are all about; taking the mundane and making them fun. While this game’s basic visual novel gameplay isn’t super innovative, the five cases are so well written, and the characters are so interesting that Ace Attorney is hard to put down once you get started.
At the very least, if you’ve ever had thoughts about going to law school and taking the bar exam, I can promise you that Phoenix Wright is a way cheaper and more enjoyable way to get to the highlights.
8. Chrono Trigger
Chrono Trigger is always near the top of any best SNES games lists, but the Nintendo DS port is really the definitive version of one of the best JRPGs ever. Square Enix sprung for a new, more accurate translation, and even added a couple of new locations and an arena mode. There’s even a brand new thirteenth ending. If all that wasn’t enough, touch controls and the option of clearing all menus from the top screen take full advantage of the move to the DS.
Chrono Trigger will always be among the greatest video games of all time, though it’s hard to imagine this version will ever be topped unless Square Enix goes for the full remake route. While the price of this version has exploded in the last few years, it’s still worth tracking down.
7. Advance Wars: Dual Strike
After spending years in relative obscurity in Japan, the Advance Wars series burst onto the international scene in the early 2000s to become one of Nintendo’s biggest handheld hits. Dual Strike is arguably the pinnacle of the series, taking the rock-solid strategy elements of the previous two GBA games and adding nine new COs, with the ability to command two of them at a time during battle so that they can balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
While earlier Advance Wars titles looked great on the GBA, having access to additional unit information in the midst of battle and being able to use the touchscreen to design maps makes it hard to go back to those classics.
6. Mario Kart DS
Even if it looks a little dated now, there’s still a strong argument to be made that Mario Kart DS is the very best in the series. At the very least, it was a major turning point that included several features that have continued to show up in sequels (such as the Bullet Bill and Blooper power-ups and remade tracks from previous games).
But what Mario Kart DS might be best remembered for is being the first game in the franchise to include online play, giving it far more replay value than any of its predecessors. Sadly, the game’s servers were shut down years ago, but at least many of the game’s tracks live on in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
5. Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story
What goes on inside Bowser? Okay, maybe no one ever actually asked that question, but Nintendo decided to answer it anyway with this surreal entry into the Mario RPG series in which Mario and Luigi actually go deep inside their archenemy to help him battle a common foe.
As is par for the course for the franchise, combat in this game focuses on timing and is generally more action-oriented than the typical RPG. Even better, the script pops as one of the funniest (and arguably best) in a series known for its excellent writing. All of the Mario & Luigi games are fantastic, but Bowser’s Inside Story still stands out as the pinnacle of the series for its outstanding gameplay and just plain fun weirdness.
4. Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver
The Nintendo DS was home to some of the better entries in the Pokémon franchise, but as great as generations four and five are, it’s hard to beat these fantastic remakes of the second generation games. It’s just hard to beat the quality of life improvements they offer (from the massive graphical overhaul to just having your Pokémon follow you around the overworld).
But what HeartGold/SoulSilver will always be remembered for is its massive quest. This epic campaign features not just the Johto region, but the entire Kanto region from the very first games. At the end of it all, the game offers a whopping 16 gym leaders to beat. Even as the series continues to evolve, adding more features and Pokémon, many would say this remains the very best game in the series, or at the very least, the perfect jumping-on point.
3. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Nintendo has always had a reputation as a family-friendly company, and its handhelds in particular have historically been home to libraries largely designed to appeal to all ages. However, Chinatown Wars is proof that mature games could also thrive on the DS if developers had the resources to make them. At its core, this is a classic open-world GTA experience borrowing many of the best bits of its predecessors.
But there are also a lot of cool DS-centric features in this gem. If you want to steal a car, you’re going to have to use the touchscreen to get it started with a screwdriver or by hotwiring it. It was also the first (and so far only) GTA game to feature a full-fledged drug dealing mini-game to make extra cash. It was just a fantastic realization of what kind of unique GTA experience the DS could offer.
2. New Super Mario Bros.
As beloved as the Super Mario Bros. games are, it’s hard to believe that before the release of New Super Mario Bros. in 2006, it had been more than a decade since Nintendo released a 2D entry in the iconic series. Thankfully, Mario didn’t lose any of his magic during the hiatus. In some ways, New Super Mario Bros. actually feels superior to the original NES and SNES titles.
This title’s classic gameplay is as fluid as ever, but the additions of three new power-ups (the Blue Koopa Shell, the Mega Mushroom, and the Mini Mushroom) feel right at home with the core Super Mario experience. After you’ve plowed through an entire level as a giant Mario, you’ll wonder why Nintendo never included that ability in the old games.
1. Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow
Unlike many of the games on this list, Dawn of Sorrow is more iterative than revolutionary. In fact, its one big DS innovation (drawing magical seals on the touchscreen to defeat bosses) has never been terribly popular. But that doesn’t really matter when the rest of the game is this good. With ultra-smooth animation, a rocking soundtrack, the ridiculous amount of customization offered by its tactical souls system, and a map chock full of secrets (not to mention the continuation of the series’ most distinctive storyline) this is Castlevania at its very best.
Konami has recently shown more interest in re-releasing its older titles, and after seeing the excellent response to its collection of GBA games last year, it seems like a DS Castlevania collection is due. Here’s hoping we get an updated release of Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin, and Order of Ecclesia soon so this classic can finally be appreciated by a wider audience.