All 3D images are represented here by 2D. Why? Because we are old school, that’s why.
Two days ago, I did something I swore to myself I wouldn’t. I had told myself countless time I was happy, that size didn’t matter, that I’d allowed myself to double-dip too many times before. I wouldn’t fall for it again. But then Nintendo went ahead and unleashed the 3DS LL (XL in Canada) into its home territory. Mere hours after it arrived on store shelves, I was lured -subconsciously, scarily- by its siren call. Less than I year after purchasing my 3DS, I had no plans to upgrade; but as is always the case with the Big N’s inevitable handheld updates, I succumbed almost immediately.
In North America, the tired old refrain states that there is no longer a middle ground. All games are either AAA multimillion-dollar blockbusters or free-to-play mobile games. In Japan, neither of those models are tremendously popular. Over here, the portable game offers an intriguing middle way: modest budgets and smaller dev teams still have room to get creative and take risks. It’s an exciting space.
There is just nothing like the personal connection that is established between a gamer and a portable game. The simplistic but airtight game-play design that would seem out of place on a big console; the ability to play in any place, in any position – it fundamentally changes the experience of videogaming, making it more intimate and customizable. Plus, the type of games that typically excel on these consoles tend to be direct extensions of game-play ideas that were borne out of the 16-bit (aka best ever) era.
The LL is a gorgeous piece of gaming machinery. While the screen is nearly double the size of the original 3DS, the system itself is only a couple of centimetres longer – and the width is the same. The buttons click more satisfyingly, and the clamshell snaps open rather than flopping about like the original. The glossy finish of the old 3DS is replaced by a matte one, which feels classier and somehow more sophisticated. The stylus has been moved back to the side, like the original DS, rather than the clumsily-placed top-slotted one on the old 3DS.
Mario: one of the universal constants.
Personally, I went for the white model (which won’t make its way to North America straight away), and having spent some time with it, I can’t help but notice an aesthetic similarity to Apple’s devices, mixed with a retro-future 1970s sci-fi vibe. As is always the case with Nintendo’s hardware revisions, this is the 3DS they should have released in the first place. It’s stunning.
Since the original Game Boy, I’ve had a lifelong love affair with handheld gaming, specifically as delivered by Nintendo. The original DS is probably my favourite console of all-time, and the 3DS, after a sluggish start, seems poised to potentially take the crown. North American readers might smirk at that last bit, but keep in mind, Japan is sometimes a topsy-turvy place. Over here, Steam is still something you prepare rice or broccoli with. The Xbox 360 is a refuse pile of creepy teen girl idol simulators and text-based anime dating things. Handheld gaming reigns supreme; and while the PSP is still the king of the castle, the Vita seems dead in the water, and the 3DS is gaining serious momentum.
Sadly, however, many of the best reasons to own a 3DS still aren’t available outside of Japan, and thanks to Nintendo’s baffling decision to region-lock the thing, I get the sense that North American 3DSs are being used primarily as paper weights these days. Yet when 2012 comes to a close, and we game-playing types all gather round to discuss our Best Ofs, my personal list is sure to be comprised mostly of (3)DS titles. Why? Well, I guess because I love nothing more than well-designed, whimsical expressions of pure fun and endless derivative sequels! Here, then, is my Best of the First Half of 2012, Portable Nintendo Games Edition.
(Pokémon + Nobunaga’s Ambition)
Technically this one was released recently in North America under the name Pokémon Conquest, and it probably flew under most people’s radar (technically it is also a DS game, but boy does it look great on that supersized LL screen!) Over here, it was a much bigger deal. Nobunaga’s Ambition is a long-running series of turn-based SRPGs from Koei (and later Tecmo Koei) that is pretty much unknown outside of Japan; hence the name change.
Best portrait ever.
So what may have appeared as some bizarre Pokémon-in-medieval-Japan thing (which is a pretty fair description of this game, to be honest) was, in Japan, a pretty outstanding and blockbusting crossover!
In her review for Pokémon Conquest, Becky Cunningham of Cheat Code Central called this “the perfect summer vacation game” and I’d say that sums it up perfectly. This is an undemanding but rewarding game with a cute vibe and bright colors. It lends itself well to fifteen-minute bursts or two-hour grindfests. The amount of content is incredible. Think Final Fantasy Tactics with cute little Pokémon as your units, and the bouncy cartoon atmosphere of the original Advance Wars. Sure, the story is brain-dead; but if you’re playing a Pokémon game -especially one that takes place in an alternate timeline where feudal Japanese kingdoms settle disputes using goddarn Pokémon- for the story, then you are either six years old and won’t mind, or could seriously do with getting yourself a library card.
(Fire Emblem: Awakening)
Another long-running tactical SRPG series that is also comparable to Advance Wars (hey, I know what I like, alright?). In this case, it’s due in no small part to the fact that Fire Emblem is developed by Intelligent Systems, the same world-class studio behind the AW series.
In Japan, this is the eleventh chapter in the Fire Emblem saga, which may sound daunting; but it was envisioned as something of a reboot for the series, story-wise. At the same time, game-play refinements from nearly two decades of tweaking have been just about perfected here. While the series is known for its top-tier difficulty which rewards sloppy play with character perma-death, Awakening offers a casual mode, where characters re-spawn at the end of each battle.
When someone sticks their sword into the ground, it makes me cry a little.
The character design was also reworked from the ground up by Yusuke Kozaki (No More Heroes), and the overall visual flair here is gorgeous. Anime cut-scenes make good use of the console’s 3D, and the overall feel is nothing like the typical Nintendo experience. This one sucked me in for a good 40 hours and never let go.
New Super Mario Bros. 2
Released alongside the 3DS LL, it’s the latest in the still-apparently-“New” side-scrolling Mario series. While the DS NSMB was far too easy and suffered from sparse, boring level design, this sequel comes much closer to the high-flying majesty of last year’s Super Mario 3D Land (still the best reason to own a 3DS, far and away).
If you have played a Mario game, you’ll know what to expect here; and if you haven’t, stop reading this immediately and go re-evaulate your life thoroughly.
The challenge is more robust here than in the original. The graphics are much richer, and the Tanuki suit makes a welcome return. While it may not offer the four-player madness of the Wii version, two players can play simultaneously.
Nintendo’s made it quite clear that the gimmick this time is COINS EVERYWHERE – and you probably know that already. But what I didn’t realize, going in, was that there’s some sort of meta-game involving the collection of one million coins total. I haven’t spent enough time with the game to reach that milestone just yet – but I’m curious. There is also a coin rush mode, which tests how many coins you can gather in a level in one run. Your score can be compared to others’ via Street Pass. It’s a neat addition!
(Etrian Odyssey IV: The Legendary Giant God)
Let’s hope for two things:
- That Nintendo and Atlus confirm this for a North American release, and
- That they are better at coming up with subtitles than I am.
Strike a pose!
Etrian Odyssey is known for being a series of super-challenging dungeon crawlers with the added twist that you also draw the map. That’s still very muchin tact here, and honed to a “t”. Like Fire Emblem, Atlus has also included a casual mode, which makes the random enemies you’ll encounter a bit softer.
It’s an extremely rewarding feeling to hack your way through one of these games. By creating your own party from scratch, mapping your way through a dense series of maze-like dungeons, and discovering inventory items to create new weapons and gear along the way, every tiny scrap of progress feels well-earned. The difficulty curve is steep -but never unfair- and rewards creative thinking and party planning. For the first time, enemies appear in full 3D, rather than 2D sprites. While fans on the internet shed Mountain Dew flavoured tears over this revelation, the end result is quite beautiful. Also, Yuzo Koshiro’s soundtrack has been upgraded from 8-bit chiptunes to fully-orchestrated compositions, and then even further upgraded with super-squeedly electric guitars in the battle theme! You’ll want a solid pair of headphones to use when you play this game.
Pokémon Black and White 2
Yes, this is technically also a DS game; and yes, it’s Pokémon – but it’s the best Pokémon yet, darn it. Why? Because it’s the newest one, that’s why! If you don’t play it, Pikachu will be sad.
Did I mention there is a subway train in Tokyo that is 100% decorated with the Pokémans? That means it’s totally acceptable for an adult to be currently playing through and enjoying two different Pokémon adventures, okay?
There can never be enough Pokémon!
No Justification Required
Now I know what you’re thinking: and yeah, absolutely. If there was some way for me to just send all of my money directly to Nintendo’s headquarters, I totally would. But if they want to keep forcing me to exchange all of my Yens for their games and things, then I’ve no choice but to play by their rules.
For me, that’s the real fun of being a die-hard Nintendo fanboy. It’s always exhilarating to discover the next tiny, incremental “improvement” they’ll employ to separate me from my money so that I may continue to live a life full of fun.