Emily the Strange: Strangerous on Nintendo DS (6/10)

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In this point and click puzzle adventure you control Emily on her quest to find her missing cats. Apparently this is based on a comic or something. It has a gothy, surreal, Edward Gorey feel to it. The most noteworthy thing about the game is this stark black, white, and red art style.

The puzzles are mostly very basic. There are maybe 4 or 5 hard number puzzles and a few unfair ones that require you to draw an exact mark on the screen to select the correct answer. Point and click inventory management doesn’t really play a part here. The closest it comes to that are the times when you have to select the correct of four cats to get past a barrier.

Thankfully the game is short and doesn’t wear out its welcome. An ideal sort of game for a portable system like the DS.

The Legendary Starfy on Nintendo DS (8/10)

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I’m surprised that I enjoyed this kid-friendly platformer as much as I did. It leans in heavy into its cuteness factor but manages to tell a story that isn’t insulting with some genuine moments of wit. It’s not really a pure platformer either. About half the levels have you swimming in all directions rather than jumping. It’s a mechanic that seems overly simple at first but eventually builds up to a moderate level of challenge. Throw in a bit of exploration/secret hunting and you have a pretty decent little game here.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks on Nintendo DS (8/10)

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It took me nearly half a decade to finish this one. Not that it’s terribly difficult, I just put it down at some point and forgot to finish it. I suppose that’s not really a ringing endorsement. Oh well.

This installment in the series feels much like its predecessor, The Phantom Hourglass. The hook here is that over world travel takes place on trains rather than boats. Also, this time around Zelda is with you as a spirit who can possess the bodies of various armored “phantoms”. This leads to some decent puzzles in which you need to control both characters in order to achieve your goals.

I apparently left off at the last dungeon and had to relearn all the various moves and monster types. The learning curve is really steep if you jump in at the end like I did and that’s probably why it took such an effort to get back in to the game. Oh and, dear gawd, the final battle is frustrating. Stylus movement is good for puzzles but sucks when you need to have quick reflexes to win. Had I played it all the way through without the hiatus I would probably rank this higher, but my procrastination soured the experience a little.

Radiant Historia on Nintendo DS (8/10)

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I bought Radiant Historia based on its reputation as one of, if not THE best RPG on the Nintendo DS. Well, it’s a JRPG so take that praise with a grain of salt. In fact, when I first got it, I managed to clock about 20 hours but eventually got distracted by other games. It’s easy to lose focus from this extremely text-heavy game. Once again, many clicks are wasted on redundant “…” dialogue boxes and the accompanying, un-skippable “…” word bubble animations. So, it took four years and a fun romp through Etrian Odyssey for me to muster the energy to attempt another play through. Rather than pick up where I left off, trying to remember the convoluted plot up to that point, I started anew. During this run I would try my darndest to differentiate between all the cutesy anime characters and not lose focus.

The main touted selling point of Radiant Historia usually is its complex time-travelling plot. At first, being able to redo past events to alter the current ones is an nice mechanism. However, once you are deep into the game and there are dozens of points to which you need to return again and again, it becomes a drag and a nuisance. For me it didn’t help that there seemingly was no way to skip the endless cut-scenes (I discovered it’s the “start” button about 30 hours in). Despite the grandiose concept, there isn’t that much in terms of branching story lines that would, like a Telltale game, lead to a unique game for each player. The plot is really only divided into two main branches. Any choices which deviate from these two lead to a short text blurb and a dead end (if you want to get 100% completion you need to follow all these dead ends too). If anything, repeatedly visiting all those moments and re-reading all that dialogue at least helped me understand what the heck was going on. Angsty warrior must stave off impending ecological disaster and bring unity to warring the races of furries. Got it.

All that aside, where the game actually shines is its combat system. Enemies appear on a 3×3 grid and their positioning effects the strength of their attacks and the amount of damage you can inflict. Players can then use special powers to knock monsters around the grid, stack them together and chain combos for stronger attacks. Also, because the main theme here is time manipulation, you can control the player initiative track and sacrifice a turn to set up bigger combos. It takes the standard, mindless JRPG combat mechanism and adds a puzzley layer of thinking to your choices. Most combat is avoidable if you are quick, but I actually found myself opting-in to battles more often than not. Too bad 70% of the game is talking, otherwise I would have scored it higher.

Etrian Odyssey on Nintendo DS (8/10)

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Etrian Odyssey is an old-school RPG in the vein of Wizardy or The Bard’s Tale. That is, you assemble a party of adventurers, go to a town hub to gather quests and equipment, then delve into an uncharted labyrinth killing monsters and mapping your progress. There isn’t much of a story to follow here. Your goal is to find the “secret of the labyrinth” which, spoiler alert, has something to do with global warming (97% of scientists agree this is a dumb twist). Exploration and combat are the real core of the game, and the mapping of the maze is the primary gimmick. A task for which the DS is excellently suited. No need for graph paper. Just use the stylus and mark your map directly in the game. I can’t tell you how frustrating it was playing Bard’s Tale, carefully mapping away, only to have my time-consuming efforts foiled when the map ran off the edge of the graph paper. I’d then have to tape a second piece to the side or, worse, start over from scratch.

I’m sure there a lot of players who would still be turned off by the thought of not having an auto-map feature, but I find it oddly rewarding. In a way it gives the game a casual feel, almost like completing a Picross puzzle. This is despite the hard-as-nails difficultly of the actual game-play. The game is relentless in throwing random encounters at you. Many of the spells and power-ups try to address this by temporarily lowering the chance of battles. But these random fights are pretty much par for the course in Japanese role-playing games and which is why I typically try to avoid JRPGs (Phantasy Star being another exception). However, in this instance they are the core of the experience. Never fear, there is a gentle progression as your characters gather experience and skills. In each case as I worked my way through a new level’s difficult monsters, by the time I reached the next stratum (the labyrinth’s sections), I was easily steam rolling over the those same monsters who were troubling me a few floors earlier. Mindless, yes… but, even with the general lack of narrative, also weirdly satisfying.

Picross 3D on Nintendo DS (9/10)

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It’s been quite some time since I picked up my Nintendo DS. I have been hacking away at Picross 3D for years now, and I finally decided to buckle down and finish the dang thing before I go completely farsighted in my old age. Turns out, despite my procrastination, this is one of the best casual games on the DS.

The original, 2D Picross was for the SNES and there have since been dozens of themed variations on various platforms including an excellent DS version. At their core these are deduction and logic puzzles with apt comparisons to Sudoku. You are given a grid with numbers running down two sides. The numbers are clues as to the amount of squares you should fill in in each row and column. A number 10 on a 10 x 10 grid is easy: fill in all 10 squares in that row. It starts to get tricky when you are given multiple numbers with lower values. That’s when your brain starts to hurt as you figure out every possible combination of squares that might get filled in and make the ones you know for sure are filled no matter the arrangement.

In Picross 3D, one would think that the added third-dimension would make your head explode, but actually the puzzles are less difficult. The mechanics are a little different. You are now removing blocks based on the numbers and you can only have a single number per row. You know there are multiple sets of blocks in a row if that number is circled or boxed. Solving the puzzles is a matter of meticulously slicing through the object and working on each layer one at a time. It’s very zen and, for the most part, offers just enough challenge so that I was never frustrated but always having to think. It’s not until the hard levels 9 and 10 that things start to get real difficult. Even still, the difficulty there is simply completing the puzzle within the time limit.

As you break through the blocks a 3D shape starts to emerge. This is the closest to chiseling a sculpture that you will ever experience in a video game (well, not including Minecraft). Successfully completing a shape triggers a short, humorous animation and puts the object into a category like “Fun in the Sun” or “Ever Stronger.” If I had one complaint it’s that, having finished the game with 100% perfect ratings, there wasn’t much fanfare and game’s end. I need mindless digital rewards for my time-wasting efforts!

Giana Sisters DS on Nintendo DS (8/10)

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Giana Sisters is a reworking of an old Commodore 64 game that itself was a note-for-note ripoff of Super Mario Bros. This new version has updated graphics and sound and around eighty new levels to explore. As far as platformers go, this is as about as derivative as you can get, and yet, the solid controls and cutesy graphics make this one worth playing. There is a very gentle difficulty curve, and it isn’t until about two-thirds the way through the game that things finally start to ramp up and get tricky. If you manage to beat the game you are rewarded with a final challenge level that is actually the original version’s entire set of levels all linked together as a single challenge level. I had a lot of fun with this one and am looking forward to taking on the new incarnation of the series, Twisted Dreams.

Chrono Trigger on Nintendo DS (8/10)

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It took about a year of on-again / off-again playing, but I finally made it through this DS remake of Chrono Trigger. Unlike Final Fantasy III on the DS, this is more of a straight up port of the game rather than a 3D re-imagining. Also unlike Final Fantasy III this game isn’t a dismal, frustrating bore with random battles and the other annoying trappings of Japanese RPG games. With its quasi real time battles, the combat is much more fluid, fast and fun. The story is as convoluted as any JRPG but the time travel aspects at least keep it more interesting than your typical “there are monsters everywhere because of a big bad wizard” plot (unfortunately, there are still plenty of unnecessary “…” dialogue boxes to click through). I still prefer western style role-playing games like Fallout and Mass Effect to this, but I think I am no longer completely JRPG adverse. I am actually tempted to buy Phantasy Star IV on the Wii Virtual Console next.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars on Nintendo DS (9/10)

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Chinatown Wars

Aside from the hour or two of GTA 2 that I played on the PC years ago, this was my first Grand Theft Auto game. I don’t find that whole gangsta thing terribly appealing. However, mature rated games are very hard to come by on the DS so I decided to try this out. Having finally completed the main storyline, I have to say this one of the best games on the DS by far. The world is massive, with tons of little nooks and crannies to explore and distract you from your main goal. There is just so much attention to detail here. Every corner offers some new sights and sounds. Liberty City feels alive within those tiny screens.

Even though at its core every mission is just about either driving or shooting, there is plenty of variety in things to do. I have finished the game and there is still tons to accomplish. My only gripes are with the mediocre story and dull, trying-too-hard-to-be-funny dialogue. Otherwise, I loved the psuedo 2-D perspective, the music / ambience, and all the crazy mini-games to accomplish basic tasks. Virtual scratch-off lottery tickets? Awesome!