The DS is well-known for its unusual design features, the two-screen format and the touch screen. Many of the DS's most popular games make good use of these features, and there are many outstanding games, like Meteos, that make strong enough use of them that they could fairly be said to depend on these features. There wouldn't be too much to Brain Age without the handwriting input, and it is hard to imagine Elite Beat Agents existing at all without either the unique interface or the simultaneous cutscene/gameplay presentation.
But for as much attention as the DS gets for its unique features, many of its best games use them in only the most cursory of ways. Some of the best-reviewed, most popular DS games have only optional touch-screen use, or some function that is nonessential to gameplay. Some games squander their second screen on inventories and maps. Many such games not only could have worked just as well on other systems, they are from long-standing series that worked just fine back in the dark ages when game systems only had a single screen and controls were mapped only to buttons.
The games on this list are the highest-ranked games according to Metacritic that fall under the category of "traditional" games. In fact, the top four DS games according to Metacritic are all traditional. Each game on this list is an excellent DS game that is excellent independent of the DS' inherent advantages.
1. Mario Kart DS (Metacritic rank: 1)
The Mario Kart formula hasn't changed since the beginning of the series: Mario universe characters race in adorably tiny little cars, and throw stuff at each other. And they haven't needed to change. Mario Kart games are always well-received, always popular, and always staples of the multiplayer Nintendo experience. The DS version controls just like its predecessors: with the D-pad and buttons, to great effect. The bottom screen shows a map of the track-- map screens, of course, are the second-screen display for games that don't need the second screen. The DS version brought the welcome addition of online play, but internet connectivity is hardly unique to the DS.
2. Advance Wars: Dual Strike (Metacritic rank: 2)
Like the other games on the list, Advance Wars comes from a line of games that dates back to the NES (or, more accurately, the Famicom: the series is called Famicom Wars in Japan.) Predictably, for the series to have made it into the 21st century, previous incarnations must have been okay without touch screens. And they were! When the strategy series finally made it outside Japan in its Game Boy Advance form (hence the "Advance Wars" title) it became a hit in Western territories. Advance Wars: Dual Strike's optional stylus controls are just that-- optional, and dispreferred to the traditional button/D-pad interface. The character portraits on the second screen might add to the experience for some players, and the unit information is somewhat useful, but these features aren't essential to gameplay.
3. Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (Metacritic rank: 3)
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow benefits more than most of the other games from the DS's dual screens, but even so, the second screen is almost completely unnecessary. Map screens have been included in Castlevania since the very beginning; constantly-updated automaps have been a part of the game since the series went free-roaming in Symphony of the Night. The DS version allows you to have a constant view of the map screen, which is nice. It doesn't change the nature of the game at all, and it hardly means that the game is better on DS than it would have been on any other system. The touch screen implementation in this game is somewhere between "token" and "annoying", breaking the flow of boss battles and forcing you to draw shapes on the screen correctly to kill bosses. We're glad Konami didn't try to make Dawn of Sorrow more "innovative."
4. New Super Mario Bros. (Metacritic rank: 4)
New Super Mario Bros. is about as traditional as a game can get. It draws directly from the original Super Mario Bros., the game from which many design traditions originated. There's nothing more complicated here than there was in the Super NES Super Mario World. Mario runs, jumps, breaks blocks, collects powerups, and shoots fireballs just like he has for the last twenty years. And as such, NSMB would have been equally brilliant on any system of the last twenty years. All of the brilliance of NSMB is in the level design anyway! The bottom screen is kind of a joke-- do we really need a progress bar for Mario levels? The touch screen is only used to select reserve items, which was controlled by the Select button in Super Mario World, and works about as well in either case.
5. Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time (Metacritic rank: 9)
Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time is a confluence of classic game influences: it's a platforming RPG set in the venerated Mario universe. RPG's as a genre are generally not innovative in terms of control schemes: any method of input will allow for choosing from menus. Mario & Luigi: PiT uses some good old-fashioned platforming in its interface, which makes it somewhat more control-intensive than your average Dragon Quest, but still something that has been proven to work on the NES pad many times. Furthermore, this specific series has been proven to be great on the Game Boy Advance, which was both screen- and touch!-deficient.
The common thread for all these games is that they are from series with origins on previous systems. These were games that were designed for the DS not because of the interesting design properties of the DS, but because of the system's interesting sales properties. All of them are sequels to series with entries on the GBA. It's ironic that so many of the best games on a system well-known for creating entire new genres and gamers are traditional games that appeal to the DS audience not because of their novelty, but because of their undeniable quality.
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