[Continuing Gamasutra's 2009 retrospective, Brandon Sheffield reveals Gamasutraís top 5 handheld games of 2009. Previously: Top 5 Biz Trends, Top 5 iPhone games, Top 5 Controversies, Top 5 PC games.]
This was an interesting year for handheld games, maybe even more for hardware than for software. Two new console iterations were released Ė- the DSi and the PSP Go, from Nintendo and Sony respectively -- and Nintendo announced a third DS model, the larger-screened DSi LL.
On the software end, despite many strong releases it was hardly a banner year. The luster of the new consoles has worn off, and developers are settling into their niches.
Itís at times like these when the more dedicated or core-oriented titles rise to the fore, and by and large, thatís what we celebrate here in our top 5 handheld games (which for our purposes does not include iPhone games, discussed in a separate Top 5).
Here are Brandon's picks for the top five handheld games of the year:
5. Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! What Did I Do To Deserve This? (Acquire/Nippon Ichi, PSP)
Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! is a weird little game. It turns the classic RPG model on its head, and makes you the lord of the underworld. You create a dungeonous path through which heroes will venture, trying to capture your demonic Boss Character and drag him back to the surface.
To stop him, you essentially manage a delicate ecosystem, created through your digging. Lower level monsters spread nutrients through the dungeon, growing larger monsters, who in turn consume the lower level monsters. Itís almost Sim Ant RPG, and the chunky graphics, irreverent humor, and thwarting of would-be heroes is an addictive and maddening construct.
The game, directed by Samurai Western stalwart Haruyuki Ohashi, was available on a download-only basis in North America, making it a good PSP Go candidate if ever there were one. This genre-spinning title makes it on our list for its weird premise, solid execution, and for flying in the face of convention.
4. Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure (EA Tiburon, Nintendo DS)
Henry Hatsworth represents the efforts of an indie sensibility (Kyle Gray of Experimental Gameplay Project fame) in a corporate world (EA Tiburon), and for that alone it should get some applause. The game is decidedly oldschool, and makes clever use of both screens in a frenetic action/puzzle hybrid.
Players control the mustachioed explorer Hatsworth on the top screen, in classic action-platforming fashion, while defeated enemies appear on the bottom screen in the ďpuzzle world,Ē threatening to bleed back into the top screen to take revenge. Player switched between the action-platforming world and the puzzle world in a constant tug-of-rope of enemy elimination and stage progression.
The 2D graphics were detailed and sublime (thanks Jay Epperson), the humor was irreverent, and the excellent music by Gene M. Rozenberg and Peter Lehman et al is still available for free download via the Hatsworth site. It was too hard, and nobody really bought it, but that doesnít stop it from being one of the best!
3. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (Rockstar Leeds/Rockstar North, Nintendo DS/PSP)
Chinatown Wars shows that Western developers can take the handheld market seriously. As the DS and PSP have aged, it feels as though many developers have skewed their efforts to the younger set. Rockstar Leeds has taken it the other way, making a very large, very well put together game for older audiences.
Though sales havenít matched the blockbuster status of GTA on consoles, the game received near-universal critical acclaim for returning the series to its top-down roots, and bringing a new, core experience to the PSP and DS.
On the PSP, the game is accompanied by a huge score of over 200 songs, including, surprisingly, traditional Chinese music alongside the usual hip-hop fare. The chunky 3D graphics (led by art director Ian Bowden) are appealing and scaled properly for the console, and for the GTA fan, thereís lots to like here. Itís as though Rockstar Leeds took the innovations of the III-and-up GTAs and squeezed them into an oldschool top-down package, bringing together the best of both worlds.
That fans didnít support the game as much as they might have is distressing, but that does no damage to the quality of the game itself, which is well-deserving of a place on our list.
2. Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes (Capy Games, Nintendo DS)
You might not have heard of this one yet, but for my money, itís the best DS game this year. The game fits into the Might and Magic universe, but really goes off in its own direction. The art style, driven by art director Nathan Vella, is pixel-based and very nice looking, straddling the line between Japanese and European pixel art styles, with elves, demons, and knights aplenty. But the real attraction is the battle system, devised by creative director Kris Piotrowski.
Players move their characters across a map grid ala Puzzle Quest et al, and battles are fought in traditional puzzle-style wells. Friendly units drop on the bottom screen, enemies on the top. You arrange your units into vertical formations for attacks, horizontal for defensive walls. The game gets a bit more complex than that, with larger units requiring more supports, but thatís the base of it Ė your units must fight through the enemy ranks to get at the opposing player at the other end of the screen.
Clash of Heroes switches it up by taking you through multiple characters, each with different native powers and units, including devastating attacks unique to each, while also giving you game-changing items to collect and the occasional gameplay switch (such as hitting buttons on the opposite screen in certain orders, escort missions, etc). This is Capy Gamesí first boxed product, my personal favorite handheld game this year, and number two on our list.
1. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor (Atlus, Nintendo DS)
This was only a Shin Megami Tensei game in the U.S., but fans flocked to it nonetheless. The game had an interesting premise Ė the main downtown areas of Tokyo have been sealed off, and within 7 days, everyone inside the sealed area will die. Itís up to you, and your devil-summoning pals, to survive the incident in this branching-path, non-linear storyline.
Though the art was by Atlusí second-tier team (with less Kazuma Kaneko and more Suzuhito Yasuda), and the music was lackluster, the tactics-meets-dragonquest battle interface felt fresh (thanks to designer Shinjiro Takada), and the story kept users engaged. Like Persona 4 before it, the game set message boards ablaze with strategies, tactics/story comparisons, and general JRPG love.
Atlus has continued to prove that itís one of the only companies trying to push the JRPG genre forward, and is doing so much to the delight and expansion of nascent Western audiences. SMT: Devil Survivor was one of the best, most complex, and most interesting core experiences on the DS, and for that it makes our number one.
Scribblenauts (5th Cell, Nintendo DS) Ė The truest sandbox game on handhelds.
Crimson Gem Saga (IRONNOS Software, PSP) Ė Very nice high res 2D RPG.
Half-Minute Hero (Marvelous Entertainment, PSP) Ė Very nice low res 2D RPG.
Peggle Dual Shot (PopCap Games, Nintendo DS) Ė Horrifyingly addictive game that should not be allowed near anyone. Not on the main list only because itís largely a port.
Monster Hunter Freedom Unite (Capcom, PSP) Ė Millions of Japanese fans canít be wrong!
Little Big Planet PSP (Media Molecule/SCE Studios Cambridge, PSP) - Itís LBP on the PSP, innit?
Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (Level 5, Nintendo DS) - Puzzles ní such. Diabolical indeed.
Rhythm Heaven (Nintendo, Nintendo DS) Ė Push the buttons, get de riddims.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (Nintendo, Nintendo DS) Ė Good game, but iterative.