Though analysts and mobile gaming advocates will have you believe that everyone's abandoning the Nintendo DS and PSP, that gossip thankfully did little to distract handheld studios from continuing to craft compelling games in 2010.
During a year when many seemed content to spend their portable gaming time with ill-tempered birds and other iOS apps designed for quick entertainment, masterful developers like Kojima Productions and Level-5 forged experiences that immersed players, pulling them in with rich stories, rewarding mechanics, and clever surprises.
Along with its usual collection of quirky titles, the Nintendo DS was impossible to ignore in 2010 for fans of Japanese RPGs, what with a year full of titles like Infinite Space, Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, Etrian Odyssey III, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, and many others.
And PSP owners enjoyed a wealth of top-notch handheld adaptations for home console franchises (e.g. God Of War: Ghost Of Sparta), not to mention an assembly of strange but endearing niche releases like Patchwork Heroes, Invizimals, and Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman.
Here are our picks for the top five handheld games of this year (stay tuned for a separate summary of 2010's best mobile titles):
5. WarioWare D.I.Y. (Intelligent Systems) [Nintendo DS]
Years ago, Game Boy creator Gunpei Yokoi dropped some knowledge on a young Yoshio Sakamoto, explaining to the future Metroid director and WarioWare producer, "If you can make pixel art, you can make a game."
This sixth release in Nintendo's madcap microgame series recalls those wise words and keeps the WarioWare formula fresh by offering approachable tools for players to develop and share miniature games with their own pixel art, music, and offbeat ideas.
WarioWare D.I.Y.'s simplicity and whimsy encourages players to create all kinds of microgames -- condensed remakes of classic titles like Karateka, commentaries on real-life topics like emigrating to the U.S., and video game snapshots that capture a part of players' lives in an interactive experience.
4. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Portable (Atlus) [PSP]
Atlus likely could have appeased fans with a straight port of 2007's Persona 3, the PS2 RPG praised for its Social Links (NPC friendships that advance character stories and unlock Personas) and dark themes, but the developer packed in more than enough new content to attract both first-time and veteran players to this PSP version.
Along with its new difficulty options, battle system changes inspired by Persona 4, full party control, streamlined overworld interface, and other additions, Persona 3 Portable introduces a female protagonist that brings with her new Social Links, music, and more.
Even in its second re-release (2008's Persona 3 FES being the first), the RPG's dungeon crawling, Social Links, and coming-of-age tale are just as enthralling, and the ability to play it on the go and experience the story from a new perspective make this an essential title for any fan of offbeat RPGs.
3. 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (Chunsoft) [Nintendo DS]
Chunsoft, whose catalog of celebrated "sound novels" includes 428, Machi, and other titles ignored by U.S. publishers, somehow managed to bring 999 to the States via Aksys and release one of 2010's most underappreciated gems on any console last month.
In this anxiety-filled M-rated DS game, players find themselves kidnapped and trapped on a sinking ocean liner, forced to work with eight other similarly unfortunate characters to survive deadly puzzles set by a mysterious villain named Zero. Each participant of the "Nonary Game" has a bomb attached to them that will blow up if any of Zero's rules are disobeyed.
999's Choose Your Own Adventure-style story progression might seem simple at first, but players soon discover their decisions determine whether they (and their companions) live or die. It's a gripping adventure that gamers will need to play several times over to learn the relationships between all the characters and unravel the mystery of Zero's Nonary Game.
2. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (Kojima Productions) [PSP]
Undoubtedly one of the finest titles shipped for PSP, Peace Walker delivers a beautifully illustrated story (stylish animated cutscenes by noted artist Ashley Wood) and tense stealth-action gameplay that have no trouble comparing against the series' best home console releases.
Its bite-sized missions are already a joy to sneak through by themselves, but the ability to capture and recruit hundreds of enemies, assimilating them into Naked Snake's own armies to unlock new weapons and equipment among other benefits, adds an addictive, almost Pokemon-esque side-objective to the assignments.
The ad-hoc multiplayer integration, which allows gamers to run through the main campaign and extra missions with up to three friends, merits praise for not only allowing two players to sneak around in the same cardboard box but for also offering new co-op strategies and previously inaccessible areas to explore. It has co-op Monster Hunter missions, too!
1. Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (Level-5) [Nintendo DS]
It is so easy for even a "casual" gamer to find they've lost over a hundred hours to Dragon Quest IX. Between the game's job/class system, alchemy recipes, treasure map dungeons, and many quests (a good portion downloadable), it's not unusual for players to sink 200+ hours when delving into the RPG's post-game content.
Dragon Quest IX's world is one many won't mind investing so much time in, as it's filled with peculiar characters, adorable enemies (Teeny Sanguini!), and bittersweet encounters. The beautifully written story campaign presents a diverse set of adventures that has gamers searching for a pet lizard, acting as an undercover private school detective, and just helping every troubled soul they can find.
And one of the game's neatest social features, in addition to the local co-op multiplayer supported by the main campaign, is the "Tag Mode" ability for passively trading randomly generated treasure maps with other nearby Dragon Quest IX owners -- something players might not get to try out too often but is absolutely delightful at gamer gatherings.
Dragon Quest IX does so many things right, one easily forgets that its turn-based combat system is essentially the same basic setup from the original Dragon Warrior from 20+ years ago.
God Of War: Ghost Of Sparta (Ready at Dawn Studios, SCE Santa Monica Studio)
Picross 3D (HAL Laboratory)
Patchwork Heroes (Acquire)
Shantae: Risky's Revenge (WayForward Technologies)
Valkyria Chronicles II (Sega)
Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City (Atlus)
Cave Story DSiWare (Studio Pixel, Nicalis)
Glow Artisan (Powerhead Games)
Ys: The Oath In Felghana (Nihon Falcom Corporation)
Super Scribblenauts (5th Cell)