No genre has flourished more on the Nintendo DS than the RPG. Turn-based, strategy, action…they’re all represented. With the DS’ lifespan coming to a close, I figured it was time to appreciate some of the best role playing experiences the system has to offer. Here, in no particular order, is a list of what I consider to be the best Nintendo DS RPGs.
It’s worth noting that I purposely left rereleases (such as Chrono Trigger, the updated Final Fantasy games, etc) off this list because I felt they didn’t belong. Onward!
Dragon Quest IX
Dragon Quest IX is an odd beast…I had long ago given up on RPGs that required you to grind to get ahead, but for some reason IX’s addictive hooks got me. It also has a robust multiplayer component…while this one can certainly be enjoyed solo, going through it with some friends greatly increases the enjoyment you’ll get out of it. I’m not sure if it’s because of the way you have to level (and re-level) each class for your characters, or because of the art direction, or because of the multiplayer component, or anything else you can think of, but the bottom line is that Dragon Quest IX is addictive as hell, and well worth the obscene number of hours you’ll inevitably sink into it.
Sands of Destruction
Sands of Destruction stands out in the DS RPG arena primarily due to its use of sprites instead of 3D characters. Featuring an all-star development team that included people from Xenogears, Grandia, and Etrian Odyssey, this one really surprised me. Like many other RPGs on the DS, this one will take you longer than just a weekend to go through; it’s a full-length, full-blown RPG. It’s odd that it hasn’t gotten more attention outside of the RPG circle, considering how accessible it is…its lack of grinding, great characters, and decent plot defy its relatively meager fan base. You can check out our full review of Sands of Destruction right here.
Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks
Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks are considered by many Zelda fans to be among the “not-so-great” entries in the series, which I completely understand. Traversing over old ground, being stuck with stylus control, and the lack of exploration in Spirit Tracks are all legit criticisms. Still, the cartoony presentation, the dry humor, the dungeon layouts…it all adds up to a fun experience, once you look past the stylus-only input. They’re both entirely different from anything else in the series, and definitely deserve your attention. You can read our review of Spirit Tracks here.
When I first heard about Infinite Space, I was stoked. You get to design your own ship, AND fly through a bunch of different systems, AND fight against pirates, AND fight corrupt government officials? Hell yes, bring that on! The game ended up being a bit of a disappointment in the story department, but the gameplay and customization aspects are addictive. Also, while the battle system is easy to learn, mastering it does take some practice. Don’t get discouraged with your first few battles, as the interface can be a little weird at first. Managing to be simplistic yet tactical, this is one of those games that can make an entire afternoon disappear as if it were mere minutes. Check out our review here.
Etrian Odyssey series
When I was younger, I played a lot of first person dungeon crawlers with my brother. One of us would man the controls, while the other would make maps so we wouldn’t get lost. Bringing back those nostalgic map-making sessions is the Etrian Odyssey series, a trio of games that are unapologetically difficult, devastatingly beautiful, and perfectly addictive. In fact, some would argue the map making portion of the games are the best parts! It would be nice if there was a bit more of an established storyline, but if you have fond memories of keeping track of your adventures yourself, this is one series you can’t miss. You can read our review of the first entry here.
If you grew up with RPGs in the 8-bit and 16-bit era (ESPECIALLY the 16-bit era), Nostalgia is the game for you. Just as the title implies, this game is all about throwbacks to a bygone, pixelated era. Everything is here: dungeons, airships, cheesy adversaries, grinding, and even a villain who threatens the very destruction of the entire world. References to the Dragon Quest series, Final Fantasy series, and pretty much any other old-school RPG you can think of make their appearance. Unfortunately, Nostalgia fell into the typical DS RPG trap of being presented in 3D rather than with sprites, but this is still one you can’t miss. Check out our review.
The Dark Spire
Even more so than the Etrian Odyssey series, The Dark Spire is the very definition of first-person dungeon crawling. No explanations, very little money, very high difficulty, and a very low chance of success. This is one of those games that punishes you over and over again, and just when you think it’s beat you up in every way imaginable, it kicks you in places you didn’t even know you had. Much like the first-person dungeon crawlers from the early-80s, this one is definitely not for the faint of heart (or the easily frustrated.) I’m completely serious…if you don’t like your games to be three levels above “insanely hard”, you shouldn’t even bother with this one. You can find our mini-review here.
Summon Night: Twin Age
This one is fairly unique, with an interface that could actually be translated to a touchscreen phone without difficulty. Frequently compared to Diablo and Secret of Mana, Summon Night will suck you into its world with its oddly addicting gameplay. I say oddly addicting because the whole time I was going through it, I kept telling myself that I didn’t really dig it all that much…yet I couldn’t stop until I finished it! The story, while a bit hamfisted, is still interesting enough to keep you going (even though it isn’t all that original.) You can finish this over a long weekend, so its a good choice for those times when you’re in between titles.
The strongest part of the non-Sony (and non-console) debut of Suikoden is the storyline. From very early on, it pulls you in, beckoning you with its mysteries and teasing you with minute scraps of information. The gameplay is standard fare for the genre, the character design is nothing special, and the enemies are a bit boring, but the story is absolutely fantastic. The difficulty is a bit uneven at times, but you should be able to get through without too much trouble. Aside from the story, the character interaction is definitely a high point; by the time the end credits roll, you’ll feel like you really know the various people you’ve encountered. Be warned: the English voiceover work is absolutely ATROCIOUS in this game. If you have the means of finding the “undub” version (i.e. the American version with the Japanese audio), I highly recommend you jump all over it.
While there are a lot of RPGs that didn’t make this list (Mario & Luigi, Final Fantasy Tactics A2, Soma Bringer, etc), it’s indicative of the titles I enjoyed the most. What Nintendo DS RPGs do you love?
EDIT: I’ve been told by Reddit that it’s a travesty Strange Journey, Devil Survivor, Rondo of Swords, and Radiant Historia aren’t on the list. I haven’t played any of those titles, but after looking at some screenshots and skimming some reviews, I’m DEFINITELY going to be picking them up. Thanks, RanRanRuu!
EDIT 2: I just recently started playing through Radiant Historia…holy. carp. This very well may be one of the best RPGs I’ve EVER played on ANY system. I dare say that it may be worth picking up a Nintendo DS specifically for this game. You can read my quick note about the music right here. Make sure you play this one!