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2009: Glory to handheld gaming


This generation has seen the rise of the portable gaming in a grand way. Games so robust, so imaginative, so endearing that they rival the greatest of their home console brethren. The landscape is so rich that you can devote yourself to handheld gaming full-time and never be lacking in content. And yet, the end of the year rolls on and suddenly everyone has Alzheimer's.

It never fails. Is handheld gaming not real gaming? Is the hardware too weak to provide any substantial sustenance? That's what it seems like because it's rare for any site or magazine show real consideration for the great handheld games of the year. It's more than just a gnawing disappointment over some of my favorite games getting the shaft. No, it's the complete dismissal of a massive chunk of the software pie.

Oh, sure. They might get some mention if there is a handheld category, but other than that? "Game of the Year" nods? Don't hold your breath. Even in Destructoid's ten games that didn't make the final cut, the only portable game to appear is Half-Minute Hero. That's fine and all, but are you guys sure there wasn't another title or two you could have added as well?

Let me remind you just how awesome handheld gaming was in 2009.

DISCLAIMER: I do not own a PSP so no PSP-exclusive games appear on this list. That's not to say I don't think there were solid PSP games available this year but simply that I cannot personally vouch for their quality. Ironic that I would write about slighted handheld games and then not mention the PSP, but what can I do, honestly?

Retro Game Challenge (February 10, 2009)

Inspired by the awesome GameCenter CX Japanese television program, Retro Game Challenge was a celebration of the 8-bit era of our childhood. It was a compilation of several original games that paid homage to many NES and arcade classics like Space Invaders, Dragon Quest, and Ninja Gaiden. In-game magazines provided tips for getting high scores or skipping levels and clued us in to the "latest" software down the pipeline.

Playing this was like warping back in time and reliving the simple pleasures and discoveries of our youth. Other throwback games try to recapture the style of old-school gaming, but Retro Game Challenge recaptured the very culture and language. It reminded us of those days reading Nintendo Power with your best buds just behind the jungle gym, sharing rumors that we heard from that guy whose brother's friend's cousin scored "insider" info.

It's a shame no one bought the damn thing and now XSEED won't localize the sequel.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (March 17, 2009)

Rockstar promised a unique and full-featured entry in the GTA franchise for the Nintendo DS and that's what we received. It wasn't just a good DS game, it was also a bang-up GTA title, succeeding in areas where even 2008's Grand Theft Auto IV did not. With all the accolades it earned, it became the highest-rated DS game ever, proving naysayers wrong and filling a gap in the DS library that had been left wide open.

Why have people forgotten Chinatown Wars? Because it didn't sell five million copies out the gate. Some would claim that it's because the DS has no adult market, but I'm pretty sure it's because the return to the overheard perspective of the pre-Grand Theft Auto III iterations turned off a lot of folks. If the poor sales of the PSP port and Episodes from Liberty City are any indication, perhaps gamers are getting bored with the franchise.

At least Wired gave the game its due.

Rhythm Heaven (April 5, 2009)

Niero and the rest of the Dtoid crew have sung the praises of the Japan-only Rhythm Tengoku on numerous occasions. When the sequel Rhythm Tengoku Gold was announced for Western release, the crew hyped it as the best thing since curly fries. It arrived... and it was the best thing since curly fries!

Rhythm Heaven was a game basic in premise but infinitely charming and stylish. Just tap and flick the DS screen in time with the music. Sounds simple, right? The game was so mesmerizing and the music so infectious that you can't help but keep playing. With its microgame structure, the urge to play just one more song was too hard to shake.

And wouldn't you know it, Wired came through once again!

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (August 24, 2009)

I've really got to hand it to Chris Kohler. He truly appreciates the value in handheld gaming. He even awarded Professor Layton and the Curious Village as one of the great new titles of 2008.

Curious Village essentially took the brain teasers from Highlights magazine and wrapped them in a narrative featuring a suave English gentleman and his eager young assistant. It shouldn't have worked but it did oh so well! The sequel Diabolical Box arrived and gamers were treated to more of the same, but when "the same" means more puzzles and more beautiful hand-drawn cutscenes, is that really a problem?

Japan is already on the fourth iteration with a fifth on the way on top of a recently released animated film. The rest of the world needs to catch up!

Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (September 14, 2009)

Of all the games on this list, Bowser's Inside Story may be the most deserving of a "Game of the Year" acknowledgement. It was universally regarded as one of the best games to grace the DS, mesmerizing gamers with its humor and spectacular writing while washing away the taste of its less-than- superlative predecessor Partners in Time.

The premise of the Mario brothers getting trapped in Bowser's belly opened up a bevy of creative scenarios. Need to give Bowser a boost of strength? Massage his muscles with a Mario tag team attack! Need the brothers to ascend to an unreachable height? Have Bowser drink some water to flood his stomach and allow the brothers to swim to their destination!

The most remarkable thing about this game is how much it differs from the other high-profile Mario game this year, New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Such two disparate experiences that are spectacular in their own way prove that Mario will never go out of style.

Scribblenauts (September 15, 2009)

Scribblenauts became a victim of its own hype, but the fact that it garnered so much hype to begin with is a testament to its jaw-dropping innovation. When this game was demonstrated at E3 2009, many outlets called it their "Game of the Show." Considering the competition in Uncharted 2, Mass Effect 2, and others, that's quite an accomplishment.

The premise was simple -- solve puzzles by using any object you could possibly imagine. Once written, the object would materialize and more or less function as you'd expect. With a dictionary consisting of thousands upon thousands of items, each level could be approached in an infinite number of ways. If everything had come together, it could have been one of the greatest games ever made.

But reality struck. Controls were fiddly and there was no incentive other than self-satisfaction to solve puzzles in anything than the most straightforward manner. Nonetheless, Scribblenauts deserves enormous praise for attempting to do what had never been done. If a sequel gets made, I have no doubt that it will meet every expectation that we had for the original.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (December 7, 2009)

How you considered Spirit Tracks relied every bit on how well you enjoyed Phantom Hourglass. Did you like the total stylus controls? Did you enjoy charting a course on the overworld? Were you comfortable with the central dungeon mechanic? If not, you might have approached Spirit Tracks with a bit of apprehension. Though these elements remain, the tweaks made to the formula should be enough to deserve your attention.

With Zelda playing a more prominent role this time around, this might be one of the more unique entries the franchise has seen since Majora's Mask. Really, though, it's Zelda. What is there to say? Even at its lowest, Zelda games are amazing experiences and Spirit Tracks is no different. There is that sense of warm familiarity and curious exploration that keeps you coming back for more.

And many more...

These weren't the only notable releases this year. There were plenty of others worthy of your time and money.

The DQ remake train continued with Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride, and the Shin Megami Tensei series received another solid entry with Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor. Westerners were finally introduced to the beginnings of a long-lasting Nintendo franchise with Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, Pokémon Platinum reminded us that we will never escape the little devils, and we got to peek a little deeper into Organization XIII with Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days.

Of a more arcade-y nature, DS owners were gifted the addictive Peggle: Dual Shot, the colorful Big Bang Mini, and the pulse-pounding Space Invaders Extreme 2. We were also surprised by Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure, the action-platformer/puzzler that came out of nowhere to drop classic side-scrolling challenge on our doorstep.

The DSi was released and with it came the DSiWare store. Though pickings on the service have been slim, we were still treated to such gems as the Art Style series and WayForward's clever Mighty Flip Champs. The real winner here is Flipnote Studio in which you can create your own animated short and upload it for all to see. And the best part? It's absolutely free to download!

I could keep going, but I think it's clear that handheld gaming stood tall in 2009. It's a shame that portable games never seem to register much of an impact on gamers and gaming sites for them to favor them above the home console fare. But you and I know what's up, right?

Wink, wink.
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About Tony Ponceone of us since 12:40 AM on 09.09.2007

(Decommissioned) Super Fighting Robot