Considering how ubiquitous and iconic the Game Boy had become over its roughly 15-year reign over the handheld gaming scene, the pressure was on Nintendo when it came time to launch a successor. How did Nintendo respond to that pressure? By following up the Game Boy with a family of handhelds that was even more successful, naturally. The Nintendo DS, with its novel dual-screen design, touchscreen controls, and N64-quality 3D visuals, burst onto the scene in 2004. It didn’t take too long for the unique new clamshell handheld to garner a legion of fans, in large part due to a seriously impressive library. We’ve rounded up the best Nintendo DS games of all time–a list of 25 titles in alphabetical order.
Longtime Game Boy fans were perhaps a bit skeptical of the Nintendo DS at first, and we’re sure that the handheld’s backward-compatibility with GBA games helped to convert hesitant buyers. But thanks to a steady stream of great games and multiple clever revisions to the hardware–DS Lite, DSi, and DSi XL–the Nintendo DS had a remarkable six-plus-year run. Games that took advantage of its touchscreen and microphone were capable of creating unique gaming experiences, the first-party line-up was a showcase of imagination, and later models of the console streamlined the design to make the DS a pocket-friendly entertainment device to carry around town in your pocket.
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It’s worth noting that the Nintendo DS family became the bestselling line of handhelds of all time, and it accomplished this while fighting off an impressive attempt by Sony’s PSP to burst the the bubble that was Nintendo handheld dominance. Thousands of games were published on the DS, but out of all of them, we’ve rounded up 25 of the best that deserve to be in any Nintendo hall of fame thanks to the imaginative design and gripping gameplay that they brought to the table.
999: Nine Hours, Nine Person’s, Nine Doors
One of the greatest strengths of the DS was the flexibility of the handheld console, especially when it came to telling stories. Games like Hotel Dusk: Room 215–which can be found on this list, fret not–were a terrific example of visual novels finding a home here, but Chunsoft’s 999 was a masterclass in intensity and gripping suspense. SAW meets Death on the Nile, 999’s focus on escaping a dangerous cruise liner, interacting with other victims, and more plot twists than an Alfred Hitchock Blu-ray collection would keep you on edge until you got to one of its multiple endings.
Read our 999: Nine Hours, Person’s, Nine Doors review.
Advance Wars: Dual Strike
Nintendo and developer Intelligent Systems had already proven that the strategy genre could work on handheld with tweo Advance Wars titles for Game Boy Advance, but the series hit a high point when it made a splash on the Nintendo DS. The bottom touch screen of that handheld was perfect for this new take on mobile strategy, while the ability to dual-wield commanding officers on the battlefield, an expanded number of unit types to command, and the return of fan-favorite modes made this chapter in the Advance Wars series a tactical treat.
Read our Advance Wars: Dual Strike review.
Animal Crossing: Wild World
Animal Crossing may have gotten its start on the GameCube (in North America), but the first handheld entry in the series was a highlight reel of everything that made the original work and improved on it. Running your own village and customizing your character were still the primary driver here, but the introduction of online components that made the visit to neighboring villages proved that Animal Crossing was the perfect game for a market of simulation fans that enjoyed mobile gaming. Wild World was the type of game that compelled you to turn on your DS at least once per day.
Read our Animal Crossing: Wild World review.
Castlevania: Dawn Of Sorrow
You can’t go wrong with any of the Castlevania games on DS, but Dawn of Sorrow is easily the series at its very best on that handheld. It masterfully nailed the balance of what made a Metroidvania great, the return of the Tactical Soul System gave players an arsenal of strategic options, and the use of the touchscreen to finish off bosses w
ith arcane seals was a great idea that was only possible on the DS. Mechanically brilliant, Dawn of Sorrow also looked fantastic and held nothing back with it gruesome boss fights, while the soundtrack was a collection of certified bangers that helped make the game a legendary chapter in the vampire-hunting series.
Read our Castlevania: Dawn Of Sorrow review.
One of the best RPGs of the SNES era was reborn on the DS, revitalizing its stunning story, gripping gameplay, and catchy audio on the handheld. Not just a straight port either, Chrono Trigger contained a staggering amount of extras such as new dungeons to explore, an extra ending, and a treasure chest of bonus material to discover. Combined with the added horsepower of the DS, touchscreen controls, and a revamped user interface that made reading the game so much better, Chrono Trigger on DS was easily the definitive version of one of the greatest RPGs of all time.
Read our Chrono Trigger review.
Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride
Dragon Quest is one of the best RPG series ever, but it struggled to find an audience in the west. The DS certainly helped in this regard, and any newcomers to Dragon Quest who picked up this DS remake of a classic fantasy adventure quickly discovered that they had been missing out on some excellent gaming over the years. Not just an RPG that boasted exquisite design, innovative ideas, and an adventure with epic stakes, Dragon Quest V was an old-school epic that deserved to reach a wider audience.
Read our Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride review.
Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift
There’s something undeniably charming about Final Fantasy Tactics A2 on the DS, even if it was a bit of a rough diamond. Some elements may not have been executed perfectly, but when everything else worked, it worked. The tactical gameplay was rich and nuanced, the numerous diversions, characters, and jobs added layers of strategy to the game, and the revamped law system created a game that was paradoxically relaxing and challenging.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Another example of the DS being one of the most inventive handhelds for games, Ghost Trick put you in the spectral boots of Sissel, a ghostly gumshoe. Moving around a supernatural realm by manipulating the objects around him, the real hook here was Sissel’s ability to possess a corpse so that he could learn about how they’d become a member of the recently deceased club. The kicker here? Armed with that knowledge, Sissel had only a handful of minutes to reverse those deaths, traveling to the world of the living and altering key events that would rewrite history.
Read our Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective review.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
If you ever needed an example of how a Nintendo console could shake its perception as being a toy solely for kids, then Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was the game to have. Fueled by some impressive visuals on the handheld, Chinatown Wars was a tale of revenge, mayhem, and drug deals gone wrong on the family-friendly handheld, capped off by some great level design and use of the more innovative features of the DS. That added immersion, Rockstar polish, and solid gameplay made for one heck of a game to play, and an underrated gem in the GTA series.
Read our Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars review.
Elite Beat Agents
If you never played Elite Beat Agents, can you truly say that you’ve lived? Developer iNiS’s masterpiece of pop-tune powered crisis management is both stylish and captivating, utilizing drag and tap mechanics that were synchronized to the beat of music. Faced with mammoth problems such as unruly children or alien invasions, there was no problem that a trio of government agents couldn’t solve with their rhythmic skills, making each event a foot-tapping blast of fun. Elite Beat Agents remains one of the best rhythm games of all time.
Read our Elite Beat Agents review.
Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure
Pure class, sophistication, and a tasty cup of tea, Henry’s Hatsworth’s old school adventure felt like a quirky blend of ideas at the time. A combination of Mega Man influences and the tight platforming of Super Mario, this dressed-to-impress gentleman was first-class entertainment with its fast and frantic puzzle and platforming gameplay. If you could survive some of its more challenging levels, that is. Henry Hatsworth may not have the name recognition of some of the other games on this list, but it was a standout gem that still holds up remarkably well today.
Read our Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure review.
Hotel Dusk: Room 215
Taking the idea of a visual novel quite literally, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 required you to switch the DS to a vertical position so that you could play it properly. With that virtual book-like experience in hand, a stylus in your other appendage, and all eyes focused on the screens in front of you, what unfolded was a tense mystery that was held together by superb writing, intriguing characters, and an art style that amplified the brilliant pacing of this story. Developer Cing would also produce a similar game called Another Code: Two Memories, with both innovative titles becoming essential titles on the DS. Hotel Dusk didn’t find as big of an audience as it deserved, as its sequel Last Window: The Secret of Cape West only launched in Japan and Europe.
Read our Hotel Dusk: Room 215 review.
Kirby: Canvas Curse
Nintendo’s lovable pink puff bounced onto the DS with an
adventure that used the handheld’s hardware to weave a fascinating gameplay experience. Instead of directly controlling Kirby and his insatiable appetite, it’d be up to you to chart a path forward with the stylus, guiding Kirby with a finite amount of ink and walloping enemies along the way. Those elements combined to create a more mechanically inventive approach to the usual Kirby adventure, juggling both economical momentum with action-packed stylus-bashing on the touchscreen.
Read our Kirby: Canvas Curse review.
The Legend Of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass
Building on the vibrant cel-shaded style of The Wind Waker on GameCube, Zelda’s time on the DS consisted of two feature-rich titles and a trio of games starring that horrible merchant Tingle. Phantom Hourglass trumps Spirit Tracks on this list, thanks to more interesting touchscreen gameplay, better dungeons to explore, and an overworld that was breathtakingly vivid. While Phantom Hourglass isn’t really regarded as one of the best handheld entries in the iconic series, it was still a compelling adventure that stood out on the DS hardware.
Read our The Legend Of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass review.
Mario Kart DS
While its online mode may have been defined by circuits which emphasized using power slide boosts to weave your way through the grid, Mario Kart DS is still a thunderously good time featuring Nintendo heavyweights in adorable go-karts. It’s a game which arguably helped build a foundation for later and better releases, but back in 2005 this game was a tour de force of intense racing, strategic use of speed, and dreading your progress being derailed by a menacing Spiny Shell.
Read our Mario Kart DS review.
Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story
The Mario franchise on the DS is easily the series at its most experimental, especially with games like Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story paving the way for some truly outrageous ideas. Delving deep into the belly of the beast–quite literally!–the game’s colorful art direction, excellent audio design, and approachable gameplay made it an instant-hit. Check out the 3DS version if you can, for an even better version of an already great game.
Read our Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story review.
A unique and mesmerizing twist on the puzzle game formula, Meteos was simply out of this world when it arrived in 2005. Tasking you with defending dozens of alien planets from extinction-level meteors that were on a collision course, the challenge of juggling varied block styles and gravitational laws made for some scintillating gameplay. The peril wasn’t insurmountable though, and with a killer soundtrack powering the race against time, each level was pure fun on the run.
Read our Meteos review.
New Super Mario Bros.
It had been an absurd amount of time since Nintendo’s favorite plumbers had starred in a traditional 2D-esque platforming game, and New Super Mario Bros. proved that the classic formula was still well worth exploring. A love letter to the NES past of Super Mario Bros., this incarnation featured terrific level design, excellent pacing, and one of the best power-ups in the history of the series. After all, what’s better than chomping down on a mega mushroom, growing to kaiju size, and bulldozing your way through a stage as a titanic version of Mario?
Read our New Super Mario Bros. review.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trials and Tribulations
The DS console was a superb device for telling stories, but few people expected a packed courtroom to be the perfect vehicle for some of the most shocking and thrilling gameplay around when Phoenix Wright made his debut. With two games in the series already, the ace attorney was back for a third set of trials that blended the world of the supernatural with gritty legal action. The best game in the original trilogy–and one that you should really check out on Switch–Trials and Tribulations is both a fascinating story and a head-scratching collection of court cases that forces you to analyze every detail, no matter how small.
Read our Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trials and Tribulations review.
Pokemon Heartgold and Soulsilver
Remakes of the best Pokemon games, Gold and Silver, were always going to be a smash-hit, but Nintendo went the extra mile when it gave the classic pair of Johto-region games a DS makeover. Adding multiple quality-of-life features to a familiar journey, the adventure also saw a few innovative gameplay mechanics thrown into the mix, creating a comfortable blend of nostalgia, time-honored gameplay, and vibrant visuals. If you were lucky enough to grab this game when it released, you’d even get to play around with an adorable Pokewalker accessory that allowed you to take your favorite Pokemon outside with you.
Read our Pokemon Heartgold and Soulsilver review.
Professor Layton and the Unwound Future
Solving mysteries, wearing fancy hats, and having to deal with villages full of people pretending to be the Riddler made for a great formula in the Professor Layton series of games, with the third entry easily being the franchise at its very best. It may not have been as innovative as its predecessors, but The Unwound Future offered a riveting story, genuinely fun mini-games, and some stellar brain teasers. If you’ve never played the Professor Layton games, we’d recommend starting from the beginning, though.
Read our Professor Layton and the Unwound Future review.
Crawling into bed with a DS so that you could crawl into some dungeons was an underrated selling point of that console, especially with the number of high-q
uality RPGs on offer. Just look at Radiant Historia, an Atlus and Headlock-developed fantasy game from the shores of Japan that wove time travel, puzzle-influenced gameplay, and a strong roster of characters into an enchanting adventure. As beautiful as it is intelligent, Radiant Historia was clearly ahead of the RPG curve when it first launched in 2011, and it wasn’t long before it established a cult following on both DS and the incoming 3DS. To see the game at its updated best, check out the 2018 updated 3DS port Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology.
Read our Radiant Historia review.
A game that would have you tapping both your stylus and foot to the beat of the music being piped out from the DS speakers, Rhythm heaven was pure melodic joy. Packed with content, a bizarre sense of humor, and a less-is-more approach, it’s the kind of game that you’re happy to pick up for a few beats and can easily return to whenever the mood strikes. Even better, the Megamix edition on the 3DS is a highlight reel of percussive perfection, and is still well worth picking up for anyone who feels like strumming along to some of the catchiest tunes ever committed to a handheld console.
Read our Rhythm Heaven review.
Tetris is to gaming what fresh oxygen is to human lungs, an essential experience that makes life more interesting. And survivable. On the DS, the classic formula of dropping blocks and clearing lines was as strong as ever, but it was bolstered by some experimental modes and Nintendo-themed charm that made the puzzle game that much more captivating. Clearing challenges and taking part in a fantastic multiplayer mode all helped to introduce Tetris to a new generation of fans back in 2006.
Read our Tetris DS review.
The World Ends With You
Even though it was released in 2008, The World Ends With You is still easily one of the most stylish games that you can play today. That slick presentation, groundbreaking gameplay ideas, and a battle system that was truly ahead of its time may have felt too ambitious for the DS back then, but with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear to see that developer Jupiter Corporation was way ahead of the curve. An RPG dripping with style and attitude, this groundbreaking adventure is well worth playing today. Thankfully, you don’t have to hunt down the original. The World Ends with You: Final Remix is available on Nintendo Switch. After that, make sure to check out the 2021 follow-up NEO: The World Ends with You.
Read our The World Ends With You review.