Top 5 Handheld Games of 2009

Yes, it’s that time of the year when lists and awards are given out to the very best in every medium. We here at MMM are no exception. Handheld Gaming this year has taken some interesting shifts. New hardware was released, some successful (Nintendo DSi) and some…not (PSP Go). But the titles have come thick and fast and this list contains the best of the best.

NOTE: This list was made before having the chance to play Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, Jak and Daxter and other handheld titles that came out throughout the year so it may be different by the time I’ve played those games through.

Honorable Mentions:

Suikoden Tierkreis: This was a title that went under a lot of radars when it came out in the first quarter of 2009 and it’s a shame because, for being in the highly competitive Japanese RPG market on the DS, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I had. The combat is what you’d expect but very easy to get into, the story, when it picks up, is incredibly deep and it is one of the prettiest games on the handheld. The real weakness of the package is the voice acting which goes from alright to downright annoying and the characters can sometimes look like archtypes of JRPGs such as the kids who gain special powers to overcome their superiors and if it wasn’t for those factors, it would have easily Top 5’d this list.

Mario and Sonic at the Winter Olympic Games: I know, right? A port of a Wii console being in the honorable mentions list? What’s that about? Well, to put it simply, it’s a game that does DS controls right. It’s difficult at points but it does it in a way that keeps you wanting to achieve the goals. People have been saying it’s better than the Wii version and they are right as the charm that should have been on there is pretty much in here. And of course, there is the absolute charm of playing as Mario and Sonic in the very continuity confusing Adventure Mode which varies from ridiculous easy (hit someone once) to ridiculously hard (get to the end of the course with 5 coins when everything that hits you TAKES AWAY ALL YOUR COINS) but gives you a chance to complete these challenges at your own pace. The only reason it isn’t on the actual list is the fact that, at the end of the day, it’s a mini game collection and even with the amount of mascots in there, you’re much better off picking up Wario Ware Touched. Having said that, for a mini game collection, it’s one of the most enjoyable and probably the best of 2009.

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite: People would probably be insulted if I called this ‘Pokemon for grownups’ but in a nutshell, that’s what it is but at the same time, that’s what it isn’t. Monster Hunter was a game that was huge in Japan and quickly made waves in the UK helping rejuvenate interest in the PSP in 2009. If you’ve never played it, it’s a good place to jump on board and just go through it. You play a hunter (I know, surprising) who goes along hunting monster meat and various items to either help him accomplish missions or improve his armor and weapons. It’s pretty deep and has really solid combat and raiding skills that will get you doing more and more hunting to get more money and growing. The multiplayer aspect, having up to 8 players go on a raid with you, is one of the strongest aspects of the game and one of the reasons it got as much interest as it did. It’s definitely a title you need to give time to, so it’s perfect for those used to long and deep RPGs.

Scribblenauts: Oh Scribblenauts. How close you were to getting into the Top 5. All the hype you were getting, all the good reception and feedback all lead to your exciting release. Scibblenauts, as a concept, is quite brilliant and when it works, it works very very well. When it doesn’t work…well, it can be quite messy. The levels are cheerful and
nice, albeit a bit low grade in terms of graphic quality and the main weakness shines through where you only have to rely on touch screen controls. You try to accomplish a mission and you try to get into a position and then you slip and fall off the edge of a map onto some kind of lava or, if you’re lucky, have to climb all the way to the top where you fell off and do it again. If it had directional controls and buttons, it would not only be a much
better game but it would easily be up there with the others.

Gran Turismo: It’s Gran Turismo. On the PSP. It may be all you need to know, but it is still a very deep, very fun racing game. When I mean deep, I mean deep, with many cars and many tracks to unlock. What I will
say is that sometimes the difficulty curve can affect the enjoyment of how you get through levels and, even though it is Gran Turismo, it does not beat Ridge Racer for the best racing game on the PSP. By no means, though, will you be left unsatisfied by it and should be a worthy pickup, especially with the added features that will be available when
Gran Turismo 5 (finally) comes out for the Playstation 3 in 2010.

and now…The List!

Dissidia Final Fantasy

5. Dissidia Final Fantasy (PSP)

Final Fantasy as a fighting game was one of the most mouth watering prospects of the year. Everyone from Final Fantasy 1 through to 12 packed the game and allowed you to have dream matches with heroes and villains that you would never be able to do anywhere else.

The strongest point of this game, though, is the combat system. Rather than going for a conventional button mash system, Square Enix opted to try something different with their two pronged system. You build up your
bravery points and take those away from your opponent rather than damaging them and building up their EX Meter to do certain combo attacks and to cause as much damage as possible. This makes the combat more
interesting and you never know if a fight is going to last ten minutes or ten seconds depending on how good you are and how quick you are to do a EX move to wipe away an opponents entire bar in an instant.

Whilst there are points this can feel samey and dull, the biggest weakness is the characters, the story and the cut scenes. I’m fine with having these characters meet up and I’m fine with them having an objective to overcome, but it feels tacked on like an afterthought and not as well produced as you would expect a story on a Final Fantasy game
to be. These, though, can easily be skipped so you can get down to the actual important stuff of the well developed combat system.

Professor Layton and Pandora's Box DS

4. Professor Layton and Pandora’s Box (DS)

Sometimes the best games work when you only make minor tweaks to a successful formula. The second Professor Layton game proves this.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village was one of the surprise hits of 2008 bringing with it charmful characters, puzzles of varied difficulty and a story that flowed nicely from beginning to end in the tradition of
a classic mystery novel. The game’s 150+ puzzles gave the game more depth and more encouragement to finish the game and solve every puzzle and gave you a great sense of accomplishment

Pandora’s Box does not change this formula nor attempts to do so. Instead, if gives you more of it. You follow Layton and his young apprentice Luke as they take a ride on the Molentary Express to find out the mystery of the apparently cursed Elysian Box. Of course, all of the story threads involve puzzles of some kind may they be easy or really hard which gives the game depth in how you decide to solve it. You can leave others to solve later to make sure you have enough to go through the game, but there’s no pressure to solve every puzzle straight away which is always good for those who want to take their time.

Of course, the real charm of the game always lied in the characters and this game is, again, no exception. Instead of sticking in one village, you travel around the Molentary Express meeting villagers from across the land who all are distinct in their own ways. It’s not like they’ve got huge differences, but you defiantly feel like you’re encountering different people in different places which is a nice touch for an adventure such as Layton. As well as them, characters such as Don Paolo, Flora and Inspector Chelmey return all intertwine in a nicely done, if not exactly deep, storyline that takes you right up to (yet another) castle deep in a forest.

These games aren’t for everyone but for those who are not in the very small minority, Professor Layton will once again take over your life and make you actually enjoy puzzles which, for a video game in an age of big guns and big sweaty men, is an achievement.

LittleBigPlanet

3. LittleBigPlanet (PSP)

This was one of the titles first announced when Sony made their intentions clear that the PSP was going to be a competitive handheld again to Nintendo’s DS. The fact that it is so high on the list should tell you that this has worked.

If you played LittleBigPlanet on the Playstation 3, you know what to expect. You play through the levels, get objects to use to create your own level. What also comes from the Playstation 3 version is the very well done level design, the easy to get into controls and, of course, the charm of the Sackboy, probably Sony’s first definitive mascot since Crash Bandicoot in the PS One days. The story levels are fun in simply how they showcase the game’s creative points and also in how they all link together in that weird way those games usually do.

Level creation is still as deep as ever with the potential for it to create some well done levels and whilst they haven’t blossomed yet, there are a few gems that have been created on the community network…along with some pretty bad ones. But even the bad ones add to the community in some way and encourage people to do better.

It’s this high simply because of these factors. When LittleBigPlanet first came out for the PS3, people were skeptical in how this was all going to work and what was going to come out from it. Now, it is one of the biggest communities going in all of console gaming. With what LBP PSP has to offer and the potential it has to give, this will be able to take the easy transaction to the Playstation Portable.

Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars

2. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (DS/PSP)

When Cammie Dunaway, Executive Vice President for Nintendo of America, casually announced a new Grand Theft Auto game for the DS at E3 2008, my instinct reaction was ‘A GTA game on a Nintendo system? How was that supposed to work? How toned down was it going to be?’

Oh me of little faith.

As it turned out, nothing would change. The style may be different and the controls may rely on the touch screen for extra mechanics (and with the PSP version, buttons and the analogue stick which works just as well) but in its essance, its still a GTA game. You still sell drugs, you can still gun down people, you can still hit people with your car and you still encounter the most colourful and surreal characters. Liberty City is a town that is full of drug dealers, shady gangsters and even just normal people walking around minding their own business before you decide to start your reign of chaos. That’s the reason it’s so high on my list. As a GTA game, it has a worthy place next to other handheld GTA games (Liberty City/Vice City Stories) but it also stands out on its own with a cel shading style that makes it more fun to watch at times then the realistic graphics the series is well known for.It even has the same kind of music and suttle humour the GTA Games have. On the PSP version, there are tracks from artists such as Deadmau5 and others that you can listen to on the radio.

The only negative is, sometimes, the controls. When driving, it can be difficult to avoid certain objects and when you hit other cars, you’re pretty much going to get hounded by the police which means more minutes of driving around and getting out of their tail. Shooting is very basic but you need to position yourself just right to get the right shot and targeting can sometimes go array if you’re not in the right angle for it. Despite this, it is well worth your time and is it is definitely not the game you think would come out on a Nintendo handheld of all things.

Bowser's Inside Story

1. Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story (DS)

The Mario and Luigi RPG series hasn’t exactly been as highly purchased as other Mario games like Mario Kart, Mario Party and the recent Mario and Sonic series, but these have been stood as good RPGs in their own right but defiantly not your typical set of Mario games. The guys down at AlphaDream in Japan have come up with a game worthy of not just your attention but a game that deserves to stand on its own with the other classics whether handheld or console that Nintendo has put out.

The story is downright ridiculous, you find yourself in the middle of a Toad Blorb outbreak, making Toads giant round balls of…Toads, caused by the ridiculously obscure yet downright hilarious Lord Fawful and his quest to obtain superiority of both the Mushroom Kingdom and the domain of Bowser. Not to spoil it, but it takes some really crazy directions that somehow never leave you dissatisfied just because of the pure charm. Along with this, Lord Fawful NEEDS to be in more Nintendo games. ‘I HAS CHORTLES’ indeed.

What may grab the attention and curiosity of many is that instead of only playing as Mario and Luigi, you would also have the opportunity to play as Bowser who is without a doubt the real star of this game. You blow fire, stomp around and pound on things but the witty dialogue and really fun moments involved when Bowser comes on screen is most of the time, genuinely funny. Add to the fact that, at certain points in the game, Bowser grows in size and is able to smash buildings and trains; there is very little reason NOT to love Nintendo’s trademark baddie.

Not that Mario and Luigi are put to the shadows as their random gibberish speaking tones from the past two games are back to add to the fun this game provides. You control the both of them by pressing either A or B depending on whether you want to jump or do certain other actions like air spin, dig underground and float in the air. When in battle, the same applies either when you’re jumping (which you would need to press to get more damage) or doing a move where you would need to press certain buttons at certain times.

What stuck out to me the most were the in jokes and the general writing in the game. As great as games like Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy are, their writing was not what people would call a strong point nor do people really expect Hamlet or A Streetcar named Desire. The writing here is fun yet with the tongue firmly in its cheek almost to the point of parodying not just Mario and Luigi but Nintendo themselves. A moment that stuck out was when Bowser would have to go on a raft called, and I’m not joking, ‘Raft Fit’. The ‘newest and greatest way to get in shape in the Mushroom Kingdom’. Another one of these ‘Fit’s has you using Bowser’s fire to set off a bomb to hurl you into the air towards another part of the map. It’s quirks like this and one beginning line in the game (‘Go down the pipe-ish thing’) that makes it fun for the old school gamers who spent their time with the NES and the SNES before moving on to the hardware giants we have now.

The game is not perfect. It’s easy to get lost whilst trying to find the next objective and sometimes battles with enemies can either be coming too quickly or too long in spurts, but these are minor and shouldn’t affect your play too much unless you want them to. Despite these facts, it’s the best game that has come out for either handheld in 2009. It brings together what we love about Nintendo and combines it with the charm of Role Playing Games that are done right. No game I have played has the charm, the satisfaction and enjoyment of Bower’s Inside Story.

And while we have games like these coming out this year, the only way is up for games in 2010. Bring it on, I say!