For me (and many others in the west, I’d imagine), the DS will always be remembered as the door that unlocked the world of visual novels for the first time.
Truly an honest genre, the visual novel doesn’t use story to hide behind its immense passivity, unlike a large selection of games today. Instead, the visual novel celebrates the fact that they are predominantly story—it should be stated that they do contain some gameplay for they trace back to the old adventure/point-and-click games of yore. My own definition grounds the genre as interactive comics of sorts but regardless of how you define a visual novel, if you haven’t experienced one I present you with a thinly-disguised list: a visual novel mixtape.
5. Lux Pain
Now I’m fairly sure you wouldn’t see anywhere else mention Lux Pain, unless someone wanted to showcase a bad Japanese-to-English translation or a game with a lot of spelling mistakes but Lux pain was fascinating. A game that deals with suicide, animal cruelty and bizarre mind controlling worms of despair can’t possibly be forgotten!
Lux Pain—made by ex-Atlus team members nonetheless—tells the story of an orphan who has a tool that helps erase the aforementioned mind controlling worms, implanted in his arm which grants him a gold eye. Working for a secret organisation whilst attending a local high school, the player must deal in both his school life and his so-called job in worm eradication.
Lux Pain is interesting in the form of an object that is shoddily built, but is something that is at the least intriguing. The bad translation and spelling mistakes only help in sharpening the rough edges of the low budget even further and although Killaware are no more, Lux Pain should not be forgotten.
4. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is Shu Takumi’s underrated masterpiece. Whilst Phoenix Wrights has earned its place in the history of visual novels—alas, not on this list—Ghost Trick is far more attention-grabbing with its exquisite presentation.
The use of rotoscoping for the animation adds an incredible amount of expression to the peculiar cast of characters. In particular, a certain officer’s ‘panic dance’ is sure to ignite heaps of laughter.
Ghost Trick employ beautifully crafted puzzle-story sequences where the main character—an amnesiac ghost who exists in a different time-space in these sections—must possess objects in hopes of changing the outcome of any given situation. These can range from activating an object in hopes of scaring someone to considering the timing of interactions in the more multifaceted later levels.
The story Ghost Trick tells becomes slightly messy towards the end, but the mystery surrounding main protagonist Cecil’s death is absolutely worth experiencing.
3. Flower, Sun and Rain
Flower, Sun and Rain is truly a one of a kind peculiarity that to some people, such as myself, is a true masterpiece, whilst to others, a horrendous failure.
Originally on PS2, the DS version is the first English language release of this sequel to The Silver Case—and in being a sequel to a game that isn’t translated or released outside of Japan, somewhat incomprehensible.
Sumio Mondo, a searcher, clad in a black suit reminiscent of cinema’s New-Wave, travels to the island of Lospass to find what he’s searching for.
A Groundhog Day type situation awaits him on this crazy island full of some truly strange Suda51 characters, including a vampire, a pink crocodile and a fourth-wall breaking little boy.
Flower, Sun and Rain is objectively the worst game on this list—being a Suda 51 game in his creative prime—but experience wise, is unmatched (except maybe by the number 1 on this list).
2. Hotel Dusk: Room 215
Sadly, Cing (the developer of Hotel Dusk, Another Code and Little King Story) is no more and I’m still heated that Nintendo didn’t swoop in to save them—but I digress.
Hotel Dusk was the first visual novel I played and a strong illustration of how the DS really excelled. The game made use of something fairly foreign—the user actually changing the way they interact with the console—the DS was turned sideways and held as if it were a book. Although this was first seen in Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training, the DS held in this way in tandem with the main protagonist Kyle Hyde, who was never without his notebook, permitted the player with a solid connection to the game.
Kyle Hyde’s enthralling 24 hours in the neglected, Nevada-based Hotel Dusk is a must for those with a penchant for film-noire. Perchance the utmost jewel in Hotel Dusk is the beautiful rotoscoped art style. Not to be confused with Ghost Trick’s rotoscoping, which used 3D models as a basis, Dusk was rotoscoped using real people (clearly modified during the process). The monochrome art style, with its slight manga touch, captures the essence of noire but isn’t shackled to it.
This was no mere homage or reference: Hotel Dusk is a great interactive story in it’s own right and you’d need a sawbones to help you if you somehow didn’t enjoy it.
1. 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors
I can’t think of another game that has such a level of depth to its story and yet still has some semblance of player interactivity, as 999 does. It’s the best game on the DS, bar none and not even Nintendo managed to create something this quintessential for the console they built. Clearly I’m a tad enthusiastic but I will keep this a little vague as to not ruin any part of the story/experience, which is so crucial to 999.
Kotaro Uchikoshi, the writer/director and possible watchmaker in another life, truly crafted an intricate, multidimensional story that takes its time in revealing itself. At first glance you may think 999 is an anime iteration of the Saw movies, but like the humble sponge, absorption will increase its weight and soon the actuality of what’s going on will expose itself to you.
999 is incredibly authentic and even though you may come across some ‘out-there’ pseudo-scientific theories and such, even those are taken from real life (fun fact: Rupert Sheldrake is a real person).
The in-depth localisation by Aksys Games, thankfully allows for all surfaces of this great crystalline architecture that is the story, to be comprehended easily by the player. 999 is virtuosic in its interactivity and a must for anyone who wants to see the superiority of interactive fiction.