It's the little things that count.
In a year when we've been "BioShock"-ed, heard the "Call of Duty," unpacked "The Orange Box" and gone round and round with "Halo," the Nintendo DS has quietly remained a bastion of unusual diversions. When you're in the mood for something completely different, the DS always seems to have what you need.
Where else can you pretend to own a John Deere tractor, learn and perform magic tricks, take a crack at cooking or win a trial as a defense attorney?
"John Deere Harvest in the Heartland" starts out too cute and throws out so many instructions that you figure it might be easier to learn to drive a real tractor and run a real farm. But stick with the premise for a bit, and the seasonal monotony of growing crops turns into an engaging management sim.
Once you've wiped the loam from your hands, "Master of Illusion" packages together a set of magic tricks you can easily learn and perform, or simply enjoy. Recognizing that a handful of tricks will go only so far, the title cleverly bundles the prestidigitation with a system that forces you to earn new tricks over consecutive days and encourages you to practice tricks before performing them for anyone - along with a collection of card games and mini-games for when you run out of tricks.
The package even comes with a set of playing cards that you can use to perform illusions and to con your friends at poker once you learn the secrets.
"Cooking Mama 2: Dinner With Friends" and "Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations" are two welcome sequels on the platform. Although neither does much more than reprise its initial installment, both maintain the original's spark. And why wouldn't we want more of a game that challenges us to cook meatloaf and make sushi in a series of mini-games, or to solve crimes and defend the innocent through a series of branching conversations?
"Cooking Mama" adds more recipes and more passive-aggressive coaching from Mama, who dishes out compliments and ire in equal doses. Mix the pizza dough well, and she beams. Burn an ingredient, and she glowers. "Phoenix Wright" remains a goofy cartoon Perry Mason that easily mixes narrative intrigue with interactive flair as you attempt to root out contradictions in testimony and hunt for clues at crime scenes.
Weird, sure. Fun, definitely.
What makes the DS such a magnet for offbeat titles? You might imagine that the system's unique touch screen, audio input and two-screen clamshell simply attract innovation. More likely, the real reason is plain old economics. The old-school graphics and last year's technology mean that DS games require smaller development teams and budgets. So, in a risk-averse publishing business, where mega-million-dollar gambles pay off only on big, big hits, some developers satisfy their creative urges with smaller projects beefed up with creativity.
And that's a reason to keep a DS in your pocket.