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I was burned out on video games until I dusted off my Nintendo DS

A hand holds an open Nintendo DS.

Giovanni Colantonio / Digital Trends

It was mid-December, and I’d just finished my final assignment of 2023. A hectic year full of exciting games capped off with yet another monumental achievement for the medium, the Meta Quest exclusive Asgard’s Wrath 2. No longer locked into playing a never-ending stream of zeitgeist games that I had to keep up with for work, I was finally free to play whatever I wanted.

There was only one problem: The thought of playing a game made me sick. It turns out that playing well over 100 new releases in any given year is a straight path to burnout. Who would have thought?

It wasn’t a new sensation; end-of-year exhaustion is a natural part of the job for a game critic following a busy holiday season. This was the hardest I’d ever been hit by it, though, thanks to 2023’s particularly strong and ceaseless stream of major releases. I loved a sizable chunk of what I played throughout the year, but even some of my favorites began to feel like more of the same after a while. I was craving something more innovative, but I was starting to fear that those experiences were becoming fewer and farther between for me. I had a serious moment where I truly thought I wouldn’t climb out of my annual game burnout this time.

Thankfully, I found a perfect cure for that feeling. All I had to do was dust off my Nintendo DS.

A two-screen return

My renewed fascination with the Nintendo DS came last summer when a friend floated the idea of having me guest on a podcast to talk about Metroid Prime Hunters. Despite loving the series, that specific title was my white whale. I never played it as a kid and assumed I never would. The podcast invitation would give me the motivation I’d need to track down a physical copy from Walmart’s website and order it.

That’s not what actually came in the mail a few days later. Instead of receiving a boxed copy of the DS game, I opened a package containing a standard game cartridge. The art on it featured a mural of games and the words “208 in 1.” I’d been scammed, but not necessarily in a bad way. A third-party seller had sent me a flashcard packed to the brim with Nintendo DS games in slightly compressed quality. I did get Metroid Prime Hunters; I also just happened to get hundreds of other games, too.

A Nintendo DS sits on a table with a few game boxes.
Giovanni Colantonio / Digital Trends

As I scrolled through the long list, I realized how few Nintendo DS games I’d actually played when I owned the system 20 years ago. I played a few foundational titles like WarioWare: Touched! and Super Mario 64 DS that took advantage of the odd two-screen system, but I’d largely skipped that generation. I’d never even played the system’s Zelda games. My curiosity was piqued, but I wouldn’t have much time to dig into the library once Baldur’s Gate 3 kicked off a long marathon of hot 2023 releases. I put the card in a display case and vowed to get back to it later.

Flash forward to the end of December as I was struggling with burnout. I took a full break from games for a week or two, but I had a four-hour-long holiday Amtrak ride to fill. I begrudgingly bought a few cheap games during Steam’s Winter Sale before remembering that SD card sitting on my shelf. For the first time since 2017, I left the Switch behind and packed the decaying Nintendo 3DS I’d abandoned for a shiny new system.

I’d start by finally jumping into Metroid Prime Hunters. While my expectations were low considering its long-term reputation, I was shocked to find how fun the act of controlling it was. Hunters uses an experimental, early touch-screen control scheme that has players using the DS stylus to control the first-person camera and aim Samus’ blaster. It took a bit of getting used to, but I found a lot of tactile charm in it. I grew to love double-tapping the screen to jump and swapping my weapons with the bottom screen. That added physicality made a tired genre feel fresh again, and that was a feat considering how bored I’d been trying to play The Finals, a recently released first-person shooter, just a week before.

A gaggle of Kirbys fight a tree in Kirby Mass Attack.

My revelatory moment would come after, though, when I loaded up Kirby Mass Attack. I’d always been curious about the oddball platformer from its screenshots but never really knew much about it. I immediately fell in love with its stylus-only control scheme that had me controlling a squad of Kirbys through levels. It’s a reductionist platformer that boils the genre down to its essence. Rather than fiddling with joysticks and buttons, I was intuitively commanding my small army of puffballs and flinging them around with my stylus. It still holds up as one of Nintendo’s most creative games; there’s just nothing like it on the market today.

As I played through titles like that, I could feel my enthusiasm for games returning. I was returning to a Wild West era where the definition of how we play games was still an experiment in progress. Though the DS didn’t give us a wealth of games you’d find topping “best games of all time” lists, the handheld found developers at their most playful. There’s a joyful energy in the games I played that’s infectious; you can feel creators having fun as they experiment with new control schemes and reinvent old genres. The passion is palpable.

This isn’t a “back in my day” rant from an aging gamer. That kind of energy very much exists in the modern game scene, particularly in the indie space. Panic’s oddball Playdate handheld captures that same feeling, letting developers play around with its unique crank control. The mobile gaming market has some similar strengths if you look for them. One of my favorite games from last year is Laya’s Horizon, a Netflix-exclusive title that has me flying through the countryside with smart touchscreen controls. The industry is filled with creative experiences like that, even if big-budget games have fallen into a tired rhythm.

My return to the Nintendo DS era would help redefine what I look for in video games. I’m not so interested in chasing the next hot game, but it’s easy to forget that when you must follow the public conversation for work. Games like Kirby Mass Attack have reminded me of what I actually love about games. I value creative spirit and cherish developers willing to make left-field swings to push the limits of what a game can be. That doesn’t just have to come from tech gimmicks like dual-screen displays or touch controls. It can be as simple as Chants of Sennaar turning language into logic puzzles or The Making of Karateka’s unique approach to an interactive documentary. Those are the games that make me excited to keep playing, even when I feel like I’ve seen it all.

If you’re feeling a little burned out after a busy year of games, try dusting off an old system you never spent much time with. Why not even break out your Nintendo DS for the handheld’s 20th anniversary? You might find your own enthusiasm hiding out in a cartridge.

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