Originally published in 2016, for The Australia Times Games Magazine
Since releasing the 3DS in 2011, the stereoscopic handheld has seen and amazing retail library amass. With Nintendo’s typical pedigree and strong third party support (woah!), the console still remains the best-selling machine of the current generation. However, a long-standing criticism of the Japanese company is its seeming reluctance to create new IP in favour of relying old hands. Today, I’m here to prove that this isn’t the case. Thanks to the eShop, the firm has been able to release smaller, more experimental fare that has proven that its developers still have that knack of creating new and exciting games. So behold, the best hidden eShop gems that you need to play, straight from the House of Mario itself!
Hana Samurai: Art of the Sword
Developer: Grounding Inc.
Hana Samurai: Art of the Sword is essentially Punch Out set in feudal Japan.
If that isn’t enough of a selling point, then I don’t know what is.
Oh, alrighty then. Playing as a nameless samurai, you go on a journey at the behest of an old kappa, in order to rescue Princess Cherry Blossom from the clutches of a mysterious baddie.
Across 30 levels, you explore villages and castles, fighting a wide array of enemies and earning petals to increase health, and coins to spend at the Frogs Plus Store for rice cakes and sword upgrades.
As I alluded to, battles emulate Nintendo’s boxing classic by emphasising duels and strategic movements, and these are an absolute joy to play. Pressing A attacks, L and R dodge, and B blocks, and its this simple foundation that opens up an incredibly deep combat system. Blocking too much dulls your blade, which can be sharpened using a whetstone or a village blacksmith. Evading at key moments builds up precision points, and slashing can purposely be avoided in order to build up strength in your sword. Further more, pressing X lets your swordsman wander the battlefield for secrets, but this makes him vulnerable to attacks by other enemies.
Outside of fighting, Hana Samurai is a vibrant, lovely experience. Towns are alive with activity, and minigames can be played for goodies. Visuals are beautiful – much like a painting come to life, and the whole thing is positively packed with content.
Completing the game unlocks a harder mode, enemy wave challenges can be attempted, and there’s even a ‘Rock Garden’, which gets more and more beautiful the more you use the 3DS’ pedometer.
Hana Samurai: Art of the Sword is simply an essential experience, and MyNintendo members can currently get a 30% discount, which is a deal you need to take advantage of right now.
Developer: HAL Laboratory
Few gaming studios hold as much pedigree as HAL Laboratory.
Founded by Hiroji Iwasaki, and producing the careers of the late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata and Masahiro Sakurai, this is the studio behind games such as Kirby and Super Smash Bros. Its willingness to try quirky new ideas has not subsided after 25 years, even as it continues to produce sequels to its most popular franchises.
A true gem, this is a 2D puzzle game where you control a cute little square called Qbby, who must navigate perilous stages, rescue his friends, and uncover just what happened to his boxy race.
Presented in a lovely minimalist graphical style, Qbby creates squares that can be used as platforms and weights. By holding ‘Y’, you can produce a set number of them in a connected fashion, and they then can be thrown, pushed, or even used as transport between tight spaces. Each level gives you a limited amount of squares to use, and special crowns can be collected to unlock extra points. These points are spent on stuff like new challenges, costumes (hip-hop Qbby FTW) and music.
The sequel, BoxBoxBoy! (which I covered last issue) is essentially more of the same, only this time Qbby can produce two sets of squares.
Either way, this simple gameplay system allows for some truly fiendish and addictive puzzles, and both games are extremely great value, Pick then up. Now.
2018 Edit: A third game has been released, Bye-Bye BoxBoy!
SpeedThru: Potzol’s Puzzle
Developer: Keys Factory
According to indie developer Phil Fish, Japanese games suck.
Which is… quite curious, considering his first game (Fez) was a riff on Super Paper Mario’s 2D/3D switching, and his latest Playstation VR game – Super Hypercube – will be incredibly familiar to those who have sampled SpeedThru: Potzol’s Puzzle.
Acutely described as a “third-person on-rails Tetris,”, SpeedThru is a simple affair that has you playing Hole In The Wall (remember that horrible show?) with odd-shaped blocks as they rapidly charge toward incoming walls. You need to quickly plonk them into place so that they pass harmlessly through the spaces.
And really, that’s all there is. Coated in an Aztec flair, SpeedThru: Potzol’s Puzzle is the kind of manic time waster that’s now found on phones, but here, it definitely benefits from the accuracy of actual buttons.
It’s also one of the few 3DS games that actually benefits from the 3D effect, making it exhilarating for your eyeballs. There are 100 levels, a surprisingly fun multiplayer mode, and – yes – an actual story!
Best of all, you don’t need a $550 virtual reality peripheral to play it…
Developer: Intelligent Systems
The Pullblox series has become the standard-bearer in quality eShop games.
Widely considered to be the best of Nintendo’s digital offerings, these puzzle games are based around pushing, pulling, and stretching blocks in an attempt to climb towers in order to save a trapped child at the very top.
The first game is simple in its introduction, with the chubby Mallo hopping his way ever upwards. It’s kinda hard to explain, but each structure is made of elongated blocks, and they can be pushed and pulled on three different planes. In order to jump on a block, it needs to be pulled out onto a further ‘plane’ than the one above it, and that block needs to be manipulated so you can jump on that one.
It’s not as complicated as it sounds, but the game soon gets head-scratchingly devious, especially once it introduces warp tunnels and blocks that instantly push out every block of the same colour.
The other titles in this series are very similar, but with their own little innovations, like introducing tumbling obstacles (Fallblox), stretching (the free-to-play Fullblox), and level creations that can be shared via QR codes.
The Pullblox games are absolutely fantastic, and can last you practically forever. Also, there’s Pullblox World on Wii U if you want even more!
Developer: Game Freak
Like HAL and Intelligent Systems, Pokémon creator Game Freak has also thrown its hat into the eShop ring, with HarmoKnight.
A 2D rhythm-based platformer, HarmoKnight puts you in the shoes of Tempo, who lives on the planet of Melodia, and is a knight in training. With is bunny companion Tappy, he journeys across the land in order to eliminate the forces of Gargan and his evil, extraterrestrial Noizoids. Along the way, he meets fellow musical warriors named Lyra, Tyko and Cymbi, who become playable with their own gameplay styles.
Its a surprisingly detailed world that is crammed into such a relatively simple game, with the art and quality character design that’s very typical of the creative minds behind the Pocket Monster phenomenon.
As your character auto-runs across the wide array of levels, you must tap buttons in time to the beat, as you run into musical notes and enemies which guide you toward a maximum performance. It really is a rhythmic (ahem) experience, and the bright visuals make it a joy to play. Boss fights mix up proceedings, and these are brilliantly done. They’re basically lavish cutscenes that are mixed with quick time events and Rhythm Heaven-esque tapping.
HarmoKnight is one of the original music-based platfomers, and is long overdue for a sequel. Maybe we’ll see Tempo in the next Smash Bros? We’ll see!
Dillon’s Rolling Western/Dillon’s Rolling Western: The Last Ranger
Dillon’s Rolling Western and its sequel, The Last Ranger, is Nintendo’s typically unique take on the tower defence genre. As you’d probably expect, the developers eschew numbers and stats in favour of a more physical, hands-on gameplay style.
Also typical is the great setting and characters. Playing as a mysterious armadillo named Dillon, you take jobs in a wild west-inspired land that’s populated by animals (think the movie Rango, and you got the idea). Along with his gyrocopter-bound, groundhog partner called Russ, the ‘Red Flash’ needs to defend a town in each level from ‘grocks’, rocky monsters that are after the precious porcine piggies called ‘scrogs’ – the ultimate resource in this untamed frontier.
You see, every stage is set over the course of three days. During sunlight, you need to run (or roll) around the area outside of each settlement, placing defensive towers and weapons at strategic locations, whilst also searching for treasure and money. Be quick though, because when the sky turns red, the grocks come out to play. As they march out of their burrows, Dillon can take them head-on, and touching each monster initiates an arena battle with a few of the blighters. Here, he can use his claws to slash and his tough hide to grind his foes, Sonic-style. However, strategy is very paramount, as fights don’t freeze time, and the other grocks are still marching.
After each day, you can rest in the town, buy upgrades, and take missions from various townsfolk (‘kill these’, ‘find that’, you know, the usual). As you play through the campaign, a story slowly unfolds about Dillon’s past, though it doesn’t exactly take centre stage.
The sequel – though not radically different – does introduce new features, like recruitable rangers (each with their own abilities), and a steam train that now needs to be protected.
The Dillon’s Rolling Western games are nice experiences, though they aren’t the best eShop offerings, with some repetitive gameplay bringing them down. Still, they’re definitely worth a go if you like some rapid-fire, high-octane stress in your life!
Steel Diver: Sub Wars
Developer: Nintendo EAD/Group. No.5/Vitei
The original Steel Diver for 3DS was a unique – albeit bare bones – package that hid a cool arcade simulation gameplay style underneath a mediocre presentation. Arguably, the highlight of the game were the first-person periscope battles which made fantastic use of the 3D effect and gyroscope in order to simulate a real submersible conflict.
As such, Nintendo took this feature, and made it into its own game – the sequel, Steel Diver: Sub Wars. Though important in Nintendo’s history as its first free-to-play offering, it should also be remembered for the genuinely brilliant experience it was (and still is).
Though offering an array of single-player modes, the true majesty lies in the online multiplayer modes, where battles get truly intense as combatants slowly and methodically stalk each other in the briny deep.
Using the touch screen to pull levers and push buttons, simply moving your vehicle is a task in itself, but that’s part of its charm. Maneuvering through the labyrinthine levels is both tense and strangely empowering, as sonar needs to be pinged in order to find your foes. Of course, players can remain hidden by simply staying still – waiting for a pants-browning ambush.
Even communicating with partners can be done via Morse code (though conventional voice chat can also be used), and the only method of offence is either missiles or mines.
As mentioned before, Steel Diver: Sub Wars is F2P, so go and give it a try. It really is an amazing experience (albeit an acquired taste), and further cements Nintendo’s reputation (along with Splatoon) in delivering unique online games.