You're trapped inside the house; brain-craving zombies are closing in from all sides; and there are no firearms or weaponized power tools in sight. What do you do? In Plants vs. Zombies, now available for the Nintendo DS well over a year after it debuted on the PC, you have only one option: to strategically surround your home with a selection of combat-ready plants. Both the plants at your disposal and the zombies you're disposing of in this tower defense game come in a wonderful variety of shapes and sizes, and are introduced gradually as you play through the occasionally challenging campaign. The DS version of Plants vs. Zombies boasts the same campaign, minigames, and bonus features found in last year's Xbox Live Arcade version, and while it lacks that game's cooperative play, it does include the excellent competitive mode.
Most of your time in Plants vs. Zombies is spent either on your front lawn or out back, where there's a slightly larger garden with a pond running down the middle of it. Both are divided into grids, and each square can accommodate any one plant of your choosing. Zombies shamble, sprint, and swim from right to left toward your house, while you establish defenses that can include any of almost 50 different plants (though no more than 10 different species in any one level). Sunflowers are used to collect the sun that serves as currency, wall-nuts obstruct zombies for as long as it takes for them to be chewed through, potato mines explode when zombies step on them, peashooters do exactly what you think they do, and so on. As your arsenal increases in size, you have to choose which types of plants you're going to take into each level. You'll inevitably have favorites, but these decisions are also based on a sneak peek that you get of the zombies that are going to attack. If you see that some of the zombies are going to be attacking by floating over your garden suspended from balloons, for example, you need to make sure that you have a plant that can either puncture or blow away those balloons. Though most levels have you doing much the same thing, the ever-changing zombie horde and the different plants that you use to combat them--as well as levels set at night and in fog--prevent the action from getting repetitive.
Also keeping the action fresh are levels that take the form of different minigames. For example, there are levels in which you use wall-nuts as bowling balls, and other levels in which the plants in your arsenal are dealt to you randomly like playing cards. All of the minigames that pop up during the campaign can also be played outside of it, via a menu that lists more than 20 different minigame types. You can do battle against invisible zombies, you can play a Bejeweled variant with the plants in your garden as zombies attack, and you can even raise your own undead in a zombiquarium. Unique to the DS version are four new minigames, including one in which you have to shout (or at least speak quite loudly) into the handheld's microphone to keep your plants awake; a gameplay mechanic that thankfully only shows up once in the entire campaign. That misstep aside, Plants vs. Zombies is a game that just keeps on giving you more fun things to do long after you've beaten the campaign. Invite a second player and, regardless of whether or not they have their own copy, this great game gets even better.
It's unfortunate that Plants vs. Zombies' competitive multiplayer isn't playable online, but it's a lot of fun to check out with a friend. If you're playing as the plants, the only real difference between competitive and solo play is that you have to concern yourself with attacking stationary zombies on the far right of the screen while defending the house. If you're the zombie player, you have to defend those stationary zombies while deciding which of your undead minions to send on the offensive. You use tombstones in place of sunflowers, your resource is brains rather than sun, you have only three columns of the garden to play with, and your minions are mobile rather than rooted, but these obvious differences aside, playing as the zombies isn't wholly unlike playing as the plants. There are 18 different zombie types to choose from, though you go into each match with an arsenal of only five. If you choose the quick-play versus option, both players have access to only basic minion types, but if you randomize the loadouts (not recommended, since this can result in overly one-sided matchups and even games in which it's impossible for the plants to win) or opt for a custom game that lets you pick which types you want, you have the option to include some really formidable frontal-lobe munchers. Digger zombies mine their way under the garden and then attack plants from the rear, catapult zombies drive vehicles equipped with long-range weaponry, and trash-can zombies are slow moving but heavily armored, to name but a few.
The DS version of Plants vs. Zombies is played exclusively with the stylus, which works every bit as well as the mouse controls in the original PC game. The only downside is that while the top screen serves almost no purpose whatsoever, the touch-screen is incredibly cramped because it displays not only your garden but also all of the "buttons" used to play. The garden practically fills the entire screen on its own, and as large zombies move along the top row they often obscure the icons that you need to tap in order to select plants. You can still select them if you tap the right spot, but this lack of visibility can still cause confusion on occasion. The visuals can cause confusion elsewhere as well; the plants and zombies are much bigger in relation to the squares that they occupy than in other version of the game, and it's not uncommon for plants that you've placed at the front/bottom of the garden to almost completely hide those toward the rear/top. This rarely causes significant problems during gameplay, but in levels where zombies drop in on bungee cords and steal your plants it's occasionally tricky to identify which plants have been taken.
Despite its overly busy visuals, the DS version of Plants vs. Zombies is still easy to recommend because it boasts the same ingenious game design, uncomplicated controls, upbeat audio, decent difficulty curve, and frequent player rewards. Both the PC and Xbox 360 games (not to mention those on the iPhone and iPad) are cheaper to buy than this $20 DS version, but if you've never played Plants vs. Zombies before, this is still a great way to find out what you've been missing out on.