The 3DS had a significant hardware upgrade this year, but the best games for Nintendo's enduring handheld play great whether you're on a launch system or a newly minted New 3DS XL. It's a testament to the lasting appeal and versatility of the handheld that you always have a choice of both short and simple mobile-like fare and deep AAA experiences. And that versatility is reflected in the best 3DS games of 2015.
Despite the dominating success of Monster Hunter in Japan, the series has struggled to find a similar foothold in the West. But this year's entry, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, goes a long way toward rectifying what made earlier games in the franchise so obtuse and unapproachable. MH4U doesn't dumb down the combat, but the main story progression makes learning the game's robust battle systems more accessible. And even when you're without a local or online partner, you're given some hardy feline companions that make tackling even the toughest beasts possible on your own.
Yo-Kai Watch fills the void left by a year without a traditional Pokemon game. On its surface it may sound like just another imitation of Game Freak's hit series: plucky child protagonist; lots of creatures to collect; and a cute, cartoony art style. But the battle system sets Yo-Kai Watch apart. The active RPG combat requires quick reflexes and active monitoring of your party, but you also have to think about strategic team layout and carefully balancing your mix of monster abilities. It might not replace Pokemon entirely, but Yo-Kai Watch is a worthy alternative with a lot of promise for future installments and spin-offs.
At first glance, you might not guess that the minimalistic Box Boy was created by the same development studio that makes the imaginative, colorful Kirby series (and, back in the SNES days, Earthbound). But Box Boy's simple graphics belie a deep, satisfying puzzle-platformer. Your abilities slowly expand, but the gameplay never becomes unnecessarily complicated. And the puzzles require careful consideration, not split-second button pressing. Like any great puzzle game, its true strength lies in giving you seemingly insurmountable puzzles of devilish complexity, but also laying all the skills you need to solve them at your fingertips. If you can persevere, you come out feeling like a genius.
Tri-Force Heroes might seem like an odd addition to our best 3DS games list. It received an average score, but it still has moments of excellence. The soundtrack is both original and tonally rich, and the little graphical touches (like the way the shadows in a dungeon play off your character and the walls, or the way puddles of water reflect your character and surroundings) make you feel like you're exploring a living environment. And when you're playing with friends, Tri-Force Heroes captures the adventure and puzzle-solving elements intrinsic to any great Zelda game. It sn't as much fun when playing solo, and the main adventure ends too soon, but if you can find a party of dedicated adventurers to brave the game's dungeons with you, this is still an epic quest worth embarking on.
Stretchmo reflects a very different Nintendo from years past. The game's fun, solid puzzle-solving builds off previous entries in the franchise, and the addition of a puzzle creator lets you exercise your creativity and try out other user-made stages. But what sets Stretchmo apart is its free-to-start model. Developed by close Nintendo partner Intelligent Systems, Stretchmo borrows the mobile-like business model that Nintendo has recently started implementing in more titles--try the game for free, pay to unlock content if you like it. While Nintendo may, in some ways, feel like a slow-to-change, old-school corporation, games like Stretchmo show how to effectively bridge the gap between mobile and console worlds so that, no matter what, gamers come out on top.
2015 has been a solid year for 3DS, and we expect to see the same wide mix of appealing games and genres on the system going into the new year. Nintendo's handheld still has a lot of life, and with the NX on the horizon, we might see Nintendo experimenting with entirely new ways to play and enjoy games on its popular platform.