I feel that I must set something straight: I love Super Mario games, I'll go to Hyrule any day, and whenever the Lylat System is in danger I'll be there, but the new Nintendo DS release Clubhouse Games is the reason the DS was made. It perfectly captures Nintendo's "Blue Ocean" strategy and provides plenty of fun for everyone: old and young, gamers and nongamers, and just about any other combination of opposites you can imagine.
So what is Clubhouse Games (known as 42 All-Time Classics in Europe) and what makes it a required purchase for DS owners? To put it simply, it's a collection of forty-two familiar card games, board games, puzzle challenges, and games of chance. The old standards such as Blackjack, Hearts, Spades, Solitaire, and Texas Hold 'Em are included, as are renamed knock-offs of Sorry!, Battleship, and Uno. There's a simplistic game of 9-ball, a ten frame bowling challenge, and rounds of darts. Want to play Checkers or Chess? Have at it. There's even a few games you've probably never played, such as the old Japanese Nintendo favorite Hanafunda, Koi-Koi, and Shogi. Don't worry if some of those names don't ring a bell, as each game includes a full set of rules to help bring you up to speed. Every game is played using the touchscreen and help is never further than a tap of the stylus away.
There are a number of different ways to approach the games. As just a single player you can opt to just play whichever game you want from the set in Free Play mode, jumping from game to game as you see fit. Options can be set to change some of the rules of each game and different levels of CPU skill can be assigned. Stamp Mode challenges players to take on each game in a set order with set rules. Each game requires that players earn three stamps (that is, ink stamps) to proceed, and of course stamps are earned by winning games. For instance, win first place in a game of President and you'll earn three stamps, moving you on to the next game in the sequence. Come in second place and you'll only earn two stamps, meaning you'll have to play again. Third place only earns a single stamp. Fortunately stamps carry over to other games, meaning that if you have two stamps earned for, say, Chinese Checkers and then earn three more, one stamp goes to Chinese Checkers and the remaining two stamps go to the next game that you haven't played yet, giving you a starting advantage. While this may sound confusing, it's actually implemented in a fair manner. Several new games can be unlocked in Stamp Mode as well, after which they're available in other game modes. Finally, Mission Mode challenges players to complete certain goals in each game, such as earning twenty points in Dominoes before three rounds are over.
Nearly every game in Clubhouse Games is capable of multiplayer play (single player games such as Solitaire are, of course, unavailable). Players can either transmit games to other DS units locally or jump on the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection and play against people from around the world. The reviled Friend Codes are back, of course, meaning that while friends can chat in a PictoChat window during the game, random players matched up for play by the system can only exchange a series of predefined statements such as "Good game!" or "Lucky!".
Clubhouse Games is part of Nintendo's Touch Generations initiative, which as you'll recall is a series of games that do away with the familiar Super Mario-style trappings you might expect in a collection such as this one. You won't see any cameos from popular gaming characters in this collection. There aren't any Mushroom Kingdom themed levels, nor will a Space Pirate challenge you to a game of Backgammon. Everything about Clubhouse Games is meant to be familiar and approachable to casual players. Not everyone wants to stomp Koopas, but who doesn't enjoy a good game of cards? In fact, I only caught two little Nintendo-themed favorites slipped into the game for good measure: the sound of points tallying is the familiar sound of collecting coins in Super Mario Bros., and when a game in Stamp Mode is marked as complete the final completion stamp is applied with the sound of Yoshi laying an egg from Yoshi's Island. Beyond that it's all as basic as can be, which in this case isn't an issue.
This collection of familiar classics is perfect for the Nintendo DS, and frankly I'm surprised it wasn't released a long time ago. It seems like such a natural fit for the portable unit. Clubhouse Games will never be mentioned with the same praise reserved for the adventures of Link, but it's a solid experience that is extremely enjoyable and is very easy to simply pick up and play. I just cannot recommend it enough, particularly for the casual gamers among us.