The 30 greatest Game Boy games
Nintendo’s Game Boy made its Japanese debut on April 21, 1989. With a murky screen and chunky physical design, Game Boy wasn’t the most impressive of game systems — but what it lacked in power, it made up for in affordability … and, over time, an incredible library. Ask any Game Boy owner for a list of their favorite games and you’ll get a huge variety of answers thanks to the fact that the system saw north of 1000 games over its lifetime, many of which were good and some of which were truly great.
Ahead of Game Boy’s 30th anniversary on Sunday, here are the 30 greatest games and franchises ever to appear on the system.
An absolute tour-de-force of Game Boy technical prowess, X came to us from the same people who would deliver Star Fox a year later for Super NES. Obviously, running on a monochrome handheld with no enhancement chips leaves X technologically inferior to its 16-bit sibling, but the spirit is much the same. In some ways, X hints more toward Star Fox 2. Its fully 3D wireframe engine allows for free-range movement across a planetary surface rather than being restricted to rail-based motion, and there’s even a mission structure at work. It’s a bit rough, but this is a cart worth owning just to show to your friends as a fun party trick: True 3D action on Game Boy!
29. Trip World
This rare and highly sought-after Japan- and Europe-exclusive release looks like your typical action platformer at a glance, but in truth Trip World takes an unconventional approach to the genre. It downplays conflict and combat in favor of simply allowing the player to take a journey — a trip, if you will — through its world. Along the way, you encounter unique creatures and charming little pantomime scenarios, punctuated occasionally by brief and challenging face-offs against the few hostile characters that appear along the way. All of this is framed with some of the finest graphics and sound ever to grace the Game Boy. It’s a little hard to describe what makes Trip World so appealing, but there’s no denying its excellence.
28. Game Boy Wars/Turbo
We know this series as Advance Wars in America, but it actually got its start on Famicom under another name before marching along to Game Boy. While it doesn’t look quite as pretty or have the wacky leader personalities of the later games, the fundamental design and appeal remains the same. You control an army unit-by-unit, jockeying for territory by putting your forces against the other side and allowing the computer to determine the winner of each engagement. While never officially localized into non-Japanese languages, there’s a partial fan translation for the Turbo re-release that significantly reduces the CPU’s thinking time and greatly speeds up the pace of the experience.
27. The Sword of Hope (series)
Remember Shadowgate and those other classic Icom computer adventure games that showed up on NES? Those were converted to the system by Japanese publisher Kemco, and the company took notes. A year after Shadowgate, Kemco reworked the Icom interface and style into something that hewed closer to the likes of Dragon Quest. The result is an interesting and one-of-a-kind hybrid of American adventure game and Japanese RPG, where players navigate the world and solve environmental puzzles in the style of the former but need to fight off monsters with a combat system taken from the latter. An overlooked high point of the Game Boy’s early days.
26. Chalvo 55
Here’s an odd one: Chalvo 55 came out incredibly late in the Game Boy’s life, and it was a sort of semi-sequel to a Virtual Boy game that never actually shipped. Like Game Boy Wars, this one never made its way to the U.S. Chalvo 55 takes the form of a pure action game, a sort of puzzler in which you play as a bouncing robot trying to work your way through tricky platforming challenges with a combination of brains and twitch skill.
25. Avenging Spirit
You ever play one of those games that feels like it showed up way too early to earn the praise it deserved? Avenging Spirit is one of those. An adaptation of an obscure arcade game, Avenging Spirit centers around a play mechanic that came back around a decade or more later in the likes of Abe’s Oddysee, Omikron, and The 3rd Birthday: You can possess and control other characters. By default, you play as a more or less helpless ghost who will vanish altogether without a host, which forces you to jump into the enemies you encounter along the way. The character you possess determines your powers and potential at any given moment, which lends the action a great deal of variety. Avenging Spirit has become one of Game Boy’s “holy grail” titles and commands a high price, but for now you can easily check it out for $2.99 on Virtual Console for 3DS.
24. Harvest Moon GB
Harvest Moon on a handheld works for the same reason Animal Crossing typically fares best in its portable incarnations: The systemic, schedule-based, conflict-free approach is the kind of thing you can jump into pretty much any time you want to chill out and enjoy some low-stress gaming. Manage a farm, befriend the critters, find a gal to settle down with and marry — Harvest Moon is a far cry from your typical Game Boy fare. And admittedly, this version is considerably more simplistic than the sequels that followed, with fewer systems and no real-time clock. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s a perfectly pleasant way to while away some time, which is precisely what Game Boy was designed for.
23. Cave Noire
One of the things that helped propel Game Boy to its epic success was the system’s suitability for quick, pick-up-and-play game sessions — that’s what made Tetris such a perfect pack-in. This Japan-only release (yeah, there’s a fan translation) from Konami applies that philosophy to the roguelike genre, presenting players with the ability to take on an enormous string of procedurally generated mini-dungeons in brief sessions. Each session allows you to take on one of several different mission types and challenges to complete that task with the use of whatever tools you acquire along the way. While less action-oriented than Spelunky, it scratches the same itch.
22. Kid Dracula
NES owners were cheated out of a localized version of Konami’s goofball Castlevania spin-off Boku Dracula-Kun, which remained stranded in Japan. But that’s OK, because this handheld rendition was a pretty faithful recreation of the console release, with colors stripped out and sprites scaled back to fit the format but with all the freewheeling action intact. Kid Dracula presents the main bad guy of the Castlevania series as a tow-headed tyke out to reclaim his castle from the villain Galamoth. It’s kind of weird to imagine the murderous, blood-drinking tyrant as a happy-go-lucky kid, but this isn’t really the sort of game experience where you’re intended to question the underlying morality. Just burn through the comical monsters with your undead fireballs and reclaim Dracula’s place as King of the Damned, OK?
21. Space Invaders
Space Invaders shipped early in the Game Boy’s life in a Japan-only release. This isn’t that one. No, the game we’re highlighting here came several years later, toward the end of Game Boy’s life and nearly two decades after Space Invaders first took over arcades around the world. This was a U.S.-exclusive release, and it’s an amazing piece of work. Plug it into a Game Boy and it’s just, you know, the same Space Invaders that shipped four years prior. But insert it into a Super Game Boy to run on Super NES and suddenly it transforms into a different experience altogether. Not only do you get special frames and color palettes for Super Game Boy, you also open up unique SGB-only alternate modes. Oh, and on top of that, you can also boot the system to run the Super NES version of Space Invaders, which could also be purchased separately. Yes, this Game Boy cartridge contained an entire Super NES game. It’s one of the wildest things ever to have been done with a Game Boy.
20. Metroid II: Return of Samus
While Metroid II is admittedly the weakest of the numbered Metroid games, that doesn’t make it a bad game in its own right. A mediocre Metroid is still a heck of a Game Boy release, and if this sequel falls short of true excellence it’s only because it tries to do so much. Metroid II’s world is bigger than that of the original game, and heroine Samus Aran has to acquire more kinds of equipment to take on more and deadlier metroids than before. Although Metroid II is a bit sluggish at times and suffers from visual repetition that makes orienteering your way through its massive caverns a hassle at times, it really builds on the foundations of the first game and does a lot more with both Samus and the universe she inhabits.
19. Mole Mania
Long overlooked by fans due to its late release, Mole Mania was one of the few Game Boy projects designed by Shigeru Miyamoto’s team at EAD (most first-party Game Boy releases were managed by Gunpei Yokoi’s R&D1 division). And as with EAD’s three other Game Boy projects, this is a smart game that maximizes the hardware and shines with thoughtful choices from start to finish. In a lot of ways, it feels like the Nintendo take on the box-pushing Game Boy standard puzzler seen in Boxxle (aka Soukoban): While built around similar principles of navigating an object to a goal through mazes, it introduces player actions beyond pushing while incorporating additional play elements and hazards. An inventive take on the box puzzler, it’s proof that Soukoban games can be fun when modernized.
18. Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge
The first and third Castlevania releases for Game Boy were, to be frank, quite poor. Belmont’s Revenge is the one stand-out, a game that actually ranks with the finest entries in the franchise. Although it makes use of many of the same not-quite-canon mechanics of its portable predecessor (Castlevania: The Adventure), it incorporates them into a journey that feels much better designed. There are fewer pixel-perfect jumps and unavoidable enemy traps to deal with, while the action moves at a speedier clip. On top of that, you have the freedom to mix up each playthrough a bit by choosing to tackle the first four stages in any order you like, in classic Mega Man style. The difference between Belmont’s Revenge and the other Game Boy Castlevania titles highlights the importance of getting the little details right when you’re playing on a little system.
17. Gargoyle’s Quest
Kind of like Kid Dracula, Gargoyle’s Quest dared to put players in the shoes (figuratively speaking) of a hated villain — in this case, the Red Arremer from Ghosts ’N Goblins. In casting players as the most vexing monster in that franchise, Capcom’s designers took a radically different approach to design for this spin-off. While Gargoyle’s Quest sticks to the side-scrolling platformer format of Ghosts ’N Goblins, it works more as an action RPG. Protagonist Firebrand starts weak and underpowered, just like his foe Arthur, but unlike Arthur he grows in strength through the course of the action: His health meter expands, his attack options improve, he improves his flight abilities, and he even acquires skills that let him navigate the world more easily. A bit short and ultimately fairly easy if you can overcome the crushingly difficult introductory stage, Gargoyle’s Quest remains a standout of the Game Boy library.
16. Heiankyo Alien
Heiankyo Alien is a fairly simplistic title compared to most of the works chronicled here, but it merits a mention for its historic importance. The original version of Heiankyo Alien was a PC classic released all the way back in 1979, and it only ever saw an arcade conversion at the time; this Game Boy reissue was its first-ever home release. It’s a key title, the missing link between Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Lode Runner, and a bunch of other early ’80s classics, where players evade monsters in a maze and attempt to trap the marauders by digging holes in the ground. On top of that, Heiankyo Alien for Game Boy is one of gaming’s very first proper remakes: In addition to including a straight conversion of the decade-old arcade game, the cart also includes a remixed mode with updated graphics and new gameplay mechanics. That sort of thing is old hat these days, but you didn’t see many developers treating vintage software with such reverence in the Game Boy era. And the game is still pretty addictive even now.
15. Final Fantasy Adventure
Another game in the Legend of Zelda vein that isn’t quite as good as a real Zelda — so who cares, right? Wrong! Final Fantasy Adventure takes the Zelda action-RPG format and pushes the role-playing mechanics even further than games like Golvelius and Crystalis, integrating Final Fantasy touchstones like chocobos, spell conventions, and even partner characters. It’s a rambling mess of a game in places, with bafflingly moronic companion A.I. and a few needlessly obtuse puzzles. But before Link’s Awakening landed on Game Boy, fans found lots to love in the brisk sprawl of this classic, which went on to inspire some amazing sequels in the form of the Mana games.
14. Mega Man 5
Capcom made a bunch of Game Boy Mega Man carts, but the first four consisted entirely of hacked-together stages taken from the NES games. It wasn’t until the fifth and final Game Boy Mega Man that the company ran out of existing material to mine and created something new. Mega Man 5 doesn’t quite stand up to the franchise’s all-time greats due to the handheld’s cramped proportions and sluggish hardware. As handheld action platformers go, though, this inventive rendition of an 8-bit standard (which sends Mega Man on a journey through the solar system to fight planet-themed bosses) is hard to top. The game’s late release, low print run, and great reputation make for an unusually pricey pick-up, but happily it’s also available on 3DS Virtual Console for a pittance.
13. Bionic Commando
Another NES-to-Game Boy conversion, this one’s an example of how to do it well and truly right. Capcom comprehensively reworked the source material to fit the reduced scale of the Game Boy, bringing across the classic NES game’s excellent physics and controls to allow players to swing triumphantly across the tiny screen without compromise. The remake also retools a number of the original levels to edit out the dead-end parts that didn’t quite work and ensure a brisker flow through the action. It even adds material, including a rousing new final stage that puts players’ grappling skills to the test.
12. Balloon Kid
(Pax Softnica/Nintendo, 1991)
The title only obliquely references the fact that this is a proper sequel to and expansion upon the NES black box classic Balloon Fight. Specifically, Balloon Kid takes the engrossing bonus mode Balloon Trip, a sort of proto-endless-runner concept set entirely in the air, and turns it into a proper adventure featuring traditional stages, secrets, and bosses. Balloon Kid introduces new play mechanics, including the ability to let go of the balloons that keep heroine Alice aloft to run and jump in traditional platform action style, and in doing so it introduces a load of surprisingly engrossing strategies to the mix. It’s easily one of the finest hidden treasures in the Game Boy library.
11. Game Boy Gallery (series)
Before Game Boy, there was the Game & Watch. Gunpei Yokoi’s long-running handheld line presented players with a far more primitive entertainment proposition than Game Boy would, but the line was popular enough that the final Game & Watch units shipped after Game Boy’s debut. Fittingly, Game & Watch’s successor paid tribute to what had come before with a series of brilliant remakes. Each Game & Watch Gallery cart revisited multiple iconic Game & Watch handhelds, giving players the option to play a faithful recreation of the self-contained LCD games or a fancied-up remake sporting ’90s-appropriate graphics. The games here are simple, of course, but they remain fun — making this series both a testament to Nintendo’s long-running commitment to play and its ability to recognize the value of game history … or at least the high points of its own history. It’s a start.
10. Super Mario Land (series)
The two Mario adventures for Game Boy don’t feel nearly so much of a piece as, say, Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3 do. The first Mario Land showed up at launch and clearly demonstrates Nintendo’s developers getting their heads around the capabilities of the Game Boy while playing it somewhat safe: It features tiny, simple sprites and only about half as many stages as Super Mario Bros., all of which tend toward the basic side. On the other hand, it does let Mario take on a few stages in a submarine and biplane. By comparison, its sequel scales up the graphical detail, sends Mario through a series of strange worlds unlike any other in the franchise, and gives him weird new powers. What both games have in common is the way they both feel like, well, Mario … despite their unconventional styles. It took a little while for the devs to get comfortable working within Game Boy’s constraints, but in its best moments, the Mario Land duology shows off how surprising and weird Mario can be when Papa Miyamoto isn’t watching.
9. Mario’s Picross (series)
This picture crossword concept has become a mainstay of Nintendo’s library, with more than a dozen entries appearing on 3DS alone! Yet the franchise began here, ushered into the world by none other than Mario himself: Players are presented with a grid in which each row and column is assigned numeric values that represent consecutive filled-in blocks. The challenge comes in figuring out which blocks need to be filled and which should remain empty, a task that requires a touch of math skill and a great deal of logical intuition. When completed, the filled and empty blocks form a simple black-and-white image — in the case of Mario’s Picross, the image ties back to Mario series sprites. The Picross concept hasn’t changed much since 1995, though, and it’s every bit as addictive now as it was then … even on Game Boy. Note that only the first Mario’s Picross was localized to the U.S. and Europe, with Picross 2 remaining stranded in Japan, making it an obvious get for import fans.
8. Kirby’s Dream Land (series)
HAL’s big breakout title, and the one that cemented its status as a de facto Nintendo second party, arrived on the scene in 1992. The hero, a voracious little fellow named Kirby, became an instant fan favorite, despite not having been entirely defined in his first outing. In Kirby’s Dream Land, our hero is shown as white on the packaging, and he doesn’t gain new powers by swallowing monsters. Still, Dream Land nailed the uptempo vibe and overall look that continues to define the franchise’s annual installments to this day. The sequel, 1995’s Kirby’s Dream Land 2, brought the concepts and improvements introduced in Kirby’s Adventure on NES back to the Game Boy before Kirby spun into a variety of handheld block puzzlers and pinball games for the remainder of the platform’s life. Approachable, adorable, and possessed of hidden depths, the Kirby series occupies a unique place in Nintendo’s character pantheon, and it was established right here.
7. The Final Fantasy Legend (series)
The Final Fantasy Legend trilogy isn’t really Final Fantasy, but neither is it too far removed. Designed by Akitoshi Kawazu, Squaresoft’s most idiosyncratic director, Legend and its sequels took some of the unusual concepts that appeared in the unpopular Final Fantasy II for Famicom and ran with them. Set in strange worlds, including physically impossible spaces and lands beset by banana-smuggling cartels, these adventures allow players to built their own teams of distinct races ranging from combat-capable humans to monsters capable of transforming into more (or less!) powerful species by devouring the meat of defeated foes. Weapons break with repeated use, magic-casters randomly learn and unlearn spells, and you can use a chainsaw to kill God Himself (who, in fairness, is kind of a jerk here). The Legend series stands out as being the world’s first portable RPG series, and its creators took advantage of the fact that they were painting on a fresh canvas to do their own weird thing. Maybe that’s why the games still hold up 30 years later.
(Bulletproof Software/Nintendo, 1989)
Nintendo included Tetris with the Game Boy hardware in America, and for good reason: It practically sold the system all on its own. With simple design that cascades into mind-gripping addiction, Tetris works as well for a quick fix of entertainment as it does for a lengthy engagement. Despite its lack of color, Tetris on Game Boy actually ended up being a better game than its NES counterparts — Nintendo and Bulletproof gave it multiplayer link capabilities, brilliant music that showed off the console’s packed-in earbuds, and a visual design that didn’t need color to work. For many people, Game Boy Tetris remains the definitive Tetris experience, despite the fact that there are flashier versions of the game that integrate things like virtual reality and mass-scale competitive multiplayer.
5. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
The Zelda series has two faces: The rock-solid, genre-defining adventure face, and the weird stuff face. Link’s Awakening hovers somewhere in between the two. It makes a lot of interesting changes to the top-down Zelda formula, not least of which is making Link’s sword an optional piece of equipment; he can swap it out for other weapons, a shield that can be used actively as a defensive weapon, and even a magical feather that allows him to jump. This quest also takes place entirely within the bounds of an island, a surreal place inhabited by oddball characters and a certain dream logic. Yet the game also set many standards: Link’s Awakening was the first Zelda game to feature a complex trading chain subquest and the first in the series to make musical instruments a key element of the quest. But most of all, Link’s Awakening combined the feel of the original Zelda for NES with the complexity and depth of A Link to the Past for Super NES, proving once and for all that the Game Boy was capable of delivering an experience on par with its 16-bit sibling.
4. Wario Land (series)
Technically, you could count this as part of the Super Mario Land series; the first game is properly titled Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3. But Mario was nowhere to be found in that game, nor in the sequel (which debuted on the original Game Boy before resurfacing a year later in color). No, this duology — along with its sequels on Virtual Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance — centered entirely on bad boy Wario, who debuted as the villain of Super Mario Land 2. By making Wario the lead, the designers at Nintendo R&D1 were freed to change up the dynamics of play from nimble platform athleticism that didn’t necessarily mesh with the Game Boy’s tiny resolution to a slower, more exploration-based design. The Wario Land games feature more intricate puzzle-like stage designs than Mario’s adventures, tasking players with the need to hunt for secrets and treasures. At the same time, Wario himself has a more aggressive physicality about him, bashing into enemies and smashing through walls in a way that Mario simply can’t — and Wario Land II makes the protagonist effectively indestructible, turning his suffering into a gameplay mechanic. All of Nintendo R&D1’s best and weirdest instincts come through in the Wario Land games, and they created two of the finest Game Boy adventures in the process.
3. Pokémon (series)
Nearly a decade after the Game Boy’s debut, the system enjoyed an unexpected second life thanks to the arrival of Pokémon. Nothing about Pokémon screamed “global success” on paper. It was a role-playing game, a genre that had experienced its first major console success in the U.S. a year earlier thanks to Final Fantasy 7, which succeeded on the strength of flashy visuals that the humble Game Boy could never hope to equal. Game Freak’s game lacked anything resembling a real story, instead following a nameless kid in his quest to capture a bunch of weird monsters. Its battles played out slowly through menus, minimal animation, and cascades of explanatory text. And it was a phenomenon. Pokémon’s strengths were the same things that initially appeared to be weaknesses: Its unnamed protagonist allowed the player to place themselves in the adventure. All those monsters had to be captured one by one and integrated into the player’s combat roster, creating a real connection between human and digital critter. But that wasn’t the only connection Pokémon created! Even more essential was the real-world, person-to-person connection that allowed two Pokémon trainers to battle and trade their creatures head-to-head through the Game Boy’s Link Cable. It didn’t hurt that Pokémon was buoyed by a brilliant marketing scheme that included a card game and a television show that’s still running more than two decades later, but in the end it was the deep, appealing gameplay that made Pokémon such an incredible showcase for Game Boy.
2. Game Boy Camera
Is Game Boy Camera a game? Well, not in the purest sense; it’s really an accessory, a tiny digital camera capable of snapping and saving about 20 low-resolution images to the built-in memory. You could even print them to the thermal printer Nintendo sold alongside the camera. But it wasn’t just an accessory; Nintendo infused its ultimate Game Boy gadget with the company’s enduring love for play. So Game Boy Camera doesn’t use a normal camera interface; it launches from an RPG-style menu featuring weird cartoon people. If you select “RUN” from the menu instead of “SHOOT,” a horrifying face appears and demands, “WHAT ARE YOU RUNNING FROM?” Once you take photos, you can draw on them and decorate them with illustrated frames. There’s also a send-up of Game Boy shooter Solar Striker on the cart. What makes Game Boy Camera a work of genius is the way it takes advantage of the portable nature of the system and turns it into a device that straddles the fence between gizmo and game: Suddenly Game Boy became a practical tool for self-expression. At the same time, it made photography fun, and its lo-fi appearance became an iconic emblem of the system … even now, Game Boy Camera remains a popular format for hobbyist photography.
1. Donkey Kong
The greatest Game Boy game was also one of the greatest arcade games of all time. Were Game Boy Donkey Kong simply a reissue of a 1981 coin-op title, though, it wouldn’t be worth making much fuss about. There’s so much more to this game than a simple remake; it’s a massive reinvention of the old arcade favorite, adding dozens upon dozens of puzzle-platform stages that embrace concepts from the entirety of Mario’s history. Donkey Kong also serves as a comprehensive embodiment of the Game Boy’s sum total existence. It’s a look back to Nintendo’s own past that simultaneously paved the way for its future: It was here that Mario first learned the chain-jumps and handstands that would become a part of his repertoire a few years later in Super Mario 64. It’s both a perfect portable game (containing 100 bite-sized stand-alone levels) and a brilliant console title (thanks to its full embrace of the Super Game Boy peripheral that allowed it to be played on Super NES). And it showed just how far both Nintendo and Game Boy had come in 1994 by expanding greatly on the game that launched the company to the heights of fame, while also being vastly more refined and complex than the original Super Mario Land. A masterpiece of a game.
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