Editor's Note: This article was originally posted for the Game Boy's 25th anniversary. How time flies. We're re-promoting it here to celebrate its 30th anniversary!
Good news, everyone! The Game Boy turns 30 this week. Did you feel it? The icy hand of Death pass over your soul as you read that sentence? Rather than dwell on the fact that Tetris Theme A has been a part of your life for a quarter-century now, let us instead celebrate this grim and terrible occasion by looking at the greatest games ever to appear on Game Boy and Game Boy Color. While the system was home to entirely too many Sokoban box puzzle clones and Pokémon wannabes, it was also home to top-tier software as well.
For the system's 30th anniversary, I've picked out 25 of my all-time favorite Game Boy games – 10 for the original monochrome system, 10 for Game Boy Color, and five that never made it to the U.S. Please feel free to make your own suggestions in the comments below and rectify the grievous failings of my personal tastes... but don't spend too much time arguing. As this anniversary reminds us all, life is far too short to waste on such things.
The Best Classic Game Boy Titles
With a blazing fast 4.19 MHz processor and a screen capable of displaying a stunning four shades of grey, the original Game Boy seems like a joke compared to, say, PlayStation Vita. Yet it managed to become the second-best-selling handheld game system of all time (right after its successor, the DS). The secret? Tons of awesome games. Including these 10 masterpieces.
Bionic CommandoCapcom, 1992
In terms of raw processing power, the Game Boy wasn't too far behind the NES, which made the idea of converting NES hits to the platform incredibly appealing. But given the system's limited color and screen resolution, direct ports were generally pretty disastrous. Bionic Commando showed the world how to do it right: Keep the content of a top-tier action game the same, but take into account the shortcomings of the new platform. By scaling down the graphics and simplifying the visuals to maintain a clear, high-contrast look, Capcom created a high point for the Game Boy. Sure, they may have compromised on the visuals, but the part that mattered – the high-swinging game action – came across perfectly.
Donkey KongNintendo, 1994
Who in 1994 cared about a port of a 13-year-old arcade game? Probably not a lot.... but Donkey Kong wasn't just that simple (albeit legendary) coin-guzzler. After you cleared those four famous levels, another 100 or so opened up, each one a diabolical action puzzle that put Mario's skills and the player's brain alike to the test. In some ways, Donkey Kong feels like original creator Shigeru Miyamoto's attempt to make a final statement with his famous first character before Rare changed the world's perception of the series forever. As swan songs go, this one's hard to beat.
Gargoyle's QuestCapcom, 1990
Ghosts 'N Goblins pushed the boundaries of arcade action games – a fast-paced, highly detailed platformer that debuted around the same time that Super Mario Bros. blew the lid on the genre – so it only seems fitting that its spinoff, Gargoyle's Quest, would do the same for portable adventures. Not only did this brilliant little action-RPG feature more elaborate graphics and gameplay than any Game Boy title before it, it also forced players to take control of their nemesis from Ghosts 'N Goblins, the annoying and deadly red devil. Arthur's bane proved to be quite a capable hero here, able to take flight and singe foes with bursts of hellfire. Challenging yet involved, Gargoyle's Quest set a new standard for the platform.
Final Fantasy Legend IISquare, 1991
The original Final Fantasy Legend (actually the first chapter in the SaGa game, not a true Final Fantasy) has the distinction of being the world's first true portable RPG. Its sequel has the distinction of being the first great one. While it operates on the same basic rules as the original, this follow-up feels far more polished. The quest lines seem much less abstract, the rules less exploitable (no more killing the final boss in a single hit). The plot features more interesting and amusing diversions. But of course, the unique quirks of the series – degrading weapons, the four unique character races, the disposability of your characters – remains constant. An odd RPG, sure, but appealingly so.
Kid DraculaKonami, 1993
Sadly, Castlevania's outings on Game Boy weren't so great. The second one was decent, but the first and third? Don't even bother. No, the best Castlevania for Game Boy went under the name Kid Dracula – but don't be fooled by the switcheroo. This is totally Castlevania... just, you know, a silly version of it. You control a young Count Dracula, fighting cartoon versions of familiar Castlevania monsters in cartoon versions of familiar Castlevania settings to peppy remixes of familiar Castlevania tunes. Get the picture? It's whimsical and kid-friendly, but it's still loads of fun.
Kirby's Dream Land 2HAL/Nintendo, 1995
Back when he was white rather than pink, HAL's hungry hero has suction power but not the ability to absorb the powers of enemies he devoured. No, Kirby's Dream Land 2 is a little different than you probably expect from a Kirby game – but despite the rules not quite having been defined here, it's a great take on the franchise. Credit goes not so much to Kirby as to his adorable animal pals, who team up with the little guy to lend him special abilities. Not to mention making a cute game even cuter. Aww.
Mega Man 5Capcom, 1994
Capcom's Game Boy Mega Man games just remixed the NES titles, shuffling around levels and bosses for the small screen. But by the time they finished with Mega Man 4, they'd run out of NES originals to rehash... so they buckled down and created an entirely original Mega Man title, with all new stages and enemies. Sure, it breaks from tradition in some ways, but its excellent level and weapon design make this the genuine culmination of Mega Man's Game Boy run.
Ninja Gaiden ShadowNatsume/Tecmo, 1991
Natsume did such a great job ripping off Ninja Gaiden with Shadow of the Ninja that Tecmo actually rewarded them for it. Instead of suing to prevent Shadow of the Ninja from hitting Game Boy, they licensed the game and pretended it was a prequel to the NES Ninja Gaiden trilogy. The action doesn't line up 100 percent with the true Ninja Gaiden titles, but it's close enough (and good enough in its own right) that it would seem petty to complain.
Super Mario LandNintendo, 1989
Back when the Game Boy was brand new, the idea of being able to play Super Mario Bros. on the go was kind of mind-blowing... so you can forgive the fact that this take on Mario is at once curiously unfaithful to the series yet technically conservative. It wasn't made by the regular Mario team, and it shows – but the tip-off comes from interesting details like the Fire Flower replacement, the Super Ball, which Mario seemingly swiped from Alleyway, and the fact that much of the adventure (including the final battle) takes the form of a side-scrolling shooter. Weird, but in a good way.
TetrisBullet-Proof Software/Nintendo, 1989
If Tetris hadn't been packed with the Game Boy hardware, people would have bought it anyway... but since it did come with the system, it just made getting the system a no-brainer. Like the hardware that hosted it, Tetris offered definitive proof that Nintendo really got portable gaming. With play rules that perfectly complemented the short play sessions typical to handhelds and graphics rudimentary enough that the underwhelming screen didn't hinder the action – it did get its start on a text-based computer, after all – Tetris was the perfect Game Boy software. For many gamers, this version of the game still hasn't been topped.
The Best Game Boy Color Games
Nintendo had a 32-bit successor for the Game Boy – basically, the GBA – waiting in the wings as early as 1996! But Pokémon reinvigorated the Game Boy market around the same time, so Nintendo shelved the more powerful console until it could be released at a better price point and instead created the half-measure that was Game Boy Color: Slightly more powerful than Game Boy, capable of color visuals, but still inexpensive and battery-friendly. Despite being a stopgap, though, the GBC brought us some great games in its four years of life.
Dragon Warrior IIIEnix | 2001
The original Dragon Quest – renamed Dragon Warrior for the U.S. – may have sparked the console RPG genre in Japan, but Dragon Quest III defined it. With a huge world, an engrossing story, and the ability to swap character classes, this established the formula for most JRPGs to follow. And it was every bit as entertaining on Game Boy Color as it had been on NES – actually, more so, since this version was based on the refined 16-bit remake that never came to the U.S., offering superior visuals and refined (that is, less grindy) play balance.
The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DXNintendo | 1998
Before Ocarina of Time established the Link to the Past formula as the fundamental basis of The Legend of Zelda, the series was still a malleable thing. Link's Awakening for Game Boy proved it. With its mix-and-match equipment system (you could unequip your sword for the first time), blatant Mario references, and surreal storyline, Link's Awakening stands as one of the most creative and daring entries in the franchise. The DX rerelease didn't offer tremendous improvements – mainly a new dungeon and some bonus hooks for the Game Boy Printer – but as the definitive version of one of the finest Zelda games, it's a must-play.
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages & SeasonsFlagship/Capcom/Nintendo | 2001
Two Zeldas on one list? Nope; try three Zeldas. The Oracles began life as a remake of the original Zelda before becoming two different games. Despite being released on the same day, the Oracles weren't like Pokémon versions; the differences between the two were profound, as each game was a wholly separate adventure, with a unique story, powers, world, and even style. Ages feels like a child of Ocarina of Time, talkier and more quest-oriented, while Seasons hearkens back to the NES with a lean plot and slightly nonlinear progression. Both are worth playing, especially since completing both (in either order!) is required to find the true ending.
Mega Man XtremeCapcom | 2001
Taking a cue from the Game Boy Mega Man games, Xtreme may feel like something of a step backward from the original and excellent Mega Man 5, but it's not so bad as all that. Combining scenarios and bosses from the first couple of Super NES Mega Man X titles, Xtreme adds some new features and mechanics to the mix to compensate for its scaled-down visuals and streamlined interface.
Metal Gear SolidKonami | 2000
The secret best Metal Gear? Called "Metal Gear: Ghost Babel" in Japan, the Game Boy Color entry of the series feels like an alternate reality version of the PlayStation game, with a story that seems to take place in a parallel universe. Likewise, if the franchise had never gone into cinematic 3D, this is how it would have played. Despite running on much humbler hardware than Metal Gear Solid, it plays a lot like the PlayStation game and, aside from a tedious conveyer belt puzzle, is engaging from start to finish.
Pokémon CrystalGame Freak/Nintendo | 2001
The definitive 8-bit Pokémon game! This one may not command the nostalgia that the Tumblr generation has for the original 151, but it combines all the great innovations and revisions seen in Pokémon Gold and Silver and adds quite a few new elements as well. Time of day, pokémon genders, the ability to play as a female trainer, and more: Pokémon Crystal set a standard for the series that many feel was never quite matched by its many and sundry sequels.
ShantaeWayforward/Capcom | 2002
Published late in the system's life in tiny quantities, Shantae went largely unnoticed by the public at large until it was too late – and then it shot up insanely in price. Was it worth all that cash? Well, maybe not, but it definitely was a cool platformer. Packed with detail and great animation, it felt like a love letter to classic NES and Master System games: An 8-bit swan song. Thankfully, you can grab it for cheap on 3DS Virtual Console these days.
Super Mario Bros. DXNintendo 2000
Unlike Super Mario All-Stars, which basically just gave the 8-bit Mario games a facelift, Super Mario Bros. DX added considerably more to the original Super Mario (and the secret unlockable bonus, The Lost Levels). New objectives, new modes, new multiplayer mechanics, the ability to play with wonky Luigi physics, even new collectibles inserted into levels – this was a comprehensive overhaul of Super Mario Bros. Unsurprisingly, the DX team went on to make all the Super Mario Advance games for GBA... but on one level, this was much better than the Advance games. No awful voice samples!
Toki ToriTwo Tribes | 2001
Toki Tori has gone on to have quite a rich and vibrant existence beyond the boundaries of the Game Boy Color, where it began life to tragic public indifference. A slow-paced but excellent little puzzle platformer, Toki Tori put a cap on the Game Boy's life by revisiting the genre that dominated the system's early years with style and sophistication. With brilliant puzzle design and shockingly excellent graphics, Toki Tori was an unsung hero of the GBC.
Wario Land II DXNintendo | 1998
Originally designed for the classic Game Boy, Nintendo revisited it with a slightly revamped version when the Game Boy Color launched a year later. Whichever system you play it on, though, Wario Land DX is one of the most amazing, innovative, inventive platformers ever designed. Throwing out all the rules of the genre – Wario can't die or even take damage – completely changes the nature of the Mario series into a grand puzzle game packed with secrets, alternate routes, and even hidden endings. A masterpiece.
The Best Game Boy Import Titles
As so often happens with Japanese systems, plenty of great games never quite left the motherland to grace American shores. The good news? Game Boy was a region-free console (some retailers even sold Japanese Game Boy software!), so you can play these games on any Game Boy-compatible device from any region. Provided you can track them down, of course.
The Battle of OlympusInfinity/Radical/Imagineer | 1993
While plenty of NES series made their way to Game Boy in various forms, The Battle of Olympus represents one of the rare instances in which a developer attempted to convert an NES game wholesale to the platform (something that generally only happened with the more powerful Game Boy Color). Aside from the loss of color, this game is surprisingly faithful to the original version – no downscaled graphics, no streamlined play, just a monochrome NES game. It's not quite as strong a remake as Capcom's conversion of Duck Tales, suffering from a moderate amount of slowdown, but the fact that it even happened (and with such a solid Zelda II clone!) makes this Europe-only release quite remarkable.
Chalvo 55Japan Supply System | 1997
There's something tragic about the character Chalvo, the eponymous star of Chalvo 55. Originally slated to appear in a brilliant-looking Virtual Boy action puzzler called Bound High, Chalvo saw his moment in the sun snatched away when Bound High was cancelled due to the Virtual Boy flopping hard. His creators then put him into a classic Game Boy puzzler called Chalvo 55, which was great and entertaining... and never left Japan, because the Game Boy was in its deepest doldrums outside of Japan at the time. The Game Boy Color/Pokémon revolution was still more than a year away. Poor Chalvo.
For the Frog the Bell Tolls (Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru)Nintendo | 1992
While it's not exactly import-friendly thanks to its involved storyline, this interesting Japan-only RPG could be seen as laying the groundwork for Link's Awakening. A charming tale of a hapless frog prince trying to rescue a princess before his rival prince beats him to the task, the story doesn't take itself seriously yet has a lot of heart. The game design is interesting, too; rather than boring players with the details of RPG combat, battles play out automatically based on your strength and health versus that of your opponents. Happily, a fan translation of the game showed up online a couple of years ago, so you do have an avenue available if you want to give it a go.
Trip WorldSunsoft | 1992
Possibly the most expensive Game Boy release in the world – the Japanese version sells for hundreds of dollars, the European for thousands – Trip World would seem far too unassuming and humble to merit such value. A curiously non-threatening platformer, it literally is a trip – a journey – through charming cartoon worlds in which few inhabitants are hostile or aggressive. Unless you get hung up on the sometimes tricky boss battles, you can easily complete Trip World in half an hour or so. Yet despite (or because of) this, the game has a wonderful, unique vibe to it – not to mention great graphics and sound. Maybe not $3000 worth of great, but it's definitely one checking out if you ever have the chance.
XArgonaut/Nintendo | 1992
The "fox" in "Starfox" comes from the F/X chip that powered the game... but the X in F/X just might come from this game, a Japan-only first-person shooter by many of the designers who would go on to create both Starfox and its fancy coprocessor (including a very young Dylan Cuthbert). While laughable by contemporary standards, X was a technical marvel in 1992: A true 3D game running on the humble Game Boy. Yes, it's been eclipsed by many portable shooters since, but the historic value of this one means it deserves a place in any gamer's library.