Over the past week, we have already written extensively about the Game Boy, detailing the history of Nintendo’s hit portable system and even reminiscing about our favourite Game Boy memories on the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. And now today, on the console’s 30th birthday, we’ve asked our staff to compile a list of the fifteen best Game Boy games that we feel truly stand the test of time. It wasn’t easy excluding games like Wario Land, Duck Tales or Mega Man V, and we’ve eliminated games released on the Game Boy Color as only a few were backward compatible with the Game Boy, but we did what had to be done. Here is a list of the fifteen best Game Boy games. Enjoy.
Best Game Boy Games: Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge
While not the first Castlevania game on the Game Boy, Belmont’s Revenge is the most memorable. Gone was the linear level-by-level progression, the player now had full freedom to choose which stage to whip first, be it the castle on the clouds or the fort in the swamp.
Once again, you control Christopher Belmont and unleash the famous whip at your foes. The whip starts off small but can be upgraded with various orbs, which at full power can start shooting fireballs from its tip. The whip can also be used to extinguish candles which reveal other useful items such as axes and holy water. For those that played Castlevania Adventure, the whip works slightly different as it doesn’t power down upon use, which personally, makes Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge all the better.
And in an opposite to Mole Mania, Castlevania II has some of the darkest, more depressing music on the Game Boy. While that would seem like a negative, it fits the theme really well and is, equally, some of the best music on the system. In addition to some of the most intricate visuals available on the console, Belmont’s Revenge is easily one of the best games available. (James Baker)
Best Game Boy Games: Donkey Kong
When the classic arcade game that launched the careers of Donkey Kong and Mario made its way to the Game Boy in 1994, Nintendo didn’t set out to release a simple remake – instead, Nintendo brought back their famous ape for a revival that features a whopping 101 stages and a ton of new features. Like in the arcade cabinet, the player takes control of Mario and must rescue Pauline from Donkey Kong while running through the four levels found in the original game. But at the conclusion of these four stages the game expands into an ambitious action puzzle/platformer with short cutscenes and various gameplay enhancements such as Mario’s ability to pick up and throw items at certain enemies; carry keys to open locked doors; flip over onto his hands; catch falling barrels; swim underwater; climb ropes; spin on wires to reach new heights; and perform a series of chain-jumps – all things that would carry over to other titles in the Super Mario repertoire.
At the time, Donkey Kong featured improved levels, graphics, audio and controls, but like every game on this list, the Game Boy version of Donkey Kong stands the test of time. If you happen to be a nostalgic gamer or even a huge Nintendo fan who wants to explore the company’s back catalogue, this is essential to your collection. (Ricky D)
Best Game Boy Games: Donkey Kong Land
Remembered by many fans as the “other” yellow game boy cartridge, Donkey Kong Land is a not-to-miss spinoff from one of Rare’s most beloved projects. While many remember the title as a straight port of Donkey Kong Country for the SNES, the hardware limitations of the original Game Boy forced developers to make some notable adjustments that make this hidden gem unique. The title borrows many of the character sprites, background textures, and sound effects from its console counterpart but has an entirely new level design for each world, making it an under-appreciated entry in the franchise.
In classic Rare fashion, Donkey Kong Land has a humorous, tongue-in-cheek, and painfully self-aware story. Crankey Kong opens the game by criticizing the Kongs of only being successful because of the enhanced graphics and sound of the SNES, saying that they could never be as popular in 8bit. To put that theory to the test, he calls on K Rool to steal DK’s bananas and start the journey again. Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong must set out across Kong Island to recover the lost goods.
With its classic side-scrolling platforming gameplay and a killer David Wise soundtrack, Donkey Kong Land is definitely a Game Boy must play. Like its Country predecessor, the title is a bit of a difficult collect-a-thon that guarantees many hours of replayability. For those that don’t feel like shelling out ten bucks for a used cartridge, the title’s 2014 rerelease on the 3DS makes it easily accessible for fans of the franchise. (Ty Davidson)
Best Game Boy Games: Final Fantasy Adventure
At the time, Final Fantasy Adventure was not a typical example of the series, which was just beginning its eventual skyrocket in popularity. Its battles are real-time instead of turn-based, there’s a singular protagonist instead of a party system (though some NPCs do sometimes temporarily join up), and enemies appear on screen — not through those often annoying random encounters. Outwardly it seems more like a Zelda title, and that may have been the thought, but its sense of the tragic as a motivating force for storytelling is SquareSoft all the way, and this aspect is what makes it truly excel. The Hero (named by the player, providing instant connection and eliminating the need for heavy backstory) is a classic cosmic punching bag; he starts out in a bad way, endures loss after loss, only to be told that every sacrifice forced upon him is necessary for the good of all mankind. Not good for him, mind you, but in service of everyone else. No, the Hero’s role is that of a reluctant martyr, someone for whom friendship is impossible because everyone he likes dies a horrible death. Despite his incredibly awesome hair, happiness is never meant to be, because this stupid thing called “fate” says so.
The simple sword-swinging, spell-casting action works well (and would serve as inspiration for Secret of Mana), and the land is vast for a Gameboy title, but it’s the brutal world and themes that make this title stand out to those who played it. There’s a melancholy air permeating every quest, one that ensures no completely happy ending awaits. Final Fantasy Adventure keeps things real, so if you’re not being attacked by any number of beasts inhabiting the forest, frozen in place by a sorceress monster, mocked by ageist kids because you can’t swing a sword like you used to, or turned into a parrot because of your wonderful singing voice, then your town is probably under attack by the evil Glaive Empire, who have no problem razing everything you care about to the ground. So, you know, have a nice life. It’s an epic adventure on a small scale, still memorable to this day. (Patrick Murphy)
Best Game Boy Games: Gargoyle’s Quest
Is it a sequel to the Ghost n Goblins series or isn’t it? It technically is but it technically isn’t, the only similarities are those surrounding the main character, Firebrand, which is actually an enemy in the GnG series. Playing a villain turned hero isn’t a new concept, but Gargoyle’s Quest does a fantastic job of making it not a cheesy, mundane affair.
Gargoyle’s Quest was ahead of its time in many aspects. On the first appearance, it seems like a typical 2D platformer. Not quite so. to some extent, Gargoyle’s Quest was a pioneer at blending genres, in this incidence RPG and action. Firebrand jumps pits, clings to walls, and fights enemies much like an action platformer; but then visits towns, collects items, and goes on quests much like an early RPG.
In the likelihood of sound like an old man, Gargoyle’s Quest is a reminder to how well executed games used to be. It’s both confident in its simplicity and assured in its depth that it’s almost entirely faultless. A truly timeless masterpiece. (James Baker)
Best Game Boy Games: Kid Dracula
A list of the best original Game Boy games wouldn’t be complete without Kid Dracula, a comical sidescroller which takes all of the goodness of Castlevania and puts its own spin on gothic-themed platforming. Kid Dracula features just enough charm and personality to get you hooked, and thanks to its tight controls, it was one of the least frustrating games to play on the Game Boy.
When compared to other games released on Nintendo’s greyscale portable system, Kid Dracula’s visuals give other more popular titles a run for their money, as does the extremely catchy soundtrack which puts the Game Boy’s audio capabilities to the test. There’s a reason why the game’s main antagonist, Garamoth, later appeared as a boss in Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – and there’s a reason why the titular character made notable appearances in other games such as The Legend of the Mystical Ninja. Kid Dracula is simply one of the most charming and playable platformers available on the Game Boy and those who played it will remember it fondly to this day. (Ricky D)
Best Game Boy Games: Kirby’s Dream Land
Kirby’s debut, though he’s changed a lot as time has gone on. This black and white version on the Game Boy doesn’t really show how much, but on the box art, Kirby is white, as opposed to the pink complexion he is today. That said, Kirby’s Dream Land started the franchise in such an adorable manner that it’s impossible to dislike Kirby.
Before King Dedede became an ally in the more recent Kirby games, he was quite the gluttonous villain, stealing food from Dream Land, as well the as sparking stars to obtain more food. Kirby decides to go forth and defeat King Dedede to retrieve the food and stars — quite the standard storyline, but implemented so effectively that it remains one of the best games on the Game Boy.
Kirby’s Dream Land consists of five levels, each one made up up of a series of rooms connected by large doors, some doors leading to secret areas. Kirby’s main method of attack is to inhale enemies, which he then can exhale as a projectile missile. Kirby can also fly indefinitely, but is vulnerable to attack. The ability to fly really opens up each room and turns the side-scrolling into not just left and right, but also up and down. The formula for Kirby’s Dream Land was ultimately simple, and the game is typically easy, which made it a fantastic title for those new to Nintendo. The franchise would ultimately become more complex, but its origins should never be forgotten. (James Baker)
Best Game Boy Games: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening was the first portable title in the series, and is easily one of my personal favorites. It was the first Zelda title to make an attempt at exploring Link’s character beyond that of the boy called to action. For once, Link is not seeking to stop Ganon and save the princess, kingdom, or Triforce. Instead, his is a journey of self-discovery, led by a desire to leave the island of Koholint that he has been shipwrecked on. Much of Koholint is full of life, especially when compared to the desolate wasteland from the original Legend of Zelda and the horribly mangled Dark World of A Link to the Past. It’s a breath of fresh air, with plenty of different-looking areas and regions. Overall, the game’s aesthetics’ are great, and the story they present is something that was only ever (theoretically) tackled again once.
Link’s Awakening was also the first top-down Zelda to make use of jumping. While The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past both used pitfalls as ways to impede progress, they never had a clear answer to them. This time Link is granted the gift of jumping from an item called the Roc’s Feather, the very first dungeon item in the game. By combining Roc’s Feather with the Pegasus Boots, Link could clear even bigger gaps and jump over large obstacles. Link’s Awakening is an amazing Zelda title not only for its plethora of new ideas, but for also setting new benchmarks for later games in the series. (Taylor Smith)
Best Game Boy Games: Metroid II: The Return of Samus
Metroid ll: Return of Samus is by no means a masterpiece that changed the gaming scene like Super Metroid or Metroid Prime. In fact, this 1991 GameBoy title was met with fairly mixed reviews from critics. Most of these issues can be blamed on the limitations of the GameBoy itself, such as the lack of graphical detail in the enemies and environments. However, a closer look at this underrated gem reveals a slew of intriguing design decisions that many of the future games were based upon. Metroid ll should not be regarded as the black sheep of the series, but instead should be welcomed into the family.
Any game released on the original GameBoy is bound to be limited in scope, however, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Handheld experiences are more suited for quick sessions that are built upon the sensation of progress being made with each play. Metroid ll takes this idea and successfully applies this to the formula that the first Metroid built. Instead of simply throwing the player into the game with no purpose, Return of Samus gives gamers an objective right from the start. Every metroid on the planet must be eliminated, and a count is displayed on the bottom right of the screen to track this progress.
The concept of tracking down metroids and destroying them works perfectly for a handheld, as it results in a simpler kind of Metroid that still retains the things that made the original great and in many ways, Return of Samus is the perfect game for newcomers to the series. Simplified level design and gameplay offer an easier start to a fairly challenging series that commonly overwhelms new players. Comparing this underrated gem to the other titles in the series really isn’t fair because of the limitations of the console it was developed for. However, it does accomplish exactly what it set out to do; create a fun handheld experience that still retains the feeling of a fully-fledged Metroid title. Even though it is often out-shined by Samus’ GameBoy Advance adventures that came years later, it remains fun to this day and deserves to be recognized as a fine iteration in this long-running series. (Zack Rezak)
Best Game Boy Games: Mole Mania
Mole Mania was unforgiving and troublesome, but beneath the hardship remains one of the best puzzle games on the Game Boy. The storyline consisted of saving your mole family that was kidnapped from an evil farmer, but like with many games on the Game Boy, the quality of the storyline is perhaps a poor indicator of the quality of the gameplay.
This isn’t about overpowering the enemy but out-thinking them. Muddy Mole is limited in what he can do, pretty much stunted to burrowing and moving certain objects. These limitations strengthen the gameplay as they lead to planning ahead before committing; digging in the wrong place can lead to an obstruction, resulting in restarting the level.
While frustrating, there’s a huge sense of achievement upon completion. The visuals are some of the best on the Game Boy and the music is perhaps the most upbeat found on the handheld console, complete with those famous 8-bit synthesizers. If you’re not prone to rage quitting, Mole Mania is a worthy playthrough. (James Baker)
Best Game Boy Games: Pokemon Red and Blue
Never before have two games begun such a massive franchise. A bold statement for sure, but just look at how inescapable Pokémon has become, from the merchandise filling up the shops to the fad that we briefly encountered in Pokémon Go. This all began in 1996 with a game designed around a simple accessory for the Game Boy called a Link Cable. The idea of creating two of the same game that offered unique collectibles that could be traded between the games, a new multiplayer concept that actually had kids outside of the house (a Dratini by today’s standards) and socializing with pocket monsters they had caught and raised, plus a surprisingly complex competitive strategy game that only became more compelling as the franchise grew, was unique to Pokémon Red and Blue at the time.
150 pokémon to catch, with the addition of Mew available as an event exclusive, kept many fans on a never-ending journey to complete their pokédex. 150 might seem like a small number by today’s standards, but without the internet opening up the entire world to trade, you relied on your friends to help you complete the process. This brought the fundamentals of socializing to an uncomfortable place, where negotiating and persuasion were skills that were quickly learned to help us evolve our Haunter into a Gengar. In fact, kids with their Game Boys linked up became such a common sight that arguably the Link Cable became an iconic symbol of the nineties.
With so many pokémon to catch, it’s easy to forget that Pokémon Red and Blue had a pretty dark theme shadowing it. Lavender Town is a legend all in itself, with its soundtrack thought to have resulted in the death of numerous Japanese kids. Myth or not, it was the place that brought the chilling story to life. Team Rocket, the famous villains that debuted in Red and Blue, had done some terrible things in this town, including actions that resulted in the death of a now-famous Marowak. Its pre-evolved form, Cubone, has one of the creepiest pokédex entries.
While as a strategy game Pokémon Red and Blue was broken — Psychic was so over-powered that Alakazam effectively had no weaknesses — it remains so iconic and influential that the world cannot escape the franchise it created. A defining game of the nineties that time will never have the longevity to lose. (James Baker)
Best Game Boy Games: Pokemon Yellow
When Pokémon Red and Blue had an animé produced to coincide with it, the popularity of Ash and his partner Pikachu made Pokémon Yellow inevitable. Originally, Ash’s partner in the animé was to be Clefairy, but was changed to the cute electric mouse that remains the mascot of the franchise ever since.
While there’s much debate about whether Pokémon needs third installments to each generation, Pokémon Yellow was the first and the most original in concept of them all. Rather than following the legacy of Pokémon Red and Blue, it follows the storyline of the animé, allowing the player to obtain the three original starter pokémon as part of the storyline. Furthermore, staying true to the animé, Pikachu follows the player around rather than staying in its pokéball, and refuses to evolve into Raichu when given a thunderstone, thus leaving Raichu only obtainable through trade.
Pokémon Yellow is a direct consequence of the popularity of Pokémon at the time, and with Pikachu still the beloved face of Pokémon, was perhaps shrewd marketing on Nintendo’s part. Its success inspired many other sequels to each generation, none of which would surpass the ingenuity of its predecessor. Pokémon Yellow won’t go down as the greatest Pokémon game of all time, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable. (James Baker)
Best Game Boy Games: Super Mario Land 2: The Six Golden Coins
Does the introduction of Mario’s crude, demented nemesis need any more reason to be on this list? Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins gave Nintendo fans their first sour taste of the crookedly-mustached Wario, something for which we shall always be thankful, but it also succeeds magnificently at standing out among the franchise’s platforming greatness. Though a straight-up sequel, this Gameboy classic takes more inspiration from Super Mario 3 and Super Mario World, with the more familiar cartoonish visuals, the ability to move both left and right, an overworld, and multiple paths to and through each level. The look and feel are so stark from its predecessor that it’s hard to relate the two, but a semblance of plot involves Wario having usurped Mario’s throne (?) while Sarasaland was being saved, brainwashing the loyal subjects of the Mushroom Kingdom’s hero in the process.
This bit of wackiness is only the start. For whatever reason, it seems like Nintendo’s development teams felt freed up by the Game Boy, reserving some of their strangest ideas for the portable versions of their popular series. Like with Link’s Awakening, the people working on Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins must have been a little loopy, somehow cool with devising a powerup that sees Mario grow a pair of rabbit ears that flap like wings, allowing for slower descents. There’s also an entire zone that takes place inside a pumpkin, as well as another whose boss level occurs inside a sleeping whale, which is in turn located inside a giant turtle. It doesn’t get less bizarre. These sorts of left-field oddities, along with an abundance of nice touches showcasing incredible attention to detail, make the world extremely entertaining, all the way to that fight against Mario’s greasy, greedy foe. In a franchise known for its outlandish creativity, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins holds its own — more than just an ugly face. (Patrick Murphy)
Best Game Boy Games: Super Mario Land
A launch title for the original DMG Game Boy, Super Mario Land is best described as a quirky, short, and forgotten title that moves Mario in directions that are never revisited in the series. Developed without input from franchise creator Shigeru Miyamoto, the sidescroller takes many risks that both pay off and fail spectacularly, introducing new enemies, Princess Daisy, some Gradius-style shooter levels, an evil alien as the main boss, and much more.
Taking place in Sarasaland, Mario must rescue the new princess from the clutches of the evil spaceman Tatanga. Through land, water, and the sky, Mario moves between obscure Easter island levels, a submarine mission, a moderately uncomfortable Chinese stereotype level, and an airplane fight, eventually facing off against a UFO to save the princess and blast off into outer space.
Love it or hate it, this strange game deserves a place in franchise and console history, branching out in new directions to change the way that players look at the Nintendo mascot. With familiar gameplay and oddball elements, Super Mario Land at times feels like the best bootleg Mario title on the market, borrowing from other gaming trends of the time for a unique experience that honestly makes one wonder how the company viewed where the plucky plumber was headed. An incredibly short game, the title can be completed in a 30 or 40-minute sitting, but that does not mean that it isn’t worth picking up. Aided by outstanding level design and one of the best soundtracks of any Game Boy title, the game begs for repeated playthroughs while always offering a nostalgic 8bit experience. (Ty Davidson)
Best Game Boy Games: Tetris
It’s safe to assume that almost every video gamer has heard of Tetris, and most of us associate it with Nintendo, specifically their portable Game Boy system. Yes, Tetris had already existed in various incarnations since its creation in 1984, and was sold for both a range of home computer platforms and the arcades long before Game Boy ever existed, but the hugely successful handheld version for the Game Boy — which was launched in 1989 — is arguably the ultimate version of the perfect puzzle game. The famous puzzle game from creator Alexey Pajitnov is not only brilliant but extremely addictive thanks to its simplistic design. With this particular version of Tetris came a competitive two-player mode made possible with the link cable, as well as an instrumental version of the Russian folk song “Korobeiniki.” Nintendo is known for releasing some of the greatest launch games of all time and Tetris is at the top of that list. Tetris was a phenomenon and literally laid the bricks for the foundation of the handheld gaming industry that Nintendo has continued to dominate ever since. (Ricky D)