Monday, April 13, 2009

The 20 Best Game Boy Games

In honor of the venerable Game Boy turning 20, it's about time we counted down 20 of the best Game Boy games of all time. Looking at the Game Boy library, there certainly are a large amount of games that are fairly laughable. Most of them were weak derivatives of other, better games pressed into a smaller cartridge to be on the go.

However, sometimes, lightning struck and developers were able to field-test ideas that they may not have been able to integrate into larger games. Other times, great series got their start on this weaker system and later moved up to the big time. This is a list of those that happened to be able to stand on their own two feet as quality games.


20. Final Fantasy Legend

SquareSoft knew that gamers in the States wouldn't really cotton to a game called SaGa. They changed the name for US audiences, calling it the Final Fantasy Legend series. The tactic worked, and the Final Fantasy Legend series sold really well.

That doesn't necessarily mean that they were great games, though. In particular, the first of the series is a gigantic honker. You don't really build up your stats in the normal way. You buy hit point upgrades, and certain characters will change and build by eating meat. It's all pretty weird, but the plot is cool. You eventually end up going into heaven and trying to kill God. He'd beat me every time, but he is God after all.

19. Kirby's Dream Land

At first, I was very angry at Kirby's Dream Land. I bought the game for the full price of $30, and I brought it home and beat it in literally half an hour. I tried returning it, but obviously they don't let you return games just because you finish them. I ended up selling it to a local game store for $2. What a ripoff.

Still, time has eased the pain somewhat. While by far the worst Kirby game due to its length, you can see the clear outline of what was to come. You could see enemies with various powers that would have been GREAT to copy if they had LET you do that in this game. You saw the introduction of various recurring enemies like Kracko and Whispy Woods. Later games would take all of these good ideas and turn them into a much more solid game.

18. Super Mario Land

The first Super Mario Land was weird. The graphics were awful, the enemies were completely different than what was established in Mario, and the fireball was changed into a superball. What was that all about?

Still, it was fun to play. In some levels, you got an airplane or a submarine, and Mario Land turned into a shooter, which was a cool idea. At any rate, Super Mario Land was certainly a formative step in portable game creation for one major reason: It sold well enough to convince publishers that portable gaming was a viable platform to make games for, and for that it deserves a place on this list.

17. Donkey Kong Land

At the height of the Donkey Kong Country craze, Nintendo commissioned Rare to make a Donkey Kong Country game for the Game Boy. It was thought to be an impossible task, but Rare actually pulled it off quite well. Several of the ideas from this game made it into future games, like improved rope climbing and collecting tokens for bonuses.

Sure, the graphics were muddy and Donkey Kong looked like he was covered in oil. Sure, some of the levels were weird. Still, the music was catchy and it was Donkey Kong Country on the go. It deserves a place in this list.

16. Final Fantasy Legend 3

Of the Legend series, this is the one that is the most like a regular RPG, what with the gaining XP and the levelling up. It also has an awesome plot about time travel and changing the future. As the game starts, the world is covered in water by the Pureland Water Entity. Visitors from the future report the same problems. How can it be stopped?

Now, is the plot Shakespeare? It has its moments. Are the battles amazing? They're passable. Is it still a great game? You betcha, and worth the 10-20 hours it takes to finish it.

15. Donkey Kong Land 2

Donkey Kong Land 2 was a gigantic leap over its predecessor. For one, it would actually show you the names of its levels, whereas before you had to refer to the manual. They also copied remarkably well almost everything about Donkey Kong Country 2, the finest of the DKC series. You could pick up and throw your teammate, you could hover in the air as Dixie, and you could ride a cart in the rollercoaster level.

Was it merely a remake of a superior game? Yes. Did it remake the game remarkably well on a system that had no business running it? A very emphatic yes.

14. Mega Man IV

The first couple of Mega Man games were sparse and thrown together rather quickly. Mega Man 5 cranked the difficulty way up. Mega Man 4, on the other hand, maintains a lot of polish from the original NES games and adds new wrinkles, like a super weapon won from the vanquished robot Ballade. Plus, it has some great original music. Check the video below starting at 1:15. If you're going to start with a portable Mega Man game, this is the place to start.

13. Final Fantasy Legend 2

Regarded as the finest of the "Legend" series in many quarters, Final Fantasy Legend 2 improved on many of the mechanics of the first game. Sure, there's still no experience points, but this time around the plot is deeper and you control your character's growth far more. This game's legend (pardon the pun) continues growing, so they're planning on remaking it for the DS.

12. Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters

Poor Pit never got a lot of love. He got one game during the NES days, one more game during the Game Boy years and then silence. It seems Nintendo might be finally rectifying this grave injustice soon, but in the meantime we have to give a nod to this great extension of the Kid Icarus series.

Of Myths and Monsters actually improves in several ways on the original. There are more weapons and skills that you can get, it's easier, and you can use the hammers in places other than the dungeons to open up secret rooms. All around, it's a great effort and worth playing if you haven't already done so.

11. Wario Land 2

This is a worthy game, if only to test a bold new idea: What if your character could never die? Many scoffed at the concept. They thought it would make Wario Land 2 far too easy, but that couldn't be further from the truth. It was still just as difficult as other platformers, with the only difference being that you didn't have to go back and farm for extra lives or search frantically for powerups, a cool idea that was way ahead of its time.

10. Pokemon Red/Blue

I was never as excited about the Pokemon series as others, but there's no denying the lasting appeal of these critters. An RPG-lite with strategy and tons of secrets, Pokemon Red & Blue set a template that future games have improved and added to. Plus, it inspired a lot of people to buy link cables and trade Pokemon. Along with games like F-1 Race, it helped set the standard for multiplayer gaming in a handheld in a way that hadn't been done before.

One minor side effect is that it also ruined friendships when people wouldn't trade you Pokemon that you needed to fill out your Pokedex (I'm looking at you, Jason Brisch, I wanted that Charmander).

9. Super Mario Land 2

Super Mario Land 2 was a great return to form for the Super Mario Land series, with Mario retaining his spin jump from Super Mario World and getting some cool new powers. It was a very freeform game, with him being able to go to any world right from the start. There was a great amount of variety in the levels, too. Some had him roaming the innards of a whale. One had him shrunk down, running around in a level made out of Legos.

Let's not forget that it also introduced us to Wario, the greedy weirdo we've all come to know and love. His final castle was awesome, and it's still pretty difficult to this day.

8. Metroid 2: The Return of Samus

Metroid 2 improved upon its predecessor in almost every concievable way. It improved the weapon selection, the graphics and the environments. It introduced a save system and ended with one of the most poignant sequences in the Metroid series. It is an absolute travesty that this game hasn't seen more exposure. At least there's a very promising remake on the horizon, but Nintendo really should give this game the official remake it so richly deserves.

7. Donkey Kong Land 3

I really didn't like Donkey Kong Country 3. It was by far the worst of the DKC series, with its insistence on shoving the "adorable" Kiddy Kong down our throats and throwing in unkillable enemies left and right. It jettisoned everything good about DKC2 and added all sorts of ridiculous, unnecessary stuff.

For that reason, it's a gigantic shock that Donkey Kong Land 3 is the best of the Land series. Having to squish a big game into a small cartridge meant that they had to cut out all the fat and just concentrate on solid level design, which they did. It just shows that many times, constraints breed creativity.

6. Final Fantasy Adventure

SquareSoft did the same as they did with the Final Fantasy Legend series. In Japan, this game was originally titled Seiken Densetsu in Japan and had no relation to Final Fantasy. Astute fans of RPGs will note that "Seiken Densetsu" also happens to be the name of the Secret of Mana series in Japan.

Yes, this game was actually Secret of Mana's prequel, and was later remade into the vastly inferior Sword of Mana. For a tiny little cart, this game packed a ton of gameplay, from allies who would assist you, to special moves for each weapon, all the way on down to a sword called "Blood" that talked. It also happened to have one of the most atmospheric final levels I've ever played, along with brilliant and catchy music. It's one of those lost gems from the Game Boy era that I hope gets its due someday.

5. Tetris

What more can be said about Tetris? It stands alone as one of the most influential games of its genre and is still the standard to which all other puzzle games are held. It's the one that singlehandedly made the Gameboy the most popular portable gaming system of all-time. There is not one person who doesn't at least have a grudging respect for Tetris. It's a game that's impossible to hate, and I'll bet you're getting the Tetris music in your head right now.

You may be asking why this game isn't higher on the list. That's because Tetris, as good as it is, is pretty basic. It's fun, but it's not horribly deep. If you've played it for five minutes, you've pretty much seen everything it has to offer. Still, there's no underestimating its impact on gaming and the Game Boy in particular.

4. Donkey Kong

Stop me if you've heard this one: Donkey Kong kidnaps the girl, so Mario chases after him to stop him and get the girl. It's a setup as old as gaming, right?

Well, why not add some stuff to the formula? Why not throw in the fact that Mario can do triple jumps, flips, handstands and well as pick up and throw barrels? Next, pile in more enemies, add about 80 more levels and make the music absolutely awesome and you have an idea of Donkey Kong for the Game Boy. It's one of the best portable games ever made.

3. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening

My distaste for Zelda is well-known, but I surprisingly don't hate Link's Awakening. It's a very deep game, containing all the weapons of the NES games plus exclusive weapons like the Fire Rod (which had the very funny description, "Burn everything! Burn! Burn!"). The characters were actually really well drawn for the first time in a Zelda game to the extent that you actually cared about them, which they've never really been able to duplicate in further installments.

There was also a cool element where you could trade items around the island to get a mystical mirror that showed you the way through the final dungeon, and 20 Secret Seashells scattered around the island that would give you a stronger sword. If you've never played it, I highly recommend it or the Game Boy Color remake.

2. Kirby's Dream Land 2

Kirby's Dream Land 2 can be viewed as a makeup letter from HAL Laboratories for their first game. They added tons more levels, a secret final boss, more powers and animal helpers all while keeping the same fun that they developed in the first game.

There were some pretty cool strategies and twists involved as well. Here's an example: If you gave Kine the Fish the Electric power, he could shoot a lightbulb out of his mouth. Funny, right? Well, the lightbulb also lit up dark areas, and in one such area, using the lightbulb revealed which powers you needed to use in which order to open up a door to a secret room. Now tell me that isn't cool.

1. Super Mario Land 3: Wario Land

On the surface, Wario's first adventure is basically a Mario game with Wario as the hero. You have lives and you collect coins and hearts to collect more lives while you go through each individual level toward the final boss.

Even with this installment, the makers of the Wario system demonstrated a willingness to question the basic tenets of platformers. For instance, in every Mario game, walking into an enemy hurts you. In this game, they asked the question, "Why? Why should just walking into an enemy automatically damage you?" Instead, unless the enemy have a spiky end or weapon pointing at you, Wario merely bumps into them harmlessly.

There are other cool features, too, like entire worlds that can be skipped on a straight playthrough unless you actively look for the game's secrets. There are levels which affect other levels, like one in particular that gets covered in water, enabling you to reach areas you may not have been able to reach otherwise. These are all cool ideas that eventually found their way into other games, but Super Mario Land 3 tried many of them out first and proved their viability before putting them in practice.


For those 20 games and more, we salute the Game Boy and all its contributions to gaming. Where would we be without it? Now, let's all sing the Tetris song!

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