Without the Game Boy, Nintendo would be a far different company today. While Nintendo had found huge success with NES, its jump to cartridge-based portable gaming in 1989 changed the course of gaming history, informing Nintendo’s portable design choices for decades to come. You could even argue that the Nintendo Switch doesn’t exist today without the pioneer that was the Game Boy. The Game Boy wasn’t the first pocket gaming device (it wasn’t even Nintendo’s first), but it was easily the most impressive and influential. It also happened to boast a staggeringly good library of games during its lengthy run in the spotlight. We’ve rounded up the 10 best original Game Boy games (in alphabetical order).
The new kid on the block packed power, style, and an unlimited thirst for fresh batteries. With an affordable price, Nintendo’s dominance of the handheld gaming market began with a chunky console that had a library of killer games available on it as the years rolled by. Grab your bendy nightlight, plug in your stereo headset, and check that you’ve got some spare batteries. We’ve only included original Game Boy games on this list, but we also have lists for the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance. Let’s dive in.
Donkey Kong on the Game Boy could have easily been a simple port of the 1981 arcade classic, but Nintendo went several steps further with a reimagining of the simian-busting powerhouse, expanding and enhancing the game in the process. With plenty of new levels that capitalized on Mario’s fame, Donkey Kong wasn’t just handheld fun for the gamer on the go; it laid the groundwork for what Mario was capable of long before he entered 3D with Super Mario 64. Yet another killer app on the Game Boy, Donkey Kong was a terrific mix of fun, challenge, and nostalgia.
Final Fantasy Legend Series
Three games: one trilogy of games that technically aren’t Final Fantasy titles but still boast a polish and pedigree that put other home console RPG releases to shame. With origins rooted in the SaGa series, the Final Fantasy Legends trilogy still did fantastic business for Square with pocket-sized role-playing action, fun class systems, and enjoyable combat. The first game was Square Enix’s first million-seller with 1.37 million units shipped, and the two sequels that were released built on that game’s critical success throughout the 1990s.
With impressive visuals for the time and an epic soundtrack, the Final Fantasy trilogy was an epic quest contained on a few carts, and this portable RPG series paved the way for other games in the genre to make the leap over to portable systems.
Kirby’s Dream Land
Developer HAL Labs cemented its status as a heavyweight studio with the release of Kirby’s Dream Land in 1992, as people couldn’t get enough of the adorable pink puff. Kirby wasn’t ready yet to devour enemies and gain their abilities through gluttonous digestion, but Dream Land did plant the seeds for what a Kirby adventure should be. It was charming, enjoyably challenging, and perfectly approachable for younger members of the family to dig into.
Mega Man 5
The Game Boy might not have been the best platform for Mega Man’s trademark action and the quick reflexes needed to reduce Dr. Wily’s latest range of malevolent mechs to scrap, but Mega Man 5 on the Game Boy is a high point for the series thanks to the originality baked into it. Spanning the entire solar system, Mega Man’s latest mission saw him tangle with planet-themed bosses in classic 8-bit–kind of–fashion. Hard to find in its original form, it’s still an essential part of any Mega Man fan’s collection and can still be found on the Nintendo 3DS virtual console for the price of a cup of coffee.
Metroid 2: Return of Samus
Metroid 2 might not be considered to be the best entry in the series, but there’s no denying that it’s still a terrific Game Boy game even when it falls short of its own franchise benchmarks. At its core, Metroid 2 is an ambitious game that greatly expands on the first game and just what protagonist Samus Aran was capable of, suffering only from the technical limitations and hardware of its era. Future Metroid games owed a lot to this sequel, which experimented with ideas that successor games could build and improve upon.
Still a rock-solid action game that laid some impressive groundwork and was remade for 3DS, Metroid 2 walked so that future Metroid games could run. And dodge. And compress themselves into an impossibly spherical shape for some Metroid Prime-time gaming.
Pokemon Red and Blue
Pokemon’s explosion in popularity can easily be traced back to a pair of carts–yes, we know Japan also had Pokemon Green–that gave the handheld console its second wind. It seemed like everyone was into Pokemon at the time, as developer Game Freak’s hyper-quick RPG mixed a deep system of elemental advantages with a drive to become a Pokemon master and fill up the Pokedex for additional bragging rights.
The genius move on Nintendo and Game Freak’s part was that some Pokemon were exclusive to a particular version of the game, a design choice that defined the franchise and is still in use 25 years later. The only way to truly catch ’em all was to find someone with the right game cart, link your Game Boys up, and initiate the trading process.
Creating literal connections around the world, that tangible social interaction was amplified by Pokemon trading cards and an animated television series, both of which continue to this day. Pokemon Red/Blue (as well as Pokemon Yellow) are available on the 3DS eShop; alternatively, you can play Pokemon: Let’s Go, a reimagining of this maiden voyage for Nintendo Switch.
Super Mario Land 2
The first Super Mario Land game was a prime example of Nintendo still figuring out how to translate the magic of the plumber’s main NES adventures onto the Game Boy, resulting in a title that was weirdly familiar but wasn’t quite the definitive pocket Mario experience. By the time that Super Mario Land 2 rolled around, though, Nintendo had gotten a better grip on its hardware, squeezing out an impressive amount of detail that sent Mario on a journey through strange new worlds and giving him a selection of exotic abilities to try out.
Within the confines of the Game Boy, Mario’s latest quest was unconventional, to say the least, but it still had that winning formula at its core that had made the main series so iconic over the years. It’s available for just a few bucks on the 3DS eShop.
Only three things are needed to get through life: good health, a decent income, and a Game Boy that came bundled with Tetris. Bundling a copy of the cult-classic game with the Game Boy was a stroke of genius that helped shift millions of the consoles, thanks largely to Tetris being the perfect game for that system. Easily enjoyable as either a short diversionary burst of stacking action or well worth burning through fresh batteries for a marathon session, the Game Boy version of Tetris remains an iconic chapter in the history of the franchise for people all over the world.
Exceptional music, easy-to-understand gameplay, and actual head-to-head competitive multiplayer turned Tetris into a worldwide phenomenon all the way back in 1989. Tetris was virtually perfect then, just as it is now.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
A few years prior to the genre-defining Ocarina of Time on the N64, the definitive version of The Legend of Zelda was a game that could be played right in the palm of your hand. Link’s Awakening expanded on the hero-in-green’s traditional top-down adventures, giving him a bigger inventory, throwing sub-quest chains in his direction, a mission to gather musical instruments, and other features that would become hallmarks of the franchise in the years that followed.
Link’s Awakening was also a weird game narratively with its oddball island inhabitants and surreal locations, but its legacy as a Zelda game that could easily stand tall with its home console siblings was unmatched at the time, resulting in critical acclaim, and a devoted following. It was later ported to Game Boy Color as Link’s Awakening DX, and a wonderful remake was released on Switch in 2019.
Wario Land 2
The first Wario Land was technically titled Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 and included an added dose of “WAAARRGGHHH!” as Mario’s doppelganger caused mayhem. That naming confusion aside, the idea to take the villain of Super Mario Land 2 and give him a starring role was inspired thinking, and by the time that Wario Land 2 rolled around, Nintendo had found the right formula for Wario on Game Boy. With a deeper focus on puzzles, secrets, and rewarding gameplay, the bruiser in yellow and purple found his stride as a deceptively clever fellow on a mission during his Game Boy outings.
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