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2/15/2015

Top Ten Game Boy Games

What can one even say about the original Game Boy?  It was the quintessential hand held gaming platform.  Capitalizing on the popularity of their LCD Game and Watch lines, Nintendo sought to make the first true handheld game console, and succeeded.  Millions of people lined up to buy the things so they could play portable Mario, Tetris, TMNT, Double Dragon and others.  Sure, the system suffered from a tiny blurry screen you could barely see unless you were under a stage light and you had to buy more AA batteries for it all the time, but it was real portable gaming, damn it!

Needless to say it was a big hit, selling over 100 million units worldwide, amassing a library of well over 700 games and going on to become one of the longest-lived platforms in video game history, being supported for just under fourteen years (just barely beat by the Atari 2600, which lasted slightly over 14 years).  Nintendo eventually introduced a more powerful successor in the form of the Game Boy Color, and later the Game Boy Advance, both of which were backward-compatible in addition to sporting some impressive games of their own.  Both of those were eventually abandoned for their new dual-screened DS systems, which continue to dominate the handheld market to this day.  So yes, Nintendo definitely has found their place in the gaming industry, and has continued to hold tightly to it despite heavy competition from the likes of Sega, Sony, Bandai, SNK and numerous others.

All that said, though, a lot of the platform's library just doesn't hold up today.  As many of its games were designed to play at a slower pace in order to compensate for the aforementioned tiny blurry screen, they feel downright slow compared to their console counterparts.  It was also home to an awful lot of crummy licensed titles and lackluster down-ports of existing console and arcade games, which, in an age of emulation-based compilations of the original titles in all of their glory, doesn't make the Game Boy's inferior ports look very good in comparison.

That said, as with any game platform, there are still quite a few top-notch titles across the Game Boy line that simply can't be found anywhere else.  So which ones have held up the best and are still just as fun to play now as they were in their heyday?  Here are my ten favorites.

10. Pokemon Gold/Silver/Crystal (Game Freak, 2001)

I've never been the biggest Pokemon fan (in fact, I've pretty much ignored the franchise entirely since the early 2000s), but there's no denying that Pokemon Gold/Silver/Crystal was an outstanding entry in the series, nearly doubling the content of its predecessor and bringing in its own improvements to boot.  Notably much better game balance (Psychics no longer dominate everything), a much more convenient user interface and, of course, numerous new moves and abilities that added a great deal more strategy to the game and discouraged mere brute force.  But the real kicker was the post-game bonus - in short, the entire first game was packed in as well so you could venture forth after completing the main game and conquer it again.  A very impressive feat for the original Game Boy!

9. Mother 3 (Game Boy Advance, Nintendo/Brownie Brown/APE, 2006 in Japan)


Mother 3 is a game with a very long and troubled production history; beginning in 1994 on the Super Famicom, moving to the Nintendo 64 Disk Drive, then the N64 once the 64DD tanked, then finally being cancelled in late 2000 when the Gamecube was announced and the team had failed to make much progress due to their inexperience with 3D game development.  Then it was picked back up in 2003 and finally released on the Game Boy Advance in 2006, undergoing heavy rewrites and changes all the while.  This does show up in the final product, as the game has a rather uneven difficulty level and several segments feel rushed (particularly the last two chapters).  But in spite of its problems, this is an Earthbound game through and through.  That means a quirky sense of humor and some surreal set pieces lain atop a surprisingly heartfelt and dramatic storyline.  Well worth checking out for any RPG fan, especially in light of a very high quality fan translation that was completed in 2008.

8. River City Ransom EX (Game Boy Advance, Million, 2004)


As a remake of the cult classic NES game, River City Ransom EX certainly had a lofty set of standards to live up to.  Thankfully it succeeded with flying colors, delivering the same quirky humor and gameplay as the original while adding in numerous improvements. From new weapons to new moves to computer-controlled allies to fully customizable characters, River City Ransom EX was in every way a worthy upgrade to the original release.  The one and only achilles heel - and it is a major one - is the lack of two player cooperative play.  Why?  It's not like the Game Boy Advance didn't have a system link cable for exactly that purpose...

7. Advance Wars (Game Boy Advance, Intelligent Systems, 2001)


One of the very first Game Boy Advance games ever released, and still one of the best the platform has to offer.  I must have burned through dozens of AAs and sunk well over 100 hours into the game as a conservative estimate.  No really, it is that good.  The game provides all sorts of strategic elements with a variety of units, terrain types factoring into battle, capturing cities and bases and "fog of war" that made battles all the more difficult and methodical.  But then you throw in "CO powers" that can rapidly turn the tide of a skirmish, a custom map builder and support for matches of up to four players taking turns on either one system or multiple systems over link cable, and you have a game that you can replay for months and months.  Which I did.

Where did this series go after the DS era, anyway?  I miss it...

6. Metroid: Zero Mission (Game Boy Advance, Nintendo, 2004)

The Game Boy Advance had a lot of remakes.  Remakes everywhere.  From Mario to Metroid to River City Ransom to Double Dragon, it seems like everything that was a hit in Nintendo's golden days was getting an update here.  But when they end up being as good as RCREX and Zero Mission, who's complaining?  A retelling of the NES metroid's story with added cutscenes, more detailed environments, revamped boss battles, and of course new powerups and features like the ever-useful minimap, Zero Mission was a worthy upgrade to one of the most influential games ever created.  The only downside is that, like Advance Wars, its long absence has left me wanting more 2D exploration-based action...

5. Mega Man IV (Game Boy, Minakuchi Engineering, 1993)

The first three Mega Man Game Boy games followed a fairly standard formula - combine the Robot Masters of two of the NES games, add in a few original elements, and send it out.  Mega Man IV, however, upped the stakes considerably.  Not only was the presentation given a massive upgrade with detailed visuals, cutscenes and some of the best music the Game Boy ever produced, but it added in a new shop system and a cinematic storyline to enhance the experience.  It still had quite a few recycled bosses and stage elements in it, but the rest of the package was definitely enough to warrant a look anyway.




4. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (Game Boy, Nintendo, 1993)


The first Zelda game I ever owned, and as a result my most-played one; hell, I must have played this one just as much if not more than I did Advance Wars.  It's no surprise why, either, as this is among the most unique games in the series.  Not only does it feature the familiar overhead puzzle-based gameplay of the first and third games, but it also had sidescrolling platform segments, a surreal atmosphere (with even Goombas and evil Kirby enemies making an appearance), and some downright clever mechanics (including sticking a bomb on the end of an arrow to create a deadly missile, among other clever item combinations).  It's definitely Zelda, but it's also fresh enough to stand out from the rest of the series.  It's no surprise that this was the first Zelda game to get an expanded remake.

3. Mega Man V (Game Boy, Minakuchi Engineering, 1994)

The game that broke the Mega Man mold.  Not only is Mega Man one of the best Game Boy games ever made, it's a strong contender for the best Mega Man game ever made, and that is saying something considering the legendary status of some of its titles.  This one took all the improvements 4 brought along and ran with them.  Robot masters were replaced with alien bots called the "Star Droids", the Mega Buster was now the Mega Arm (causing Mega Man to literally fire his own fist at the enemy) and there were plenty of new gameplay innovations.  Like Tango, the robotic cat who would attack enemies, or the Grab Buster, a weapon that would allow the Mega Arm to attach to an enemy and continuously damage them for several seconds.  Even the Mega Man Killers from the previous games all made a comeback, making this one hell of a sendoff to the Game Boy series.  Mega Man V definitely had it all.

2. Metroid Fusion (Game Boy Advance, Nintendo, 2002)

A game that caught a lot of flak among long-time fans of the Metroid franchise, largely because it dared to take a franchise that practically invented the open-ended, nonlinear gameplay style and turn it into something considerably more straightforward and linear.  It also added in a verbose narrative and something of a mission-based approach to the overall structure, which further set it apart.  But that didn't make it a bad game at all; just different from the series norm.  Despite that controversy, though, this is still a fantastic title laden with secrets, enormous bosses, and a great feeling of isolation in a hostile world (in this case a space station overtaken by a dangerous alien parasite).  Granted you could argue that its success led to the travesty that was Metroid: Other M, but that still doesn't change the fact that this is a fantastic title and - dare I say it - the second-best game in the entire franchise?

1. Astro Boy: Omega Factor (Game Boy Advance, Sega/Treasure/Hitmaker, 2004)


More gold from Treasure.  With some assistance from Sega and Hitmaker, of course.  Astro Boy is a brilliant blend of gameplay styles, with much of the game being a side-scrolling beat-em-up utilizing special attacks in the form of a giant beam, laser guns, rocket boot dodges and plowing through entire groups of enemies with a rocket dash.  Other stages play more like a shoot-em-up, while yet others are projectile based midair battles.  Throughout it all, though, you're hunting down various other characters from throughout the Osamu Tezuka universe, which adds to your "Omega Factor" and enables you to power up your statistics.  Not only a great game with the same fast-paced style and depth of a Treasure title, but also a solid introduction to the universe and writing themes of a legendary mangaka, Astro Boy is easily my favorite Game Boy title of all time.