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Top 20 Game Boy (and Game Boy Color) Games

The Game Boy launched in North America in 1989 and of course became a huge hit; while not the first handheld system to be released, it offered a console-like experience with its long battery life and swappable cartridges containing relatively high quality games, and it continued being manufactured until 2003 - well after its successor the Game Boy Advance had launched.  Of course, being an 8-bit system debuting at a time when 16-bit consoles were becoming the new thing had its disadvantages, with many developers trying to make downports of the hottest new games; usually of pretty lackluster quality.  But when they were tailor-made to take advantage of the Game Boy's capabilities rather than struggling to work against its limitations, they generally turned out pretty damn good.  So, let's look at my 20 favorites for this long-lived platform (and its hardware revision, the Game Boy Color).

HM. The Pokemon games (Nintendo/Creatures/Game Freak, 1998-2001)

The Game Boy didn't have a lot in the way of big-name RPGs; while the Final Fantasy Legend (SaGa) games were a pretty major hit in Japan (the original becoming Square's first RPG to break a million copies sold), the genre was still fairly niche until the mid '90s elsewhere in the world.  Pocket Monsters started to get huge in Japan around the time Final Fantasy VII got big, though, and so Nintendo brought it over accompanied by an enormous advertising campaign, hoping for a hit of their own.  It sold exceptionally well and got a few more years of life out of a platform that was nearly a decade old by that point - no mean feat at all.  Gold/Silver was also notable for not only building on the gameplay of the original in a lot of creative ways (monster breeding, phone and radio, held items etc.), but for the fact they somehow managed to cram the ENTIRE original game area into it as well as a nifty bonus once you finished the Kanto campaign.  The reason I have them as honorable mentions, though, is because there are better versions available nowadays (Fire Red/Leaf Green for GBA and HeartGold/SoulSilver for DS).  

20. Mr. Do! (Universal, 1992)

A pretty faithful port of the classic 1982 arcade game, which plays like a combination of Dig-Dug and Pac-Man - you can win either by eating all the fruits on the board or by eliminating all the enemies.  The latter can be done either by hitting them with your bouncing ball or dropping apples on their heads to crush them (which can rack up some serious points if you get more than one in a single drop).  Like Dig-Dug, the genius of it is that you get much higher scores by taking bigger risks, so it stays tense and exciting even when you get all the mechanics down.  Enemies will also randomly shift to a more aggressive form that can dig through dirt, keeping you on your toes.

19. Avenging Spirit (CP.BRAiN, 1992)

A port of the Jaleco arcade game known in Japan as "Phantasm", Avenging Spirit is a pretty clever idea - playing as a disembodied ghost, you possess enemies and use their powers to progress through the stages.  There's quite a variety of them, too; axe throwers, gun wielding gangsters, acrobats and so forth, all with differing weapons and parameters like jump height, running speed, attack range and maximum health.  It's a pretty straightforward platformer that has only six stages to complete, but it's nevertheless a lot of fun and a significant improvement over its arcade counterpart.

18. Final Fantasy Legend III (Squaresoft, 1993)

While the original Game Boy never had a proper Final Fantasy game, we did get the first three entries in the SaGa series localized under the name "Final Fantasy Legend".  The third game is a departure from the first two, having been developed by a different team, and to date it remains the only game in the series which Akitoshi Kawazu had no involvement with.  While it still has a lot of recognizable elements of the series (mutants, monsters and robots), they work much differently here - your characters can change form by eating meat or installing parts, gaining some abilities while losing others.  Weapons also no longer break with repeated use, and there's a more traditional experience and spell learning system in place too.  Storywise it was also quite creative, with a plot involving a world-destroying monster and a time travelling ship; kind of a precursor to Chrono Trigger in some respects.

17. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (Nintendo, 1992)

Nintendo's flagship handheld of course wouldn't be complete without a Mario game of its own, and though it had an early example in Super Mario Land, it's generally seen as primitive nowadays - the tiny sprites, weird physics and overall odd sstyle (Miyamoto having no involvement in creating it) don't make it an oft-talked-about Mario title.  Super Mario Land 2 was more in line with series norms, though; the launch of Super Mario World definitely upped the standard.  Venturing through six worlds including an underwater zone, a giant clockwork Mario, an enormous house and even outer space ensured it definitely wasn't wanting for variety.  At the end of each zone you collect one of the titular golden coins, and once you have all six, you enter Mario's castle and retake it from his nemesis Wario, who makes his first appearance in the series with this game.

16. Operation C (Konami, 1991)

Contra was of course one of the big breakout titles on the NES, substantially improving on its arcade counterpart and providing a well-made, challenging and extremely fun run-and-gun platformer; hell, ask any NES player what their favorite games on the system are and Contra is all but guaranteed to be among them.  Operation C was an original entry for the Game Boy, and despite the smaller resolution and having slightly downscaled gameplay it remained as fun as ever, with a high degree of challenge, inventive boss battles and several of the series' iconic powerups like the spread gun and homing missiles.  It even proved popular enough to get a reissue as part of Konami GB Collection with Super Game Boy enhancements, though sadly we never got that version in North America.

15. Kirby's Dream Land 2 (HAL Laboratory, 1995)

Kirby's Dream Land was another popular title in the Game Boy's early days, though it was also criticized for its short length and overall easy difficulty.  Kirby's Adventure on the NES added a new layer of depth by giving Kirby the ability to absorb powers from enemies he swallowed, and Kirby's Dream Land 2 (released two years after) went even further with it - not only can Kirby still gain powers by eating his foes, but he also gains the assistance of three animal companions.  Rick the Hamster (who doesn't slide on ice), Coo the owl (who can fly) and Kine the fish (who moves quickly underwater but very slowly on land).  Each also combines with Kirby's absorbed powers in creative ways - using electricity while being carried by Coo causes Kirby to drop lightning bolts, while Kine will generate a lightbulb that can light up dark areas as well as serving as a damaging projectile.  Using each character and ability to their fullest is key to finding all the game's secrets and unlocking the best possible ending.

14. Catrap (Kodansha, 1990)

An early puzzle game for the system with a relatively simple premise - touch all the enemies from the side to eliminate them from the board, using rocks and dirt (and even enemies) as platforms to navigate the levels.  Of course, like any good puzzle game it's never as easy as it sounds on paper - careful planning is required so that you don't trap yourself or make enemies inaccessible.  Thankfully you can rewind your actions step by step via the A button should you ever get stuck, and in later stages you get a second character to control as you solve the puzzles, adding another layer of strategy.  You can even make your own custom levels and save them via a password system to let other people try them out (and the manual even includes a few tough custom stage codes for when you've finished the 100 base levels).

13. Adventure Island II (Hudson Soft, 1993)

The Adventure Island series was another popular NES franchise; beginning life as a reskin of Westone's Wonder Boy, it took on a life of its own, spawning numerous sequels across multiple platforms and even changing up genre into something more akin to a Metroidvania with some entries.  Adventure Island II on Game Boy is actually analogous to Adventure Island III on NES, featuring that game's story and gameplay elements like storable items, dinosaur mounts and several new weapon types.  It's not an exact copy, though - the stages are remixed and there's multiple paths to take rather than strictly linear progression, all tied to finding secrets strewn throughout the levels.

12. The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages/Seasons (Flagship, 2001)

A duology of games by a company funded by Nintendo, Sega and Capcom, and it proved to be one of the Game Boy Color's most memorable outings.  The original pitch was for a Game Boy port of the original Zelda, which quickly expanded to become three games that could be played in any order, unlocking new content depending on the order you played them in; owing to budget constraints and the sheer complexity of the project, though, it was eventually trimmed down to just two.  As the title implies, each carries a different theme - Ages has you traveling between past and present, while Seasons has you change between four seasons which alter the terrain and the enemies you face.  The game also has a lot of nods to its origins, with enemies, bosses and dungeon elements that stretch all the way back to the original NES classic.

11. Super Mario Bros. Deluxe (Nintendo, 1999)

Super Mario Bros. Deluxe is a remake of the NES classic with revamped graphics, slightly tweaked controls and a save feature.  However, there's a lot more to it as well - a new Challenge mode is added which adds more collectibles like Yoshi eggs and red coins and can unlock various goodies if you get a high enough score, as well as a mode where you race Boo through stages.  Most of the stages from Lost Levels (Japanese Mario 2) are also included as a bonus when you get a high enough score in the base game, so there's definitely a lot to see.  A fine update to the 1985 classic, and a precursor to a string of successful Mario remakes on the Game Boy Advance in the following years.

10. Picross 2 (Creatures, Inc. / Jupiter, 1996 in Japan)

Picross is a logic puzzle series where, using numeric clues indicated in each row and column, you chip out spaces with the ultimate goal of revealing a picture.  The original Game Boy game was only modestly successful outside of Japan, but there it was popular enough to get a sequel on the Super Famicom and eventually another sequel on the Game Boy.  In addition to more puzzles, you now have much larger puzzles consisting of four 15x15 grids to solve, as well as a much harder mode called "Wario's Picross" that doesn't tell you when you've made a mistake or give any hints to solve it.  All in all there are nearly 250 puzzles to solve, so it's a game that'll keep you hooked for a good while.  The fact that they're still making entries in the series today also speaks to its enduring appeal.

9. Kid Dracula (Konami, 1993)

An offshoot of the Castlevania series that also has a more cartoony style and a much lighter mood, Kid Dracula stars you as Dracula trying to reclaim your castle from the demon Galamoth.  You retain only a few of Drac's abilities at first (his basic fireball and being able to morph into a bat temporarily), but gradually unlock more as teh game progresses, including being able to hang upside down from the ceiling, toss bombs and block projectiles with a special umbrella.  It plays similarly to its Famicom counterpart, though with remixed and scaled down stages, and between levels you get to play various minigames to earn extra lives and power-ups.  They also did a good job localizing it, adding plenty of silly humor and puns (your umbrella bears the name "Umbrella Legosi" to name just one).

8. Ninja Gaiden Shadow (Natsume, 1991)

A game which was originally intended to be a Game Boy equivalent to Natsume's Shadow of the Ninja, they struck a deal with Tecmo and released it as a Ninja Gaiden tie-in instead.  Serving as a prequel to the trilogy on the NES, it features similar, though slightly downscaled gameplay - you only get one special attack this time (the fire wheel) and you can only hold up to five charges for it.  Some of Shadow of the Ninja's influence does still sneak in, though - Ryu utilizes a grappling hook that allows him to latch onto rails in order to traverse stages and avoid enemy attacks.  The difficulty is also thankfully more forgiving than its NES counterparts, though it still provides a pretty challenging experience while it lasts.

7. Bionic Commando (Minakuchi Engineering, 1992)

Bionic Commando is one of Capcom's earliest franchises and it was a pretty big hit both in the arcades and on the NES, with the latter taking a more nonlinear approach to its stages and design.  The Game Boy Bionic Commando is more or less a remake of the NES version, with a more futuristic visual style and similar, though remixed, stages, as well as a few improvements like a new final stage and the ability to switch equipment mid-mission.  There's a password system too, which is quite handy.  As in the original, you have no jumping ability, instead having to rely on your bionic arm to get around by grappling, climbing and swinging, which adds a pretty hefty layer of strategy to boss fights and especially traversing stages.

6. Dragon Warrior III (TOSE, 2000)

The third entry in the long-running Dragon Quest series is one of its more popular ones; enough that it's gotten several remakes, ports and rereleases over the years (and at the time of this writing, has yet another one in development using the HD-2D graphical style).  It took a few cues from Final Fantasy, allowing the player to build a custom party from numerous character classes and even giving them the ability to swap classes mid-game to create powerful hybrid characters.  The Super Famicom version added in some extra content like the Pachisi minigame and a new bonus dungeon and the Game Boy Color ports adds more still, with a new collectible in the form of Monster Medals and a new bonus dungeon once you collect enough of them.  Regardless of which version you play, though, Dragon Warrior/Quest III is a fine RPG that is not to be missed if you're a serious genre fan.

5. Donkey Kong (Nintendo, 1994)

A reimagining that goes well above and beyond the call of duty,  Donkey Kong on the Game Boy at first appears to be a remade and more polished take on the original arcade game (even including all four levels, unlike the NES port), but it quickly balloons into something much bigger.  After completing the first few stages the game becomes something very different, becoming more of a puzzle based action platformer.  Basically you try to collect a key and get it to the door while avoiding obstacles, triggering switches to open doors and extend pathways.  Every now and then you'll square off with Donkey Kong again, defeating him in a boss battle, and the game continues on for a grand total of 101 stages.  Some clever new gameplay elements also get introduced, like a quick backward flip (which would later become a key move in Super Mario 64) and a handstand that allows Mario to catch DK's barrels and kick them back at him.  The game also makes the most of the Super Game Boy's capabilities to give it more fully-colored graphics and a border based on the original arcade machine.

4. Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 (Nintendo, 1994)

Wario debuted as the antagonist of Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, but he proved to be quite popular with fans; enough to make him the starring character in the series' next entry and to get two spinoff franchises stemming from that game.  The game is once again a platformer, though Wario's more hot-headed, aggressive style quickly comes into play - rather than jumping on enemies to defeat them, you shoulder-charge into them to knock them offscreen, shaking money out of them in the process.  He also gets his own unique powerups including a Jet helmet (which enables flight for short distances), a Bull helmet (letting his charges hit even harder) and a fire-spewing Dragon hat, and the game has a slower, more exploration based style, with the ultimate goal being to find all 15 hidden treasures in the game.

3. Tetris (Nintendo, 1989)

Tetris first came about in the mid-80s on various computer platforms, and it was of course an enormous hit - its simple concept, yet endlessly deep and engrossing gameplay has made it the most popular video game franchise of all time for good reason.  Nintendo scoring exclusive rights to produce console ports of Tetris proved to be a slam dunk for them, and releasing it as the launch title (and later a pack-in) for the Game Boy singlehandedly made the humble black-and-white handheld a record-smashing success, cementing their foothold as the king of handheld gaming to this day.  It even outshone its counterpart on the NES by having a two-player competitive mode using the Game Boy's link cable, and it continues to be the single best selling version of Tetris to this day with over 35 million units sold.

2. Mega Man V (Minakuchi Engineering, 1994)

The Mega Man franchise was a very prevalent one in the 8-bit era, getting six mainline entries on the NES alone and five more on the original Game Boy.  The Game Boy games were mostly remixes of their console equivalents, utilizing a handful of bosses from two games and reworked stages, with a few original elements coming in the form of the "Mega Man Killer" bosses and new Wily stages.  For Mega Man V, though, they went in an entirely new direction - the big bads this time are an entirely new group called the Stardroids modeled after the Roman gods (and the planets that bear their namesakes).  Mega Man also gets a few new tricks, including firing his own rocket-propelled fist as a new attack called the Mega Arm and a new sidekick called Tango who turns into a bouncing sawblade to damage enemies.  Purchasable upgrades add a new layer of depth to the game, and the solid level design, surprisingly good animations and music and sheer amount of polish on the whole thing make it not just the best of the Game Boy Mega Mans, but one of the best games in the entire franchise.  And considering there's been well over 100 games bearing the Mega Man mantle, that's no small feat!

1. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (Nintendo, 1993)

The first Zelda game to debut on the Game Boy and the fourth one released overall, and wouldn't you know it, it proved to be yet another winning entry for the series.  The gameplay here is arguably more polished than even Link to the Past on SNES, with smooth movement and some inventive mechanics - assigning an item to each of the two face buttons allows for clever combinations.  Like equipping the Pegasus Boots and Roc's Feather to jump greater distances, or sticking a bomb on the end of an arrow and firing powerful exploding missiles.  The series' brilliant dungeon design is also in full force, not losing a step from its console counterparts in its combat or inventive solutions to puzzles.  It was an enormous success in its time, topping Nintendo Power's popularity charts for well over five years, and it definitely holds a special place for me personally as the first Zelda game I ever owned (still have that very same copy, too); even with an enhanced Game Boy Color version and a recent remake on the Switch, the original remains one of my favorite Zeldas and my favorite Game Boy game of all time.