In 1989, there was a revolution, and it wasn’t televised. Instead, it was broadcast from the world’s collective pockets, each one holstering a gray brick with a monochrome screen and brightly colored buttons. The Gameboy, as it was lovingly dubbed, was not Nintendo’s first foray into the mobile market, but it is the most fondly remembered of their endeavors. There’s a reason for that.
Unlike the Game and Watch and other forms of portable entertainment from the era, the Gameboy offered up a breadth of experiences that mimicked and, in some cases, rivaled the output of home consoles. The Gameboy was an obsession, not just a distraction, and it has left in the 25 years since its release a wake that is still reflected in modern entertainment.
To commemorate the Gameboy’s silver anniversary, Got Game has requested that I comb through the decades’ worth of software attributed to the platform in an effort to identify its ten best games. This was no easy task, partly because the Gameboy, like any successful platform, was home to a number of bad and mediocre titles, and also because the Gameboy lasted so long that it accumulated an insurmountable pile of playable cartridges. Remember, later iterations such as the Gameboy Color shared a library with the Gameboy, meaning that many of the games typically associated with the former (mostly) belong to the latter. As such, I have opted to include titles that were primarily (and in some cases exclusively) played in color alongside titles that were entirely monochromatic.
My First Gameboy
Since this is a personal best list (I apologize in advance for not including your favorite game in my column), I feel that it is important to share my experience with the Gameboy. The black-and-white, brick-shaped Gameboy predates me by three years, so the subsequent craze that immediately followed its release is a chapter in a history book to me. More familiar to me is the second life that was breathed into the Gameboy when the Gameboy Color was released in 1998. Having played my family’s shared Gameboy and witnessing for myself the binary hue of its screen, I was ready to see my collection of portable games receive a fresh coat of paint. In 1999, my wish came true as I received a purple Gameboy Color and a copy of Pokémon Red.
I don’t recall accomplishing much in 1999.
Unlike the Nintendo 64, Super Nintendo, and Sega Genesis, all of which were shared by my brother and me, the Gameboy color was mine. I could play it when I wanted, and I didn’t have to stop playing to accommodate someone else’s addictive personality. Growing up with siblings, that is what the Gameboy and other handheld platforms have always meant to me; the Gameboy is a personal platform, catered to the needs of its owner and only its owner. That’s what I’m celebrating today with this list.
The Top 10 Gameboy Games
Tetris (1989) – It’s hard, if not entirely impossible, to reflect on the life of the Gameboy without also reflecting on the game with which it was originally bundled, Tetris. Long-time followers of the Nintendo product line will undoubtedly recall Tetris’s presence on the NES, but it was this portable incarnation that truly set the world ablaze with its addictive simplicity. Where before Tetris was a distraction from household responsibilities, it became on the Gameboy a distraction on the commute to work, at work, in the bathroom at work, and even while being fired from work because of said tendency to spend an entire day playing Tetris. The described phenomenon affected an astonishing proportion of the population, as Tetris was the Gameboy’s highest-selling game, besting all of Nintendo’s mascots and many third-party attempts to capitalize on the portable market.
Tetris is still alive and well, though not in the same capacity that it was when the Gameboy first walked the Earth. The formula that made it a household name has been copied and improved so much by other developers that playing Tetris itself is an activity in league with churning butter or riding a horse-drawn carriage through town; it’s not the most desirable or modern experience, but partaking in a single game of it carries with it a certain amount of historical significance. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a great game for its time, and that certainly doesn’t mean that it wasn’t one of the best Gameboy games, if not the very best to ever grace the handheld.
Pokémon Gold and Silver (2000) – As a quick aside, isn’t it amazing how long the Gameboy family lasted? Tetris was released alongside the handheld in 1989, and these two games (which are considered Gameboy Color games but are also playable on the original brick) saw store shelves for the first time over a decade later. The last generation of consoles has nothing on the Gameboy in terms of lifespan.
Pokémon Gold and Silver comprise the second generation of Pokémon games, picking up where Pokémon Red and Blue left off by adding 100 new creatures to the Pokédex and a new region for players to explore. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Gold and Silver is the size of the two games; after trainers traversed the new Johto region, they could surf across a body of water and reach the region from the original games, Kanto. Once in Kanto, players could continue their journey by capturing all eight of that region’s gym badges (there were 16 total gyms to conquer in Gold and Silver) and catching its legendary Pokémon. Outside of the Gold and Silver remakes for the Nintendo DS, no other Pokémon game has given players the opportunity to extend their quest to “catch ‘em all” by opening up an entire past region for exploration.
A personal favorite feature of these games is the ability to register random trainers encountered while moving about the two regions, resulting in the exchange of phone numbers. Trainers whom you gave your phone number would occasionally give you a call, asking you to come back to their neck of the woods so they could show you how much better a trainer they had become in your absence (spoiler alert: They hadn’t). It was a quirky inclusion by Nintendo, a company known for its quirky inclusions, and it really doesn’t serve much of a purpose other than establishing the trainers found scattered across the game’s map as people with a pulse as opposed to the scarecrows they had always appeared to be.
Pokémon Gold and Silver are often mentioned as contenders for the title of “Best Pokémon Games,” earning them the aforementioned 2009 remakes, Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver. If you’ve never had a chance to visit these classics, then I highly recommend the remakes. Like their forerunner, they, too, introduce quirky elements that are never again seen in the franchise, including a pack-in pedometer that allows players to train individual Pokémon by walking with the device attached to their hip. As an added bonus, the Pokéwalker, as it is called, was determined to be one of the best pedometers on the market by an Iowa State University researcher in 2011 (include link here).
Kirby’s Dream Land (1992) – When the name “Kirby” is uttered, two traits of the long-running franchise’s hero immediately jump (and float) to mind: Kirby’s notorious pink hue and his ability to suck enemies up and steal their powers. Kirby’s Dream Land, the first of Kirby’s many adventures, violates both of these assumptions, starring as it does a white Kirby who can suck enemies up but cannot absorb any of their abilities. Indeed, Dream Land is the traditional Kirby experience distilled to its purest form.
Despite its obvious shortcomings when compared to more traditional Kirby titles, Dream Land still functions as an exceptionally competent platformer. Not having the ability to absorb enemies’ powers shifts the focus of the game even further away from combat, making traversal of the environment the game’s primary objective. Conflict is, generally, an obstacle best avoided, but boss battles do occasionally force players to confront their foes directly.
Kirby’s Dream Land is a hard sell to people who have grown up with the pink puffball. Admittedly, I didn’t play the game until well after run-ins with classics like Kirby Super Star, so it was initially off-putting to play a game where the character’s most well known ability is stripped from his repertoire. Once you get past that issue, though, it is an enjoyable romp that lasts just over an hour, making it fairly replayable to boot.
Super Mario Land (1989) – Super Mario Land is a classic Mario game, with challenging jumps, power-ups, hapless enemies, and, well, planes and submarines. Super Mario Land is a classic Mario game, and it is also one of the series’ strangest entries.
Most of Super Mario Land plays exactly as you would expect. In total, there are four worlds, each with three levels, which need to be conquered before Mario can confront the final boss and save Princess Daisy. Indeed, most of Super Mario Land is safe and predictable. Then, the Italian plumber hops into the pilot seat of a small plane and begins shooting down airborne enemies, or, alternatively, he hops into a submarine and takes to the seas to best the game’s cadre of villains. Weird.
With so many of Mario’s recent games following the franchise’s well-worn trajectory to monotonous gains, Super Mario Land is a refreshing play for modern times. Sure, the game is short, and it is extraordinarily strange, but it is also memorable in ways that New Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario 3D Land never will be. Super Mario Land eventually spawned sequels: Super Mario Land 2: The 6 Golden Coins, which was good but less inventive than its predecessor, and Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3, which was so original that it became its own series. In my eyes, neither of those surpassed this, the original Super Mario Land, which still stands as the best original portable Mario platformer.
Harvest Moon 2 (2000) – Before Animal Crossing arrived on the Nintendo Gamecube and ate its lunch, Harvest Moon was the relaxing video game franchise. Where most games of the era were stressful action games and platformers that demanded players’ undivided attention, Harvest Moon allowed users to take a deep breath and enjoy the slow and steady life of a rural farmer. The goal of Harvest Moon wasn’t to grow some sort of hybrid crop capable of destroying an ultimate evil, and it wasn’t to assemble enough livestock to invade a rival barn; instead, the goal of Harvest Moon was to make money, fall in love, and start a family. While that may not be the most easy-going task in the real world, it makes for a calming video game that is only a delight to play.
I chose Harvest Moon 2 over its predecessor simply because it was the iteration of the franchise that I owned. Despite having no interest in farming (or, for that matter, most outdoor activities), I was enamored with the world Natsume created on the Gameboy. Raising livestock and growing crops became a daily habit of mine, and it is likely a habit that would have continued had Harvest Moon not abided by the laws of reality, dooming much of my livestock to a place in animal heaven. The loss, real or not, was devastating.
Unlike Bessie, my digital farm’s deceased cash cow, Harvest Moon is still alive and kicking. The Nintendo 3DS has already seen two Harvest Moon games of its own, and a third is already on the way. It’s hard to recommend Harvest Moon 2, in particular, over other, more recent iterations of the game, but those looking to get their farming fix on the original Gameboy would be well served to dip their toes into its soothing waters.
Link’s Awakening (1993) – Popular opinion did (and still does) that portable iterations of popular franchises usually don’t match up with their console counterparts. There’s a reason for that, but Link’s Awakening, the first Legend of Zelda game to forego home entertainment systems, isn’t one of them.
Link’s Awakening is a Legend of Zelda game, but it travels down many roads that more traditional Zelda titles routinely avoid. Hyrule is nowhere to be found, being replaced in this game by a dream world that Link can only escape by awakening the mysterious wind fish that is trapped inside of what appears to be a giant Yoshi egg. Gameplay alternates between the traditional top-down perspective and a side-scrolling perspective seemingly inspired by the platforming made famous by the Super Mario Bros. series. Nothing seems right in this dream world, and that is what makes Link’s Awakening such an unforgettable game. To this day, I consider it the best two-dimensional Zelda game (though it should be mentioned that I have yet to play the Nintendo 3DS’s Link Between Worlds).
Eight years after legitimizing the franchise as a prospect for portable entertainment, Link’s Awakening was finally expounded upon with sequels in the form of Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages. Link’s Awakening also received a remake for the Gameboy Color, Link’s Awakening DX, which added color to the black-and-white world of Koholint. All of these games are available again on the Nintendo 3DS eShop, and I recommend them wholeheartedly, as they each hold up as exceptional members of the iconic Legend of Zelda lineage.
Pokémon Trading Card Game (2000) – Before there was Hearthstone, there was the Pokémon Trading Card Game, and it was exquisite.
In the early years of the Pokémon craze, the trading cards were almost as relevant to popular culture as the video games and anime. Nintendo capitalized on that popularity by releasing this, a Gameboy game that allowed players to travel from location to location battling other collectors and building their decks. The video game version of the Pokémon Trading Card Game expertly captured the most exciting part of its physical counterpart, as it allowed players to expand their collection of cards by opening booster packs comprised of random Pokémon. This made the game almost as addictive as main-line entries in the Pokémon franchise, which, as anyone who has ever spent a significant portion of time travelling the series’ many creature-filled regions, is no small feat.
Considering the success of the Pokémon Trading Card Game, it’s somewhat of a surprise that Nintendo has never elected to revisit this title in North America. A 3DS or Wii U game in the spirit of Skylanders where players could scan cards bought at the store into their system just seems like a no-brainer and an economic boon for a company that desperately needs one.
Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 (1994) – Mario games always follow the same patterns, as was described above. There are princesses to rescue and enemies, namely King Bowser, to stomp. Wario Land is a different story. Wario has never been concerned with princesses or villains; instead, Wario has only one care in the world: Money. The goal of Wario Land is to collect enough money so that Wario can build a castle so impressive in its scope that it dwarfs Mario’s humble abode. It’s a noble task for a noble man, and it makes Wario Land stand out from other titles emanating from the Mushroom Kingdom.
What truly sets Wario Land apart is Wario’s unique play style, one that trades in Mario’s reliable acrobatics for the type of brute strength that can only be expected of a man who survives on a diet composed entirely of garlic cloves. This inherent toughness allows Wario to bash his way through levels using the brunt of his elbow, collecting treasure on his way to each stage’s exit. Coins, which typically only served the purpose of building one’s high score and adding to one’s life count, are an important commodity in Wario Land. Ends of levels can be locked off until players have collected enough money to progress, and secret areas may be restricted to only those players whose accumulated wealth denotes them as members of the one percent.
Wario Land became a franchise of its own after Super Mario Land 3, seeing numerous sequels on the Gameboy Color, Gameboy Advance, and even the Wii. Nintendo has since abandoned Wario’s platforming affairs, replacing them with mini-game collections that test players’ reflexes in entirely different ways. Personally, I prefer Wario’s more recent, party-centered endeavors, but Wario Land, and more specifically Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3, is still worth a visit as one of the original handheld’s best games.
Metroid II: Return of Samus (1991) – Fun fact for the trivia crowd: Metroid II is actually the first Metroid game to feature Samus wearing her famous Varia Suit. The original Metroid featured Samus wearing her Power Suit, which has slim shoulders, while this new suit gives Samus the boulder shoulders that she has been seen wearing in every Metroid game since 1991.
Metroid II was good for more than just this milestone. As the second game in a franchise all about backtracking and exploring, Metroid II made numerous innovations that helped move the series forward to where it is today (or at least where it was before Metroid: Other M). One of the more notable changes made to Metroid II was the inclusion of save points, whereas the previous Metroid game had required players to transcribe lengthy passwords (this problem was exclusive to the North American version, but I digress). It may seem like a trivial feature to praise given the state of modern games, but save points were a premium inclusion at the beginning of the Gameboy era. Metroid II also pioneered my personal favorite power-up, the Space Jump, which allows the user to jump infinitely, reaching high points in the world that would otherwise be well out of Samus’s reach.
Surprisingly, Metroid doesn’t have much of a legacy on Nintendo’s line of portables. Metroid II was the last handheld Metroid game until 2002’s Metroid Fusion, which was only followed up by Metroid: Zero Mission (a remake of the original game) and a straight-up port of the NES classic. It’s a shame, too, because Metroid II is an excellent sequel to the first Metroid that stands the test of time.
Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow (1998) – My first love.
Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow are why I pleaded for a Gameboy Color as a child. I was okay with sharing most every other game on this list with my brother, but Pokémon convinced me that I had to have a system of my own. The promise of Pokémon was that every player could have a different experience, capturing only characters that he or she liked on his or her journey to defeat the Elite Four. It seemed to me as a child that there were infinite possibilities; anything was possible in the Kanto region, and I had to see that for myself.
Perhaps most beneficial to Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow in terms of lasting power is the fact that they are still as playable today as they were in 1998. Certainly it can be said that the series has advanced in some ways, but the core game remains basically unchanged, helping Red, Blue, and Yellow remain strong despite being old enough to drive. If you don’t believe me, then consider this: Which Pokémon game became an overnight sensation on Twitch that trended on social media for entire weeks? It wasn’t Gold and Silver, Ruby and Sapphire, Diamond and Pearl, Black and White, or X and Y. It was the original Pokémon.
Whether or not you consider the series to have advanced well beyond these original titles in terms of quality, it is impossible to deny this trio its place in history.