X-List: 25 years later, The 9 best Game Boy games

Posted on Apr 21 2014 - 4:05pm by Tim Torres
gameboy X List: 25 years later, The 9 best Game Boy games

Game Boy celebrates its 25th Anniversary.

On April 21, 1989, Nintendo debuted the Game Boy. It was a big gray brick that displayed four shades of greenish gray on a reflective screen. It featured tinny sound, two buttons and a D-pad, and it needed four AA batteries for power. It was neolithic, even for the time. But while the Atari Lynx and SEGA Game Bear boasted color displays, the Game Boy lasted up to a dozen hours — far more than the two or three those other platforms could muster on six batteries — and its technical limitations meant designers had to get creative. They had to focus on what matters most: gameplay.

Thanks to a diverse library of games, and to pack-in puzzler Tetris, Nintendo’s Game Boy became a cultural icon. Besides selling 118 million units over the course of its life, it gave kids a means to entertain themselves on family road trips, a new way to get in trouble in class, and it allowed full-grown adult types an escape on the go — long before the iPhone.

The Game Boy brand lasted a long time thanks to several new iterations. The Super Game Boy allowed you to play Game Boy games in color on the Super Nintendo. The Game Boy Pocket sharpened the screen and slimmed the brick down. The Game Boy Color was a new piece of hardware entirely with a full color display and upgraded innards that practically made it a more powerful NES. And finally, the Game Boy Advance brought portable gaming into super-colorful, blazing fast 32-bit territory. 

The Game Boy name has since disappeared, but its influence lives on in the Nintendo DS, DSi and 3DS hardware. Not to mention all those smartphone games everyone’s into these days.

To celebrate Game Boy’s 25 years, let’s take a brief look at a few of the original, green/gray games and one Game Boy Color game for good measure. In no particular order:

pokemon 300x262 X List: 25 years later, The 9 best Game Boy games

Pokemon Blue on Super Game Boy. Notice the border!

Pokemon Red & Blue (1998)
Released almost a full decade after the handheld’s release, Pokemon gave Game Boy a new lease on life. Despite the simple graphics, Pokemon espouses virtues of teamwork, competition and sharing. The music is tinny, but the tunes are addicting. The creature designs are cute, cool and maybe even a little scary. And of course, Team Rocket is fabulous. Once thought a fad, Nintendo’s monster-fighting-and-trading game series has proven to be one of the most enduring franchises out there. Heck, it’s part of our cultural DNA now. Movies, cartoons, a card game, toys, an entire theme park — oh, and a never-ending stream of consistently refined video games — all born from a humble, addicting, influential Game Boy game. Though I was disappointed back in the day to find it only had one save slot…

donkeykong 300x262 X List: 25 years later, The 9 best Game Boy games

Donkey Kong ’94 was the last of Classic Kong.

Donkey Kong (1994)

Also known as Donkey Kong ’94, this game’s a deceptive little gem. It starts out as a faithful recreation of the original arcade game. Y’know, climb up some ladders, jump over some barrels, save the Princess. Same old, same old, right? Then it morphs into a mind-bending platformer-puzzle hybrid where you have to outwit the big ape at every turn. The last Kong game of its kind before Rare transformed the big brute with the Donkey Kong Country games, Donkey Kong ’94 has you scrambling for keys to unlock the way out of levels before the timer runs out, all while using many of Mario’s moves from Super Mario 64 – a few years before that title’s release. Very nuanced controls for a Game Boy title. 

ffa2 300x270 X List: 25 years later, The 9 best Game Boy games

This is really the first Mana game.

Final Fantasy Adventure (1991)

Don’t let the name fool you. Final Fantasy Adventure is actually the first part of Square’s fabled (troubled) Mana series. It’s a decent Zelda-style game that was later remade for Game Boy Advance in the lousy Sword of Mana. As one of the only two-and-a-half good games (this one, Secret of Mana, and the graphics and soundtrack of Legend of Mana) in the Mana series, Final Fantasy Adventure remains an important part of the Game Boy library for its snappy combat, catchy soundtrack and ability to brutally murder NPCs in towns. Wait, what?!

kirby2 300x238 X List: 25 years later, The 9 best Game Boy games

Kirby, before he got so angry on box art all the time.

Kirby’s Dream Land (1992)

Kirby’s grand debut. Did you know he started out as a placeholder character? He was originally intended to be a collision-detecting debug blob, but creator Masahiro “Smash Bros.” Sakurai grew to love the little marshmallow/puffball/alien beast so much he left him in the game. Thus, a star was born. Originally intended for young kids, the original game is extremely simple to play. He doesn’t gain his Mega Man-y power-stealing copy move until Kirby’s Adventure on the NES, but Dream Land is still fun, a spring breeze to play and adorable to boot. 

molemania2 300x262 X List: 25 years later, The 9 best Game Boy games

Holy mole-y, what a brainteaser.

Mole Mania (1996)

Another unique puzzler on a platform perfect for puzzling, Mole Mania revolves around Muddy Mole’s journey above and underground to rescue his wife and kids from a mean old farmer. Similar to Donkey Kong ’94 (both games are by the same team of developers), Muddy must navigate levels using his wits as well as his claws to burrow holes and push big bowling balls into dinosaurs. Yeah, it’s a real (weird) brain twister. And it’s tough, really tough. Definitely worth playing.

marioland2 300x270 X List: 25 years later, The 9 best Game Boy games

Less weird music and giant flies, more Goombas and Wario.

Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (1992)

The first Super Mario Land was the first Mario game for the Game Boy yet it looked and played little like a traditional Mario game. With its weird shooter levels and off-kilter music, it was an experiment made to accommodate the Game Boy’s lesser screen and specs. Either way, its tiny graphics made playing the game on an already tiny, blurry screen a headache. Super Mario Land 2 felt like an improvement in every way. Larger sprites, abilities and maps similar to Super Mario World, and a welcome save system made it nice and friendly sequel. And it’s the first game to give us Wario. The sequels for Game Boy and Game Boy Advance brought Wario into the spotlight.

tetris2 300x270 X List: 25 years later, The 9 best Game Boy games

Tetris Theme A is now in your head. Whoops!

Tetris  (1989)

The game that put Game Boy on the map. For many, the Game Boy was the Tetris-Playing Machine. Young and old got addicted to it. It’s arguably the most important video game ever. I mean, it helped break down the Iron Curtain. Addicting as hell to this day, Tetris can be played on everything these days from keychains to cell phones to kid’s braces (maybe?!). I’m still waiting for the motion picture version. My preferred version: Tetris DS

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The Legend of Zelda boiled down to its essentials.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993)

Perhaps the best game on this list, but definitely one of the best Zelda games. After the events of A Link to the Past (or whatever it says on that dopey timeline), our elven hero goes on vacation at sea, but after a storm he washes ashore Koholint Island, where he’s surrounded by mysteries. Who’s this girl who looks like Zelda? What’s the deal with this talking owl? Why is there a giant, apocalyptic egg looking over the island? Stuffed full of creative items, challenging dungeons and cameos from various Nintendo games, Link’s Awakening perfectly distills everything great about The Legend of Zelda into the palm of your hand. 

mgsgb2 300x270 X List: 25 years later, The 9 best Game Boy games

Solid Snake: one of the most fluid animated sprites on Game Boy.

Metal Gear Solid (2000)
Also known as Metal Gear: Ghost Babel (Metal Gear GB, get it?). Like Link’s Awakening it’s everything wonderful about Metal Gear Solid concentrated into one tiny super-game. It’s like a sniper’s bullet. And that sniper has a hawk on his arm. O a robotic head. Or something. And he’s yelling at you about the U.S. government betraying its soldiers. Whatever! Metal Gear Solid for Game Boy Color impresses for narrowing the gameplay of the three-dimensional games down to just two buttons and a D-pad. Everything you expect from the series is there: The Codec conversations, the bonkers storyline, the stealthy gameplay — some say its paring down of all these aspects makes it the secret best game in the series. Sure, the cigarettes are called “Foggers” (thanks for that, Nintendo censors), but the Metal Gear soul stays intact in portable form.

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Editor-in-chief Tim Torres is a video game geek, a tech nut, a film nerd, and he occasionally picks up a book once in a while. He has written all manner of copy for PCMag, Computer Shopper, The Jersey Journal, Radio One, and Random House. As a video game critic and podcast host, he has written in-depth reviews, attended industry events, conducted interviews and led creative discussions on various topics related to games and the games industry. Before entering the tech world, he attended New York University and worked in education as an art instructor. In his spare time he acts, sketches, eats a lot of sushi and watches a lot of Netflix. He does not hate Final Fantasy VII.

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