On April 21, 1989, Nintendo debuted its latest product, an 8-bit handheld gaming device called Game Boy, in Japan. Within two weeks, Nintendo sold every single one of the 300,000 Game Boys they had manufactured, and when the Game Boy launched in the United States later that July, Nintendo sold 40,000 units on the first day. Clearly it had struck gold. Even though the Game Boy lacked the full-color graphics of its fourth-generation competitors–Sega’s Game Gear and the Atari Lynx–it blew those other consoles out of the water. By the time Nintendo launched the Game Boy Color in 1998, the original had sold almost 65 million units. The Game Boy was king.
We salute the classic handheld console with our picks of the 30 best Game Boy games of all time. Be sure to also check out our list of the best Game Boy Advance games.
Adventure Island 2: Aliens In Paradise
The original Adventure Island for the NES wasn’t quite, well, original. It was a Nintendo adaptation of Sega’s Wonder Boy, a fun but derivative platform-adventure title where you play Master Higgins on his quest to save his beloved Princess Leilani from the Evil Witch Doctor. In Adventure Island 2: Aliens In Paradise (which is really a Game Boy port of the third NES installment), Master Higgins must once again rescue his girlfriend, this time from aliens. He’s got some help, however, in the form of dinosaurs, including a triceratops and a pterodactyl, which he can ride and use to attack enemies. The addition of Flintstones-esque vehicular dinos, along with a expanded inventory system (eight items instead of the NES version’s five) and a more developed power-up element, made Adventure Island 2: Aliens In Paradise a classic title for the Game Boy.
Like many of the games on this list, Game Boy’s version of Bionic Commando is a port of the NES original. There are a few minor differences: instead of the contemporary military setting of the NES release, the Game Boy adaptation is futuristic, and–for some reason–your character is named Rad Spencer, not Ladd Spencer. Maybe Game Boy made him cooler? Those tweaks aside, the portable Bionic Commando features all the impressive platformer gameplay of the home-console predecessor. Instead of jumping, Ladd/Rad Spencer gets around using the grappling hook in his bionic arm. This might seem like a small adjustment from the usual script, but it gave the game unique mechanics and set it apart from other similar titles like Contra.
Castlevania 2: Belmont’s Revenge
The first Castlevania release for the Game Boy, 1989’s Castlevania: The Adventure, was an unoriginal and unimpressive misfire. For Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, the developers returned a couple years later with a portable game worthy of sitting alongside the home-console titles in the Castlevania series. Set roughly a hundred years before the events of the original NES Castlevania, you play another member of the Belmont clan, Christopher, as he seeks revenge against Dracula for kidnapping his son and turning him into a demon. To save his son and the rest of humanity, Christopher Belmont jumps and whips his way through four castles, each representing a different element. Unlike Castlevania: The Adventure, Belmont’s Revenge features sub-weapons like holy water and axes. It also boasts improved graphics and a great, atmospheric soundtrack, a staple of the Castlevania franchise. Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge demonstrates that the Belmonts can kick, er, whip ass regardless of console size.
Contra: The Alien Wars
The Contra series began as a coin-op arcade game, then it moved into living rooms worldwide as an influential and infamous (considering its difficulty) run-and-gun title by Konami. Then, it migrated from home to handheld consoles with Contra: The Alien Wars, a Game Boy adaptation of Super Nintendo’s Contra III: The Alien Wars, dropping the Roman numeral somewhere along the way. The developers dropped some other things too, like many of the enemy bosses, an entire level, and the ability to hold two weapons. Don’t let these changes be a buzzkill though! The game was still loads of run-and-gun fun, and this time you could take it to go.
By most accounts, Mario is the most famous video game character of all time. He first appeared, as “Jumpman,” in the 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong, in which he must save a damsel in distress, Pauline, from the titular Donkey Kong, all while dodging barrels. The 1994 Game Boy version didn’t mess with a winning formula, and simply took the super-influential arcade game’s four stages and made them portable. Oh, wait–hold up! After you’ve “beat” the game and the victory theme begins, Donkey Kong wakes up, snatches Pauline and runs away. What follows is 97 more stages across nine worlds, with a final battle against a mutated, gigantic Donkey Kong. Now that’s a plot twist!
Donkey Kong Land
This–the Game Boy translation of Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo console–looks remarkably good, especially considering that by 1995 the Game Boy was becoming an antique. Developed by the storied Rare company, Donkey Kong Land follows the Kong clan as they try to save their home from the dreaded Kremlings. It was also pretty meta, with Donkey and Diddy Kong reflecting on their video-game fame and setting out to prove that a game doesn’t need “fancy [SNES] graphics” to be good. They were right.
Originally developed for the NES, Dr. Mario worked better as a Game Boy title, despite lacking the colorful visuals of the home version. Apparently, Mario got his MD and has to prescribe pills to patients, filling up bottles with your help (this angered a lot of parents at the time, concerned that the game was teaching their kids some informal pharmacology). This is all pretty much just window dressing to hide the fact that Dr. Mario is a rather blatant ripoff of Tetris. As far as source material to crib from, though, Tetris is a stellar choice. So, by the transitive property, Dr. Mario was a fun and habit-forming puzzle game, just what the doctor ordered.
F-1 Race was perhaps most notable for its accompanying hardware. It was often sold alongside the Game Boy four-player adapter, which let you compete with three of your friends, and it was the first Game Boy game to include a battery backup, which allowed you to record your best times. These two features made F-1 Race a technical achievement, plus it was a solidly enjoyable racing game.
Final Fantasy Adventure
This action-RPG title is more Zelda than Final Fantasy, featuring a top-down point of view and real-time battles. You could also kill townspeople if you were so inclined. Along with hack-and-slash elements, Final Fantasy Adventure emphasized player stats and leveling up, making it the best of both the action-adventure and role-playing worlds. It also sported an excellent soundtrack, crisp graphics and hours of quality gameplay.
Final Fantasy Legend 2
Now here is a Final Fantasy Game Boy game with all those classic RPG features: a world map, a focus on statistics and long and challenging gameplay. The storyline revolves around your character’s quest to find his or her father while collecting shards of a broken goddess statue that contain magical properties. It all adds up to a sequel that outshines its predecessor.