Nintendo’s original handheld, the Game Boy, turns 25 today. The 8-bit brick launched on April 21, 1989 in Japan, with a U.S. release following on July 31. It wasn’t a very powerful device by today’s standards — even the very first iPhone ran circles around the original Game Boy — but Nintendo’s cartridge-based evolution of its handheld Game & Watch series helped to popularize gaming on the go. It’s an extra impressive feat when you remember that the Game Boy’s top competitor’s – Sega’s Game Gear and Atari’s Lynx – were technologically superior machines.
Now, two and a half decades later, Nintendo is in a similar spot. The company’s wildly popular 3DS handheld – despite its glasses-free 3D gimmick – lacks the power of Sony’s PlayStation Vita, and yet it’s the dominant gaming-dedicated handheld on the market in terms of sales. And thanks to Nintendo’s Virtual Console, you can celebrate the Game Boy’s birthday with some actual Game Boy games. Here are our favorites out of what’s available.
Super Mario Land
One of the first games released on the Game Boy, Super Mario Land marks the mustachioed plumber’s portable debut. The game didn’t attempt to reinvent anything, but that’s not what it needed to do. The idea of playing something like Super Mario Bros. on the go was all the innovation gamers really needed. Even still, the devs at Nintendo tried out some new ideas with Mario piloting a bi-plane in a couple of levels, a bonus level offering power-ups and free lives, and a Hard Mode that opened up after players completed the game.
Super Mario Land is available in the 3DS eShop for $4.
Another “if it ain’t broke” sort of situation for Nintendo, the portable version of the Alexey Pajitnov’s already-popular falling blocks puzzle game Tetris was actually bundled with the North American Game Boy release, and took the series to new heights with 30+ million units sold. The rules remain the same as they’ve always been in the portable debut, with players attempting to create unbroken horizontal rows of “tetrominos” for points, with progress being marked by faster-falling blocks. The Game Boy release included a two-player mode in which a pair of Game Boys could connect using Nintendo’s proprietary Game Link Cable.
Tetris is available in the 3DS eShop for $4.
Donkey Kong (1994)
Where Super Mario Land and Tetris stuck to what was safe, the Game Boy release of Donkey Kong took chances. The arcade game in its original form is preserved, with players plugging through the four levels featured in the coin-op release, up to and including the final victory thing. Then things get cute. Donkey bursts in and makes off with Pauline again, leading into 97 more stages that tweak the gameplay, with Mario having to find keys, open doors, and survive Donkey’s onslaught in so-called Battle Levels. Donkey Kong‘s Game Boy release remains a strong game now, 20 years after its 1994 launch. Definitely check it out.
Donkey Kong is available in the 3DS eShop for $4.
Metroid II: Return of Samus
Let’s all agree up front that no Metroid can ever top the SNES Super Metroid. Now that we’ve got the important stuff out of the way, Metroid II – much like Super Mario Land did for Nintendo’s beloved platformer – existed to give Samus an on-the-go-friendly adventure. It wasn’t just more of the same though. Nintendo’s designers had to rethink certain aspects of the game. The difference between Samus’ Power and Varia suits had to be fleshed out further, since the original NES game’s color-coding didn’t work on the black & white Game Boy. Return of Samus also introduced the Spider Ball, allowing Samus’ Morph Ball to spin around on walls and ceilings. That was super fun.
Metroid II: Return of Samus is available in the 3DS eShop for $4.
Kirby’s Dream Land 2
Kirby’s Dream Land 2 is one of the latter-day Game Boy games, but the handheld’s age didn’t stop the game from becoming one of Nintendo’s great hits. At heart, it’s a traditional Nintendo platformer, with the mushy, globular hero walking, swimming, flying, inhaling, inflating and leaping through an assortment of bizarre worlds. Dream Land 2 didn’t reinvent any of those ideas, but it gave Kirby three friends from the animal kingdom to play with: Rick the Hamster, Coo the Owl, and Kine the Ocean Sunfish. Each mount bestowed certain advantages whenever Kirby hooked up with them. Don’t let the cute scare you away, this one’s a bona fide classic.
Kirby’s Dream Land 2 is available in the 3DS eShop for $4.