Friday 21st April 1989 – the day that the Game Boy launched in Japan. Over thirty years ago the video gaming landscape would be forever changed as Nintendo opened up the new frontier of portable gaming to the masses. The company’s Game & Watch line let you take limited gaming experiences on-the-go, but the Game Boy was a different beast entirely.
The 8-bit machine with the 160×144 pixel LCD screen might have been modest in the specs department, but it was just powerful enough to offer deep gaming experiences, with the best examples rivalling those on home consoles. More importantly, its limitations proved to be strengths in the long run; that blurry monochrome screen used significantly less power than a backlit colour equivalent, and therefore gave the portable decent battery life – an essential factor to consider when your handheld relies on AA batteries to function away from a wall socket.
Gunpei Yokoi’s design philosophy – using proven, inexpensive components in new and interesting ways – continued through Nintendo’s handheld line
Primarily the work of Satoru Okada and Gunpei Yokoi, the console was designed to a specific price point and goal; to be a practical portable device. Rival companies got carried away with the technical possibilities and contemporary handheld consoles with far superior specs fell by the wayside as Game Boy marched on. Gunpei Yokoi’s design philosophy – using proven, inexpensive components in new and interesting ways – continued through Nintendo’s handheld line and carried over to its home consoles with Wii. The Switch itself, and novel experiments such as Labo VR, show that this approach continues to keep the Kyoto company in rude health.
Of course, it’s software which makes or breaks any console and the humble Game Boy could never have endured so long without its catalogue of incredible games. Obviously, it had the archetypal killer app in Tetris, and many still insist it’s the finest version of Alexey Pajitnov’s puzzler. The story of its convoluted journey to the console is well worth investigating – a thrilling combination of guile, subterfuge and blind luck that went on to shape Nintendo and the video game industry at large.
Any video game company would be overjoyed to have a game with half the appeal of Tetris on its books, but after seven years – when you’d expect the console to be winding down – the Game Boy got the biggest second wind in video game history with the Japanese release of Pokémon Red & Green in 1996. A smaller, lighter revision of the hardware, the Game Boy Pocket, also arrived that year, and the console’s true successor – the Game Boy Color – would launch worldwide two years later alongside the western release of Pokémon. Although this marked a transition away from the OG hardware, the Game Boy line continued to enjoy almost 100% backwards compatibility up until the Micro variant of the Game Boy Advance in 2005.
While Tetris and Pokémon were the system sellers, there’s a vast library of games released for the system
While Tetris and Pokémon were the system sellers, there’s a vast library of games released for the system. The following list showcases the very best titles. You’re sure to find lots of ‘lands’ here – someone at Nintendo HQ decreed that the diminutive handheld simply couldn’t contain massive ‘worlds’, so Super Mario Land ushered in an era of ‘Land’ games from the likes of Kirby, Donkey Kong and Wario.
As with our lists of the 50 best Switch games and 50 best 3DS games, the ranking here is governed by the game’s user rating on this very site. Just as before, logged in users can interact and rate the titles directly on these pages by hovering over the rating, or alternatively from each game’s individual page. To be clear, the games listed here are for the original Game Boy only – there are no backwards compatible ‘black cart’ Game Boy Color games included (unless they happened to also receive a separate release for the original). If it says ‘Game Boy Color’ on the box, you won’t find it below!
Can’t see your favourite on the list? Head to our library of Game Boy games (or click the games tab at the top of the page) and input your own ratings. We’ve reduced the eligibility from fifty votes to twenty for these vintage games, so we fully expect this to be a little more fluid than the other lists, especially in the initial stages. It’ll be fascinating to check back and see how the list evolves!
So, without further ado, let’s dive in…
The Game Boy was, in many ways, the natural evolution of Nintendo’s Game & Watch line of one-shot portable devices, so the ability to play those games on one cartridge seemed like an acknowledgement of that handheld legacy. If you liked the originals, this collection is a must-have. Both the originals and remakes, which combine simple gameplay and subtle strategy, are here to enjoy and the newer versions play differently enough that you’re quite likely to consider them new experiences in and of themselves. The musical and visual presentation is fantastic as well, and the entire package serves as a relic of a truly magical time in gaming. Or, perhaps, two truly magical times.
A cute little top-down fishing RPG, Legend of the River King charges you with saving your sister’s life by catching a magical fish… yep, that sounds about right. You sell your catch to buy supplies and work your way towards catching the big one. You can apparently even raise a pet fish, too. Charming.
Kirby’s Pinball Land isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but it serves up a solid game of digital pinball starring everyone’s favourite pink amorphous ball. It’s an experiment that didn’t quite come together properly, but it’s not without merit and its engine would be used again in Pokémon Pinball for the Game Boy Color. Kirby and pinball seem like a match made in heaven, and this isn’t quite that but it’s a fun little mashup that showed potential for future pinball crossovers.
A fabulous portable cartoon platformer, Tiny Toon Adventures: Babs’ Big Break is another example of a fine licenced game with excellent audio and solid visuals on the Game Boy. The charm of Tiny Toons might be the thing that grabs your attention, but the gameplay is remarkably good and Konami once again demonstrates why we’re so sad they don’t really make video games any more. Looney, indeed.
A side-on motocross platforming game from Konami, Motocross Maniacs blends classic Excitebike-style controls with tricky courses to negotiate that position it as a precursor to Ubisoft’s Trials games. The simple but addictive gameplay suits the handheld very well, although it’s a shame that the cartridge’s lack of onboard memory means your best times are lost every time you switch the console off. Still, this is a very fun way to pass an hour or two.
Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Minakuchi Engineering
QIX is a classic game that suffers — if it suffers at all — from being born too soon. You essentially draw lines to cordon off areas of a rectangle for points – the larger the area, the better your score. Sounds simple but it’s a great deal of fun, and satisfyingly simple to learn. This is definitely a game that some will find divine, while others will be puzzled by its popularity. It’s quick to learn, easy to play and impossible to truly master. We can’t promise you that you’ll like this game, but if the game sounds even slightly appealing to you, we’d confidently say that it’s worth the risk.
Offering gorgeous visuals, a great soundtrack, an excellent new boss, a fun new weapon and some surprising improvements on the NES originals, Mega Man III is a solid outing. The difficulty might be a bit high, but E-Tanks cushion the blow for all but the most masochistic Mega Man fans. While Dr. Wily’s Revenge and Mega Man II had their respective merits, this is the first of the portable series that was a great game in its own right. Fortunately, it was by no means the last.
Publisher: Taito Corporation / Developer: Taito Corporation
The Game Boy port of Taito’s arcade platformer Bubble Bobble was developed in-house and it’s a great rendition of the original game that loses little in its transition to the portable’s little green screen. Bub the Bubble Dragon uses – you guessed it – bubbles to defeat enemies and work his way though 100 levels as he searches for Moon Water for his brother, Bob. It’s a classic and the GB port is an excellent way to play.
Publisher: ASK / Developer: Asmik Ace Entertainment
Something of hidden gem in the Game Boy catalogue, Catrap is a platform puzzler credited with being the first game to have a ‘rewind’ feature. You’re tasked with defeating monsters in order to escape 100 levels of ladders, blocks and other objects. Stages get more and more devious, of course, and a level editor enables you to create your own. If it looks a little basic from the outside, the game has a giant amount of content and could keep you busy for weeks. It was arguably overlooked back in the day, but it’s an innovative puzzler that deserves a bit of attention.
As with any port to the Game Boy, cuts are inevitable, but this still delivers an authentic R-Type experience. A slower speed, fewer enemies on screen and the omission of two levels make for an easier version. However, this port still manages to provide a challenge and it works well on the hardware it was designed for, with good controls and clear visuals. It may be a shorter gaming experience on the Game Boy, but it’s still a very good one.
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