This past weekend marked the 30th anniversary of the O.G. Game Boy. That means high-quality portable gaming has been a thing for almost my entire life, and I don’t think I really appreciated it until recently. Back in the 90s, I remember thinking that the games were fun, but the screen was so hard to see, and I hated having to risk running out of battery life in the middle of an important game. As such, while I played most of the must-see titles (like The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins), I never really delved too deeply into the catalogue. I’m realizing that was a mistake. However, while the Game Boy has reached a pretty significant milestone and is worthy of all the praise being poured out upon it by publications this week, I want to talk about the Game Boy’s first full-fledged successor (I’m not counting the Game Boy Color, which I think of as more a mid-generation update): the Game Boy Advance.
I purchased a Game Boy Advance SP, the clamshell redesign with a backlit screen, just before starting college. That meant its impressive library went overlooked, as I spent too much time studying and flirting and all that other college stuff. Only now, in my mid-thirties, am I starting to dive into the collection, and I’ve been blown away by what I’ve seen.
The hardware is unabashedly 16-bit in presentation (though the system is technically 32-bit). What this amounts to is games that appear to be Super NES quality, but made by developers with more years’ experience developing games. It’s not a Super NES-lite; if anything, it’s the next logical evolution of that type of game. The lack of an X and Y button makes straight game conversion from Super NES a bit tricky, though the L and R buttons are a very smart addition over the original Game Boy. The fact that it’s completely backwards compatible with all original Game Boy and Game Boy Color games makes this an even more appealing proposition.
With over 1,000 games, there’s plenty in any given genre to keep you occupied. Here are a few of my personal favorites.
The Castlevania games
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was a monumental achievement in 2D platformer design. Its open-ended gameplay and gorgeous, hand-drawn graphics set a new benchmark that even Konami themselves had difficulty surpassing. They came closest with the Game Boy Advance Castlevania games: Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, and Aria of Sorrow. Each took the central mechanics of Symphony of the Night and added their own spin to the formula. In total, they form a trilogy of platforming near-perfection.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
If The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening proved that Zelda could make a successful transition to portable systems, then The Minish Cap proved it could be near-indecipherable from the console experience. Taking the classic gameplay from earlier 2D Zelda games, it added in a shrinking/growing mechanic that added another dimension to the gameplay.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance
Expanding on the Final Fantasy Tactics formula, Advance ups the ante with more than 30 jobs to assign to your motley crew of warriors. Along with the updates to the job system, Advance brought Judges to the battlefield, creating unique rules for each battle that all participants must obey, lest they incur penalties. The fairytale storyline wasn’t as compelling as the original tale of war and religion gone wrong, but that’s only a small knock against an otherwise impressive strategy roleplaying game.
Epic role-playing games had been done on portable systems before, but Golden Sun raised the bar. With beautiful graphics and cool (for the time) 3D effects in battles, it was a treat for the eyes. And its story was just as expansive as its console contemporaries. Fun puzzles, challenging fights, it had everything you’d expect. Its sequel took the unique angle of telling the story from the perspective of the original game’s antagonists. Both are well worth tracking down today.
The Metroid series has been on a bit of a hiatus lately, though that is likely to change with Metroid Prime 4 on the Switch (whenever that comes out). After Super Metroid, we had to suffer through eight agonizing years before Metroid Fusion hit the GBA, but it was worth the wait. Leaving behind the series’s traditional planetary wasteland settings, Fusion took place on a starship under siege. Samus battled against her evil clone as she once again collected her traditional powerups and took down massive bosses.
The Game Boy Player
There’s not really a wrong way to play Game Boy Advance games. There’s of course the traditional Game Boy Advance system, which was great, albeit a bit hard to see without direct light (much like its predecessor, the original Game Boy). A better choice is the Game Boy Advance SP, which began Nintendo’s love affair with the clamshell design. Even better, it had a built-in light. Still, the finest way to play Game Boy Advance games — if you’re not worried about that whole portability thing — is the Game Boy Player for the Nintendo Gamecube. While a bit on the rare (read: expensive) side these days, the ability to play this huge collection of games on a TV is worth its weight in gold. Just be sure, if you buy it, that it includes the startup disc — the player is useless without it.
This should give any potential collectors a good leaping-off point to begin their Game Boy Advance adventure. Nintendo has consistently led the way in the portable space, and they continue to dominate to this day, with the Switch successfully merging the home console and the portable. With such an enormous back catalog of great games, it’s easy to find something you’ll love.