The Greatest Game: Tetris (1989)
Does this one need any description? Arguably the perfect game, Tetris has been experienced by everyone, including you, your mother and possibly your great-grandmother. The seemingly simple puzzler latches on to your mind the moment you start, and even hours after stopping, the desire to match up blocks for an ultimate four-line “clear” can subconsciously invade your dreams. Most importantly, Tetris sold the Game Boy right from launch, making it a ludicrously popular system with incredible longevity.
Although versions existed before the Game Boy pack-in, and the game continues to be released in new iterations, Tetris never found a better home than on that spinach-tinted screen. You could play it for a few minutes before bed (warning: see above) or kill hours on end during a dull family vacation. Many copycats and admirable competitors have come along, but few games - puzzle or otherwise -can match Tetris for that ideal, object-manipulating meditation. And the purest form of that experience remains the one that released 20 years ago on Nintendo’s very first handheld.
The second greatest: Pokemon Red / Blue (1996)
The ridiculously layered RPG formula that Pokemon Red / Blue pioneered is so perfect, it’s remained nearly unchanged throughout four generations (over 10 years) of Pokemon games. Kids can play through Red / Blue easily, without suspecting the depth that lurks below. For the dedicated, however, the world of EV training and IV breeding in Red / Blue is one of the most hardcore and rewarding experiences of all time.
The Greatest Game: Mario Clash (1995)
Sigh… it’s hard to muster up genuine enthusiasm for a system that’s physically painful to play for more than 20 minutes. Be that as it may, Mario Clash represents the best mix of fake-virtual-reality gameplay and the original sewer-cleaning Mario Bros. game. Gameplay is as simple as the arcade ancestor – clear room after one-screen room of enemies by jumping on them and throwing their bodies at other enemies. Once the sewer pipes stop spewing monsters, you’re off to the next level.
Yes, it’s extremely basic. Yes, it’s far from a system seller. But when it comes to presenting faux 3D, where one pipe will take you “deeper” into the level and you throw your downed enemy’s body back toward your eyes, Mario Clash does as good a job as possible. Also, it’s one of only 14 US Virtual Boy games, and we sure as hell weren’t going to give it to Waterworld.
The second greatest: Wario Land (1995)
A surprisingly robust adventure game in the style of Six Golden Coins, the black-and-red-only Wario Land was the first game that caused actual eye strain from too much play time. It lost the top spot because, well, this kind of game isn’t suited for the Virtual Boy, and as a result one can only take so much before less strenuous options win out.
The Greatest Game: Advance Wars (2001)
Released fairly early in the handheld's life, Advance Wars was the standout original property from Nintendo for the GBA. While its bright, colorful visuals and simple yet intelligent translation helped it gain an audience, the real root of its appeal comes - as it should - from gameplay. Perfectly suited for stopping and starting at any time, and containing fantastic tutorials, Advance Wars brought turn-based strategy to the mainstream gamer. Quite a success for a normally niche genre.
The rock-paper-scissors core of the massive battles is uncluttered, and the intricacies of the many units are easy to learn, but each new sortie introduces an additional wrinkle to master. Eventually, you reach an end game that's riddled with shockingly dense rules... and yet you understand completely. After you finish the lengthy campaign, there are dozens of maps to unlock, stats to ratchet up to five stars and - should you feel particularly masochistic - an incredibly challenging "advanced" difficulty level. Is it any wonder our game clock topped 100 hours?
The second greatest: Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (2003)
Unlike other Castlevania titles, Aria of Sorrow wasn't caught in the shadow of Symphony of the Night. Instead, the game embraced its differences, showcasing a beefy tactical system and the best music you'll ever hear on the GBA.
The Greatest Game (so far): The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (2007)
Put simply, Phantom Hourglass is the ultimate DS experience. No other title uses the stylus and dual screen technology so perfectly. Every function is mapped to the little plastic pen: movement, attacks, ship steering, and note taking. None of it feels awkward or forced, reaffirming the ability of Zelda games to maximize the controls of whatever system they appear on. The DS mechanics are used here so well here, in fact, that other developers really don’t have much of an excuse anymore for not trying.
The colorful, cel-shaded graphics – adapted from Wind Waker on the GameCube – also push the very limits of the system. We didn’t think 3D like this was possible on a handheld until we witnessed Phantom Hourglass in action. Best of all, Phantom Hourglass marries all this new technology with old familiar gameplay in a way that enables an epic and meaty Zelda adventure to be digested in short, portable spurts.
The second greatest: New Super Mario Bros (2006)
Put simply again, New Super Mario Bros is the best platformer on the DS, and the best platformer on any console in years. We know the game doesn’t exactly use the stylus - outside of tapping a power-up or playing a minigame - and both screens aren’t completely necessary to your enjoyment. Still, Nintendo took a 20+ year old game, redesigned it with 3D elements retrofitted for 2D gameplay, and won our hearts without copping to nostalgia.
The Greatest Game (so far): Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops (2006)
Ever since the bitter disappointment of finding out that Metal Gear Acid, one of the PSP’s most promising launch titles, was actually a strategy game based around collecting cards, Metal Gear fans cried out angrily for a “real” Metal Gear to take on the road. They finally got one more than a year later, when Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops crept onto the scene and changed our perceptions of what the PSP was capable of. The game looked and played like a full-fledged Metal Gear and its story, told in bold, impressionistic cutscenes, offered a memorable trip into the series’ origins.
More than that, MPO (as Konami abbreviated it) was the first and only game to really take advantage of everything the PSP could do. Its action played out in small but detailed levels, ensuring short load times. Players could build an army out of the game’s recruitable characters, who could then be matched and betted against other players’ personal fighting forces. Meanwhile, using the PSP to scan WiFi hotspots could create entirely new characters based on the data it found, and there was even GPS functionality built in, so as to tempt fans with special elite characters that could only be downloaded from certain real-world locations.
In short, it’s the consummate PSP game, and no other franchise - not even GTA - can quite match what it’s able to do.
The second greatest: LocoRoco (2006)
We defy you – each and every one of you – to play through this simple platformer about bouncing, singing blobs without once cracking a smile. You can’t do it. It’s too happy.
The Greatest Game: Shinobi (1991)
We had to really pool our collective consciousness for the greatest experience on Sega’s ill-fated portable. Shinobi stood out for most people on staff because it was not only pretty (you know, for a Game Gear game), but a surprisingly good action platformer to boot. And had ninjas.
To Shinobi’s credit, you never fight as just one hero. The game tasks you with fighting through four levels to save your assassin brethren, each with their own unique abilities. For the rest of the game, you can switch between the rescued ninjas to progress. In that regard, Shinobi plays sort of like a robot-less Mega Man.
Shinobi also toes the line between challenging and difficult pretty well, meaning we were somewhat less inclined to throw the Game Gear across the room while playing it. What else can you ask for on this system, really?
The second greatest: Columns (1991)
While the Game Boy had Tetris, the Game Gear had Columns. Not just a glorified clone, Columns featured color - take that, Nintendo! – and block stacking that proved incredibly addictive in a surprisingly unique way.
The Greatest Game: Todd’s Adventures in the Slime World (1990)
Fond memories of time well spent gaming on the Lynx only exist in the hearts of early adopters (spoiled kids, children of the recently divorced), since completist collectors picking the bones of the Atari dynasty are the leading install base of this portable, second only to landfills. Owning a Lynx, however, did nail you bragging rights over certain non-portable consoles, since the definitive versions of several multi-platform titles call the Lynx their home away from (your) home.
When looking at Todd’s Adventures in the Slime World next to its Genesis counterpart, the Lynx’s levels oozed, dripped and pulsated with undeniable visual superiority, thus perfectly suited for a world billed as slimy. Even now, with graphical arguments 20 years moot, Todd still retains some unique majesty that puts it in a pithy handful of Lynx titles worth revisiting.
Todd didn’t just shoot parasitic goop while wading in life-restoring pools - although that was a big part of it. Each selectable “level” was an entirely different mode unto itself. Action mode dramatically increased enemy opposition, Suspense was a race against the clock and Logic removed Todd’s gun entirely to force the player into more calculated methods of survival. Most notably, the Lynx did what Nintendidn't by including 8-player link up and an unlockable Zit-popping minigame.
The second greatest: Blue Lightning (1989)
After years of less than stellar After Burner ports and bottom-of-the-barrel Top Gun games, those who yearned for nothing more but to slither into virtual Pits of Cock everywhere stood in awe of a game like Blue Lightning. It delivered 3-D flight combat that was second to none… until the next generation of consoles.
The Greatest Game: SNK vs Capcom: Match of the Millennium (1999)
Sursprise! The best game on a Neo Geo is a fighting game. Not shocking for a company synonymous with great 2D fighters, but the fact that they were able to maintain the same level of quality on an unloved handheld as they did on their cult home consoles and arcade cabinets is astounding. Despite the technical limitations of the little-system-that-couldn't and its two lonley face buttons, SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millennium is a deep fighter made with remarkable expertise.
Also, we need to emphasize what a huge deal it was - at the time - to see a game pitting fighters from these rival companies against each other. Dozens of dream matches, somehow wrapped up in one pocket sized event. Although mostly forgotten today, this game was significant... a momentous meeting that still holds up and remains perhaps the best transition of arcade fighting to a handheld.
The second greatest: SNK vs Capcom: Card Fighter’s Clash (1999)
Believe it or not, this card game was the Neo Geo Pocket Color’s attempt at Pokemon... and it was nearly as addictive, if nowhere near as popular. Getting the ultimate deck and the rarest cards, all built around the greatest fighters of the time, would suck away your life if you weren’t careful.
Next up: The best (and not so best) of the rest. Winners for Apple II, Commodore 64, Neo Geo, Turbo Grafx and more...