Oh the times, they are a-changing. When the Game Boy line of hardware debuted in 1989, the idea of a device that could play fully-fledged games on the go was revolutionary. Now we have cell phones that allow us to talk to others, stream video, play games, and look up facts (like what year the Game Boy debuted) in the palm of our hands. But let us never forget these dedicated little machines, or the last of its lineage, the Game Boy Advance.
This was the handheld that gave us amazing games like Boktai: The Sun Is In Your Hand, Advance Wars 2, and The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap. It had a wide range of third-party support, updated versions of SNES classics, and some of the most gorgeous sprites this side of Rainbow Road. The GBA library spanned more than 1,000 games, but we've combed through that extensive list to bring you the 25 best. So even if you've got a phone that can do everything the GBA does and more, be sure to give these games some love.
Boktai: The Sun Is in Your Hand
You could count on one hand the number of Game Boy Advance games that've actually used the system's portability as a key gameplay feature--and you'd still have a free hand to play GBA games, inside, next to your TV. Boktai: The Sun Is in Your Hand changes all that, with a stroke of the vexing ingenuity for which producer Hideo Kojima will forever be known.
Equipped with a built-in clock and solar sensor, the vampire-hunting Boktai challenges you to charge your in-game weaponry with IRL solar energy--and ramps up the difficulty during the hours of darkness. It's an intriguing twist on player immersion, and more importantly, it's a lot of fun as well.
Mario Golf: Advance Tour
"Why, oh why," you've doubtless asked during rounds of Tiger Woods PGA Tour, "why doesn't this golf simulator include more top-down JRPG elements? It's as if they didn't know why people play golf games at all!"
Happily for you and all your very real, not-just-invented-for-journalistic-purposes friends, Mario Golf: Advance Tour developer Camelot has elected to remedy the glaring lack of golfing games that double as item-heavy, level-based RPGs. And happily for anyone still unsold on such a formula, the developer has done it near-flawlessly, turning out the GBA's best golfing title in the process.
Kirby & the Amazing Mirror
Seen most recently among the freebies handed out by Nintendo to placate early 3DS adopters and now available on the Wii U eShop, Kirby & the Amazing Mirror's already in fine company. The title earns its prestige with a twist on the usual suck-'em-up Kirby formula, one which paid off.
Contracted out to Minish Cap developer Flagship, Amazing Mirror forgoes the left-to-right platforming action in favor of a Metroidvania-style quest incorporating a large game world and multiple Kirbies. Fans of the character - or of anything Metroid-esque and Nintendo-approved - ought to keep an eye out for a copy.
Car Battler Joe
Car Battler Joe is the Mad Max-inspired JRPG you never knew you wanted. The world lies in ruins, pockets of civilization band together in run-down villages, and car battlers make their living by going into the wastes looking for scrap and competing in deadly competitions. Your father has gone missing, and rumor has it that he's been hanging out with the most ruthless car-battling gang out there.
And so you must travel from town to town, chat with the locals, take on odd jobs, upgrade your car, and scour the land looking for clues to your father's whereabouts. It's a bizarre blend of genres, but Car Battler Joe makes it all come together in explosive fashion.
Wario Land 4
A title that lucky 3DS Ambassadors and Wii U owners can enjoy today, Wario Land 4 continues the series that began life as a Mario Land spin-off and has since blossomed into its own sneering, garlic-reeking, treasure-grabbing epic entirely.
Developed by Nintendo R&D1 and released when programmers' prowess with the GBA was really hitting its stride, Wario Land 4 is a late-period throwback to the golden age of side-on platforming. As such, the title's design may be more traditional than the open-world likes of other Advance hits like Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow and Metroid Fusion, but it's no less ingenious for it.
Advance Wars 2
Nintendo and Intelligent Systems' Advance Wars came seemingly out of nowhere to emerge as one of the best reasons to own a Game Boy Advance. When players dug into the Famicom Wars' long and storied Japanese history, the obvious question was: When do we get some more of this great thing. Without much further ado, an answer appeared less than two years later.
Advance Wars 2 doesn't do much to rewrite its predecessor's winning formula; but as you'll recall from some 24 words ago, "some more of this great thing" was exactly what we wanted, and that's what you get. More characters, more powers, more arenas, more battles... it's more Advance Wars, and that's just great.
Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis
The Ogre Battle franchise remains a hidden gem in the west, never commanding the same fevered enthusiasm as your Final Fantasies or Elder Scrollses. But for those in the know, Quest's series occupies a special place in the history of the tactical-JRPG genre.
Drawing inspiration from the Balkan conflict of the early '90s, creator Yasume Matsuno laid the foundations for Ogre Battle before developing the acclaimed Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics, and FF12 for Square Enix. The Knight of Lodis was developed after Matsuno left the company, but it's still a fitting continuation of his first tactical masterwork.
Dr. Mario & Puzzle League
Sometimes you can't be bothered with inventive power-ups or innovative level design or relatable characters. Sometimes you just want to strap a stethoscope to a plumber and hurl pills into a bottle of bacteria until your eyes glaze over. And with this solidly realized port of Dr. Mario, you can do that on the bus, in the bathroom, wherever.
Someone at Nintendo sure must like you, because they packed in something extra. A good deal better than Dr. Mario, Puzzle League is a bare-bones version of the title sometimes known as Tetris Attack and Pokmon Puzzle League. It may lack any new frills. but the addicting puzzle challenge is still at the top of its game.
Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town
New to Harvest Moon? Then what you need to know is that this series is considerably more engrossing than one might expect from a game whose basic premise is "like a JRPG, but without the fighting or plot." Harvest Moon knows its lack of magic swords or monstrous bosses may seem like a sticking point, but the game is eager to accept that challenge.
And if you're not new to Harvest Moon, you're aware the game packs an admirable amount of charm and challenge both. The series has commanded a cult following since its inception in the SNES days, and this GBA conversion of the PlayStation iteration is a perfect entry point - or, for aficionados, more of what you love.
We love Pokemon games as much as the next potential collector, but its always nice to see series creator Game Freak try something new in addition to the monster collectors it keeps pumping out. Drill Dozer ended up being quite the departure for Game Freak, thanks mostly to its interesting approach to platforming, that mostly involved drilling everything around you.
Protagonist Jill and her highly customizable drill explored many impressively expansive stages, and the storytelling reminded us of our favorite manic anime series. The game was made more even more impactful thanks to the rumble pack attached to the cart, a feature exploited in few games, and one that Drill Dozer uses with panache.
Golden Sun/Golden Sun: The Lost Age
Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age may sound like two separate games, but don’t be fooled. They comprise more of an early experiment in episodic gaming than they do a series of related sequels. While playing them back to back is necessary to actually understand the story about a world defined by Alchemy - elemental magic and psychic powers, not the mythic pursuit of immortality mind you - both games offer the same spectacular adventuring and turn-based fighting.
Developer Camelot has a penchant for making role-playing games out of unusual subjects (hello Mario Golf) but Golden Sun also highlights their ability to capture and twist the best of classic JRPG tropes. From the beautiful pixel world to collecting weird little sprite creatures to learn new magic, Golden Sun feels both instantly familiar but totally unique thanks to its odd world and expressive characters. The story seems to stop right in the middle at the end of Golden Sun, enhancing its feeling as an incomplete game, but Lost Age is also a surprising second chapter with a shift in perspective that keeps both games cooking.
Final Fantasy 6 Advance
Final Fantasy 6 is a masterwork that forever changed the way people think about the RPG genre, with story and characters that still captivate us. FF6 was one of the most influential games of the SNES era, and discerning GBA owners really owe it to themselves to see how well it's aged, even if this isn't the best version of it.
While lacking the multimedia sweeteners of the PlayStation version, this solid SNES port still manages to incorporate a few tweaks: Japanese naming conventions overwrite the established Woolseyisms and uber-completionists can opt for the added challenge of bonus dungeons not included in the original.
Mega Man Zero
Battle Network might have been Mega Man's most popular (or at least prolific) reimagining on the GBA, but it wasn't the only one. Taking a darker bent than its Pokemon-inspired sister franchise, the Mega Man Zero games were set a full century after the Mega Man X series, with an amnesiac Zero fighting alongside a resistance group in a post-apocalyptic, robot-filled hellscape.
While the Zero series kept most of Mega Mans trappings - big side-scrolling levels, bosses hiding behind retracting doors - it introduced a lot of its own touches, like weapons that leveled up with use and collectible, Pokemon-like creatures called Cyber-elves that could enhance Zero's abilities. It was also extra-hard, even by the standards of older Mega Man games. Despite this, Zero proved popular enough to get three sequels on the GBA. The first game is generally regarded as the best though, so its the one we're singling out here.
Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2
In 2001, Tony Hawk's name still carried serious weight in gaming, so a handheld adaptation of THPS2 in the GBA's launch library was a pretty big deal. Its still a pretty big deal, actually, if you consider what a challenge it must have been adapting Pro Skater's kick-flipping, rail-grinding 3D action to a 2D handheld. THPS2 pulled it off brilliantly, though, delivering an isometric, kinda-3D-looking game that felt uncannily like its console counterparts.
The sense of gravity, the responsiveness of the tricks, the depth of gameplay, and even the layouts of the levels were all carried over faithfully from the real THPS2. Sure, it could sometimes be a little hard to make out whether certain objects were convex or concave, and one of the console versions biggest selling points - its soundtrack - was necessarily left out. But the gameplay was all there, and it was proof positive that the GBA was going to deliver some amazing things in the years that followed.
Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3
Nintendo rereleased three other Mario games for GBA under the Super Mario Advance label: Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario World, and Yoshi's Island. And while those were all pretty good, none of them generated quite as much excitement as the final SMA entry, which beautifully remastered what many still consider the best Mario game ever made: Super Mario Bros. 3. That Super Mario Advance 4 updated SMB3 with nicer graphics and Charles Martinet's voice was enough for some, but the games real potential could only be unlocked if you had an extra GBA and a Nintendo e-Reader.
If you could get all the needed elements together, it was possible to swipe special cards through the e-Reader and transfer new items, levels, developer play-throughs, and even gameplay elements from other Mario games into SMA4. Being able to play through SMB3 with Super Mario World's cape feather, or the throwable turnips of SMB, breathed new life into the game and helped make SMA4 much more than just another remake.
Though big in Japan for over a decade, the Fire Emblem series had never made it to the US, possibly because it was seen as too hardcore for Americans when the first game's came to Famicom and Super Famicom. That all changed when FE star Marth appeared in million-seller Super Smash Bros. Melee, after which tons of English-speakers heard of the series and wanted a taste. So Nintendo made sure that the next installment for the GBA would finally give the series some international exposure.
Made by Intelligent Systems, Fire Emblem shares a similar top-down map and turn-based gameplay with IS's Advance Wars. The narrative focused on warring countries in a classic fantasy setting, and you had to learn the seemingly simple rock-paper-scissors-style advantages and disadvantages of every class to stand a chance. Some no doubt disliked the fact that if a character died in a fight, they were gone forever, so every mistake either meant accepting that loss or completely restarting an hour-long battle. Ultimately, though, that loss made every decision hugely important. And isn't that the whole point of a strategy game?
Mario Kart: Super Circuit
It's hard to imagine a Nintendo system without a Mario Kart game, but Super Circuit was quite the trailblazer when it hit the GBA. Kart games had been hit or miss on previous consoles and this was Nintendo's first attempt at translating the console hit to a smaller screen. Despite those doubts, Super Circuit encapsulated that classic gameplay by combining new ideas with much of what made previous entries great.
The racing was the same simplistic car combat that featured racers blasting one another with shells and banana peels, and the race tracks were just as familiar. The game had 20 new tracks, but it earned the Super in the title by recreating all 20 courses from the original Super Mario Kart. And while the pre-rendered graphics haven't aged too well, the racing remains as tight as ever.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance
Most of us probably would've been happy if this had been a straight handheld port of the PlayStation's Final Fantasy Tactics, but Square Enix wasn't about to stop at that. Instead, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance gave us a Neverending Story-esque plot about a group of kids from the real world who get magically transported to the land of Ivalice and must then raise an army and fight to eventually return home.
Tactics Advance wasn't just a new story with brighter colors, either. It expanded the original Tactics roster of character jobs from 20 to 34, and added the restrictive Judges, who'd show up before every battle to enforce absurd rules meant to keep you from relying too much on one strategy. Rather than riding the originals coattails, it distinguished itself in all kinds of interesting ways, quickly becoming a must-have for any strategy fan with a GBA.
Astro Boy: The Omega Factor
We've brought up our love for this game before, but it bears repeating, because Astro Boy: The Omega Factor is fantastic. A product of the combined efforts of 2D-gaming gods Treasure and Crazy Taxi creators Hitmaker, Omega Factor was enormously fun, deep, and generally much better than any cartoon-licensed game really has a right to be. That's partly because Omega Factor wasn't a licensed game in the strictest sense.
It featured Astro Boy and his usual cast of supporting characters, but produced an entirely new, surprisingly dark story that revolved around time travel and included just about every character ever invented by legendary Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka. The actual gameplay was great as well, mixing together platforming, brawling, and space-shooting, frequently all at the same time. Given that the GBA was host to a seething mass of (mostly) mediocre licensed games, it's not a stretch to call this the best one on the system.
WarioWare, Inc: Mega Microgame$!
If you'd told us when the GBA launched that one of its most enduring new franchises would be a series of random minigame collections starring Wario, we probably would have feared for the future. If you've played WarioWare, however, you already know just how endlessly fun the concept is: An assortment of microgames, each about 2-3 seconds in length, flashes before you in rapid succession.
The challenge comes from figuring each one out (usually from a one-word hint, like Pick!) before the time runs out, after which you move on to the next. While that might sound pretty bare-bones to someone who's never played WarioWare (you know there has to be someone out there), the concept turned out to be rich in personality, with each microgame collection built around coherent characters, themes, and (simple) storylines. The microgames themselves, meanwhile, are hugely varied and numerous, and yet they're usually weird enough to stick out in players minds for years afterward.
Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga
Before the GBA rolled around, Mario had a proven track record with approachable, well-executed RPGs in titles like Paper Mario and Super Mario RPG. But when dev AlphaDream focused its efforts on making the first portable role-player for Mario, the team kept that core gameplay but added a whole new element that gave the game its own unique edge. That X-factor was Luigi. The interplay between the brothers is fantastic, whether juxtaposing Mario's courage with Luigi's cowardice, or using their numerous special abilities in and out of battle.
The two guys are as malleable as Silly Putty, and whether it's Luigi squishing Mario to half his size, or Mario somehow turning Luigi into a surfboard, the title was exceptional because of those two working together. It was only improved by a top-of-the-line translation that always kept the game funny, and a copious amount of Mario fan-service. And don't even get us started on the supremely awesome bad guy Fawful. Even though it stars the most familiar plumbers on earth, Mario & Luigi was one of the most original games the GBA saw.
Many fans initially complained about Ruby and Sapphire's incompatibility with Pokemon Gold/Silver, and for good reason--to date, they're the only sequels in the main Pokemon series that don't allow you to import your beloved Pokemon from the previous generation. However, this break in lineage allowed Game Freak to make massive additions and improvements to the game mechanics, and over time it proved to be a trade-off that was well worth it.
Ruby and Sapphire introduced more new features than any Pokemon game since, all of which are still integral to the series, including abilities, natures, double battles, and the refinement of the IV and EV system. While not being able to transfer your shiny Gyarados was a huge bummer at the time, we have Ruby and Sapphire to thank for the richness and depth we continue to enjoy in the series today.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
Castlevania went through something of a renaissance on the GBA, which quickly proved to be the ideal platform for the series Metroid-inspired, exploration-centric action. Circle of the Moon was an amazing (if hard-to-see) launch game, and Harmony of Dissonance had some nice visuals, but Castlevania's real pinnacle didn't come along until Aria of Sorrow. Set in the year 2035, it focused on a new hero, Soma Cruz, who by the end of the game was revealed as nothing less than a reincarnation of longstanding series villain Dracula.
As, essentially, a reformed Dracula, Soma brought a unique approach to the action, in that he gained new powers and attacks by absorbing the souls of defeated enemies. He was also capable of things the previous GBA games whip-wielding heroes couldnt do, like flying, summoning monsters, and shooting guns. Really, though, everything about Aria of Sorrow was an improvement over the previous games; the visuals looked better, the characters were more interesting, and the play was much more varied, making this easily the best installment of one of the GBA's most iconic series
As impressive as Metroid: Zero Mission was, it wouldn't have existed if not for the success of Fusion. And even though it came before, Fusion was arguably even more impressive than Zero Mission. Chronologically the last game in the series, it gave Metroid a little more personality than were used to, adding a secondary character - Samus's computer, Adam - and a more coherent story that sees Samus set loose in a space-research station filled with evolving, creature-mimicking X-parasites.
Samus herself got a new look for the adventure, although there was more to it than just adding blue glop to her costume. An X-parasite infection early on in the story forces doctors to fuse her DNA with the baby Metroids. This grants her the ability to absorb parasites after destroying their host bodies, which in turn is key to earning new abilities. It was a more conventional turn for the series, but it was fun, and it helped make Fusion one of the greatest revivals of a classic series the GBA ever saw.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
The Minish Cap is easily one of the most - if not the most - underrated and underappreciated entries in the entire Zelda series. Although it's one of the few Zelda titles developed by Capcom rather than Nintendo itself, it completely nails what the series is best at, presenting a perfect balance of old and new that simultaneously feels like a Zelda game yet also sets itself apart as unique.
The overall structure of Minish Cap is wonderfully reminiscent of A Link to the Past (that in itself should speak volumes), while Link's ability to shrink and explore the teeny-tiny world of the Picori feels totally novel. Curmudgeonly Ezlo, the titular Minish Cap, is one of Link's most loveable companions, too. To this day it remains Link's best portable adventure.