When we were designing the Gameboy hardware, we took into consideration what kind of software was going to be made for it, and I think that approach resulted in a very efficient product. Hardware design isn’t about making the most powerful thing you can.
Hey, NPCs! Don’t adjust your screen. This Day 8 of our Console Challenge is the first to feature a teeny tiny handheld! THE handheld.
There, that’s better. Today’s list is going to come courtesy of two awesome things. Awesome thing one: the Nintendo Game Boy. It impacted so many gamers and individuals who occasionally and infrequently partake in the activity of playing video games. It is the emblem of many of our childhoods. Its minuscule, green-tinted screen kept us company on sick days, field trips, visits on the holidays, and grocery runs. Thought it’s been far outpaced by the many handhelds that were to come, few have ever reached the same iconic status or influence the Game Boy had.
Awesome thing two: Blue Williams! Yeah, from Twitter! Awesome, right! This celebrity joins the project and her appearance is more meaningful than you may know… We’re going to go ahead and count this as the official debut of the brand new Blue Moon Mage! I’m super excited to have Blue aboard as a guest writer for the Console Challenge and as a new mage. Not only is Blue a scintillating, cyclopean whirlpool of positivity, but now she’s magic, too. Put that on your CV.
-The Well-Red Mage
Ready for your daily trivia question? C’mon, you’ll thank me later if you ever go on Jeopardy.
Okay, what was the very first handheld video game console?
Give up? In 1976, Mattel released a handheld version of a game called Auto Race. Players had to race their car (represented by a red LED light) up and down a race track four times while dodging other cars to win. The game used a whopping one-half kilobyte of memory and was later overshadowed by the company’s much more popular handheld game Mattel Football.
But if you want to know which gaming console took the handheld market by storm in 1989 and never looked back, that would be Nintendo’s GameBoy. The GameBoy was an 8-bit handheld console that had various competitors at different stages in its lifetime (such as the Game Gear and the Lynx), but no other console ever came close to dominating the market the way the GameBoy did–so much so in fact, that while other handheld consoles came and went, the GameBoy was in production in one form or another for roughly 15 years.
When I was a kid, my sisters and I had a GameBoy that we all shared, and it basically became my gamer lifeline. Whereas our parents regulated the number of video games we played on the TV to 30 min per day, I could take the GameBoy and hide in my room. As long as I kept the sound down and made sure I didn’t miss the call to dinner, I could play as long as I wanted.
And what did I play during those long hours of covert gaming? You better bet I hit these seven titles, which I consider to be the very best of GameBoy’s lineup. I have a strong affinity for platformers so you may notice a slight bias.
P.S. I may as well get this out of the way now: please be aware that you won’t find Pokémon Red/Blue on here. Why? Because I’ve never played it. I don’t know why, I just never did. I’ll give you a moment to express your astonishment and/or outrage.
Done? Okay, good. Let’s continue.
#7. Star Wars (1992)
Astonishingly enough, Star Wars basically follows the plot of the film. You start off driving Luke’s landspeeder on Tatooine, and as Luke, you must search through caves, the Jawa’s Sandcrawler, and the Mos Eisley Cantina to find R2-D2, Obi-wan Kenobi, and Han Solo. Then you pilot the Millennium Falcon to the Death Star, rescue Princess Leia, and escape. Next, of course, you lead the assault on the Death Star, blow it to smithereens, and then are awarded with an admittedly-lame completion screen for your troubles.
I’m not going to argue that this game was significant or groundbreaking in terms of gameplay or graphics or innovation. But if the purpose of video games is to provide hours of immersive entertainment, then this one checked that box for me in a major way. I loved it. And how can you not adore the 8-bit version of the Mos Eisley Cantina theme?
#6. Super Mario Land (1989)
Super Mario Land was developed as the launch title for the GameBoy. The game was similar to the 1985 Super Mario Bros. platformer that everyone knows and loves, but with a few key differences. For starters, Mario is in a place called Sarasaland, not the Mushroom Kingdom, and you’re battling an evil spaceman named Tatanga. This means that the princess in another castle is not Princess Peach but rather some upstart interloper named Princess Daisy.
Players must guide Mario through twelve levels to defeat Tatanga and rescue Daisy. The gameplay is the same coin-collecting, goomba-stomping, fireball-shooting good time you remember from the NES classic, but it also includes two super fun shooter levels where Mario pilots first a submarine and then an airplane.
I don’t know where Sarasaland is, but at one point, it looks an awful lot like Easter Island. Let’s just hope it’s a long way from the Mushroom Kingdom, however, because when Mario finally does rescue Daisy, hearts fly, and the pair escapes in Mario’s airplane. I guess what Peach doesn’t know can’t hurt her.
#5. Revenge of the ‘Gator (1990)
I have always been interested in pinball, but you have to admit that pinball machines aren’t very kid friendly. For one thing, they’re tall. For another thing, they can be brutally unforgiving. And I think that’s why I loved Revenge of the ‘Gator as much as I did. This game felt like kid-friendly pinball that was made just for me. I mean, the title screen had dancing gators grooving out to a catchy theme song. What better invitation could a kid ask for?
But this game also had an advantage over regular pinball machines because you didn’t just have to play on the same board for all eternity. Using the ball, players bashed their way through obstacles to reveal new rooms. There were also several bonus games and a two-player mode. And if you happened to screw up, a gator would eat your ball, which was funny enough that it helped ease the pain of losing (not much, but it did help a little).
#4. Final Fantasy Adventure (1991)
It might surprise you to learn, but Final Fantasy Adventure is not really a Final Fantasy game at all. Technically it’s the first game in the Mana series, which most people think began in 1993 with Secret of Mana on the Super Nintendo, but it was not so. In fact, if you played this game, you may recall that the quest set before our young hero Sumo is to save the Tree of Mana from an evil sorcerer. While the game does have many Final Fantasy elements, such as Chocobos and stats-based everything, it doesn’t have the turn-based play that the series was exclusively known for at that time.
This felt like such a grown-up game to me at the time. A big world to explore, a main character with a tragic past, and an evil villain to defeat (and not evil like a Scooby Doo villain, but a for-real, gonna-destroy-the-world villain)–it all seemed like so much game packed into one little handheld. Granted, Final Fantasy Adventure is far from the first RPG ever to grace a Nintendo console, but it’s the first one I really got into, and I’ve been hooked on the genre since.
#3. Kirby’s Dream Land (1992)
This, Kirby’s debut, was a tough act to follow in my humble opinion, and in all the character’s games that have since been released, I never found one that I loved so wholeheartedly as this one. In Kirby’s Dream Land, players guide the plucky young hero as he goes to face down the evil King Dedede, who has stolen all the food in Dream Land. Naturally, this isn’t a large concern for Kirby since he can eat anything and everything, but the other residents of Dream Land would like to also eat at some point, so Kirby volunteers to retrieve the food.
I didn’t beat many games when I was a kid, and I don’t think I’ve ever been what you would call a gifted gamer. But Kirby’s Dream Land was designed to be a noob-friendly, easy-to-play platformer (Note: Easy-to-play does not mean childishly simple. There is a crucial difference.), and so it was the first game I was ever able to actually finish all the way through. This unlocked hard mode, and of course, I couldn’t sleep until I’d beaten that as well. Eventually, I knew this game so well that I could complete it without ever losing a life. Kirby and I were pretty much besties back then.
#2. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (1992)
Is it fair to give two Top 7 spots to the same series? I say it is, and I’ll tell you why. While the first Super Mario Land was styled more like the original Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Land 2 clearly took its cues from Super Mario Bros. 3, which was released two years earlier. So if you can remember 30-odd years ago how mind blowing it was to play Super Mario Bros. 3 for the first time, then you’ll have an idea of why this game is so much better than its predecessor. Not to mention that this is the title that gave us Wario, and he’s been a Nintendo staple ever since.
SML 2 takes place right after the first SML. It seems that Mario took his sweet time flying Daisy around in that plane, because while he was gone, Wario conquered Mario’s land and brainwashed all the residents into thinking Mario is the bad guy (classic evil doppelganger move). Just like SMB 3, in this game, Mario navigates via a world map and there are secrets, shortcuts, and extra levels to be found.
Also, I have two words for you: Bunny Mario. ‘Nuff said.
#1. Tetris (1989)
If you’re forcing me to be brutally honest (and you’re not, but honesty is usually the best policy), Tetris doesn’t really belong on this list. Even though Nintendo developed Super Mario Land to be the launch title for their new handheld system, they sold the GameBoy bundled with Tetris. People adored it, and thus Tetris became arguably the most iconic game in the GameBoy lineup.
Yet here’s the dirty truth: Tetris was first released in Europe and North America for the Commodore 64, but it was actually playable as early as 1984 in Russia on the Electronika 60. In fact, if the internet is to be believed (which is probably 50/50 odds), Tetris has been formatted for play on 29 different systems. It’s about as far from an exclusive title as can be, and yet, it was the GameBoy that made it famous. If you too experienced the trance-like addiction of this puzzle game, I’d be willing to bet money that it was the GameBoy edition that got you hooked. And that’s why it’s hands-down the best GameBoy game of all time, technicalities be damned.
I am sure that a hundred people could each make their own Top 7 GameBoy game list, and no two would be the same. I’ve tried to fill this list with titles that are both great games and that I genuinely loved playing, and I feel really good about my choices.
However, I admit that my memories of these games are the memories of a seven-year-old, and so my judgment on the finest titles in the catalogue may be quite different from what an adult would choose. But who was the GameBoy for if not for kids? So in that sense, seven-year-old me’s opinions might just be right on the money.
What would you put in your GameBoy Top 7?