This isn’t fun anymore…
-Zero, Mega Man Zero 2
Hello and welcome to an article that is, according to its author, the last entry in the 30-Day Console series we’re still definitely running through the rest of June!
When I first met Rus who became our Iron Mage, I was enamored with his sense of humor. He’s a fan of the Mother series so this isn’t too hard to imagine. He described himself to me in his pitch to join the team as an avant-garde writer, and I still am not sure if he was really serious. What I am sure about is how thankful I am that he is one of the mages. He’s been an awesome contributor of several articles, he’s been an inspiration in sharing some of the music from his channel, he’s been a faithful supporter as a Warrior of Light, and now, right here, he gives me a chuckle or four.
I hope you enjoy his work as much as I do. Here’s the Iron Mage with his top 7 games for the GBA!
-The Well-Red Mage
The GBA in 7 Acts or: A Love Letter to a Futuristic Brick
Here it is: the single greatest console ever. Whatever any of the other Mages say about their respective consoles, this one is the best one. We might as well stop this 30-Day Console Challenge thing at Day 17. Don’t even bother reading any of their opinions. I am right and they are wrong.
The Game Boy Advance turned out to be one of the most magical console experiences ever to grace our lives, even pit against the big-screen home-held systems. Some of the prettiest graphics, as well as many of the ugliest, made their homes on this cinder block of a device. The GBA is to the GBC what the SNES was to the NES—that is, it was in essentially every facet an improvement, expanding vastly upon the previous’ library, as well as bringing their 8-bit worlds into new 16- and 32-bit horizons.
These are the seven games that I remember with the most fondness.
#7. Final Fantasy V Advance
Perhaps including a port on this list is considered a divine sin by some, but because I’m a raging, self-diagnosed millennial, I couldn’t possibly have been raised by the ancient NES, or the archaic SNES, or what-have-you. The GBA introduced me and many others to those antediluvian machines without us children even realizing it! The beauty of these re-released classics was that they didn’t feel like they were from any other eras—they maintained their pungent freshness, and felt astoundingly contemporary. Final Fantasy V was one of my first RPGs, and it set the tone for the rest of my lifelong romance with the genre.
It’s been over ten years since since I’ve played the game—it is definitely due a replay one of these days—and so I’ve forgotten a lot of what actually happens in it. What I do remember, though, is that it had time travel, some funny bits, some tear-jerking parts, and some fantastic music. The soundtrack even influenced my own pursuits in music. I remember listening carefully to each track in the Music Player of FFV, and trying to deconstruct (i.e., comprehend in any sense) what was happening compositionally. It was a perfect feature to include in an RPG for a handheld system, as the experience was much more personalized on a GBA in comparison to broadcasting it on a big TV.
#6. Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga
For those of us who thought that Paper Mario and Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door were the best things to ever exist, Superstar Saga was an extension of that. It has that trademark sense of humour that fans of the Mario RPGs came to adore, introducing us to yet another eccentric sandbox set in the Mario universe, yet we stray from the Mushroom Kingdom in favour of its neighbouring monarchy, the Beanbean Kingdom.
This time, Luigi joins the party, and the simplistic addition of a dual-party battle system, centering on the A and B buttons, was genius. The graphics were gorgeous, the story was fun, the characters were hilarious… what’s not to like? If you don’t like it, you’re a closeted criminal.
#5. Mega Man Zero 3
The only non-RPG on my list!
While Mega Man and Mega Man X were fantastic, the Mega Man Zero series transcended its predecessors by pushing the previous’ storyline into much grittier, much darker territory. Set 100 years after the events of X, the four games in the series each operated in very much the same way, as they all gave us control of the speedy Zero and pit us against an array of strenuous levels and memorable bosses. However, Mega Man Zero 3 is considered to be the most forgiving in terms of challenge, which urged my adolescent self to replay the game over and over and over again, discovering the weaknesses to each boss and new routes to take in each level with Zero’s many elemental abilities.
I don’t want to give away too much of the games’ narrative because, ideally, you should play them for yourself, but they involve a number cameos from older Mega Man games, some existential philosophy about the creation of artificial life, and maybe even some tears. They’re challenging, yes, but they play so intuitively and quickly that all of your mistakes are your own.
Lastly, the soundtrack is a masterpiece. Continuing with the trend set by O.G. Mega Man and Mega Man X, Zero’s music is energetic rock track after energetic rock track, and it fits the games’ tone perfectly. I once did an arrangement of one of Mega Man Zero 3’s tracks, “Cannon Ball” out of my love for the game.
#4. Mega Man Battle Network 4
What I loved about the GBA era was that it wasn’t afraid of fan service, and tons of games like this one were made seemingly as love letters to the franchises they based themselves on. The Mega Man Battle Network games were strange mistresses, as they all attempted to seduce that one guy who liked both Mega Man and RPGs so much that they would be happy playing six Mega Man RPGs in rapid succession (and an additional three on the DS). I was that one guy.
While I couldn’t choose what my favourite Battle Network game is out of the six—I’d have to replay them all to give each of them a fair shake—the fourth entry in the series was my first, and also the one I spent the most time in. Setting up the events of the story, the internet and artificial intelligence have evolved to the point of taking on physical manifestations: the internet in the form of virtual roadways that overlap with the corporeal world, and artificial intelligence in the form of what are called NetNavis, of which Mega Man (referred to as Mega Man.EXE) is considered.
It’s a fascinating setting for a speculative fiction and science fiction story with a compelling and innovative battle system, and it maintains a usually lighthearted tone when compared to the Mega Man Zero series—which is ironic considering it was originally conceptualized by the developers with the intention of being a horror game. I now await a Mega Man horror game… the nightmarishly disappointing Mighty No. 9 might be the closest we’ll get.
#3. Dragon Ball Z: Buu’s Fury
This was a similar case to the previous entry on my list, in that this series (called “Dragon Ball Z: Legacy of Goku”) was marketed to the niche crossover between fans of the franchise and fans of RPGs. I would not be surprised if these games were appreciated by few, but I absolutely adore that they exist.
Essentially, the DBZ: Legacy of Goku series takes the Dragon Ball Z universe and lets you experience its story with some simplistic stat and skill mechanics. Instead of being a fighting game with precise controls and combos, Legacy of Goku was about overworld Zelda-like combat, and it fared surprisingly well.
Buu’s Fury is my favourite of the series because it doubled down on the RPG elements, allowing not only for character stats, but also letting us equip our avatars with gear that we find and purchase during our journey. Its mood is relatively darker, as is the arc the story is based on. The world feels desolate and in a state of panic with the arrival of the terrifying and adorable Buu. You even get to go to Hell!
#2. Pokémon Ruby, Sapphire, & Emerald
Ah, the 3rd Generation of Pokémon. To my knowledge, most people’s preference seems to be picked from a pool of every other generation except for this one. Well, Pokémon Ruby, Sapphire, & Emerald, to me, were perfect.
The strongest component of R/S/E was, in short, their world. The improvement of graphical fidelity that the GBA provided allowed for deeper environmental storytelling and, oddly for Pokémon games, greater immersion. Game Freak were aware of this, and made exploration and worldbuilding a primary aspect of the 3rd Generation. There were myriads of hidden areas and obscure locations that promoted this sense of a modern, grandiose world having been built over a slumbering, ancient civilization. Every town and city had its own distinct atmosphere, and non-player characters and the local attractions allowed the Pokémon world, that many of us were familiar with, to feel more alive than ever. Oh yeah, and the new roster of monsters was glorious.
Even the story was something a bit more mature than what we had previously seen in Pokémon. The games’ main antagonists, Team Aqua and Team Magma, were not the shallow embodiments of evil and greed as the Team Rocket that we had seen previously, but they were instead driven by somewhat sympathetic ideologies. Both groups claimed to desire a mutual goal—the best for humanity—but their conflict arose in their supposed paths toward achieving that goal. This analysis of the games puts it best:
“Magma asserts that land is necessary for life and more of it would mean more space for people and Pokémon– basically Hitler’s argument for lebensraum, or living space. Aqua maintains that water is necessary for life, and is where we all came from, and that larger oceans would create a richer diversity of life in the Hoenn Region. This ideological split is particularly poignant in Emerald, where you side with neither team, and instead act as a third-party morally neutral arbiter, stopping each team in turn from achieving their extremist ideological goals.
“[…] They refuse to accept that they are at all similar, and use ad hominem attacks to tear down the other side.
“Sound familiar? Even the teams’ colors– red and blue– evoke a comparison to our political system. As divisions in congress are driven ever deeper and entrenched in our society, the lessons of Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald seem more and more relevant. We cannot continue to be so blinded by differences that we do not see that we all ultimately want the same thing. We need to take a lesson from Pokémon and work together to save ourselves. Teamwork, trust, and hard work– these are the lessons we draw from Pokémon. That sounds quaint and naïve, but maybe in today’s cynical world, that’s just what we need– a little dose of innocence and wide-eyed confidence in humanity.”
#1. Mother 3
As I mentioned, I didn’t get to play the Super Nintendo until I had access to emulators, only a few years ago. I played EarthBound in 2016, and, without hyperbole, it was one of the most fantastic things I had ever experienced. I know of the mechanical complaints, like its janky warping system, but EarthBound satisfies my soft spot for an enticing world and absurdist humour… also, it’s an RPG. Have I mentioned that I like RPGs?
Mother 3 takes what made EarthBound special and has some more fun with it. For those who haven’t taken their dose of the red pill, Mother 3 was a Japan-exclusive sequel to EarthBound. Nintendo refused to release a Western localization due to EarthBound’s apparent lack of sales, while in fact, EarthBound’s poor marketing and the context in which it was released (like its retro, cartoonish aesthetic, which was the antithesis of the game industry at the time) were what marred it from any potential blockbuster sales figures. Brilliantly, after two years of an absurdly dedicated team’s full-time toil, Starmen.net released the Mother 3 fan translation patch, and within its first week, was downloaded over 100,000 times.
EarthBound and Mother 3 are very similar, but also very different in crucial ways, which make the games both unique things to experience. Mother 3 feels less game-y and more film-y, less like a typical RPG in which you quest through a curious country like Eagleland, and more about how the central Tazmily Village and its characters change over time. It is divided into chapters, often with large leaps in time and space separating them from each other.
As I stated in my EarthBound Beginnings review, which applies to the whole series, Mother 3 is a game of moments. Like a spell, they have profound effects on you, if only you open yourself up to them. Most NPCs aren’t functional in any mechanical way, but are there as tonal setpieces—they provide you with philosophy, with social commentary, with jokes.
While it was marred by iffy design—a dim and desaturated screen, and a chunky futuristic brick of a body when compared to its handheld predecessor—some of my more memorable moments of euphoria occurred with a GBA in my tiny, oft-unwashed hands. Long vacation road trips, during which I was utterly oblivious to the beautiful scenery passing me by—to various degrees of dismay of my parents—were spent in splendorous realms that existed delicately within a 240×160 pixel screen.