The Nintendo Game Boy turns 30 this Sunday, and to celebrate this amazing occasion we’ll be running a series of related features this week, right up to the big day.
Friday 21st April 1989 – the day that the Game Boy launched in Japan. Thirty years ago today the video gaming landscape would be forever changed as Nintendo opened up the new frontier of portable gaming to the masses. The company’s Game & Watch line let you take limited gaming experiences on-the-go, but the Game Boy was a different beast entirely.
The 8-bit machine with the 160×144 pixel LCD screen might have been modest in the specs department, but it was just powerful enough to offer deep gaming experiences, with the best examples rivalling those on home consoles. More importantly, its limitations proved to be strengths in the long run; that blurry monochrome screen used significantly less power than a backlit colour equivalent, and therefore gave the portable decent battery life – an essential factor to consider when your handheld relies on AA batteries to function away from a wall socket.
Gunpei Yokoi’s design philosophy – using proven, inexpensive components in new and interesting ways – continued through Nintendo’s handheld line
Primarily the work of Satoru Okada and Gunpei Yokoi, the console was designed to a specific price point and goal; to be a practical portable device. Rival companies got carried away with the technical possibilities and contemporary handheld consoles with far superior specs fell by the wayside as Game Boy marched on. Gunpei Yokoi’s design philosophy – using proven, inexpensive components in new and interesting ways – continued through Nintendo’s handheld line and carried over to its home consoles with Wii. The Switch itself, and novel experiments such as Labo VR, show that this approach continues to keep the Kyoto company in rude health.
Of course, it’s software which makes or breaks any console and the humble Game Boy could never have endured so long without its catalogue of incredible games. Obviously, it had the archetypal killer app in Tetris, and many still insist it’s the finest version of Alexey Pajitnov’s puzzler. The story of its convoluted journey to the console is well worth investigating – a thrilling combination of guile, subterfuge and blind luck that went on to shape Nintendo and the video game industry at large.
Any video game company would be overjoyed to have a game with half the appeal of Tetris on its books, but after seven years – when you’d expect the console to be winding down – the Game Boy got the biggest second wind in video game history with the Japanese release of Pokémon Red & Green in 1996. A smaller, lighter revision of the hardware, the Game Boy Pocket, also arrived that year, and the console’s true successor – the Game Boy Color – would launch worldwide two years later alongside the western release of Pokémon. Although this marked a transition away from the OG hardware, the Game Boy line continued to enjoy almost 100% backwards compatibility up until the Micro variant of the Game Boy Advance in 2005.
While Tetris and Pokémon were the system sellers, there’s a vast library of games released for the system
While Tetris and Pokémon were the system sellers, there’s a vast library of games released for the system. The following list showcases the very best titles. You’re sure to find lots of ‘lands’ here – someone at Nintendo HQ decreed that the diminutive handheld simply couldn’t contain massive ‘worlds’, so Super Mario Land ushered in an era of ‘Land’ games from the likes of Kirby, Donkey Kong and Wario.
As with our previous lists of the 50 best Switch games and 50 best 3DS games, the ranking here is governed by the game’s user rating on this very site – many thanks to all of you who voted for your favourites last week! Just as before, logged in users can interact and rate the titles directly on these pages by hovering over the rating, or alternatively from each game’s individual page. To be clear, the games listed here are for the original Game Boy only – there are no backwards compatible ‘black cart’ Game Boy Color games included (unless they happened to also receive a separate release for the original). If it says ‘Game Boy Color’ on the box, you won’t find it below!
Can’t see your favourite on the list? Head to our library of Game Boy games (or click the games tab at the top of the page) and input your own ratings. We’ve reduced the eligibility from fifty votes to twenty for these vintage games, so we fully expect this to be a little more fluid than the other lists, especially in the initial stages. It’ll be fascinating to check back and see how the list evolves!
So, without further ado, let’s dive in…
Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Nintendo R&D1
The Game Boy port of this pill-dropping puzzler offers a decent game, although it probably isn’t top of the must-have puzzler list. Unlike Tetris, where the colours of the blocks are irrelevant, Dr. Mario’s pills are a little more challenging to keep track of, especially on the original system’s blurry screen. Still, if you’re a prolific practitioner in the medical field, you could do much worse than this falling-block title with a twist.
Originally called Puzzle Boy in the east, the title character – an anthropomorphic tomato – was given a dose of ‘90s cool when he was renamed Kwirk for the west (‘He’s A-Maze-Ing!’ according to the box art…). He’s something of a Cool Spot prototype, but fortunately the game bearing his name is a winner. It involves pushing and rotating elements in the centre of a room in order to get to the other side. This can involve pushing blocks to open a path or filling pits with blocks and creating a path or switching between multiple characters and working together to get them all to the end. It’s simple and addictive stuff – two adjectives you’ll find describing the very best games on the system. Forgive Kwirk his try-hard ‘90s affectations and be sure to track him down if you can.
Offering gorgeous visuals, a great soundtrack, an excellent new boss, a fun new weapon and some surprising improvements on the NES originals, Mega Man III is a solid outing. The difficulty might be a bit high, but E-Tanks cushion the blow for all but the most masochistic Mega Man fans. While Dr. Wily’s Revenge and Mega Man II had their respective merits, this is the first of the portable series that was a great game in its own right. Fortunately, it was by no means the last.
Publisher: Taito Corporation / Developer: Taito Corporation
The Game Boy port of Taito’s arcade platformer Bubble Bobble was developed in-house and it’s a great rendition of the original game that loses little in its transition to the portable’s little green screen. Bub the Bubble Dragon uses – you guessed it – bubbles to defeat enemies and work his way though 100 levels as he searches for Moon Water for his brother, Bob. It’s a classic and the GB port is an excellent way to play.
What is there to say? It’s Lemmings. On a Game Boy. Although it contains fewer levels and might be a little more cumbersome to control in comparison to other ports, it’s still strong version of the original game which has you manipulating the terrain to save as many of the oblivious creatures as possible. A classic, in portable form.
The Game Boy was, in many ways, the natural evolution of Nintendo’s Game & Watch line of one-shot portable devices, so the ability to play those games on one cartridge seemed like an acknowledgement of that handheld legacy. If you liked the originals, this collection is a must-have. Both the originals and remakes, which combine simple gameplay and subtle strategy, are here to enjoy and the newer versions play differently enough that you’re quite likely to consider them new experiences in and of themselves. The musical and visual presentation is fantastic as well, and the entire package serves as a relic of a truly magical time in gaming. Or, perhaps, two truly magical times.
Known as TwinBee Da!!
in Japan, Pop’n TwinBee on Game Boy is different to the game of the same name on other platforms, but it’s still an excellent slice of vertical-scrolling shoot-‘em-up in the classic TwinBee mould. It’s yet another example of an impressive portable interpretation of a classic game which relies on multiple enemies and projectiles on screen, all running on extremely modest hardware.
As with any port to the Game Boy, cuts are inevitable, but this still delivers an authentic R-Type experience. A slower speed, fewer enemies on screen and the omission of two levels make for an easier version. However, this port still manages to provide a challenge and it works well on the hardware it was designed for, with good controls and clear visuals. It may be a shorter gaming experience on the Game Boy, but it’s still a very good one.
A Game Boy version of the SNES original, this was developed by Factor 5, the studio behind the Super Turrican games on the Super Nintendo and the Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series. The levels and overall structure were altered and a password system was added but it still manages to deliver a serviceable game of Contra on a system with the processing power of a modern day toaster.
Publisher: ASK / Developer: Asmik Ace Entertainment
Something of hidden gem in the Game Boy catalogue, Catrap is a platform puzzler credited with being the first game to have a ‘rewind’ feature. You’re tasked with defeating monsters in order to escape 100 levels of ladders, blocks and other objects. Stages get more and more devious, of course, and a level editor enables you to create your own. If it looks a little basic from the outside, the game has a giant amount of content and could keep you busy for weeks. It was arguably overlooked back in the day, but it’s an innovative puzzler that deserves a bit of attention.