10. Mole Mania (GB)
Mole Mania is a first-party game headed up by Shigeru Miyamoto himself. Some minor control issues aside, it plays a little bit like an endless series of puzzle rooms from the dungeons of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, albeit without the direct combat. The visuals are great and the music is phenomenal; it’s a worthy addition to the library for anyone who won't get frustrated over finding themselves stuck again and again. After all, in Mole Mania, getting stuck is part of the fun.
With 192 "regular" puzzles and an additional 64 Time Trial puzzles, the value of Mario's Picross is impressive, containing over 250 puzzles that can easily be taken with you anywhere you go. They're not very hard compared to some of the brainteasers in the later games, which also have various extra features, but it's still a great, an addictive piece of software, and a nice start for Picross beginners or those who just want some more puzzles to crack.
Big fans of the first game (Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3) might lament Wario Land II's sudden significant change in gameplay, but if you give it a try, you'll find that it's actually rather brilliant. All the unique new gameplay features help flesh the series out and turn it into a wildly different, yet still equally entertaining game. This game would quickly get a Game Boy Color version with backwards compatibility for the original Game Boy, but its standalone grey cart release makes it eligible for this list and a fine entry it is, too.
Released as Mystic Quest in Europe, Final Fantasy Adventure plays more like The Legend of Zelda than the turn-based series it was spun out from. Developed by Koichi Ishii, it tells the story of a hero who escapes from a Dark Lord intent on controlling the Mana Tree, a unique source of energy. The seeds planted here would sprout and become the Mana series, but this first game captivated many players on that little monochrome screen.
With Wario Land, Nintendo completely reinvented its portable platformer and gave its greedy new character his own game, instead of merely plopping him down into the middle of another standard Super Mario Land presentation. Indeed, anybody who might have picked up this ‘sequel’ expecting something similar was in for a shock. A wealth of new gameplay features combined with a unique visual and musical style make this title stand on its own and it gives fans of the previous Mario Land releases a fresh spin on the series. If you want to experience some of the best platforming the Game Boy system has to offer, you needn't look any further.
While Pokémon Red & Blue are both vintage games with the occasional issue, they're still extremely engaging and involving titles in which to drown your free time. The gameplay is simpler by modern standards, but there's still a wealth of intricacies and complexity to be explored if you want to train a team to pixel-powered perfection. If you were to drag everything about the game and dump it in a nice, shiny, new 3D engine, you'd be forgiven for thinking these were brand new games, and you can't say that about many Game Boy titles.
There are certain wrinkles that were ironed out in subsequent entries, but there’s a special charm to finding those first 151 Pocket Monsters. Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee may have updated these games for the Switch generation, the depth of the originals still makes them compelling to play on original hardware – just make sure you’ve got a mate and a link cable - you have to trap all of them!... Hang on, that’s not right.
First impressions can be misleading. With 101 stages, Donkey Kong for the Game Boy is far more than just a simple sequel to the arcade game – beyond the first four that copy the stages from the original arcade cabinet, the rest of the levels laid the groundwork for the gameplay of the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series that we know and love today. It adds a metric ton of new features, while still managing to keep the ‘arcadey’ feel of the original. The graphics and music are outstanding for a 1994 Game Boy title and the game itself is just incredibly fun to play, even if you do receive an over-abundance of extra lives. It may not be part of the ‘main’ Mario series, but this is easily one of the best Mario games ever made.
This enhanced version of the original games brought over elements from the incredibly popular anime, so Pikachu takes centre stage as your starter Pokémon – he follows you around outside his pokéball and can’t be traded or evolved. The nurses and police officers around Kanto were substituted for Nurse Joys and Officer Jennys, some Pokémon locations and appearances were altered, and various sprites and world elements were reworked to better reflect the wider brand as it had been established since Red & Blue launched.
The western version of Pokémon Yellow got a minor palette enhancement which works well if you’re playing on a Game Boy Color, although this was not a full GBC game. The changes add an extra layer of charm (and the surfing Pikachu minigame is a lot of fun), but whichever version you pick up, the original Pokémon titles remain an enjoyable gaming experience. Simple in appearance and lacking the bells and whistles of later games, they nevertheless engross from start to finish.
2. Tetris (GB)
With few of the bells and whistles that would arrive later on, Game Boy Tetris is arguably the purest expression of the original idea. There have been countless ports of this addictive puzzler made available for just about every electronic device in existence, but the Game Boy version is arguably the most loved and its clear visuals, responsive controls and that theme tune make it easy to appreciate why. The very deadliest of killer apps, no self-respecting Game Boy enthusiast should be without a copy.
It would be difficult to argue against The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening being the pinnacle of gaming on the Game Boy system. The developers at Nintendo were able to squeeze an extremely lengthy quest into the package and push just about every facet of the Game Boy's hardware to its limit. Not only is Link's Awakening not the dumbed-down Zelda adventure many initially feared it would be, but it turned out to be one of the best releases in the series and one that is beloved among Zelda fans the world over.
If you want to experience the very best of what the portable system has to offer, do yourself a favour and get this (or the DX version for Game Boy Color with the extra dungeon) immediately. It’s one of the best games available for any game system, and even if you’re eyeing the upcoming Switch remaster, we’d still recommend playing the original first. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.
What a machine! What a library! Remember, this is a fluid, ever-changing selection governed by each game's Nintendo Life user rating, so if you disagree with this ranking you can do something about it! Click the 'Games' tab above to find all the Game Boy games and see about getting your favourites on the list.
It’s been brilliant to revisit these handheld classics, but it has also highlighted how older games can really benefit from some contextual knowledge of their development and release. Many on this list stand up very well today, while others are arguably best enjoyed with a little background information to frame how truly impressive they are. If you’re thinking of checking out these games, a bit of light reading/viewing can really enhance your enjoyment. Game Boy Works — a wonderful video series from gentleman, video game scholar and gin enthusiast Jeremy Parish — chronicles every title released for the handheld and he does a brilliant job of contextualising each game and highlighting what to look out for. The volumes are even available in lovely hardback physical form if you really want to go old school.
We’ve also written a whole bunch of pieces on the Game Boy and associated topics over the years, so be sure to check out some of the archived highlights below for all sorts of lovely writing about the portable:
- Feature: The Making of the Nintendo Game Boy
- Gunpei Yokoi Discusses The Struggle To Make The Game Boy In One Of His Last Interviews
- Hardware Classics: Nintendo Game Boy
- Hardware Classics: Game Boy Pocket
- Hardware Review: GB Boy Classic And GB Boy Colour: The Best Way To Play Game Boy Today?
- The Game Boy Was Nearly a Cheap, Short-Term Project
- Ninterview: Jeremy Parish On Cataloguing The History Of The Game Boy, One Game At A Time
- Video: It's Fun To Learn About The Game Boy's CPU
- Feature: Creating The Ultimate Game Boy
- Video: Here's The Ultimate Game Boy Cartridge Storage Solution
- Art: If Nintendo Did Resurrect The Game Boy, We'd Want It To Look Like This
- Bertil Hörberg Releases Playable Game Boy ROM of Gunman Clive
- Video: The History Of The Super Mario Land Series
So how many of these dusty carts do you have hidden in the loft? Which ones are your absolute favourites? Feel free to share your thoughts and monochrome memories with a lovely comment below.