Ah, the holidays: the time of year when you’re making up a list (and maybe checking it twice) for yourself and for your friends and family. Although these lists tend to focus on the shiniest and newest items, many gamers and collectors still have a lot of love for retro systems and their games.
Nintendo is definitely the reigning king of on-the-go gaming, and it earned that title long before any of the DS systems appeared on the market. For this holiday season, we’ve compiled some common, uncommon, and rare picks for the original Nintendo Gameboy, Gameboy Color, and Gameboy Advance systems.
Gameboy: Tetris (1989), Kirby’s Dream Land 2 (1995)
Tetris is probably the best-known, or at least best-distributed, game of all time. The concept is simple: blocks of different shapes fall from the sky and you have to try and complete lines on the bottom of the screen with them. The lines disappear, and you get to play on. It’s a simple concept, but it gets addicting fast.
Kirby’s Dream Land 2 is a cute, but not syrupy-sweet sidescroller. Kirby can suck up enemies to take their powers to use on other enemies, and that’s really all you need to know to get started. The second Dream Land game also introduced players to Rick, the hamster on the cartridge. Perhaps taking a cue from Yoshi and Mario, Kirby can ride him in order to complete certain tasks he can’t do on his own. Though I had many early sidescrolling Nintendo games growing up, this was one of my favorites, as it always felt much more forgiving than our Mario games.
Gameboy Color: Pokemon Trading Card Game (1998), Pokémon Crystal (2000)
Pokemon Trading Card Game is basically a simulation of the original card game. Players win cards to improve and customize their decks. Games can also connect for battling and trading. The games also have a special “mystery gift”-esque system that is unlocked when players trade using the Game Boy Color’s infrared connectors. The cards in the game that were based on already existing cards were represented faithfully in the game.
Pokemon Trading Card Game is available on Amazon.
Pokemon Crystal was the amalgamation of Pokemon Silver and Pokemon Gold, featuring more story elements and more post-game content than any of its predecessors in the Pokemon series. Crystal (and Gold and Silver) starts players off in the brand-new region of Johto, truly colorized, with a hundred new Pokemon to catch, trade, or breed for (another new element introduced in this game). These games also introduced the Pokemon types Steel and Dark, and the day/night system, which admittedly wasn’t too successful until the DS Pokemon games, which could sync with the system’s clock, rather than work off the time that passed only when you played. Best of all, finishing in Johto means you get to return to the stomping grounds from Pokemon Red, Pokemon Blue, etc.: Kanto. So you get the gen I experience without having to get too primitive, and Pokemon fans have dreamed of another game that will let them return to previous regions ever since.
is available on Amazon.
Gameboy Advance: Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town/More Friends of Mineral Town (2003/2003), Final Fantasy I and II: Dawn of Souls (2004)
Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town/More Friends of Mineral Town are two different games in the sense that they were only originally available as two separate cartridges. FoMT is the “boys’” version of the game, meaning you play as a male character, and MFoMT is the “girls’” version, meaning your character is female. This is a nice, relaxing farming sim, where your goal is to run a successful farm, befriend the townspeople, and maybe even get married and have a child. Your choice of game really only affects who you can marry, though MFoMT came out a few months later, so there are some fixed bugs and a new cutscene or two, outside of those related to marriage candidates that didn’t exist in FoMT (incidentally, you can still see FoMT’s bachelorettes’ heart events, but they’re just “friend events” in MFoMT).
This game also has a surprising amount of hidden content, rewarding players who obsessively mine with better items as they start getting hundreds of levels down into the mine. It can also connect to the Gamecube’s Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life/Another Wonderful Life games for extra content and a few new faces to Mineral Town.
Final Fantasy I and II: Dawn of Souls is probably the best port of the first two Final Fantasy games. The graphics have been cleaned up, items from later games that didn’t exist in the original were added (no phoenix downs on the NES!), and post-game dungeons have been added. This was also the first time the real Final Fantasy II was released in the US; the Final Fantasy II that hit US store shelves in 1991 was actually Final Fantasy IV. Though both FFI and FFII are great, the first game is basically your standard, vaguely-storied RPG, and the experimentation with weapons and ability systems in the second game along with defined characters and a defined plot makes it stand out just a smidge more in my book. If you’re a long time Final Fantasy fan, wearied from recent additions to the series, both of these games are a nice break from the increasingly convoluted stories in later games.
is available on Amazon.
Gameboy: Dr. Mario (1990), Primal Rage (1995)
Dr. Mario is another simple puzzle game. Mario gets patients with three different kinds of stomach bugs, and he tosses pills that have matching colors on one or both sides down the screen. You have to line up two to three of the correct color on a bug to destroy it. Like Tetris, the pills start going faster as the levels increase, and as the levels increase, the amount of stomach-bugs increase as well. As with Tetris, the concept is simple, but addicting.
Dr. Mario is available on Amazon.
Primal Rage was a weird fighting game about super apes and dinosaurs and a blue demon battling it out to impress their worshipers after being awoken from eons-long slumbers. Though the Gameboy port was limited by its lack of color, which caused characters to get lost in backgrounds at times, it’s not bad for some quick rounds. Of course, it’s probably a good idea to get two copies and a link cable so you can play it with a friend, but playing against the computer is alright too.
Primal Rage is available on Amazon.
Gameboy Color: Harvest Moon 2 (1999), Pokémon Pinball (1999)
Harvest Moon 2 is an even simpler farming game than either Mineral Town. This game has players focusing on their farm more than anything else, which the main character inherits after their grandfather dies. The goal is to have a successful farm by the end of in-game year three, though the game can be played past three years. There is a small town with some citizens that can be befriended, but marriage isn’t an option in this game. Still, planning out your crops and farm development to meet the game’s goal is fun in its own way. The only downside to this game is that you’ll need a second copy of the game, Gameboy Color, and link cable to 100% a file–in this game, you can choose your gender and pets, which will affect which crop seeds you have access to.
Harvest Moon 2 is available on Amazon.
Pokémon Pinball is a side Pokémon game that had players collecting Pokémon via pinball fields. It was successful enough to spawn a sequel for gen III Pokémon, though nobody has heard much of the series since. It isn’t too hard to find this game at retro game stores or online, but it can be difficult to find a copy that works well: the game cartridge has an extra battery slot—the game needed that much extra power–and oftentimes these slots are eroded from battery acid, or damaged in ways that make it hard to keep the necessary battery in its space.
Pokémon Pinball is available on Amazon.
Gameboy Advance: Naruto: Ninja Council (2003), Pokémon Emerald (2005)
Naruto: Ninja Council is based on the manga/anime Naruto by Masashi Kishimoto. Don’t let that put you off: it’s a sidescrolling action game that’s fairly intuitive even without prior knowledge of the series. You have your basic move set of physical techniques and can pick up weapons, then to use special moves you have to hold down a button for a certain amount of time to fill a gauge. It’s a simple concept, but that’s exactly what makes it so easy to pick up years later, and so fun to pick up again and again. You have the option of playing as Naruto or Sasuke, who each have different special techniques, and if you beat the game as both of them, you can unlock their sensei, Kakashi. It’s a pretty good game that looks pretty good as well, and it’s a definite must for fans of the series.
Naruto: Ninja Council is available on Amazon.
Pokémon Emerald is the amalgamation of Pokémon Sapphire and Pokémon Ruby, all a part of the third generation of Pokémon, set in a totally new region with many new Pokémon. The jump from Pokémon Silver, Gold, and Crystal’s graphics and music to the generation III games was jaw-dropping, and the gen III games still have a dedicated fanbase to this day.
The gen III games also added Pokémon abilities, which added another layer to battle strategy: some Pokémon became impervious to stat changes, some Pokémon could automatically whip up a sandstorm upon entering a battle instead of wasting time with a move, and some just picked up items and saved their trainers a lot of money, among many of the other abilities which were introduced. This game also added a more comprehensive breeding system which took into account abilities, parentage, nature, and moves—players can really customize their Pokémon, if they’re really dedicated to the whole process. Pokémon Emerald gets the attention here as, like Crystal, it features more story elements and post-game content than the two games which preceded it.
Pokémon Emerald is available on Amazon.
Gameboy: Kirby’s Dream Land (1992), Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (1992)
Kirby’s Dream Land debuted the hungry little protagonist Kirby and his antagonist King Dedede. Like the second game, this is a sidescrolling adventure. Kirby can’t borrow enemies’ abilities in this game, but his primary mode of attack is still sucking enemies up, to use them as projectiles later. As with Kirby’s Dream Land 2, this game appealed to me more than some of our other Gameboy games because it seemed a bit more forgiving than them. Masahiro Sakurai designed this game with the intent of making it easier for players unused to the genre to play, though there is an unlockable hard mode for players who want more of a challenge.
Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins pits Mario against debuting antagonist Wario, who has taken possession of Mario’s castle. The six golden coins are needed to undo the spell Wario has put on Mario’s castle to keep him out. It keeps many of the same mechanics of the other sidescrolling Mario game, you jump on enemies, you want to hit the question boxes and grab the coins, and so on. The graphics are impressive for such an older Gameboy game, and makes it a bit easier to follow the action than in other early Mario games.
is available on Amazon.
Gameboy Color: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993), Dragon Warrior 1+2 (1999)
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening sees Link stranded on an island guarded by the mysterious Wind Fish. Link’s goal is to explore (and survive) dungeons, solve puzzles, and eventually find the eight instruments needed to wake the Wind Fish. This game has many cameos from other Nintendo characters, including enemy Goombas which can be defeated by being jumped on by Link. Link’s Awakening is also notable for its self-awareness, as NPCs will give advice on game mechanics, then add that they don’t understand the advice they gave. This game has great critical acclaim, and was even remade for the Gameboy Color just five years later. It resembles The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past in terms of perspective and looks crisp, even on such a small screen.
Dragon Warrior 1+2 are actually the first two Dragon Quest games, renamed for US audiences. Although they didn’t initially do as well in the US, this compilation cartridge received fantastic reviews and the game is often lauded as doing much for the RPG genre both outside and inside the US. The first game is a fairly simple save the princess/defeat the big bad guy, in this case a dragon, type-story, Dragon Quest II follows the descendants of the main character and the princess as they track down an evil wizard. Parties are expanded, the world is noticeably bigger, and there are more items and spells to be had. Both can be appreciated for what they’ve given to their genre, and even better, both are still playable for more reason than simple appreciation.
Gameboy Advance: Fire Emblem (2003), Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (2004)
Fire Emblem was actually the seventh installment of the Fire Emblem series in Japan, but it was released without a number for Americans who had only just learned about the games from Super Smash Brothers Melee. In this game, you take on the role of a young woman named Lyn’s tactician as she fights across the continent for her right to the throne. Although a Roy lookalike is featured prominently on the box art, this isn’t the character featured in Super Smash Brothers at all; the character is actually Eliwood, Roy’s father. Nonetheless, this game serves as a good introduction to the series, and it has even been theorized that the unseen tactician in this game is Robin, the protagonist of Fire Emblem: Awakening for the 3DS. Be warned: this strategy game doesn’t have difficulty settings, and like most of the older Fire Emblem games, there is no option to turn permadeath off.
Fire Emblem is available on Amazon.
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones takes place in a different continent and continuity than any other Fire Emblem game, and thus can be played at any time, with no fear of spoiling or confusing any storylines. Twins Eirika and Ephraim must fight hostile forces intent on invading their homeland. This game allows units to gain experience outside of main storyline maps in optional dungeons and there are multiple options for class evolution, which is a divergence from previous games in the series. Like almost all of the other games in the Fire Emblem series, this is a strategy game. Sacred Stones also has permadeath, which cannot be turned off.
This game can also be connected to Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance for the Gamecube with a GBA-GC link cable to unlock a character portrait gallery, with other bonuses available once Path of Radiance has been beaten at least once.
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones is available on Amazon.
For those of you interested in more retro stocking stuffers, please keep an eye out for our Retro Gift Guide for Nintendo home consoles, and have a look at our retro gift guide for Sony game systems.