Nintendo has a long, rich history of dominating the handheld market with its innovative and fun devices, and with the Nintendo Switch now confirmed to be playable as both a console and a handheld, this trend only looks to continue for the next half decade at least.
But we’re interested in the past today. Avoiding the little technicalities, Nintendo has seen five generations of handheld hardware, and each of them has sold phenomenally and been well received by the company’s loyal fanbase.
I’m ranking them today, and you can’t stop me! There are several ways to approach this list, though. Do we go by which had the largest impact on the market? Do we go by which had the best games? Do we go by my memories of the handheld or by how much I enjoyed playing it at the time?
Since this is in no way scientific, I won’t treat it as such. These are how I rank the Nintendo handhelds by the feeling in my gut based on the games from their library. I’m not considering backwards compatibility either, meaning that the Nintendo DS isn’t automatically “better” than the Game Boy Advance because it can play Game Boy Advance games. There are too many worms in that logic that twist and tie these devices together.
Game Boy Color
Every list has to have a bottom, and I think this is where it clearly lies in this lofty crowd. Bless the Game Boy Color for trying, but it just never produced enough games to have a lasting impact on me. Nowadays, I prefer to play Link’s Awakening in good, ol’ fashioned black-and-white, and the second Pokémon generation is the only one I skipped, meaning I don’t have much nostalgia for it.Other big hits include
Other big hits include Metal Gear: Ghost Babel, which I’m not a fan of, and the Legend of Zelda: Oracle games, which are decent but don’t hold up in the face of Link’s Awakening.
On the flip side, Shantae dominates the Game Boy Color, but the handheld’s true star is none other than Wario. Wario Land 2 and Wario Land 3 are two of Nintendo’s best 2D platformers, and a lot of fans sadly missed out. I only played them retroactively through the Virtual Console, and if I had played them back in the day, maybe the Game Boy Color might have stood a fighting chance.
Bringing color to the palm of our hands had been tried by SEGA and others before Nintendo did, but only Nintendo figured out how to do it with two AA batteries.
Now the part where I get my head ripped off. I love the Nintendo DS, and I played it to pieces back in the day. It was the only device that accompanied me the first time I came to Japan. Two-screen and touch-screen gaming proved to have limitless options, everything from improved gameplay to the simple act of having a second screen for an inventory and a map.
However, as time goes on, it’s definitely the Nintendo handheld I go back to the least. Right off the bat, it commits the cardinal sin of any Nintendo platform: not having an original Mario or a Legend of Zelda game that I want to go back and play. I’m not sure I can think of a stronger criticism for a Nintendo platform, but New Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks don’t do the DS many favors.
Diamond and Pearl is also my least favorite of the Pokémon generations I’ve played. If Nintendo had a bright spot on its own handheld, then it was through working with iNiS to make Elite Beat Agents and the Ouendan games.
I do appreciate the third-party support, at least! Radiant Historia from Atlus is one of the consoles best JRPGs, and it was the DS that made Chrono Trigger portable for the first time. The World Ends With You is another Square Enix gem that boosted the console’s reputation.
Shockingly, the Nintendo DS’ best franchises all turned out to be trilogies! Castlevania absolutely rocked for three games as did Etrian Odyssey, but to the DS’ detriment, the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo 3DS did these franchises better. The only franchise which is still best defined by its DS years is Phoenix Wright. Speaking of which, I can’t forget its producer’s goofy side project, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective.
That leaves us with the main event of the Nintendo DS: Dragon Quest! The Nintendo DS is the only place to play Dragon Quest IX, and despite not having access to the online options anymore, it’s still my favorite game in the series. The three remakes of Dragon Quest IV, V, and VI are also wonderful modernizations of the classics, and who could forget the immortally charming Rocket Slime?
The more I write about the DS, the more I warm up to the memories… but not enough to overcome the top three.
Nowadays, I am playing my Nintendo 3DS more than any of the home consoles I own, both modern games and classics through Virtual Console. It has a large library of games with a stunning variety of options, and it covers one important area that the Nintendo DS came around a little too early to master: indie games!
First off, the Nintendo 3DS has Super Mario 3D Land and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Two Worlds, both of which have become favorites of mine over the years. That first hurdle is cleared soundly by Nintendo’s two biggest franchises. Pokémon also has come roaring back with Pokémon X and Y. I won’t put them on a high pedestal like I would other generations, but the graphics and the Nintendo 3DS’ improved online functions make it a much more complete package.
Let’s not forget the resurgence of Fire Emblem as well. That speaks worlds to Nintendo’s library.
Moving on, the Nintendo 3DS has great support from Square Enix with Bravely Default and the brilliant Dragon Quest VII. Atlus too remodeled the Etrian Odyssey games to make them a bit more accessible. Blasphemy for hardcore fans, but perfect for myself. Persona Q, Shin Megami Tensei IV, and The Legend of Legacy all show Atlus’ JRPG support to be unrivaled here as well.
But it’s indie games that push the Nintendo 3DS over the edge. You can’t go wrong with Shovel Knight, which is one of the best games from the past half-decade. The SteamWorld games are out of this world, Guild games Crimson Shroud and Attack of the Friday Monsters turned out brilliant, and the most recent addition of Severed is just too good for words.
If the Nintendo Switch replaces the Nintendo 3DS from here on out, then it certainly had a good run.
It might be a relic nowadays, but there is just something about jumping back into the original Game Boy that the Nintendo 3DS’ Virtual Console doesn’t quite deliver. Maybe it’s the perfect feel of the Game Boy or the Game Boy Pocket’s excellent button placement or the snot-green and darker snot-green color combinations, but I still pull out and play my original Game Boy with shocking frequency.
There is the nostalgia factor, too. I played Game Boy a lot when I was a kid, and the fact that it carried all the way from my early childhood deep into my early teen years with Pokémon speaks everything about its longevity. Plus, it still works just as well as the day I bought it! My Nintendo DS Lite’s shoulder buttons are busted, and my Game Boy Advance SP screen cracked.
My Game Boy? Still pristine!
Pokémon, all three Super Mario Land games, and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening are all capped off by the appearance of genuinely good Metroid, which you might have noticed hasn’t been mentioned in this editorial yet. Toss in a quality Kid Icarus, Kirby, and Donkey Kong game on top of this pile as well. Nintendo’s approach with the Game Boy was to prioritize simplistic fun over depth, and boy did it ever!
I can’t forget to mention my buddy Mole Mania either.
Third party support was also a strong point. Don’t get me wrong, about 80 percent of all Game Boy games are not worth going back to, but Capcom, Square, and Konami really established themselves here. Final Fantasy Adventure is my favorite game from the handheld, and it still can’t be played anywhere else. Final Fantasy Legends and Legends II, otherwise known as the first SaGa games, are also hard to come across.
Capcom’s Mega Man games proved to be a decent portable substitute for the home console experience, but it was Gargoyle’s Quest and its star Firebrand that have survived as Capcom’s true black and white star.
Game Boy Advance
Yup, no question, the Game Boy Advance is my favorite of Nintendo’s handhelds. An abnormally dark screen might have plagued it at first, but it only got better with the Game Boy Advance SP and admittedly the superior backlighting of the Nintendo DS Lite. This allowed its brilliant games to shine brighter and meet their full potential.
We’ll start with Nintendo’s games, and I’m sorry to say that there was no original Mario game really worth going back to. However, the Super Mario Advance ports came at a time when playing classics on a handheld was a breakthrough idea, and jumping back into their brilliance distracted me enough at the time. The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap, from Capcom, is easily one of the most underrated games from the franchise, and it’s one I go back to quite often.
Nintendo’s brightest spot on the Game Boy Advance though was Intelligent Systems. The first Fire Emblem to make it to North America is still one of my all-time favorite games, and both Advance Wars games hold up better than the ones that came after it. Nintendo R&D1 also developed Wario Land 4, one of Nintendo’s best 2D platformers, and I can’t forget to mention Mother 3, which should be played all around the world as one of the most touching JRPGs ever made.
Metroid Zero Mission stands as one of the series’ towering successes, and Metroid Fusion isn’t far behind it. Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire were decent, but it is the remakes FireRed and LeafGreen which hold up the best nowadays. Then there is Golden Sun, Rhythm Heaven, Wario Ware, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga: Nintendo and its franchises had it going on with the Game Boy Advance.
Third-party support was also off the charts. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is still a franchise highpoint, even in the face of the DS sequels. Again, Square Enix didn’t do much for original games, but Final Fantasy V Advance and Final Fantasy VI Advance are still the classics’ definitive versions and were unprecedented for being played on a handheld at the time. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance made up for them on the original software front.
Capcom delivered the Mega Man Zero games, all of which still hold up, and the Mega Man Battle Network games, some of which hold up. Atlus partnered up with Sting to bring over Riviera: The Promised Land, one of my favorite hidden gem JRPGs. Game Freak developed Drill Dozer, Hideo Kojima tossed in a fun if slightly misplaced game called Boktai: The Sun is in your Hand, and Treasure even developed the stunning Astro Boy: Omega Factor.
So many games, so many memories. The Game Boy Advance wasn’t big on innovation like the rest of the handhelds on this list, but it was able to tap into my love for the Super Nintendo and 16-bit generation, and it re-established my love for classic design from the palm of my hands.