Square and Nintendo were not the only driving forces behind the success of the Game Boy. Third party support has always been the crutch of the video game world. It’s something that the winners can brag about having, and something that the losers can only sit back and dream about having.
At the time, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Capcom and Konami were the most influential of all the Japanese third party companies. The two had dominated the NES for half a decade with fabulous and timeless games, and they were practically household names to anybody who owned the console.
Times sure have changed, haven’t they? However, their influence didn’t stop at the end of a controller. It could even be stated that they found a way to tap the Game Boy’s power even before Nintendo had figured out with some of these slamming hits.
Gargoyle’s Quest (1990)
Capcom’s biggest mistake with the Game Boy was that it simply set the bar too high with its first game. Gargoyle’s Quest has always been a favorite of mine, mostly because there was nothing else that looked this good at the time. 1990 is quite early in the Game Boy’s life, remember. If you can look past the cheesy box art, he’s supposed to be red, not green, you’ll find one of the most atmospheric games on the system.
Gargoyle’s Quest is clearly inspired by Zelda II on the NES. Our anti-hero, Firebrand, journeys through an overworld map and encounters random battles, which unfold in small side-scrolling segments. Every once in a while, he stumbles across a village or a much larger dungeon. Don’t expect to beat these in a hurry. They are tough!
The irony of Gargoyle’s Quest is that it is a spin-off of Capcom’s arcade series Ghosts n’ Goblins. Enormous powerful arcade machines were supposed to provide a bigger experience than the meager handhelds, but Gargoyle’s Quest shatters its parent series in terms of gameplay, scope, and depth. How Capcom managed to pull this much out of the Game Boy in 1990 is beyond me, and remains one of the handeld’s strongest games and a personal favorite.
I never go on vacation without it, and now I don’t even need a Game Boy. You can snag Gargoyle’s Quest cheaply on the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console.
Mega Man V (1994)
In the early 1990s, Capcom’s biggest franchise was Mega Man, may he rest in peace. If Capcom wasn’t hyping its next Disney game, it was hyping the Blue Bomber. Best known for six games on the NES at the time, not many fans got a chance to play his five portable games. Most were simply burned out by the frequent and repetitive NES series, and they had no interest in what was essentially just scaled down versions of the home experiences.
That is true for the first four, but Mega Man V is special. It’s the only Game Boy entry to feature original robot masters, original levels, an original story, and pretty much just be original in every aspect. First and foremost, the main difference is that Mega Man takes his fight into outer space as each boss is modeled after one of the eight other planets. How cool is that?
It doesn’t do a whole lot to stand apart from the NES series by any means, but it has a little extra charm simply by using all Capcom had learned to make the ultimate portable Mega Man game. The black and white graphics, more confined screen, and unique sprites do a lot to separate it from the NES crowd, and the Super Game Boy support is also phenomenal.
It’s a far more interesting game than the actual Mega Man 5.
Kid Dracula (1993)
Konami showed up on the Game Boy just as frequently as Capcom did, but it never quite found the same stride. Aside from Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, which is a decent little game, Konami found the bulk of its Game Boy credibility in a spin-off title, not unlike Gargoyle’s Quest.
Kid Dracula is exactly what it sounds like, a cartoon parody of Konami’s beloved horror action franchise. If you thought Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 as the first game which allowed you to control Dracula, you were wrong! You control a pint sized version of evil-incarnate, and he is downright adorable. He thrashes throug his own castle to lay the smack-down on a wacky usurper, and beats up cartoony versions of classic Castlevania villains along the way.
It’s just plain hilarious, nothing much in terms of revolutionary design or unique gameplay on the Game Boy.
Kid Dracula falls right in line with the previous games in that gamers were not always just looking for portable versions of their favorite NES games. They wanted something different, something original. Where Castlevania and Ghost n’ Goblins failed, we ended up with short and chubby heroes to replace them, and it was awesome.
Operation C (1991)
Does it get much better than Contra? The original NES entry and its sequel, Super C, are still two of the most challenging and perfectly designed action games of all time, but more often than not, this little gem get’s sadly overshadowed.
Mostly because, unlike every other game on this list, it’s kind of a port. Not just a port of one game though. Operation C borrows elements from both games and mashes them into a nice digestible package. Sure, the game is only five stages long and can be beaten in under 10 minutes, but that’s besides the point.
What matters is that without a shred of sacrifice to the performance, Operation C is flawless conversion of the NES’ rumble tumble experience in the palm of your hands. Left in the care of any other developer, this Contra would have had to take a hit, but not this game. The animation is smooth, the sound effects are great, and you genuinely feel like you are playing an original Contra game because of it.
Plus, unlike all these other games, that cover art is just plain hardcore.
Bionic Commando (1992)
Apart from Mega Man, Capcom’s most iconic and recognizable contribution to the NES library was Bionic Commando, a platformer in which you couldn’t jump and Hitler’s head exploded in the closing moments. No lie.
Naturally, such a great game would have to be ported to the NES, and limited technology be damned, Capcom gave its all to make sure that the high octane action carried over. Granted, the visuals don’t quite match up to the NES’ gorgeous stages, and there isn’t a single Nazi to be shot anywhere, but the swinging and gun slinging that made Bionic Commando a classic have been left totally intact here.
Even better, the parts that didn’t work in the console big brother were cut from this handheld version, making a much sleeker and more trim action game. Some call it sacrilege, but I really like the sci-fi spin that the series went with as well. Just look how awesome Nathan Spencer was in this game.
Beats Scruffy Voice McDreadlocks and his Solid Snake wannabe motif any day of the week.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993)
I’m stretching a little bit with this one, but hear me out. Capcom had wrapped up the Disney license during its Disney Renaissance years, leaving Konami to settle for the other biggest franchise in the world, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The company scored some decent hits on the NES, but after two games delivering a quiet meh on the Game Boy, something had to give.
One word should be all it takes to sell this game: Metroidvania. There, I said it. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Radical Rescue was doing the open-world map exploration long before Symphony of the Night ever did. You take control of Michelangelo, the comic-relief one your dorky little brother liked, and rather than gain power-ups through new weapons, you gained them by rescueing your brothers in arms.
Donatello could climb walls, Leonardo could drill holes in the floor with his sword, and Raphael could tuck into his shell. Why did this game make the toughest turtle the biggest wuss?
It’s not even a fraction as big of a game, but you’d be surprised to find that Konami had a decent little precursor to Symphony of the Night packed into a licensed Ninja Turtles game. It’s not the best, but definitely worth checking out for that alone.
More Than Just NES Ports
Essentially, most NES games are derived from the arcade machines that you could drop a quarter into and play for a few minutes. These huge machines were impossible to recapture in such a small cartridge, so companies had to find a way to boil them down into playable form. The best companies, like Capcom and Konami, were actually able to make better games out of the final product.
While not quite to the same success, that is essentially what sets Konami and Capcom apart from many other Game Boy developers. They aimed for something original that couldn’t be found on the NES whenever they could, and when they couldn’t, they were able to get some pretty solid ports out of it.
Of course, the levels that Capcom and Konami were able to take the Game Boy paled in comparison to Nintendo, who built wonderful games using the hardware, and even managed to crank out a new star to add to the Mario series’ iconic cast.