Recently we took a look at the first year of the Nintendo Switch and placed it roughly in step with the Nintendo 64 and GameCube in terms of ranking the best of Nintendo’s home consoles. With the sky being the limit and the potential that lies ahead, we also guessed that it wouldn’t end up in its ranking and would surpass both of those consoles before the end of its lifetime.
The NES and SNES though? That might be another story…
However, as you all know by now, the Nintendo Switch is not just a home console; it doubles as a handheld! In fact, the number of times I’ve used my Switch as a home console can be counted on a single hand, infinitely less often than the amount of time I’ve played it in a park or on the train. As fun as it is to rank them alongside Nintendo’s home consoles, it is more accurate to rank the console within the ranks of its rich history of handheld devices.
And trust me, it’s also much harder. Unlike the home consoles, I have nothing but complete adoration for each and every iteration of Nintendo’s handheld gaming. The Switch doesn’t have to worry about competing with underperformers like the Wii and the Wii U. Plus, the handhelds are a nightmare to truly separate from one another thanks to copious backward compatibility and mid-cycle remodels.
For this article, we’ll just be sticking to the native libraries for each handheld, meaning that the DS isn’t automatically better than the Game Boy Advance since it can play all its games. We’ll also be considering remodels as the same console, ie. the DS and the DS Lite or the Game Boy and the Game Boy Pocket.
7. Virtual Boy
Well, you’ve got to include it somewhere. Nintendo marketed the Virtual Boy as a portable console, but anyone who has played this infamous gaming platform knows that playing it away from a desk and at eye level will either give you a stiff neck or make you look like a dummy. At the same time, it is definitely not a traditional home console since it can’t be played on a television.
The Virtual Boy is in a category of its own, and for that alone, it deserves just a little bit of love. Its failure might have cost one of Nintendo’s most iconic developers his job, but that’s the worst I’ll ever say about it anymore. The jokes are over twenty years old, and the hate has aged worse than the console itself.
I don’t loathe the Virtual Boy as some do. In fact, I wouldn’t mind owning one myself one day, if not just for the novelty of it. Something about those black and red graphics are just menacing. Plus, the Virtual Boy is the only way to actually play Virtual Wario Land, which turns out to be a very solid Nintendo platformer.
The bottom of the list is the only place the Virtual Boy could land, but I can’t help but feel fond of it retrospectively. After all, if Nintendo didn’t take risks on platforms like this, the Game Boy, or the Switch, it wouldn’t be Nintendo.
6. Game Boy Color
Some don’t consider the Game Boy Color enough of a technological leap to call it a new handheld, but I do. The fact that it adds color and can play games that the previous Game Boy seals the deal as a generation leap in my book.
In all honesty, I only bought this back in the day so I could trade Pokémon with myself and get all 151. I never found much use for the color functions, and I skipped the game’s best selling game, Pokémon Gold & Silver, which might have something to do with my lack of enthusiasm.
Nowadays, I have a bit more respect for the Game Boy Color than I once did, mostly thanks to an evil clone of my favorite gaming icon. Wario Land 2 and Wario Land 3 firmly establish the Game Boy Color as a platform worthy of respect and together are a pair of the most underrated Nintendo platformers. The Game Boy Color also supports two pretty decent Legend of Zelda games, Oracle of Seasons being the better of the two. Shantae also got her start on the Game Boy Color as well, rightfully putting WayForward on the map.
However, these retroactive plusses are not really enough to overcome the deficiencies I felt when I played this as a youngster. Nowadays, I would rather play Link’s Awakening in the original monochrome than in color, and I discovered most of the Game Boy Color’s best games through Virtual Console on the 3DS rather than the actual console itself. The love is there for Game Boy Color, just about 15 years too late.
5. Nintendo Switch
I thought long and hard about it, but I can’t put the Nintendo Switch any higher… just yet. Nintendo’s handhelds have all universally been amazing, and while the Nintendo Switch might have changed the face of handheld gaming forever, so too did every other platform you’ll find on this list below it.
As a handheld, the Nintendo Switch thrives by tearing down the barriers between console and handheld games. Playing Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey on a train is a proposition I would have never considered a decade ago, but leave it to Nintendo to challenge that notion. This easy access to Nintendo’s main offerings has invigorated my love of gaming in a big way, and unless I’m drawn to a sentimental classic I can’t play on a handheld platform, I might never find myself tethered to a television set again!
The Nintendo Switch provides a better mobile option for indie games than the Vita or tablets, and once Virtual Console kicks in, all bets are off the table. The Switch is primed to become an all-time great with unprecedented access to all of the all-time greats before it.
Just please… don’t miss this chance, Nintendo.
4. Nintendo DS
It feels weird putting the Nintendo DS this low on the list mostly because I pulled mine out and played it today. However, the game I played was Final Fantasy V Advance, meaning my DS has become a glorified Game Boy Advance with a backlight, broken shoulder buttons, and access to Chrono Trigger.
I suppose my problem with the DS is that it was a device that was released and enjoyed in the moment. I bought a LOT of games for it, but very few have stuck in my mind as worth going back to. Most notably, without the DS, I might have never become a fan of Dragon Quest with its excellent remakes and the undeniably awesome Dragon Quest IX. The occasional JRPG like Radiant Historia also stands out.
However, I can’t really think of many other games I love nowadays. Phoenix Wright was a series I obsessed over through my college years, but with each new game, the series becomes more difficult to go back to. Elite Beat Agents and Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! remain two of the most charming rhythm games ever, but I’ve long lost my inner feel to get those right.
If I want to play Castlevania, I play Rondo of Blood, Aria of Sorrow, or Symphony of the Night, none of which can be enjoyed natively on the DS. I didn’t really get into Etrian Odyssey until the Nintendo 3DS came out, and none of the Advance Wars or Fire Emblem games that came out for it stand a chance against the Game Boy Advance offerings.
Worst of all, the Nintendo DS doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to Nintendo’s three main franchises. New Super Mario Bros. is the closest Mario game to being memorable, but I’ve never been a fan. Neither Legend of Zelda game did it for me, especially following in the footsteps of The Minish Cap. Metroid Prime: Hunters? I don’t think I bothered. I’ll admit to not playing Bowser’s Inside Story yet, but it would have to be pretty spectacular if it were to dethrone Superstar Saga.
The Nintendo DS is an all-time great console, and its impact can still be felt in this day and age with the popularity of touchscreens. However, in retrospect, maybe overexposure stretched my appreciation for it a little too thin. Nintendo’s best-selling platform also peaked a little too late for my nostalgia, which no doubt clouds my appreciation for it as well.
Thanks for Dragon Quest at least!
3. Nintendo 3DS
I suppose the only real argument I need for the Nintendo 3DS to be placed above the Nintendo DS is that its library took the extra steps that the Nintendo DS did not. 3D might have had way less impact on the world than touchscreens did, but in terms of the games that actually came out, I’m on team 3DS all the way.
The 3DS at least meets the bare minimum standard by having an all-time favorite Super Mario game in Super Mario 3D Land. It has a very solid Legend of Zelda game in A Link Between Two Worlds. And while I couldn’t tout a solid Metroid game throughout most of its lifetime, even that has been rectified with Samus Returns within the past year. Mario, Zelda, Metroid, check, check, check.
The Nintendo 3DS also meets the Nintendo DS on other mentioned fronts, including Dragon Quest, Pokémon, Etrian Odyssey, Phoenix Wright, and the occasional JRPG that is worth diving into for old time’s sake, like Bravely Default.
Castlevania is the only place it drops the ball.
To make up for that, indie games found a home here before they did on the Nintendo Switch, and the Nintendo 3DS can also take credit for transforming Virtual Console into a mobile endeavor. That’s all I’ll ever need to remember it fondly. Playing those old Game Boy, Game Boy Color, NES, and eventually, SNES games portably was like a dream come true.
Now… only if the Switch could do the same.
2. Game Boy
As we venture further into the future of gaming, I grow increasingly interested in its past. Most notably, I find older consoles fun because they make me feel nostalgic, but I also am impressed with how such classics could be created within such tight technological limitations. Nowadays, with the unlimited resources and power of modern day consoles, a vast majority of video games can barely remain in our memory banks until the next seasonal onslaught.
However, those who played these older games in the 80s and 90s still cherish their favorites from 20 or 30 years ago like they were released just yesterday.
No handheld defines this better than the Game Boy. With an LCD screen and four AA batteries, and eventually dropping to two AAA batteries, Nintendo and its partners created a platform that remained a viable retail option for over a decade. From 1989, when it popularized handheld gaming, to 1993 when it got its second wind with Link’s Awakening, and then from 1996-1998 when Pokémania overran the world, the Game Boy never once lost prevalence. Competitors fell in its path, unlikely heroes rose to the occasion, and those shades of green are as iconic as they come.
All with an LCD screen and four AA batteries. Not bad!
And today, absolutely, I go back and play old favorites all the time. Link’s Awakening is the most obvious “go to” game, but I also love Gargoyle’s Quest, Kid Icarus Myth & Monsters, Wario Land, Donkey Kong ’94, Mole Mania, Super Mario Land, Super Mario Land 2, one of the strangest James Bond games you’ll ever play, and a host of unique Castlevania and Mega Man games. My heart forever remains in first-gen Pokémon, and the Game Boy also has one of the healthiest import libraries of any console.
Plenty of gems, like Trip World, just sit there, waiting to be rediscovered by enthusiasts.
A series you don’t often hear appear that much in conversation when it comes to the Game Boy’s greatness is Final Fantasy. However, the house that Cid built is no stranger to the monochrome platform. Final Fantasy Adventure is my absolute favorite game on the console and still one of my favorite in the series, and the spin-off SaGa games, known as Final Fantasy Legends in the English-speaking world, are also twistedly fun and unique. The first game was actually the first handheld RPG, and the second game has been cited as the main inspiration behind Pokémon. Both are also sentimental favorites.
The best thing about the original Game Boy is that no matter how advanced technology becomes, there really is nothing in the world like playing on that LCD screen and being fascinated by how such simple games can still be so fun. If ever there was a console that I don’t prioritize on Virtual Console, it would be this. That screen is half the experience, and because it’s THE handheld platform, I can play it anytime, anywhere.
Game Boy Advance
The Game Boy Advance tops the list for two reasons. One, it has a lot of wonderful, original games that are still fun to this day. However, before we get to those, we need to talk about the second and main reason this console was a success.
There is no question about it, the Game Boy Advance was huge because it was essentially a Super Nintendo in the palm of your hands. The Game Boy Advance cranked out 16-bit games, or at least those stylized to look like them, like no other handheld before, and it backed this image with a healthy selection of classic ports. Before the Game Boy Advance, playing Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island, or Link to the Past on a handheld console was just a pipe dream, and while I don’t like to prioritize ports when praising a console, they are a little too important to the Game Boy Advance’s success to ignore.
Thousands of gamers gained access to Final Fantasy IV and VI for the first time on the Game Boy Advance, and more importantly, Final Fantasy V Advance remains the definitive Western release of the lost classic.
In terms of design, the original Game Boy Advance model proved a bit rough, but once Nintendo finally installed a backlight in the Game Boy Advance SP, its original library could finally live up to its potential. And what a library it is!
Nintendo easily tops the list with its own games: Metroid Fusion, Metroid Zero Mission, Wario Land 4, Wario Ware, Mother 3, Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga, Pokémon Fire Red & Leaf Green, Advance Wars, Rhythm Heaven, Golden Sun. True highlights of Nintendo’s offerings on the Game Boy Advance are Fire Emblem, the first game in the series to make it to the Western world and still the best it has to offer, and none other than The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, which we just recently discovered is the most underrated and one of the best games that the series has to offer.
Thank Capcom for that one. You can thank them for two solid Mega Man spin-off franchises as well. Both Mega Man Zero and Mega Man Battle Network got their start on the Game Boy Advance, and while, like most Mega Man franchises, they got stale after a while, their initial impact was huge for breathing new life into the beloved franchise.
Konami reinvented Castlevania on the Game Boy Advance using Symphony of the Night as a model. The handheld entries in the series also peaked on the Game Boy Advance with Aria of Sorrow, the best in the post-Symphony of the Night world. I’m also a fan of Konami’s Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand if I can get the sun function to work.
The heavy players of the gaming world weren’t all that made the handheld great either. Oddballs like Drill Dozer from Pokémon developer Game Freak helped define the Game Boy Advance, and we also were introduced to a little company called Sting, which put out a handheld of great RPGs, Riviera: The Promised Land being the biggest and best among them.
Square Enix sadly came up a little short on the Game Boy Advance, but the ports of its older games were all many really needed. Again, you can’t underestimate the power of portable classics, and being able to play those old games anywhere in the world was a true game-changer in the gaming world. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance still has its place in many gamers’ hearts though.
Like all the best consoles in history, it’s clear that the Game Boy Advance thrived where it matters the most: in its selection of memorable games. The technological advances it introduced where fine, but when I look at my handheld collection, no competition, the Game Boy Advance takes up the most space.