Revenge of the Gator

1989 - HAL Labs

Kicking off this top 10 with a pinball game seems ludicrous. But when you consider both the Game Boy's purpose of being a portable gaming system and its actual size, you realize how hard it can be to transcribe into a handheld device a piece of hardware you can actually physically relate to.

But where the Game Boy lacks in realism (both in terms of visuals and physics) it makes up in gameplay, by introducing smooth animations and funky interactions that an actual pinball wouldn't be able to reproduce.

This game encompasses the Game Boy's ability to tell the player: "Those games you play in real life? Yeah, we got that covered too".



1990 - SunSoft

Movie franchises have quickly capitalized on the popularity of video games, for bad or for worse. Although already available on the NES, being able to play with your hero anywhere is a non-negligeable feature.

Batman was a well executed game, with rich levels, accurate controls, and an interesting arsenal of weapons. But what made this adaptation stand out, is its ability to correctly convey the movie's atmosphere, through its decors, music, and characters.



1991 - Bits Studios

Considering how arcade games often have only a few basic controls, the Game Boy's limited interface seems sufficient enough to convey the arcade experience. But how do you port the shoot 'em up genre's colourful and busy graphics onto a 4 shades of grey display? You keep its biggest asset: fluidity.

Even with constant waves of enemies filling every dot of the screen, R-Type kept at all times its smoothness and accuracy, while you navigated towards the incessantly shrinking area that your spaceship was allowed to have.


Micro Machines

1995 - Mindscape Inc.

Lacking 3D graphics and the famous Mode 7 of its big brother the Super NES, the Game Boy didn't seem suited for any proper racing game, although F1-Race and the isometric Super R.C. Pro-Am were more than decent.

I remember being deceived by Micro Machine's box, which depicted cards and a pool table, and being surprised to find out it actually was a racing game. But unlike other ones, it offered 8 different vehicles, each of them providing its own unique behavior and environment.

Despite its rudimentary controls, Micro Machines was still about driving. It offered a genuine challenge where you had to master the fun but realistic enough physics to make your way through the rich and varied environments.


Super Mario Land

1989 - Nintendo

Nintendo could not launch a new console (especially a new kind of console) without its flagship character. But how could the Game Boy hold a Mario game less than a year after the incredible third iteration of its NES counterpart (Super Mario Bros. 3)?

In terms of gameplay and style, Super Mario Land was weird. Primitive graphics, spare level design, bizarre story, one-way scrolling...

However, it still was an incredible platforming game with precise controls, memorable music, and the whole usual armada of monsters and power-ups. The ability to experience the Mario series within the palm of your hands made up for this seemingly outdated port.


Top Ranking Tennis

1993 - Pax Softonica

How could a tennis game (and not even Nintendo's own proposition) make its way to my Game Boy top 5?

Tennis games usually require many buttons to account for the versatility of the sport. Pax Softonica made up for the seemingly limited Game Boy interface by using both the Start and Select buttons as 2 additional ways to hit the ball (slice and lob respectively). If you wanted to pause, you had to tap "up" twice before serving.

This unusual deviation actually made sense because it allowed the game to master the most important aspect of a tennis simulation: control.

Several parameters came into play to define both location and power of a shot:

  • the type (top spin, flat, slice or lob)
  • the timing
  • the player's position on the court
  • and the direction (up/down, left/right)

These 4 simple parameters allowed to hit a wide range of shots that I haven't encountered in any tennis game ever since. It was hence easy to realistically trigger a fault (by hitting the net or sending your ball out of bounds), and challenging to win a point by outsmarting your opponent.

I have played my share of tennis games on many platforms throughout the years (Virtua Tennis, Top Spin, Jimmy Connors, Mario Tennis..), but none of them came close to the authentic experience this game provided.


Kirby's Dream Land

1992 - HAL Labs

Many only know Kirby through Smash Bros.' plethora of characters, probably because its popularity is nowadays solely confined in Japan. But the whole series were kicked off almost silently through a 5-level game in 1992.

Choosing a handheld device to kick off a new character is an odd choice, considering the SNES was already available at that time and that the platforming genre was already well established on the Game Boy (Mario, Wario, Donkey Kong, Mega Man, the Disney adaptations...).

Despite its short length and elementary gameplay, Kirby's Dream Land was gorgeous and endearing. With precise mechanics and appealing graphics reminiscent of Super Mario World, the game's fresh and flawless execution ultimately managed to permanently integrate Kirby into the Nintendo legacy.



1989 - Bullet Proof Software

Although Tetris had already been around for 5 years when this Game Boy port appeared in 1989, it was this handheld version that actually established the franchise's popularity.

To encompass the legacy of this version, you have to realize how it's not only a game but a whole new genre. In hindsight, choosing Tetris as the Game Boy bundle counterpart seems evident. Simple graphics, basic controls, and a puzzle-oriented gameplay that allowed players to casually pick up the game for a few minutes while still providing a permanent challenge.

It's hard to tell which of Tetris or the Game Boy ultimately helped popularize the other. It was most certainly their combination that triggered an unbeatable chemistry that cemented both the series and the device in the history of video games.


Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins

1992 - Nintendo

In 1989, we settled for a decent but rather limited Super Mario Land. We didn't care: we could try to beat Tatanga and save Daisy while driving back from school, probably thinking "I'll just play Super Mario Bros. 3 when I get home".

It's hard to pinpoint a single reason why this second opus significantly outperforms its predecessor, specifically because the improvements were not limited to only one aspect of the gameplay. Super Mario Land 2 provided a whole new experience hard to believe a Game Boy could pull off.

Graphically splendid and smoothly animated, the game borrowed a few features from its big brother SMB3: freedom of movement, level replayability, offline saving, and the innovative overworld map. The player could choose his own path through the 6 unique worlds, helping Mario make his way through the intricate level design that provided hidden puzzles and secret exits.

Considering all the enhancements that managed to make their way onto a portable device, Super Mario Land 2 is the game that made the Game Boy become a self-sufficient console.


The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening

1993 - Nintendo

Ever since its launch, the Game Boy provided a joyful experience well suited for kids and casual gamers. But although its portability somehow compensated its technical limitations, the resulting experience would always remain temporary, good enough to amuse you between two Super NES sessions.

What the Game Boy needed was a new approach, an edifying experience that would transcend the realm of entertainment, where players would tell themselves: "Ok. Play time's over".

Link's Awakening embodied that shift. It wasn't a video game. It was a quest for enlightenment. There were no shortcuts, no boundaries, no certainties. Only an unwavering desire to carry on, through adversity and doubt, towards an elusive end, where your greatest challenge wasn't to prevail against the opposition but to overcome the intricacies of your own mind.