As a primarily handheld gamer, it’s a bit weird to be in the console gamer circles. Handheld consoles are hardly ever discussed; they seem to fall into a cultural black hole. I regularly hear stories about how great things like Overwatch or Shadow of the Colossus or Super Mario 64 are, yet I never find the fans squealing about Radiant Historia, Bravely Default or, well, anything not named Pokemon. Retro gamers are all about the greats of the NES and SNES, but y’all, the Game Boy outsold both of them in a mere nine years (and with the Game Boy Color’s sales figures, outsold both of them combined.) The console generation gap is even weirder to me, because within my generation, everyone knew the Game Boy. Everyone wanted one or had one. Nowadays? We got the NES classic and SNES classic, but the best the Game Boy has gotten is a few rereleases on the 3DS Virtual Console. Where is the justice in this? For y’all that didn’t get the chance to experience it firsthand, sit down and let me tell you what you’ve missed.

Princess Daisy is not Luigi’s girlfriend

Super Mario Land, one of the flagship games for the Game Boy, is an oddball in a lot of ways. There’s no Mushroom Kingdom, but rather a Sarasaland. There’s no Bowser, but instead an actual alien, Tatanga, who kidnaps the princess of Sarasaland. Who is not Peach, but some dark-haired upstart named Daisy. But who is it that goes to the rescue? That’s right, Mario. And don’t think we didn’t notice you making little hearts at Mario when he rescued you, Daisy. We all saw it.

Screenshot of the ending of Super Mario Land. Mario greets Daisy with "Oh! Daisy Daisy" and Daisy replies, "Thank you Mario." Their sprites are close together, with a heart between them. Super Mario Land, Nintendo, 1989
In fairness, when she finds out she’s the side chick, she does dump his overalls pretty fast and start dating his brother instead.

In part, Super Mario Land is weird compared to the home console Marios because Shigeru Miyamoto was not involved at all. Apparently, when the boss is away, that means it’s time to make Koopas explode, put Mario in a submarine, and pull your stage influences from Egypt, China, and Easter Island. It was definitely different from the others at the time. And yet, in the overall Mario canon—which includes flying through the galaxy, cleaning the environment via a wearable water pump, and being held captive inside your own castle—well, maybe it’s not that weird after all. You’re still running to the right, off to rescue a princess, with a Mario-appropriate difficulty level that feels accessible but still challenging.

Mario lied to you. He’s not working class.

The jump between Super Mario Land and Super Mario Land 2 is, uh, drastic. The graphics go from a Super Mario Brothers level to something more comparable to a monochrome Super Mario World. And in this game, they decided to make the “land” part of the game literal, and have Mario re-conquering his own kingdom from the intruder Wario.

So when you’re a plumber with presumably little experience in running your own estate, what kind of infrastructure do you make? If you thought having a China-esque stage with hopping undead vampires was wild, Super Mario Land 2 features:

  • A giant tree (including BEEEEEES!)
  • A graveyard
  • The inside of a whale
  • A normal house, but you’re shrunk down somewhere between the size of an insect and a rat
  • Outer space, and you get there by riding inside the snot bubble of a hippo
  • A giant clockwork Mario ruled by the Three Little Pigs
Four screenshots from Super Mario Land 2, featuring Mario in a spacesuit surrounded by frowning stars (space), Mario standing on a stack of giant books (giant house), Mario underneath the rib of a whale, and Mario in a beehive. Super Mario Land 2, Nintendo, 1992

From left to right: Space, giant house, inside of a whale, BEES!

Video games, y’all.

You don’t know Guide Dang It bullshit until Final Fantasy Adventure

Final Fantasy Adventure is a quasi-Final Fantasy spinoff that spawned the Mana series (most famously known for the SNES’s Secret of Mana). While it bears the Final Fantasy name, it plays more like a Zelda game, with real-time action battles and sword leveling. It also features one of the most well-known (and most frustrating) examples of too-oblique video game clues: “Palm trees… and eight. Get it?” About a third into the game, that’s the only clue you get as to where to go next.

Maybe you think like I did, and go searching out groups of palm trees for a group that includes eight of them. Sensible, right? There is a group of eight palm trees in the game, but it’s nothing but a cruel trick. What the clue actually wants you to do is find a group of two palm trees with a space between them (there’s two instances of this in the desert, by the way), and run a figure eight between them to open up the next level. Sure, it sounds obvious when I say it, but search “palm trees and eight” on Google and you’ll find people that were stumped over this clue for literally months or years, and still never got it until they saw it in a guide or someone else in the know told them.

A screenshot of Final Fantasy Adventure featuring the two palm trees the player is supposed to circle. Final Fantasy Adventure, Square, 1991
Screw your palm trees.

Ask not for whom the RPG bell tolls, it tolls for… some prince in Link’s Awakening?

Most people are at least passingly familiar with Link’s Awakening, the Game Boy entry (which features exactly zero Zeldas) in the Legend of Zelda canon. Of those, some might remember the character of Prince Richard, who trades you one of the dungeon keys after you retrieve his treasure from his castle. A few nerds might even know his character is a cameo from a Japan-only RPG, Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru (For the Frog the Bell Tolls). But what exactly is this game?

Screenshot of Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru, showing the player character Sable in one of the side-scrolling sections. Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru, Nintendo, 1992

One part overhead turn-based RPG, one part side-scrolling action RPG, KNTN tells the story of rival princes Richard and Sable, who both rush off to save the princess of the neighboring country. This plan goes great until they all get turned into frogs by a scheming old witch. Gameplay consists of switching between human and frog forms to traverse the world looking for the cure (and the princess) and buffing your stats enough to survive the automated boss battles. If you’ve played Link’s Awakening, the graphics and side-scrolling areas of this game are going to feel very familiar. The difficulty level isn’t too much for its lighthearted, comedic, and ultimately adorable story. And don’t worry if your Japanese isn’t up to the task; there’s a excellent quality fan translation patch on the internet.

It’s not buggy, but it bounces

A lot of people are familiar with the Battletoads games through the NES version, which is both a) notoriously difficult, and b) notoriously buggy. While the Game Boy version is also notoriously difficult, it actually runs pleasantly well and looks great. Like the NES version, though, it features an anthropomorphic toad (who used to be a boy, the backstory is kind of weird) launching oversized punches, riding high-speed vehicles, and descending through unique and strange levels. (One level has you being chased down a tunnel by a giant bouncing brain.)

A screenshot of the gameboy Battletoads. The player character dashes down a jagged tunnel, chased by a brain ball. Battletoads, Rare, 1991

Y’all thought I was joking.

More importantly, the soundtrack is a funky hip-hop-esque slam that keeps rocking through the whole game, even as you die over and over. The composer, David Wise (best known for his work on Donkey Kong Country) makes full use of the Game Boy’s hardware to produce stuff that sounds so different from the regular Game Boy video game soundtracks that it was mind-blowing to nine year old me. Best Game Boy soundtrack? Yeah, I’d say so. Sorry, Pokémon.

(Runner up would be the second GB Castlevania game, Belmont’s Revenge, but then again, all the Castlevanias have pretty solid music.)

Everyone played this next game. Everybody.

Seriously, what is it about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

A screenshot from Fall of the Foot Clan. A Ninja Turtle is being ambushed by two foot soldiers. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan, Konami, 1990

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan, released in 1990, is a pretty standard platformer featuring decent graphics that render the characters from the cartoon pretty well. It’s not Battletoads-level difficult, meaning the elementary school kids it was aimed at could actually beat it, and, unlike a number of platformers at the time (cough, Castlevania Adventure), it both looked good and ran well, with minimum lag. Whether it was because of the craze kicked off by the cartoon, or because they caught the bug from the arcade version, everyone I knew had played this game.

Coming back to it as an adult and finding barely a blip on the internet is weird. Were we just too busy paying attention to Super Mario Land and Link’s Awakening to remember this solid little platformer? Or are platformers based on existing properties, which vary in popularity and quality, just doomed to be left behind? Given how terrible a lot of IP games are nowadays, we should celebrate when an IP game is decent. So go track this one down and play it, dammit.

A funny thing you didn’t know about a game you never heard of…

Another of those games that fell into the Game Boy obscurity pit, even when the Game Boy was still cutting-edge technology, was The Adventure of Star Saver. It’s a standard platformer with a sci-fi bent: you play a boy who teams up with an alien spacesuit to go save his sister. The game is nine stages of “not as hard as Battletoads but harder than Super Mario Land” difficulty with some weird, wonderful enemies and settings, and fun mechanics, such as a bungee feature that let you catch yourself if you wandered off a cliff.

About that hero, though…

In the original Japanese game, Rubble Saver, the character you play is the girl who has to rescue her brother. (This may be a nod to an NES game released four years prior, Miracle Ropit, a Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins-like game in which you play a girl who pilots a mech.) It’s hardly unusual for things to change between releases in different regions. But changing the player character to the boy because of some “video games are for boys” BS as early as 1991 is worthy of a pretty hefty eye-roll. Like we didn’t have enough games where a boy rescues the girl at that point?

Screenshot from Rubble Saver. The female player character floats just outside her mech.
We got robbed.

A Tale of Two Spies

Spy vs. Spy, based on the MAD Magazine comic strip, was a two-player/player vs. CPU competition to see who could steal all the secret items from an embassy. Said embassy consisted of a number of connected rooms, with plenty of furniture to place cartoon bombs in (though sometimes it was easier to just punch the snot out of the other guy). The game was ported to twelve systems (including the Game Boy Color) and received positive reviews.

This is not that game.

Spy vs. Spy: Operation Boobytrap is a Game Boy-only game that has fallen off the map so thoroughly, I sometimes wonder if it only existed in the “Berenstein” universe. (It’s not even mentioned on the Wikipedia page!) Gameplay is pretty much the same as the original (get the items, place bombs, punch the snot out), but set in the great outdoors in a number of exotic locations, with hazards and trappable areas unique to each area. So if you’ve ever wanted to blow a bomb up in your little sibling’s face while on a tropical island; wish granted. If you didn’t have a combustible little sibling, the AI is also pretty fun to trick into walking into traps or off cliffs.

What’s the Cheapest Game You Can Buy?

Heiankyo Alien is a weird little action-puzzle trap-em-up game involving a samurai in Heian-era Kyoto digging pits to trap and bury the aliens roaming the streets. (If you remember the old Apple II game Apple Panic, they’re pretty similar.) The background behind this game is equally weird: programmed by a science club at the University of Tokyo, who later formed the company Hyperware just to keep licensing control over the game. Heiankyo Alien saw an Apple II and arcade release, but only the Game Boy version was released outside of Japan. It includes both the original version and a Game Boy-exclusive mode with updated graphics and varying stages.

Mind, it’s not that the gameplay is bad: it’s simple in a way that’s pretty typical of Game Boy releases. It’s not plagued by lag, the difficulty is not unfair, and the new mode in particular makes good use of the Game Boy’s small screen. But it’s short (New mode is only twelve stages) and the play may be a little too simple due to the small playing field. Whatever the reason, people were letting this game go in droves, even years after the Game Boy’s shelf life was over, creating a glut. While nowadays it’ll run you about 8-10USD for a used copy (due to the fact nobody sells Game Boy games anymore), back in the day (and probably still at physical stores), stacks of the game sat displayed with a price tag of 1USD and still wouldn’t sell.

I’m pretty sure this is why I still own a copy of it.

Sure, the Game Boy is no Nintendo Switch. The graphics aren’t cutting edge, the sound is 8-bit, and not many of its games run over an hour for a playthrough. But if y’all can celebrate NES games like Circus Charlie and Hydelide, you can toss a little love to Adventures of Star Saver and Heiankyo Alien as well.