Best of the GBA

Now that I’ve got Final Fantasy VI Advance, as far as I can tell there are no more big GBA games set for release. If it wasn’t before, it’s now going to be a home for nothing but budget pap. But let’s not mourn; let’s celebrate the life of Nintendo’s little handheld with ten of my favourites, in alphabetical order.

  • Advance Wars – While certain developers continue the vain struggle to make an RTS work on any console format (although the GBC has a little-known gem called Warlocked), Nintendo took a Japan-only series from 1988 and did strategy on the GBA. Not real-time, admittedly, but I need an analogy. Regardless, this was most people’s introduction to the Nintendo Wars series and proved to be an excellent fit for the handheld: deep, moreish, and just as easy to play in quick bursts. And that’s the hallmark of a well-made portable game.
  • Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow – Choosing a GBA Castlevania is a bit like choosing your favourite child, but if I’m pressed this is my favourite. It doesn’t suffer the issues of Circle of the Moon (i.e. it was visible outside of direct sunlight). It’s also more of a challenge than Harmony of Dissonance, which was a cakewalk after COTM. Throw in the variety of weapons and the addictive soul-collecting system and the third time’s a charm for this series. Still buy them all, though.
  • Final Fantasy VI Advance – Ditto what I said about the Castlevanias. These translate amazingly well to the GBA, but FFVI gets my vote simply by being the best 2D Final Fantasy (don’t deny it). FFI/II haven’t aged too well, so they’re out. FFIV and V are both superb, though, especially V with the added customisation of the job system. The thing that this one has over them is just that little extra sheen that comes from being a later game developed on known hardware, and some real flourishes in the storytelling department that don’t come on the older, more linear games. You should still buy all of them.
  • Fire Emblem – Another perennial series that made its western debut on the GBA, think of it as Advance Wars goes to Middle-earth. Playing fundamentally the same as Wars, it brings characterisation and more story to the mix, with the unusual trick of permanently killing off characters should they fall in combat. I like it better than Advance Wars as you’re not controlling anonymous soldiers, but unique characters with enough of their own abilities to make that trick of restarting the mission from scratch if you get any of them killed difficult to resist.
  • Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap – There has to be a Zelda here, obviously. I picked this over the sterling port of Link to the Past (still a classic) just because of what a surprise it was, arriving with little fanfare and turning out to be a brilliant little Zelda game. Tons to do and featuring the charming animations from Four Swords, and presentationally let down only by the mildly annoying voice samples, it’s a slightly whimsical but no less essential take on the series. Plus it came to Europe first, showing that Nintendo only dislikes us rather than outright hating us.
  • Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga – Speaking of whimsy, this game almost defines the word. It wasn’t long ago that Nintendo kept such a tight grip on their flagship that something like this – to Super Mario RPG as Hot Shots is to Top Gun – would never have happened. It’s a great RPG in its own right, with some recognisable Mario hallmarks, but is also one of those rare games that manages to be funny. It has an Engrish-speaking boss, for God’s sake!
  • Metroid Fusion – Super Metroid is my favourite game ever, so I have to have this in here. While it tended to hand-hold – Samus now has an AI companion that tells her where to go – Fusion proved that it still works in 2D, even after the seemingly permanent shift into 3D first person. It also boasts some of the prettiest visuals on the system and brought to the table a truly threatening bad guy. Or girl. Castlevania has done it twice, so can we get a 2D Metroid on the DS, please?
  • Super Street Fighter II Turbo Revival – Street Fighter II shouldn’t work so well with two face buttons, but this has been one of my most consistently played GBA games since I got it in 2001. In fact, this summer, when I was tragically limited to my Micro and one game, this is the one I chose. Since the GBA lacks a puzzle game as perfect as Tetris DX, this is my next best thing.
  • WarioWare: Twisted! – How many of these games have there been now? However many, this is probably my favourite, even up against the original. The use of a twist sensor is ingenious and the team of course comes up with a couple of hundred inventive ways to use it. For a new twist (ba-dum tish!), play it by spinning yourself, rather than the GBA, in circles.
  • Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario Advance 3 – The 2D platformer to rule them all, even twelve years after its release this game still looks and plays wonderfully, and will continue to age better than the early attempts at 3D of its contemporaries. It’s testament to how much talent was poured into this game that even with essentially the same components and art assets, a less able team couldn’t make something nearly as good as the original. For more on the game, read my retrospective.

Unless you want it to die, don’t forget to lobby Nintendo for an English-language version of Rhythm Tengoku. It’s a top game that hardly anyone’s heard of, and the GBA deserves to go out on an original title rather than a SNES port. Even if said port is one of the finest RPGs ever made.

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