Game Boy
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Nintendo certainly isn't short on hugely influential, million-selling pieces of hardware, but the original Game Boy is perhaps the first system produced by the Japanese giant that became a desirable, almost ubiquitous consumer product brand.

There's a well-known anecdote – which may or may not be apocryphal – that claims a high-ranking Sony manager berated his staff following the success of the Game Boy (which, along with its successor, the Game Boy Color, sold almost 120 million units worldwide), stating that it should have been a Sony product. Indeed, the brand became as famous as the Walkman during the late '80s and early '90s, cementing Nintendo's place at the forefront of the gaming sector.

Some would argue that, despite the passage of decades, Nintendo has never been seriously challenged when it comes to its dominance of the handheld games industry – although it has long since abandoned the Game Boy line, creating the DS family of consoles and, most recently, consolidating its home and portable interests in the massively popular Switch.

However, that dominance had to start somewhere, and the Game Boy (which, in turn, built on the success of the LCD Game & Watch range from the '80s) remains a historically important milestone in Nintendo's history – and that makes picking the best games for it quite a daunting task.

What are the best Game Boy games?

Our list of the best Game Boy games includes some of the most famous names in gaming history, including Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Pokémon, Castlevania, Kid Icarus and many more.

What we've listed here is a selection of games that any self-respecting Game Boy owner should try – but they're not presented in any particular order or ranking. Basically, if you're serious about experiencing all the console has to offer, you need to play these games.

Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (GB)

The original Super Mario Land was a solid start for the series on Nintendo's Game Boy system, but nothing could prepare gamers for what the developers were able to do with this sequel. The developers managed to improve every aspect of the game and made the adventure a much longer and more rewarding experience this time around. The difficulty is a bit on the easy side, but it's still one of the best Game Boy titles ever released and a testament to just how capable a game system the Game Boy truly was in the hands of talented devs.

If you're a Super Mario fan, you absolutely must play this game; if you're not, this legendary release is good enough to make you one.

Tetris (GB)

With few of the bells and whistles that would arrive later on, Game Boy Tetris is arguably the purest expression of the original block-falling idea. There have been countless ports of this addictive puzzler made available for just about every electronic device in existence, but the Game Boy version is arguably the most beloved and its clear visuals, responsive controls, and that theme tune make it easy to appreciate why.

The very deadliest of killer apps, no self-respecting Game Boy enthusiast should be without a copy.

Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge (GB)

After the crushing disappointment that was Castlevania: The Adventure, Konami pulled out all of the stops with this Game Boy sequel. It plays like a dream, with highly responsive controls and some brilliantly designed levels which use vertical space just as effectively as horizontal space. The ability to choose how you tackle the stages, Mega Man-style, is also welcome, and the music is so good it's almost criminal that it's relegated to the relatively humble Game Boy audio hardware. Arguably one of the best Game Boy games of all time, Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge is an essential play for all fans of the franchise – it's also worth a fair bit on the secondary market these days.

Pokémon Yellow Version: Special Pikachu Edition (GB)

This enhanced version of the original games brought over elements from the incredibly popular anime, so Pikachu takes centre stage as your starter Pokémon – he follows you around outside his pokéball and can’t be traded or evolved. The nurses and police officers around Kanto were substituted for Nurse Joys and Officer Jennys, some Pokémon locations and appearances were altered, and various sprites and world elements were reworked to better reflect the wider brand as it had been established since Red & Blue launched.

The western version of Pokémon Yellow got a minor palette enhancement which works well if you’re playing on a Game Boy Color, although this was not a full GBC game. The changes add an extra layer of charm (and the surfing Pikachu minigame is a lot of fun), but whichever version you pick up, the original Pokémon titles remain an enjoyable gaming experience. Simple in appearance and lacking the bells and whistles of later games, they nevertheless engross from start to finish.

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (GB)

It would be difficult to argue against The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening being the pinnacle of gaming on the Game Boy. The developers were able to squeeze an extremely lengthy quest into the tiny package and push just about every facet of the handheld hardware to its limit. Not only is Link's Awakening not the dumbed-down Zelda adventure many initially feared it would be, but it turned out to be one of the best entries in the series and one that is beloved among Zelda fans the world over. It laid the foundation for so many Zelda mechanics we still see today, introducing flying with Cuccos, trading sequences, playing songs on an ocarina, fishing, and even minibosses.

For such a tiny game, Link's Awakening created enormous shockwaves in the Zelda franchise that we're still feeling today. If you want to experience the very best that the portable system has to offer, do yourself a favour and get this (or the DX version for Game Boy Color with the extra dungeon that's handily available via Nintendo Switch Online) immediately. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Gradius: The Interstellar Assault (GB)

A full fat Gradius game squeezed onto a tiny Game Boy cartridge? This game is remarkable in a similar way to Operation C - the essence of the original remains entirely intact in this portable version despite vastly reduced system specs. The visuals are beautifully detailed, but everything also remains clear and readable on the tiny screen, with enemies, obstacles and background elements all plainly demarcated. Of course, much of the pleasure comes from the sheer incredulity of seeing how well the Game Boy handles this classic, but there’s plenty of fun to be had, too.

Donkey Kong (GB)

First impressions can be misleading. With 101 stages, Donkey Kong for the Game Boy is far more than just a simple sequel to the arcade game – beyond the first four that copy the stages from the original arcade cabinet, the rest of the levels laid the groundwork for the gameplay of the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series that we know and love today. It adds a metric ton of new features, while still managing to keep the ‘arcadey’ feel of the original. The graphics and music are outstanding for a 1994 Game Boy title and the game itself is just incredibly fun to play, even if you do receive an over-abundance of extra lives. It may not be part of the ‘main’ Mario series, but this is easily one of the best Mario games ever made.

Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 (GB)

With Wario Land, Nintendo completely reinvented its portable platformer and gave its greedy new character his own game, instead of merely plopping him down into the middle of another standard Super Mario Land presentation. Indeed, anybody who might have picked up this ‘sequel’ expecting something similar was in for a shock. A wealth of new gameplay features combined with a unique visual and musical style make this title stand on its own and it gives fans of the previous Mario Land releases a fresh spin on the series. If you want to experience some of the best platforming the Game Boy system has to offer, you needn't look any further.

Final Fantasy Adventure (GB)

Released as Mystic Quest in Europe, Final Fantasy Adventure plays more like The Legend of Zelda than the turn-based series it was spun out from. Developed by Koichi Ishii, it tells the story of a hero who escapes from a Dark Lord intent on controlling the Mana Tree, a unique source of energy. The seeds planted here would sprout and become the Mana series, but this first game captivated many players on that little monochrome screen.

Mole Mania (GB)

Mole Mania is a first-party game headed up by Shigeru Miyamoto himself. Some minor control issues aside, it plays a little bit like an endless series of puzzle rooms from the dungeons of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, albeit without the direct combat. The visuals are great and the music is phenomenal; it’s a worthy addition to the library for anyone who won't get frustrated over finding themselves stuck again and again. After all, in Mole Mania, getting stuck is part of the fun.

Gargoyle's Quest (GB)

Beautiful in its simplicity, satisfying in its depth, and assured in execution, Gargoyle's Quest is one of the best games on the system and a solid indication of how potent a gaming platform the Game Boy was, even during its fledgling years. Technically a Ghosts ‘n Goblins game, it actually plays much more like The Adventure of Link, with top-down overworld gameplay giving way to side-on platforming battles. This is a truly timeless release that should be experienced by gamers of all ages.

Kirby's Dream Land 2 (GB)

Kirby's Dream Land 2 is simple, solid fun from the Kirbster, and one of the better traditional-style Kirby titles. The technical mastery of Game Boy really shines through even now, with great presentation and a fairly large world to conquer. Even though its low level of challenge makes it seem smaller than it actually is, its length and numerous power-ups to experiment with make it ideal for repeat playthroughs. After all these years, this still plays like a dream.

Donkey Kong Land (GB)

Going by that instruction book story, the idea that this game would prove Donkey Kong Country was more than just a pretty face is demonstrated rather nicely. Whilst visually it can't come close to the SNES title, by Game Boy standards these are definitely “fancy graphics”, and that doesn't really matter as fans can rejoice in what is basically an extra 34 levels of DKC. Tight controls and a variety of locations and enemies make for an enjoyable platformer. Add in the challenge of finding everything and Donkey Kong Land is a fun game that will keep players occupied for some time.

Kid Dracula (GB)

Kid Dracula might not be quite as lengthy or quite as diverse as the Famicom release, but you still have to give Konami a lot of credit for being able to cram so much platforming goodness into one Game Boy cartridge. It’s a delicious piece of self-parody from Konami poking fun at the Castlevania series. Great visuals with big sprites, a catchy musical score, and some of the tightest play control seen on the system all come together to form one of the most charming and playable platformers available on the portable. The cartridge has become quite rare over the years, so you'll likely have to do some serious searching in order to land a copy, but once you give it a try, you're sure to find the effort well worth it.

Operation C (GB)

This is without a doubt a Contra game (or Probotector if you’re a robot-loving European) more worthy of its title than, say, certain PlayStation entries. It hits on most of the aspects that make a good entry: challenging gameplay, tight controls, varied enemies, killer arsenal, macho tunes, big bosses. For a title two years into the mighty portable’s lifespan, it accomplishes an impressive amount in shrinking the essentials of the beloved console/arcade series. Sadly, players are forced to go gung-ho solo, which is disheartening for multiplayer fans and kills some of its longevity, but it’s remarkable just how well the game holds up on the humble Game Boy and fans of the NES games would foolish to pass this up.

Tiny Toon Adventures: Babs' Big Break (GB)

A fabulous portable cartoon platformer, Tiny Toon Adventures: Babs' Big Break is another example of a fine licenced game with excellent audio and solid visuals on the Game Boy. The charm of Tiny Toons might be the thing that grabs your attention, but the gameplay is remarkably good and Konami once again demonstrates why we’re so sad they don’t really make video games any more. Looney, indeed.

Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters (GB)

If you're a fan of the original Kid Icarus you owe it to yourself to pick up the sequel. Not only does it capture the same magic found in the NES release, but it also builds on many of the great gameplay ideas featured in the original. The difficulty has been toned down to make it a bit more accessible, but there's still plenty of challenge to be found and a fairly lengthy adventure. Highlighted by some fantastic boss fights, Kid Icarus: Of Myths & Monsters is a great prelude to Kid Icarus: Uprising.

Metroid II: Return of Samus (GB)

Metroid II: Return of Samus expands on the original NES title nicely. There's still no map for the game's giant world, which isn’t necessarily a problem due to this game’s linearity, although it can be an issue if you put it down for a while and don’t remember where you got to. There's a decent amount of exploration and hidden items to find, and the hunt to find and kill the 39 Metroids is fairly fun. Although nowhere near as refined as the 2D masterpiece that is Super Metroid, Metroid II has held up better than the original NES game and as such is still very much worth playing. Of course, the 3DS remake is arguably the best way to play the first return of Samus these days, but the original still has a lo-fi charm of its own.

Harvest Moon GB (GB)

Only the second in the series of life-sim farming games following the debut game on Super Nintendo, Harvest Moon sees you visited by an apparition of your dead grandpa who tasks you with taking up the mantle of Ranch Master and managing the family farm. Cue sowing seeds, harvesting crops and selling them to buy more gear enabling you to reap more and build a farm that dear old gramps would have been proud of – if your efforts don’t meet with his ghostly approval it’s Game Over, so look lively! It’s certainly simple by modern standards, but the Game Boy edition still has plenty of charm.

R-Type (GB)

As with any port to the Game Boy, cuts are inevitable, but this still delivers an authentic R-Type experience. A slower speed, fewer enemies on screen and the omission of two levels make for an easier version. However, this port still manages to provide a challenge and it works well on the hardware it was designed for, with good controls and clear visuals. It may be a shorter gaming experience on the Game Boy, but it's still a very good one.

How many Game Boy consoles are there?

If you're just talking about the original monochrome Game Boy, then there are three variants. The original DMG-01 model was released in 1989 and would later be sold in a wide range of different colours.

The Game Boy Pocket – a smaller version with an improved display that only required two AAA batteries to run – would arrive in 1996 (alongside the arrival of the first Pokémon games, as luck would have it).

Finally, there was the Game Boy Light, a Japanese exclusive released in 1998 that featured an electroluminescent backlight that allowed players to use the console in the dark. As the Game Boy Color launched in the same year, Nintendo sadly decided against bringing this model to the West – which is a shame, as it's arguably the ultimate version of the original monochrome hardware.

However, the Game Boy family is much larger than these three variants. The Game Boy Color launched in 1998 and was backwards compatible with the entire Game Boy library. It also had its own unique games, which featured colour visuals.

This was then followed by the Game Boy Advance in 2001. Again, it was backwards compatible with all previous Game Boy software but boasted much improved visuals and sound. It would get two hardware revisions: the Game Boy Advance SP (2003) and the Game Boy Micro (2005).

Is Game Boy discontinued?

Yes. Nintendo no longer manufactures any Game Boy hardware, although it has made Game Boy games available digitally on its 3DS and Switch consoles. The Game Boy Micro was the final console to use the Game Boy name.

What replaced the Nintendo Game Boy?

The Game Boy was replaced by the Nintendo DS, which launched around the same time as the Game Boy Micro. This would be succeeded by the Nintendo 3DS in 2011.

How many Game Boys were sold?

Nintendo tends to combine the total hardware sales of the Game Boy with its successor, the Game Boy Color. It is reported that 118.69 million units of both systems have been sold worldwide.

How many Game Boy games are there?

There were 1046 games released for the Game Boy during its lifespan.