Believe it or not, there was a time when the Game Boy Advance was the handheld gaming system to buy. Nintendo brought back popular franchises from its storied past — including perennial hits such as Zelda, Donkey Kong, and Mario — in an attempt to build a portable, 32-bit powerhouse. And it worked.
The best GBA titles boasted familiar gameplay and thoughtful level design, rendering them more than a nostalgic cash grab. Don’t believe us? Just take a look at the entries below, each of which highlights the best the system had to offer.
1. The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap tops our list for a number of reasons: Endless charm, brilliant overworld and dungeon design, smart puzzles and even smarter puzzle mechanics. The Minish Cap told the backstory of Vaati, the main antagonist and important figure in Four Swords. After Vaati petrified Princess Zelda, Link rescued a magic sentient hat with a bird head that, when worn, lets him shrink down to a microscopic size just like the Minish, the tiny creatures that have worked tirelessly to help remove darkness from the world. The hat, the game’s central quirk, made exploring Hyrule a much different experience than before. It opened up new places and offered new perspectives, illuminating just how majestic the world of Hyrule truly is. The Minish Cap had all of the prominent features of a successful Zelda game, from excellent dungeons to whimsical townspeople to the sheer delight provided when opening a treasure chest. And did you know The Minish Cap was developed by Capcom, not Nintendo? It remains one of the best Zelda games of all time.
Look, before you get mad that we placed Minish Cap above A Link to the Past, we wanted to prioritize the new experience. In terms of fresh experiences exclusive to GBA, Minish Cap takes the cake. Plus, Minish Cap has Tingle!
2. Golden Sun
Camelot Software Planning, known for Shining Force and Mario sports titles, surprised everyone with 2001’s Golden Sun, a valiant attempt at delivering an original Final Fantasy-type experience to a handheld platform. And boy, did Camelot ever succeed. Golden Sun starred Isaac and three other adventurers in their quest to save the world of Weyard. It had all the trappings of a Final Fantasy game — a save-the-world storyline, random turn-based battles, and summons — but it also had a decent variety of overworld puzzles and much deeper story thanks to a wealth of dialogue and exposition. Its sequel, Golden Sun: The Lost Age, told the story through the perspective of the antagonists. Both games are excellent in their own right, but the original is not only the best GBA RPG ever; it’s one of the best turn-based RPGs released to this day. If you missed out on Golden Sun, find a way to play it, such as through the Wii U. A sequel called Golden Sun: Dark Dawn also came to DS, as well, if you want even more Golden Sun in your life.
3. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
The third and final GBA Castlevania game, Aria of Sorrow showed that it was still possible for the series to reach the level of greatness shown in Symphony of the Night. That’s right. First we said Metroid Fusion was better than Super Metroid, and now we’re putting Aria of Sorrow on the same pedestal as Symphony of the Night. Unlike its predecessors, Aria of Sorrow took the vampiric series to the future, placing users in the shoes of Soma Cruz, a teen with occult power who could bring about the reincarnation of Dracula. Aria of Sorrow has the non-linear exploration of SotN, meaningful RPG mechanics, a bunch of cool weapons, and a series of daunting but amazing boss battles. Throw in the Tactical Souls mechanic, which tweaks gameplay and stats by defeating enemies, and Aria of Sorrow was the richest entry in the series to date. It still stands today as one of the best Castlevania games, and for a taste of a similar style game, try Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night on Switch.
4. Metroid Fusion
It’s no surprise Metroid Fusion was developed by the same team that made Super Metroid. Fusion practically felt like an unrelated sequel when it launched in 2002. Fusion featured a similarly lengthy open-world to explore, letting players scour and uncover secrets and ways forward at their own pace. The team at Nintendo R&D1 refined the combat from Super Metroid and introduced numerous new power-ups and mechanics in the process. It may be blasphemous to say, but Metroid Fusion is not just one of the best games on GBA; it’s the best 2D Metroid ever made.
5. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Four Swords
Not much needs to be said about A Link to the Past, the classic top-down Zelda adventure for the SNES. The GBA port brought the mesmerizing Light and Dark Worlds of Hyrule to handheld perfectly. The port also introduced a new feature, however, called Four Swords. This cooperative mode lets two to four players team up to solve puzzles and defeat baddies in dungeons. Although the main campaign is what ultimately earns A Link to the Past a high spot on this list, the addition of Four Swords made the GBA version the definitive way to play one of the greatest games of all time, even compared to the Nintendo Switch Online version available through a subscription.
6. Advance Wars
Intelligent Systems, the studio behind Fire Emblem, was also behind the greatest turn-based strategy game on GBA: Advance Wars. The premise was simple: A blue army faces off against a red army, each comprised of tanks, infantrymen, and artillery. Featuring tough strategic gameplay, a deep campaign, and a map creator, Advance Wars had everything a strategy fan could want. Like Fire Emblem, Advance Wars came from a Japanese exclusive series called Famicon Wars, so we’re quite lucky to have it North America. The GBA also received a sequel in Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising. While also great, it felt more like add-on content for its already robust predecessor, and the DS sequels weren’t quite as classic as the original. For a similar experience, check out Wargroove on Nintendo Switch.
7. Metroid: Zero Mission
What do you get when you combine the atmosphere and nostalgia of the original Metroid with modern mechanics? Well, a darn fine game. Metroid: Zero Mission, a reimagining of the 1986 classic, retold the story of Samus Aran’s first adventure with the refined combat seen in Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion. Beautiful to look at and even better to play, Zero Mission made returning to Planet Zebes feel completely fresh again.
8. WarioWare: Twisted!
Building off of the frantic “microgame” formula of WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgames!, WarioWare: Twisted! added force feedback — one of only two GBA games to have the feature — and a gyro sensor. The result? An experience unlike any other on the handheld. Microgames required players to complete rapid-fire tasks in seconds. None of the games were particularly complex, but all of them entertained. Even the plot, which involved Wario getting mad at a game on GBA and flinging the handheld at the wall, fell perfectly in line with the game’s irreverent tone. On a scale of sheer “fun value,” you’d be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying GBA game, especially if you played it in public, ferociously twisting and turning your GBA like a madman. Some of the games can also be found in the 3DS release WarioWare Gold, along with microgames from the rest of the series.
9. Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga
Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga kicked off one of Nintendo’s best Mario games and spinoff series. Although starting in the familiar Mushroom Kingdom, the game quickly transitions to Beanbean Kingdom, a large world that the brothers must traverse to recover Princess Peach’s voice. Broken down to its core idea, Superstar Saga was a turn-based role-playing game. But Nintendo and now-defunct developer AlphaDream layered the combat by adding timing-based maneuvers that nodded back to Mario’s platforming roots. Controlling Mario and Luigi simultaneously also contributed to the game’s many fun area puzzles. Superstar Saga stands out today as one of the GBA’s best RPGs.
10. Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy VI didn’t come to Game Boy Advance in North America until 2007, more than two years after the Nintendo DS launched. In many ways, it launched as a “thank you” to Game Boy fans for their long-standing support. As one of the best entries in the long-running role-playing series, Final Fantasy VI was a pitch-perfect port that brought the epic story, strategic gameplay, and wondrous soundtrack to a handheld device for the first time. The GBA also received great ports of Final Fantasy I & II, Final Fantasy IV, and Final Fantasy V, but Final Fantasy VI rightfully earns a spot on our list. It’s simply one of the best RPGs ever made and one of the top Final Fantasy games of all time.
11. Super Mario World: Super Mario Advance 2
We’d be remiss not to include Super Mario World, one of the greatest side-scrolling platformers of all time, on this list. Released as Super Mario World: Super Mario Advance 2, this GBA port of the SNES classic hit all of the right notes and introduced one of Mario’s most incredible adventures to a new generation of gamers.
12. Fire Emblem
The first Fire Emblem game to arrive in North America, Fire Emblem introduced western gamers to a strategy game with tons of depth, solid writing, and a medieval aesthetic gushing with personality. Fire Emblem‘s rock-paper-scissors, turn-based tactics gameplay is well-known by now, but we have Fire Emblem for GBA to thank for the fact that we continue to receive excellent games in the series outside of Japan. A follow-up, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones also came to the Game Boy Advance.
13. Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario Advance 3
Ported from the SNES, Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario Advance 3 brought the absolutely gorgeous platforming adventure starring multi-colored Yoshis and one crying Baby Mario to a handheld. Amazingly, the game’s hand-drawn look carried over well to the GBA’s small screen. It played like a charm, too. In terms of SNES-era platformers, Yoshi’s Island was one of the most complex in terms of design, with multi-part levels and secrets aplenty. Yoshi’s Island for GBA didn’t miss a beat, and we’re grateful for that.
14. Mario Golf: Advance Tour
At launch, one could argue that Mario Golf: Advance Tour was the best handheld golf game ever. A sequel to GBC’s Mario Golf, Advance Tour maintained the RPG mechanics and implemented an overworld in which players progressed through a series of challenges at four unique courses. Featuring great three-click arcade gameplay, a robust campaign rife with challenges, and multiplayer game modes, Advance Tour rivaled its GameCube counterpart, Toadstool Tour, which launched a year prior.
15. Pokémon Emerald
We could just as easily include Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire on this list, as Emerald is the enhanced version of the third-generation Pokémon games. We’re going with Emerald, though, since it included Pokémon from Gold and Silver. Like all mainline Pokémon games, Emerald tasked you with becoming the very best Pokémon trainer by working your way through eight gyms and the Elite Four. Emerald was a delightful time-sink that compelled you to fill out your Pokédex and explore its large open world until, well, the next Pokémon games arrived.
16. Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3
The best Mario game from the NES era, Super Mario Advance 4; Super Mario Bros. 3 is a must-play for all Mario fans. Not only did it introduce numerous mechanics that have become Mario staples — sliding down slopes, throwing blocks, and climbing vines — but it also brought Mario’s flying raccoon suit into the fold. The eight unique worlds featured some of the best variety in a mainline Mario game. Simply put, Super Mario Bros. 3 is an all-time classic that came back to life on the GBA.
17. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon
A launch game, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon felt like an ode to early titles in the series. Armed mainly with a whip, Nathan, a vampire hunter, seeks out Dracula in order to rescue his mentor. Circle of the Moon, while obviously nodding back to SNES and NES Castlevania titles, also took cues from Symphony of the Night in its RPG elements. In the end, Circle of the Moon felt like an adventure tied to two eras, but somehow, it came together wonderfully and got the GBA off to a rip-roaring start. However, we recommend playing it on a console with a backlit screen, as it is very dark by default.
18. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance might be the deepest game of the GBA era. A spinoff of the mainline series, Tactics Advance tasked players with assembling a clan of warriors to fight on grid-style battlefields in turn-based tactical combat. With customization options galore — including 34 unique jobs — creating a team that worked well for the long haul required tons of forethought and experimentation. Tactics Advance wasn’t for the faint of heart, though it was probably the best game on GBA for serious strategy game buffs.
19. Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble
Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble seems like a forgotten game in the DK Country series. It originally launched on SNES two months after the Nintendo 64 brought Nintendo games to 3D, which limited its exposure. But the adventure starring Dixie Kong and her lovable cousin Kiddy Kong got a second chance in its GBA port. Varied level design and challenging platforming gameplay made Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble a pure delight to play. The first two DKC games were also ported to GBA, but we have a soft spot for the hair-swinging Dixie and her constantly distraught young cousin.
20. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories came along when the whimsical Disney-Final Fantasy mashup still made sense. A direct sequel to the original, and the first spinoff in the now confusingly expanded series, Chain of Memories remains one of the best entries in the franchise today. Trading action gameplay for real-time strategy mechanics paid off in a big way on GBA. Using an inspired card battling and deck building mechanic, Sora and friends made their way through Castle Oblivion, hopping from Disney worlds using Sora’s memories. Chain of Memories both looked and played great. If you want to play a prettier version of this excellent strategy game, the PS2 remaster is available in Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix on PS4 and PS3 and will be coming to Xbox One in 2020.
21. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2
It’s still shocking just how good the GBA port of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 turned out. Besides a few minor tweaks, THPS2 came to GBA fully featured, including the superb career mode that tasked skaters with working their way through levels completing ten objectives within a time limit. The GBA port used an inspired isometric perspective that really hid the limitations of the GBA hardware. THPS2 remains one of the best skateboarding games of all time, and it held its own and then some on Game Boy Advance.
22. Mario Tennis: Power Tour
Mario Tennis: Power Tour brought back the RPG mechanics seen in the GBC’s Mario Tennis. Playing as Clay, an up and coming tennis star, players navigated their way through the Royal Tennis Academy in the Mushroom Kingdom. The leveling system promoted longevity and the core tennis gameplay shined in both singles and doubles matches. We’re not quite sure why Nintendo has largely abandoned the excellent RPG elements in recent Mario Tennis games, but Power Tour remains fun even today.
23. Mario vs. Donkey Kong
A spiritual successor to Donkey Kong, Mario vs. Donkey Kong was a clever rebranding of the classic 2D puzzle platforming formula. This version is the only one in the series that allows you to play with Mario.
Further, there is a veritable wealth of content with 48 levels and a bevy of secret challenges. Mario vs. Donkey Kong tested both your platforming and puzzle-solving skills.
The basic premise of the game is simple enough, just secure keys, packages, and adorable mini-Marios en route to clearing rooms. Nintendo and developer NST even threw in classic boss battles against DK himself. The whole sub-series is great, but Mario vs. Donkey kicked things off in exciting fashion.
24. Kirby & the Amazing Mirror
Kirby & the Amazing Mirror released at the very end of the GBA’s life cycle in 2004, and it reworked the Kirby formula in surprising and welcome ways. Most importantly, this game doesn’t use the traditional level-based system. Instead, players can freely explore the world and ultimately discover their own path to victory.
You can travel from one world to another through a labyrinth, a similar structure to the different worlds of Metroid games. Amazing Mirror has all the cuteness you would expect from a Kirby game, including the ability to call on colorful friends for help. Compared to other Kirby franchise games, this game is unexpectedly deep and intricate.
25. Baseball Advance
Sports games that aim to utilize realistic graphics tend to perform poorly on handheld consoles, but Baseball Advance is possibly one of the few exceptions.
Baseball Advance, released by Smilebit (a defunct division of Sega) in 2002, boasts robust visuals and decent pitching, hitting, and fielding mechanics. MLB fans will find licenses for all the teams and players of the time, and playing through the 162-game season is a fun and exciting experience.
Not counting Mario sports titles, Baseball Advance was easily the most impressive sports sim to come to GBA. However, there is no two-player capability, so you’re on your own.
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