Looking for the best GBA games? The Game Boy Advance wasn’t Nintendo’s greatest ever handheld, but it sold extremely well, had a great library of titles and had a fascinating history as a piece of hardware. The launch unit had a barely-visible screen, while the subsequent SP version introduced a backlight and clam shell design. Finally, before the generation was done, Nintendo introduced the GBA Micro, a console that was tiny enough to lose down the side of your sofa. Each iteration was radically different from the last, and all but the Micro were backwards-compatible with original Game Boy and Game Boy Color games, too.
The GBA introduced a number of key series to Western audiences, including Advance Wars and Fire Emblem. It was also a powerful enough upgrade over the Game Boy that Nintendo and other publishers could port a whole host of their beloved SNES games to the system, which gave its library a significant boost.
The DS, released a few years later, would be backwards compatible with the system. If you want to play these games now, the DS Lite might be your best bet, or you might even want to grab the upcoming premium handheld the Analogue Pocket, which will be compatible with all gameboy roms games. You might also want to check out the line-up of GBA games available on Wii U, which is surprisingly extensive. Hopefully we’ll see these games on Nintendo Switch Online some day, too.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance
If you’re looking for the GBA’s best Final Fantasy game, you’ll find it in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. This tactical RPG offshoot from the main series takes place in Ivalice (a setting that would later be used by Final Fantasy XII) in various topographically unique locations. You’ll place each of these locations yourself – essentially creating your own unique game world – and each serve as a battlefield that has judges that have their own rules and regulations. Winning each battle required proper prepping by analyzing these rules and finding the best suitable cast of characters based on the environment – all of which made each battle feel wildly different from the last.
Just as interesting as the battle system, FFTA allowed you to recruit characters from the pub to build up your guild roster and then specialize those characters in more than two dozen classes. Skills in each class were taught by using various weapons and there was no upper limit on how many skills a character could learn. Later in the game, environments like the hard-as-nail Jagged battlefields could potentially cause permadeath for the characters which helped add some weight to the latter battles. Overall this is a timeless classic that we hope to see again on the Nintendo Switch at some point in its lifetime.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
It’s a travesty that when ‘best ever Zelda games’ rankings are discussed, The Minish Cap barely gets a mention. Maybe it’s because it’s a handheld-only title. Maybe it’s because it is one of the few Zelda games to be made by a development team outside Nintendo – in this case, Capcom took the reins, as it did with the Oracles games on GBC. Whatever the reasoning, it’s unjust – we’d argue that The Minish Cap is among the best Legend of Zelda games ever released for a handheld. It perfectly manages to distil the magic of the top-down Zelda games into a portable form, with excellent dungeon design, great items and powers to collect, and a really fun size-changing mechanic that sees Link shrink and grow to visit the pint-sized world of the Picori people. Shoutout goes to Ezlo, too, Link’s talking hat throughout the adventure, as great a companion as Navi before him or Midna after.
Mario Kart: Super Circuit
While the Game Boy and Game Boy Color had plenty of ambitious handheld entries in series that were peaking on SNES, like the Mario Land games or Link’s Awakening, Mario Kart was always out of the handheld’s reach. That’s why Super Circuit was such a big deal: it was a complete Mario Kart experience translated to a handheld, presented in a similar sprite/3D effect style as the SNES original.
You race around themed Mario tracks, trying to take out other racers with items like red shells and bombs. The Mario Kart formula never disappoints, and this GBA entry was one of the system’s most popular games. Four players could compete with a link cable, too, replicating the classic Mario Kart console experience on a smaller screen. While the later Mario Kart DS surpassed it, make sure you pick this up if you’re starting a GBA collection.
The first Fire Emblem released in the West was actually the seventh entry in the series. The smash hit status of Intelligent Systems’ Advance Wars, which featured similarities in its combat, reportedly boosted Nintendo’s interest in taking the grid-based tactical RPG series outside of Japan. Strangely, we’re now in a world where Fire Emblem is massive and Advance Wars has been dormant for over a decade.
This first entry has everything people still love about the series today: complex grid-based battles, characters you grow to really like and permadeath. You should probably start with Awakening on 3DS or Three Houses on Switch if you want to get into the series now, though.
Astro Boy: Omega Factor
Never heard of Astro Boy, one of the most famous manga creations of all time? Don’t care about Astro Boy? It doesn’t matter. This is the greatest 2D sidescrolling shooter on GBA, and it’s easy enough that anyone can play it, which can’t be said for all of developer Treasure’s excellent shoot-’em-up games. Adapting many elements of the manga and featuring a surprisingly well-embedded story, you have to finish Omega Factor several times to see the true ending, unearthing hidden levels and other secrets as you attempt to save the world. Clearly, lots of love for the source material went into this game, but it’s the fantastic 2D shooting and beautiful visuals that make this a must-play title.