Roleplaying Games for Handhelds - GBA
Mike 'txa1265' Anderson, Editor at GamerDad, 2005-12-12
Despite the view some have of Nintendo's GameBoy series of handheld game consoles as 'for kiddies only', there are many excellent games available. In fact, there are some excellent role-playing games available that cover most of the standard types - from single player action-RPG to party RPG's with turn-based combat and everything in between.
In this article I will go through some of the best and most interesting titles (not always the same) that have come out. I'll indicate the average review score and discuss a little bit about the game. This is not a comprehensive list, though most of the major titles will be covered. And some non-RPG games that are often dropped into the RPG category will be discussed in bulk at the end.
Before I get going, just a bit on where I started. I have had a GameBoy since my parents got me one right after release in 1989. My job at the time was with a small scientific instruments company and I had to travel a fair amount to install equipment, train chemists and help out with applications. In the airports I would play Tetris, Golf, Gauntlet, Castlevania and a few others. As the travel waned, so did my GameBoy use, and pretty soon it ended up in a box. Fast-forward to late 2001, and I'm anxiously awaiting Star Wars Jedi Knight II, looking for some lightsaber action and hear about the new GameBoy Advance and a game called 'Jedi Power Battles'. I pick up both, and my handheld gaming life was restarted. After Neverwinter Nights on the Mac rekindled my RPG love in August 2003, I started looking for some RPG's for the GBA. What I wanted was 'Neverwinter Nights on my GBA'. Guess what - it didn't exist! So I waited until I heard the announcement of Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance coming to the GBA and pre-ordered directly from Ubisoft. After finishing the game, I looked for other RPG's in that same style - but there were none, and found I needed to branch out a bit if I hoped to play more handheld RPG's. Fortunately I was rewarded with some excellent games!
Now I will highlight a few 'must own' RPG's - not necessarily the highest ranked, but the ones that represent some of the best in the genre in its' various forms on the handheld. Then I'll list the rest of the games split into categories.txa1265's 'Must Have' GBA RPG's!
Golden Sun (Avg 91, Rated E) A huge, fantastic, creative, and wickedly fun RPG that doesn't seem to care that it's "just" on a GBA. It's easily the best RPG available for the GBA—and one of the best RPG's for any console system in the past few years.
Shining Soul II (Avg 74, Rated E) This is the best single player "I'm the hero" style RPG for the GBA. It has a nice variety of character types, fun story and quests, challenging combat and a deep item and item creation system. I personally prefer Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance as a cRPG lover, but there is no objective doubt that this game is better and deeper.
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (Avg 85, Rated E) This game is different from many strategy games since the death of a unit is more than just a lost resource, it's more like losing a party member in a role-playing game like Baldur's Gate. This is because each character is introduced with a background and purpose and has interaction with the main character, as well as at least one other character. Read my full review at GamerDad.
Single Player Action-RPG
Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance (avg 76, rated T) - this is based directly off of the console version, and there are few better action RPGs on the handheld. There are slight gameplay and graphical issues, sure, but it doesn't take much persistence to overcome these, and the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Shining Soul (Avg 58, Rated E) The simplistic gameplay and the lack of both difficulty and any real pressing motivation to complete the game severely limit any appeal.
Shining Soul II (Avg 74, Rated E) This sequel far outpaces the original, adding many new features and expanding the first game in every way. Skip the first one - you won't lose any real background info.
LotR: Fellowship of the Ring (Avg 51, Rated E) A terrible first try for a portable companion to Tolkein's rich material. This isn't worth a try at any price.
LotR: The Two Towers (Avg 78, Rated T) Finally gets it right - an excellent action-RPG that just happens to have a Lord of the Rings license. You play through the story as one of a choice of characters, building up your strengths and areas of focus as you battle.
LotR: Return of the King (Avg 74, Rated E) Return of the King doesn't add much new stuff, but it refines the experience and comes up with an even better game. This game - as well as LotR: The Two Towers - demonstrate how a well thought out character and combat system can nearly unshackle the player from feeling bound to the movie plot, which is something many licensed games could learn from.Single Player Console-style RPG
Sword of Mana (Avg 72, Rated E) A very good game that has enjoyable story and decent pacing mixed with good combat action. Certainly one of the top RPGs on Game Boy Advance. It shines most in its subtleties, but unfortunately those are all too easy for many players to miss.
Sigma Star Saga (Avg 68, Rated E-10) This game is an awkward hybrid with neither the depth of a true RPG nor the frenetic pace and art design of a pure-bred shooter. Both sides of the experience are fun, but less than stellar.Party Based RPG's with Turn-Based Combat
D&D: Eye of the Beholder (Avg 57, Rated E) - Yep, that Eye of the Beholder. It is a fun game - and exactly as you would picture it. They did update the rules system to AD&D 3.0, but the visuals are pure SSI! Can be very addictive despite it's many flaws. It's hard to recommend to the average gamer though, with sub-par graphics, sound, and gameplay issues.
Golden Sun (Avg 91, Rated E) A huge, fantastic, creative, and wickedly fun RPG that doesn't seem to care that it's "just" on a GBA. It's easily the best RPG available for the GBA—and may just be the best RPG for any console system this year.
Golden Sun: The Lost Age (Avg 86, Rated E) Simply put, The Lost Age is the best role-playing game available for Game Boy Advance. However, I highly recommend playing the second best RPG, the original Golden Sun, before you play this continuation of it.
Final Fantasy I & II (Avg 80, Rated E) It's truly a testament to the quality of Final Fantasy I & II that both games still play brilliantly even after all these years. Though neither one of them are groundbreaking by today's standards, they're still fun, still addictive, and still worth the price of admission.
Breath of Fire (avg 79, rated E) A mediocre RPG experience, but one that includes great side quests such as fishing, hunting, and collecting non-mandatory playable characters and items that make this a truly deep and enjoyable package.Breath of Fire II (avg 81, rated E) The storyline and characters make Breath of Fire II a much better game than the first adventure in the series...even though the game hasn't changed a whole lot.
Lunar Legend (Avg 79, Rated E) An interesting "abridged retelling" of Lunar: The Silver Star that's missing a couple of the original's most charming aspects...but it's still a darn good RPG.
Phantasy Star Collection (Avg 76, Rated E) The titles also have difficulty levels that no company would dare set their games to today; nearly every encounter is a life-and-death struggle in the first two.
Riviera (Avg 77, Rated T) The storyline is captivating, the technical presentation is superb and the unique gameplay twists make for a fresh role-playing experience that's unlike any other currently available. Read my review at GamerDad.Turn Based Strategy RPG's
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (Avg 87, Rated E) A wonderful RPG-based strategy game with an insane amount of depth, replay value and challenge, and a ton of fun if you're willing to put in the investment of thought and time. This is one of the defining games of this genre, which makes is a 'make or break' game - if you like this, then you will love most of the good games below. If not, you still might like the Fire Emblem games due to the deep characters, but most others would be unsatisfying.Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis (Avg 88, Rated E) The story is rich and interesting with just enough plot twists and turns to keep you on your toes, but not too many to make you scratch your head in confusion...Without a doubt, one of the finest games for the GBA.
Fire Emblem (Avg 88, Rated E) Featuring a beautiful storyline with many personable characters, a well written musical score and an incredible amount of exciting and variable gameplay, Fire Emblem is one of those few games that you must own.
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (Avg 85, Rated E) a difference from many strategy games since the death of a unit is more than just a lost resource, it's more like losing a party member in a role-playing game like Baldur's Gate. This is because each character is introduced with a background and purpose and has interaction with the main character, as well as at least one other character. Read my full review at GamerDad.
Onimusha Tactics (Avg 64, Rated T) Its battles are enjoyable enough, and series fans will be pleased with this adaptation of the Onimusha mythos. But in comparison to everything else on the market, the game falls short.
Lord of the Rings: The Third Age (Avg 67, Rated T) Merely an interesting take on The Lord of the Rings license instead of the great game it could have been.
Shining Force: Resurrection of the Dark Dragon (Avg 77, Rated T) If you consider yourself a fan of the strategy-tactics RPG genre, you're not going to mind that the graphics are a little outdated or that the audio has some hissing and popping in it. The game offers enough good things that you shouldn't pass it up based on those issues alone.Other Role Playing Game Variants
Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga (Avg 90, Rated E) Featuring the omnipresent duo, this game is described as the perfect combination of turn-based combat, adventuring and platforming all in one - and just an absolute blast from start to finish.
Pokemon Games - from Red & Blue for the original GameBoy to this year's Emerald, gamers have had many options to "Catch 'em all" for years. You - the trainer - do not level up directly, but gain badges through battles, in which your Pokemon get experience towards leveling up, which then leads them towards evolving into more powerful forms. Nintendo has done an amazing job of making each game interesting and distinct, and providing links between games to add reasons to get the newest version.Other GBA Games Sometimes Called RPG
Castlevania Games - these are some of the best games on the GBA, but are not role-playing games. Circle of the Moon is generally considered the best of the series, but Aria of Sorrow is also excellent, and ties directly into (and unlocks content for) the recent DS game Dawn of Sorrow. The games have lots of interesting challenges and are well worth looking into for fans of action-combat games.
Legend of Zelda Games - just like on Nintendo consoles, the GBA Zelda games are the ultimate adventure games. The two recent games - Link to the Past offers a long and difficult campaign and robust (albeit via link cable) multiplayer. This year's Minish Cap is shorter and somewhat less daunting, but is still an excellent game for any handheld gamer to enjoy.
I'm Not Dead Yet! Upcoming GBA RPG's - Final Fantasy IV is due out mid-December and is looking like a nicely done port. There are plans for Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy VI for next year, as well as Tales of Phantasia, Mythri, and Arvale II: Ocean of Time among others.Conclusions
So you can see there are tons of good games available for this venerable handheld - regardless of what style of RPG you prefer. Sure, there is nothing that compares with Gothic II in terms of free roaming areas, but there are excellent games with great characters and stories, engaging combat and loads of thought required. And think about this - for the price of a 'Core' XBox360, you could get a GBA system and eight of the games mentioned here ... even more with some judicious online price-hunting. If you find yourself having idle time where no PC is available, consider a GBA ... you might get hooked like I did!