Handhelds and I have a complicated relationship. Being a recluse who never goes anywhere, the mobility afforded by handheld gaming systems has never been of much use to me. As a result, I usually just played games on PC or console because those looked and felt more advanced. As I grew older, though, a sense of nostalgia for those simpler games began to form. Maybe I didn’t quite appreciate it in my youth, but a lot of these handheld games could go toe-to-toe with console games. Let’s look at a few such cases!
Rules for this list are fairly simple.
- This is not an ordered top list since there is not really any comparing these games.
- The comparisons have to be fair with relation to console generation. Obviously a 3DS port of a Famicom game is going to have a lot more to work with than a GameBoy port would.
With that out of the way…
The Sims 2
Growing up in a console gaming household, The Sims 2 had an almost mythical appeal to me. The hype for this game was immense, yet my family was still using a Windows 95 PC at the time. I wanted to play it so badly, but that was just not going to happen. At least… not until the game made its way to consoles.
I was out of my mind with excitement when The Sims 2 came to GameCube. I bought that game on release day. Now, this is not going to be some sob story about how The Sims 2 on GameCube ruined my childhood. The game was fine and I played it a lot. However, it really is just a cut down version of the vanilla PC game. A lot of features didn’t make the transition, including having children or aging in general. Fundamental elements that you’d expect from any game calling itself a life sim and it just isn’t there.
In its place, the game has a campaign mode of sorts. Similar to Bustin’ Out or The Urbz.This is neat in its own way, but something that I felt was done a whole lot better in the handheld outings of The Sims 2. On the GBA and DS, The Sims 2 is utterly incomparable to the rest of the series. These games use the aesthetics and tropes of the franchise, but play out more as puzzle games with insane stories. On the GBA your sim becomes part of a comedy TV program, where each episode has you complete an absurd storyline around town. On the DS, you become the proprietor of a hotel and have to solve yet more mysteries while also dealing with tumultuous guests.
Their stories are hilarious, whereas the console variations felt like they were scared of getting too absurd. Like they were clinging to the concept of being a life sim, even as essential parts of that experience had to be scrapped. The handheld versions all but give up on pretending to be simulators; focusing instead on being wacky games with their own identity separate from the main series.
Super Smash Bros. 4
The fourth game in the Super Smash Bros. series was unique, in that it released both on the Wii U and 3DS as two distinct games. Admitting that the 3DS version is better does hurt my soul as a Wii U apologist, but there’s no denying it. Smash on the 3DS is such a blast.
The differences between the two are small, yet very meaningful. Visually, I enjoyed the alternate style of the 3DS version. Characters had a thicker outlines and colors felt more pronounced, making the trade-off in pure resolution well worth it.I also enjoyed the 3DS-exclusive stages more than those of the Wii U.
Finally, there are the extras. While the Wii U version has more modes, this is very much a quality over quantity kind of deal. The 3DS has Smash Run; a competitive dungeon-crawler experience where players have a set amount of time to fight enemies and grab power-ups to boost their stats. After the timer runs out, all contestants are pitted against each other in a randomly selected challenge. This could be a traditional fight, a race, or something else entirely. It’s a surprise every time and this can lead to hilarious competitions. Like a round where you somehow end up with nothing but jump height, only for Smash Run to pick a vertical race as the challenge.
The Wii U has a board game in the form of Smash Tour, which is nowhere near as exciting. I played it once and never felt any urge to revisit that mode again.
Around the turn of the millennium, there was a trend where console games would get a tie-in release for handheld systems. Even many classics from Nintendo’s rivals would find their way to the GameBoy Color and Advance, usually in the form of 2D action games or platformers. This trend was not just exclusive to good games either.
Even rubbish games would sometimes get a second chance at success on handheld systems. Take Daikatana, for example. A game so infamously terrible and overhyped, it destroyed the reputation of its figurehead John Romero. It is a game so bad, it impacted the course of gaming history in a tangible way. Yet, even Daikatana would receive a respectable tie-in game for the GameBoy Color. A top-down action game with puzzle elements, that is generally regarded as being pretty good.
Really though, the game’s own merits are somewhat irrelevant here. Even if Daikatana on GameBoy was a bad game too, it would still be on this list. The original was so bad, they would have had to actively sabotage this alternative for it to turn out any worse. This was basically a free space on this list.
Grand Theft Auto
I got into the GTA games by way of the series’ third installment, which has made it difficult to go back to the earlier outings. I tried playing Grand Theft Auto for the PS1 several times, but it’s not a game that I can ever stick with.
Part of that is certainly down to the more simplistic form of the game compared to the PS2 titles, but the real issue is movement. The overhead camera and frantic speed make the game strangely nauseating. Everything moves so chaotically; buildings, bridges, and everything else zip by at blazing speeds, while you try to focus on the tiny sprite you actually control. The camera adjusts itself constantly, yet never manages to give you a comfortable enough view of what you are doing. As a result, I crash a lot, I fail missions, and I have a miserable time.
The port to the GameBoy Color arguably has technical hurdles of its own, but it is a far more playable experience for me. It’s less dizzying to play, without even really sacrificing that much in terms of speed.
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days
When Square Enix began remastering the Kingdom Hearts franchise, one game that I was particularly excited for was 358/2 Days. This DS game was a pivotal piece in the convoluted lore of Kingdom Hearts, yet one that few people got to play. I did play it myself and liked it a lot, but it really could have used an upgrade—both visually and in terms of gameplay.
358/2 Days would eventually be remastered in the 1.5D Remix, but sadly the DS original remains the go-to version. For the simple reason that the DS version is actually a video game.
Rather than adapt the game’s mechanics for a console version, Square Enix just scrapped it entirely. It is replaced instead with a 3-hour compilation of cutscenes, which is just piss. They didn’t even have to rework the game THAT much. Chain of Memories was an isometric card battler that they transformed into a full-on 3D action game. That was way more effort than anything they’d have to necessarily do for 358/2 Days. But no, instead you get to experience this essential part of the series in the form of the worst anime movie ever made. I’d rather plunge my own heart into darkness than watch a 3-hour long Kingdom Hearts cutscene.
There are a lot of movie tie-in games of dubious quality. Having to rush out a full 3D game to coincide with the hype for an upcoming movie is game-design torture. Everybody knew that movie tie-in games were shit, but these poor developers just had to churn them out like that. At the end of the day, you can’t pay rent in artistic integrity.
Like with Daikatana earlier, this turned handheld versions of these games into opportunities for redemption. They couldn’t cut it as full console experiences, but on GameBoy or DS, there were opportunities to shine. I’ll take a charming 2D platformer of a film I liked over a glitchy 3D shitshow any day.
Catwoman is an example that is strangely close to my heart. The console version is held up as one of the worst movie tie-in games of all time, whereas its 2D cousin on the GameBoy Color is a fun platformer indeed. It was actually the first GameBoy Color game that I ever bought, so I am definitely biased in saying that. Still, you don’t have to look very far to find similar stories. After all, they just wouldn’t stop making these movie tie-ins no matter how much we all complained about them.
When he challenged me to this list, I knew that games like Dragon Warrior were exactly what Stian was angling for. After trying the game out for myself, however, I must agree with him. Dragon Warrior on Game Boy is the objectively better way to experience this game.
Released as a bundle with the second game in the franchise, the port of Dragon Warrior came with a heavy rebalancing of the core RPG mechanics. The original NES title, though a classic in its own right, was very dependent on grinding. You were weak, combat was slow, and leveling up took an eternity. The Gameboy port sped this experience up tremendously. The player character was made more powerful compared to enemies and you level up a lot faster as well. As a result, you can actually do some adventuring in this fantasy adventure RPG. What innovation!
New Super Mario Bros.
The New Super Mario Bros. series was something of a rekindling of the old style of Mario games after years of 3D adventures. A return to a simpler format of classic 2D platformers. For its intial DS outing, this was brilliant. It offered many twists to the Mario world that made New Super Mario Bros. super fun. Not to mention the mini-games that remain beloved to this day. The same could not be said for the port to the Wii and later Wii U.
Despite the overabundance of peppy energy, there’s something depressing about New Super Mario Bros. on consoles. Mario games on home consoles have always offered top notch presentation and innovative gameplay concepts. New Super Mario Bros. is, however, regressive by design. No matter how polished they may be, it doesn’t feel right to pay full price for what is essentially a Super Nintendo game in HD.
The games lack a certain spectacle. They are visually plain and don’t have any moments that really stand out. Even the later 3D Land and 3D World games—in their own way a return to a simpler Mario format—had their fair share of cool setpiece moments. By Comparison, the New Super Mario Bros. games are so wholly forgettable that I had to double check which ones I even played.
Animal Crossing games reliably turn into massive phenomena anytime a new entry in the series releases. I haven’t tried New Horizons myself, but its popularity was unavoidable. People love this series. So let’s talk shit about it for a while.
My biggest issue with the games is that I find the intended way to play them obnoxious. The activities you can do reset each day, so you come back to it again and again to catch up on them. As a result, each individual play session is generally brief. Sometimes less than an hour in my experience. For a console game, that is not ideal for me at all. I don’t like firing up all my hardware just to bum around my village for a few minutes and then play something else. I’d rather just play more of the game that I fire up afterwards instead. That’s… usually what ends up happening. I focus on another game for a bit, forget to pop into Animal Crossing, and then give up on it entirely after missing a few days.
This format of short, but recurring play sessions is much more suited to handheld systems, I find. You can easily fire up Animal Crossing whenever you have time to kill, without it feeling unsatisfying. This makes it easier to form a habit out of the game and get the intended experience out of playing it.
Though it feels heretical to say this, another series that benefits from portability are the Disgaea games. Though these have always been console games first, I have had a lot of fun with their various ports to handheld systems. For reasons that are certainly comparable to what I just described for Animal Crossing.
Though they are sizable roleplaying games, Disgaea is easily broken up into shorter gameplay loops that make it easy to tune any session to how much time you have available. On the toilet? That’s enough time to do a quick mission. Waiting on an appointment? Perfect for doing some party management and overworld shenanigans. Train delayed? Sounds like you just some time to delve into the item world.
The experience is fine on console, but this adaptability shines the most on mobile systems that you can pull out anywhere, anytime. It also alleviates some of Disgaea‘s more repetitive elements. Grinding is a lot more bothersome if you have to do hours of it back to back on a console, compared to doing a few levels whenever you have nothing better to do anyway. It turns a feature that feels like disrespects your time into one that helps you kill it instead.
Thank you for joining me today; I hope you enjoyed this list. You may have noticed that I wasn’t naming many examples when discussing the movie tie-in games, even though there is an overabundance of them to choose from. That’s because I couldn’t be arsed with the research. Have you played these games? They kinda suck man.
I’d much rather delegate this work, if you don’t mind. So Stian, please find me the best movie tie-in video games. Handheld, consoles, PC, it doesn’t matter. So long as they are explicitly tied to an actual movie instead of just a part of its universe. For example, I wouldn’t let you pick Jedi Knight Academy, but you could name The Phantom Menace for PC and Playstation. Good luck!