The humble Game Boy was a revolution when it launched at the close of the 1980s. Despite its monochrome visuals, it offered true portable play, and played host to some amazing pint-sized versions of classic hits, as well as all-new experiences which played to the hardware’s modest strengths.
While the Game Boy (and its successor, the Game Boy Color) didn’t get anywhere near as many RPGs as the Game Boy Advance, there are still plenty of role-playing adventures to choose from – and we’ve pulled together some of the best in this guide. Before you pull out your pitchfork, remember: these are presented in no particular order.
Publisher: Squaresoft / Developer: Squaresoft
Known as Makai Toushi SaGa in Japan, The Final Fantasy Legend was the brainchild of Nobuyuki Hoshino, who worked alongside director Akitoshi Kawazu. Like Sega’s Phantasy Star series, it mixes fantasy and sci-fi elements to create a pretty unique narrative experience. Notable for being Square’s first million-seller, eventually shifting 1.37 million copies. While it’s clear that later games in the series improve on the original, this is still worth a look – it’s part of the Collection of SaGa Final Fantasy Legend on Switch.
Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Game Freak
Whilst both games are getting on quite a bit now, they’re still extremely engaging and involving titles in which to drown your free time. The gameplay is simpler by modern standards, but there’s still a wealth of intricacies and complexity to be explored if you want to train a team to pixel-powered perfection. If you were to drag everything about the game and dump it in a nice, shiny, new 3D engine you’d be forgiven for thinking these were brand-new games, and you can’t say that about many titles from the 1990s. Pokémon Red and Blue are stone-cold RPG classics, for sure.
Publisher: Natsume / Developer: Natsume
A fantastic fishing-focused adventure with lots of heart, Legend of the River King 2 is a portable delight. There’s plenty to see and do, with bug catching, flower picking, and diving joining the line-casting central hook, and two different routes through the story add significant replay value for avid anglers. Fishing fans and RPG fans will both have a blast, though those who come for the atmosphere will get the most out of the experience; the soundtrack, setting, and sense of scale all work in concert to deliver one of the most charming depictions of seaside summer ever put on a cartridge. A real catch.
Publisher: Square / Developer: Square
Known as SaGa 2: Hihou Densetsu in Japan, the second Final Fantasy Legend outing was much better received than its forerunner, especially in North America, where it was hailed as one of the best RPGs on the Game Boy. Like its predecessor, Final Fantasy Legend II is available on the Switch via Collection of SaGa Final Fantasy Legend. A remake for the Nintendo DS arrived in 2009, but it was never localised for western release.
Publisher: Square Enix
There are very few Game Boy titles that contain the mammoth amount of playability that Enix has been able to squeeze into Dragon Warrior Monsters. While the quest itself will easily keep you engrossed, it’s the monster capturing and breeding that will keep you coming back to the title for countless hours, even after you’ve likely finished the quest itself. Whether you’re a fan of the Dragon Quest series or not, you owe it to yourself to check this amazing title out. It’s easily one of the most engrossing Game Boy titles ever created and a true testament to what could be done on the Game Boy system when developers took the time to get it right.
Developed by SNK – before it became the fighting game factory of the 1990s – Crystalis made quite an impression on the NES when it was released in 1990, and this Game Boy Color remake – coded by Nintendo Software Technology, no less – is viewed by many fans as a step backwards. Sweeping plot changes are involved, and there’s a whole new soundtrack. The visuals are also a little cramped due to the Game Boy Color’s smaller display. Even so, it’s still one of the best RPGs on Nintendo’s handheld, and if you’re approaching it having never played the NES original (which is on the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection on Switch, by the way) then you’ll find plenty to enjoy.
Publisher: Natsume / Developer: Neverland
This is a big adventure with plenty to keep players occupied. It looks good for a Game Boy Color title and features some decent (if sometimes repetitive) music, and there are a few features to set it apart from other games. It’s by no means perfect and certainly has some issues, but Lufia: The Legend Returns is a solid entry in a series that really doesn’t get enough attention these days.
Publisher: Sunsoft / Developer: Squaresoft
Final Fantasy Legend III is a fitting end for the Game Boy series. If you like your quests long and your combat systems very basic and traditional in design, you’re likely to find a lot to like with this release, but if you’ve grown to expect some of the more modern conveniences found in many of the later RPG releases of this time period, you might find this release a bit too tedious in nature. Either way, it’s still a game worth checking out for RPG enthusiasts, especially those who just can’t seem to get enough of the Final Fantasy experience.
Publisher: Square Enix
With over 300 monsters to capture, Dragon Warrior Monsters 2 is a beast (sorry) of a game, and really builds on the good work seen in the original. Taking a leaf out of Pokémon’s book, the game is available in two versions: Cobi’s Journey and Tara’s Adventure. While both titles are essentially identical in terms of story, they possess unique monsters and keys which are only present in that particular version. If you want the full experience then you’ll need both games. The vast array of monsters on offer really does make this a fantastic RPG experience. Square Enix would remaster Dragon Warrior Monsters 2 for the Nintendo 3DS with Dragon Quest Monsters 2: Iru and Luca’s Marvelous Mysterious Key, which included both versions rather than splitting them into two releases.
Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Game Freak
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. Wireless link play is a welcome addition and attempting to “catch ’em all” and complete your Pokédex will keep you busy for some time. Compared to the other versions there are a few extras here; the splash of colour works well and the mini-game is a lot of fun.
Publisher: Enix / Developer: ChunSoft
This portable collection pulls together the first two NES / Famicom Dragon Quest games – a pair of RPGs that arguably established the template for the genre in Japan. Enix remastered the two games for release on the Super Famicom in 1993, later porting the games to the Game Boy Color in 1999 (2000 in North America). While the visuals and sound take an obvious hit, a host of improvements are also included which improve both games. If you don’t fancy pulling the Game Boy Color out of the cupboard, then you can experience both of these titles on Switch.
Publisher: KEMCO / Developer: KEMCO
The Sword of Hope II is simple but rewarding fun. It doesn’t offer much in the way of replay value, but it’s absolutely worth experiencing once. The challenge is fair and there are a massive amount of weapons and spells to master, as well as a great soundtrack and some crisp pixel art.
Publisher: American Sammy / Developer: NMK
The original Rolan’s Curse was one of the earliest examples of an RPG on the Game Boy, and found a fairly receptive audience thanks to the fact that so few other role-playing titles existing on the console. This sequel followed fairly swiftly, and once again sees your group of heroes facing off against the evil King Barius. Rolan’s Curse 2 is one of those titles that no one seems to talk about today but is actually something of a hidden gem thanks to its robust quest, interesting characters and excellent presentation.