Portable console gaming was huge when it first hit. Not only could game companies and investors drool over the fact that gamers would now be purchasing a second console and set of games, but the players themselves were also excited to take their favorite gaming experiences on the road with them.
One of the first things companies like Nintendo and Sega did when releasing a handheld was to give the console an installment of an already-successful series. Nintendo had learned early on that “What’s a Nintendo console without Mario?”
These entries were met with mixed levels of success, with some becoming fan-favorites and others… not so much. Some handheld development teams outdid themselves, though, and created rare gems that stand alongside some of the greatest games in venerable series, in some instances even exceeding them.
Keep in mind that these aren’t ports, but fully-fledged and original games that exist as part of a franchise. Otherwise, I would just list Final Fantasy IV remakes several times over. So without further adieu, here are the handheld games that kept our thumbs a twiddling even when outside of the house…
Shining Force: Sword of Hajya (Game Gear)
To get a massive game like Shining Force to fit on a snug Game Gear cartridge, Sega knew they had to throw out some features. Exploration and NPC interaction went bye-bye in favor of constant, quick-paced battles. Fortunately, the amputation wasn’t sorely missed as the trade-off was tighter-paced action.
The graphics looked amazing, as well. While detail obviously has to suffer when dealing with a small resolution, the dev team substituted with extremely bright, cheerful colors and charming sprite designs. Overall, the game provided a great alternative to the more in-depth but time consuming epics that other Shining Force games offered.
God of War: Ghosts of Sparta (PSP)
The best thing someone could say about Ghosts of Spata is that it’s a God of War game. Development team Ready at Dawn did an amazing job of condensing all of the graphical eye-candy, fun platforming, and brutal combat of the home console games onto the PSP.
Every splash of blood and flourish of flame effects looked amazing on the tiny screen, and the environments certainly didn’t skimp on scope and grandeur. From the sunken city of Atlantis to the highest cliff in Athens, Kratos dismembers and eviscerates ancient monsters with characteristic panache.
The only minor complaint is that some of the quick-time events are extremely difficult to pull off using the PSP’s cramped buttons and fiddly joystick.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (DS, PSP)
Vice City Stories attempted to bottle some of the magic of the bestselling GTA console games with mixed results. To make the next portable version truly fresh, Rockstar went back to the drawing board and came up with an entirely new concept.
Evoking the top-down fun of the classic early PC entries, but adding some of the depth and rich world-building of the more recent titles, Chinatown Wars hit a perfect balance. The return to the series’ roots brought back the immediate fun of jumping in a car and splattering some tiny pedestrians, while the more involved gangland empire aspects were a welcome addition.
On top of that, the plot was quite engrossing. Huang’s arc from a spoiled nobody to head of all Triads in Liberty City made for a compelling yarn.
The DS version also made some of the best use of the touch controls ever. Fun mini games and a PDA-based UI brought up all your stats and equipment with a couple of efficient taps. Using the stylus to pinpoint where your weapons shot also made gunplay extremely rewarding. These sophisticated touches (GET IT?!) made GTA: Chinatown Wars one of the very best games ever made for the DS.
Okay, this one may be cheating. Mother 3 shifted to the GBA completely out of necessity when its N64 incarnation went belly-up, so the title was constructed from the ground up to feel like a SNES game made for the tiny screen. This intention was far from a bad thing, though. The game ran incredibly smoothly on the console and the graphics looked amazing.
Comparing Mother 3 to Earthbound, however, is hardly a fair prospect. Constantly switching around main characters and the game’s episodic structure made the experience feel less cohesive than its predecessor, not to mention mildly truncated.
Outside of that criticism, though,the game was amazing. Waiting twelve years for a true sequel was agonizing, and the game we finally got didn’t fail to impress.
And it was dark. The story was gut-wrenching, and it made you forget that you were playing a game where you fought a bunch of sentient orchestra instruments in an attic (one of the hardest parts, by the way).
Mother 3 is a necessary experience for any fan of classic RPGs. Unfortunately, playing the game in English requires a patched ROM and an emulator, which is HIGHLY ILLEGAL AND DON’T DO IT THAT’S BAD!
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (PSP)
For me, Metal Gear Solid 3 seemed like an impossibly-hard act to follow. Having Kojima on the team and no small dose of creativity definitely helped.
Peace Walker was unfathomably deep. Every mission could be replayed ad infinitum to find new upgrades and team members, and coming back to base to find out what your team was up to while you were away was nothing short of addicting.
The story was also a highlight, with emotionally-charged explorations into Big Boss’s motivations to construct Outer Heaven. Flashback custscenes in grey-toned pencil style were also particularly poignant.
Many fans of the games find themselves coming back to the title to tackle all of the robust extra features and recruit new team members. Participating in co-op missions also provides the random excitement of playing with friends. Some people even consider the title the best in the series.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
Good. Sweet. Lord. This game haunts me to this day. Coming fresh off of playing Link to the Past, I had understandably lowered expectations for a handheld version of Zelda.
Luckily, I was dead wrong. The game was fun to play, had great dungeon designs, and offered an amazing installment to Zelda’s already-rich world. Game director Takashi Tezuka really outdid himself when he cobbled together the land of Koholint for Link to explore. Every area feels unique and offers something to see and do that can’t be found anywhere else on the island.
On top of that, the music is some of the best in the series. “Ballad of the Windfish” easily beats out a legacy of heart-stopping tunes from over twenty-five years of titles (with “Hyrule Castle” from Link to the Past coming in close behind).
Finally, the story is both incredibly moving and mildly upsetting when dwelled upon. Venturing into spoiler territory, the fact that all your adventures and bonding with Marin could have just been a hallucination works out as far better version of this twist than Hollywood could muster.
All of your actions are in vain, and your desire to get off of the island of Koholint contrasts with the heartfelt experiences you’ve laid down into its soil. Playing the game to its conclusion is bittersweet, and it hangs over my head as one of the most involving video game narratives I’ve ever participated in.