10 underrated Game Boy Advance masterpieces

Top 10 Den Of Geek
20 Aug 2012 - 10:28

There was so much more to the Game Boy Advance than Mario and Pokémon. Here’s our pick of 10 underrated GBA masterpieces…

Launched in 2001, the Game Boy Advance was dominated by best-selling titles such as Pokémon Ruby and Mario Kart: Super Circuit. And among the legion games available for the handheld, it’s inevitable that some were overlooked in the maelstrom of licensed releases and ports that lined the shelves in its heyday.

With Nintendo’s latest iteration in its handheld dynasty, the 3DS XL, available now, join us as we head into the mists of time to pick out 10 Game Boy Advance masterpieces which deserved more commercial attention than they received…

Rebelstar: Tactical Command

This turn-based SRPG was almost completely overshadowed by Advance Wars, and while that title and its sequels are truly great, Rebelstar: Tactical Command is equally worth finding. Created by Julian Gollop – one of the masters of the turn-based tactics genre – Tactical Command is an expanded sequel to the Rebelstar games which originally appeared on the ZX Spectrum in the 1980s.

With anime-inspired graphics and an isometric perspective, Rebelstar doesn’t look much like the earlier games in the series, but it retains all the addictive qualities you’d expect from the creator of X-Com and Laser Squad.

Depicting a future war between humans and grey-skinned aliens, Tactical Command is very much an X-Com game shrunk down for Nintendo’s handheld. Although not as well known as Advance Wars or Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, the game offers an equally engrossing experience, and some great character design courtesy of Gez Fry.

Boktai: The Sun Is In Your Hand

Created by Hideo Kojima, this 2003 action RPG may be one of the most innovative titles ever made for the GBA. Its cartridge has a light sensor built into it, forcing players to occasionally rush out into the sunshine to charge up their character’s primary weapon - a bit of a problem when it's raining, but a clever idea nevertheless. Although it sounds like a gimmick, the sensor dovetails perfectly with the game’s story, which sees its protagonist, Django, fighting vampires with his solar gun. 

Like Kojima’s Metal Gear series, Boktai favours stealth over direct combat, and this, combined with its day/night cycle and expansive fantasy world, makes it one of the GBA’s most unique and absorbing RPG experiences. Although not underrated from a critical perspective (most who played Boktai loved it), it’s definitely obscure from a popular viewpoint, with the series failing to capture much of an audience outside its native Japan.

Boktai and its sequel, Solar Boy Django (the third game, Gyakushu No Sabata was never released outside Japan) are undoubtedly two of the best RPGs ever made for the GBA, and deserve to be tracked down. The fourth game for the DS was released as Lunar Knights in the west, and this, too, is a great title. 

Drill Dozer

Game Freak is known primarily for its Pokémon titles, but creator Ken Sugimori took a break from his best-selling RPG series to produce Drill Dozer, a fun, quirky platform game with a manic sense of energy. You control Jill, a young girl who travels everywhere in the titular Dozer – a kind of mecha suit with a gigantic drill attachment mounted on the front.  Predictably, this allows Jill to drill through certain parts of the game map, adding a pleasing sense of freedom to the usual running, jumping and collecting mix you’d expect from a platformer.

Unsurprisingly, Drill Dozer didn’t repeat the world-conquering success of Pokémon, but it’s a brilliant game, and it’s a pity that it wasn’t commercially popular enough to prompt Game Freak to make a sequel or two – a DS version with stylus-controlled drilling sections would have been a great, logical progression of the GBA game's mechanics.

Scurge: Hive

There’s more than a hint of old top-down shooters Alien Syndrome or Alien Breed about this 2005 indie classic, and it’s truly a shame that its release was so awkwardly timed; Scurge: Hive came out in 2006 when the GBA was already on the wane, and although its reviews were positive, it didn’t get the marketing or distribution it deserved.

If you can track down a copy, you’ll find one of the best run-and-gun games available for the GBA; the isometric graphics are beautifully drawn, its cavernous sci-fi environments are packed full of gooey aliens to destroy, and its RPG elements add depth. Scurge isn’t all about shooting, either; its plucky protagonist is also armed with a mechanical rope which she can use to swing across chasms and drag heavy objects. It’s not an absolutely original idea (Bionic Commando got there first), but its integration into the pseudo-3D gameplay and its cunning puzzles is imaginatively employed.

Scurge’s design and presentation are also top-notch, once again proving that, in the hands of the right developer, the little handheld could perform wonders. Curiously, the Nintendo DS port of Scurge looks slightly less polished than the GBA version – of the two, it’s the Advance version that’s worth seeking out.

Sabre Wulf

ZX Spectrum owners will no doubt remember this title, and developer Rare clearly enjoyed this trip back into its Ultimate Play The Game origins. There’s a hint of the classic Donkey Kong Country to Sabre Wulf, with its colourful pre-rendered graphics and playful humour.

You take control of Sabreman, a decidedly British hero with a bushy moustache and pith helmet, who must retrieve a series of treasures guarded by wolves. He’s aided in his quest by a menagerie of animals, each with their own helpful attributes – you can bounce on a bear’s stomach to jump higher, for example. The game’s platforming sections are broken up with occasional RPG-lite sequences, and this charming little title is packed full of eccentric characters and charm. It’s that British eccentricity, perhaps, which limited Sabre Wulf’s appeal to a more widespread audience, but this fun, quirky adventure is well worth discovering. 

Zone Of The Enders: The Fist Of Mars

Aside from its truly brilliant title, this handheld outing for the Zone Of The Enders series is also one of the most underrated in the whole franchise. A turn-based tactical adventure with well-balanced and deep gameplay, it’s a very different experience from the action combat Zone Of The Enders, which originally came out for the PlayStation 2 in 2001.

Nevertheless, The Fist Of Mars’ strategy is a perfect fit for the handheld, and with its compelling storyline – broken up into episodes, like a TV show – and huge cast of characters, its sense of scale is impressive. Other mecha games, such as Fire Emblem and Super Robot Taisen are more commonly discussed than The Fist Of Mars, but this Zone Of The Enders side-story is arguably as decent as either of them.

Dragon Ball: Advanced Adventure

This handheld anime/manga tie-in is far better than its mixed reviews might imply, and it’s quite possibly the most fun, addictive Dragon Ball title yet released. A mixture of side-scrolling beat-em-up, its action is incredibly fast and frenetic, and does a good job of replicating the manic fight scenes in the anime TV series. In fact, we like this cartoon brawler so much, we’d go out on a limb and say it’s actually as good as Treasure’s Astro Boy: Omega Factor, a GBA beat-em-up with similar gameplay which critics rightly fell in love with. 

As well as the story mode, there’s also a multiplayer one-on-one combat mode, making Advanced Adventure a handsomely-wrought, well-rounded package that deserved far more praise and attention than it received. 

Klonoa: Empire Of Dreams

Thanks to the handheld ports of Mario’s SNES adventures, the GBA had no shortage of great platformers. But in spite of some stern competition, Klonoa: Empire Of Dreams is still one of the best ones available for the handheld, even if its protagonist isn’t as famous as a certain Goomba-bashing Italian plumber.

Featuring some wonderfully engaging animation and design, Klonoa makes up for its lack of originality by providing some of the most balanced and addictive gameplay you’ll find on the GBA. Its platform action is peppered with some simple yet engaging puzzles, and there are some superbly-drawn bosses lurking in here, too. Empire Of Dreams is a cracking handheld outing for one of videogaming’s most underrated 2D heroes. 

Lady Sia

Ask most people to name a female videogame protagonist, and they’ll probably mention Lara Croft or Samus. It’s highly unlikely they’ll mention Lady Sia, the protagonist of this fantastic side-scrolling platform adventure from 2001. This is a huge shame, because – you’ve guessed it – Lady Sia is a truly great early GBA title, with solid, addictive combat and colourful graphics, and even a few puzzles thrown in to break up all the slaughter. 

Sadly, Lady Sia didn’t sell in huge quantities in spite of its favourable reviews, and a planned sequel was cancelled due to lack of interest. This left the game’s blonde heroine with only one title to her name, but at least it’s a good one, and well worth seeking out. 

Rhythm Tengoku

The last game ever made for the Game Boy Advance, but what a swansong this was. A rhythm action game with the same bizarre humour and chaotic tension as the WarioWare series, Tengoku assaults the player with an eclectic selection of rhythm mini-games. Challenging, addictive, and stuffed full of catchy music and comic touches, Rhythm Tengoku is one of the most enjoyable handheld games ever made, and perfect for whiling away long journeys on public transport – assuming you don’t mind the strange looks you’ll get as you nod your head to its infectious grooves.

Only released in Japan and largely eclipsed by the clamour surrounding the launch of the Nintendo DS, Rhythm Tengoku’s cult following has gradually mushroomed. The Nintendo DS’ Rhythm Tengoku Gold was released in Europe as Rhythm Paradise in 2009, and Beat The Beat: Rhythm Paradise came out for the Wii this summer.

It’s definitely worth trying to find the classic original, though – it is, after all, the only GBA game where you can pluck the whiskers from the chin of a grinning beetroot. 

Honourable mentions: Gradius Galaxies, Car Battler Joe, Gunstar Super Heroes, Golden Sun, Ninja Five-O.

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