By now, most of us know the Final Fantasy games for the Gameboy are only Final Fantasy in title - this, actually belongs to the SaGa franchise along with Legend and Legend II - and yet of all three of these bastard children of localization, this one resembles Final Fantasy the most (but more like a Dragon Quest to me). It has a simple and solid approach to the game. You don't have to think about 10-12 different things to level up, you buy equipment and spells and level up with experience points to get further along. The "gimmick" to this game is that you can have your characters turn into monsters or robots for customization purposes based on whatever meat or part the enemy leaves behind. The battle system is so simple I don't even have to explain it. The story, while minimal, is kinda interesting in that your basic goal is to travel back and forth in time looking for parts to restore this super-airship so you can stop floods (and everyone else) from destroying the world. VERY small world map, but a good number of places to explore. Easy fights but difficult boss battles make up the challenge portion of the game. This wouldn't win RPG of the year unless it survives nuclear winter, I won't lie about that, but many a car-driving hour will pass with this baby, I guarantee.
Portable strategy RPGs were made for road trips. They take up hours and hours of time, are addicting as hell and I can't think of a third item because the first two pretty much say it. While definitely not the best portable strategy game out there, its a definite recommendation. Shining Force is, of course, an updated version of the Genesis classic and executes itself very well. The graphical update has a nice, clean look to it, the character moves at a damn-near lightning speed on non-battle maps (which is a nice change of pace, literally) and you get a large cast of characters to fight as - some awesome (Zylo, Gong, Amon, Mawlock) some not so awesome (like the 4th Pegasus on) and Domingo (you'll see...). What I like the most about this game, as opposed to a monster like Final Fantasy Tactics, is that you don't have to get drowned in battle scenes. You get into some huge gang fights, but its not a complicated mess of frustration and confusion. Its much more efficient and manageable than many other strats without sacrificing the main draw - watching dozens of knights and elfs and goblins beating each other silly until there's nothing left. Its still fun. Hardcore strategists will definitely want to look elsewhere, but anyone looking for a lighter fling without sacrificing fun will find this a worthy investment. You can probably find a copy cheap too.
I have a love-hate thing about the whole Zelda genre. I don't particularly care for them, yet I keep playing each and every one that comes out. Its like being addicted to formaldihyde. I was titilated (with extra emphasis on that word) that this one might be the closest thing to a modern Link to the Past, but skeptical because it was developed by CAPCOM instead of Nintendo - I love CAPCOM but its kinda like if Prince wanted to dress up like Jimi Hendrix and try to pass himself off as the real deal. Well, it wasn't A Link to the Past, but CAPCOM did its DAMNEDEST to pull it off and the effort shows. Two worlds intertwined as one? Check. Wise-cracking omnipresent sidekick? Check. Fan-service? Check. Classic tunes remix? Check. Crazy-ass boss fights that have you working the guy for two minutes before you can get an opening? Checkmate. The graphics are by far the best I've seen on a GBA, especially the maps you find as a Minish. And forming a posse of Links to tear up a whole room? Awesome. Here's your whole vacation right here!
Oh wow. I wasn't sure by the time I played this that Capcom could do ANYTHING to the Megaman franchise and have it come off as something other than a shallow, redundant, cash-in on a once great series, but they slapped my cynical ass silly with MegaMan and Bass. Maybe they had a secret vault of emergency Megaman ideas to be used for the very last title to give the series a proper send-off - it would certainly explain why this game is chock full of innovation. First thing, it gets rid of the old 8 character ring and instead puts you on a small series of pathways to reach the end level (to be honest, I'm not really sure why they did this, but it does seem to make a difference). As the title suggests, you get to play as either Megaman or Bass, different 'bots who try the same levels with different results. The level designs are some of the most creative since 2. You got screens of randomly generating enemies trying to hit you as you avoid falling to your death, lightning fast bamboo shoots hitting you from every which way, Simon-Says, this crazy-ass thing where you have to shoot the right number of pillars to get through a room without a spike rack giving you a high colonic for the ages.... I could go on and on, especially if we were talking about the largely updated Shopping feature or that the soundtrack is dissapointing, but I've covered enough here. Go check out Megaman's last classical adventure!
I struggle to list this game and I'm sure you're wondering as I am why its even worth mentioning here if at all. Lufia: Ruins of Lore, another listed attempt to cash in on a landmark game from years back, is the bastard of the series and the most unbalanced game I've ever played. By "unbalanced" I mean it has no core feeling, no consistancy. Its a mish-mash of awesome and pathetic moments the likes of which I've never seen. If you're expecting Lufia II or, damn, Lufia I, you will be pissed. This game references Lufia II but has nothing to do it at all - this is a sidestory if anything. Ruins of Lore shows a lot of promise in that it has a surprising range to it and breaks away some of the monotony of the old Lufia games - which amounted to chasing Sinistrals around the world from town to dungeon or cave or shrine or tower. This has some really cool dungeons and individual story points and events. No more overworld. You gain a lot more abilities than you used to thanks to a "class system" that was added in for some reason - it works but its really unnecessary, just like the Pokemon thing they put in too. Yep, you're playing Final Fantasy I, Pokemon and Lufia in one game, at the same time. Apart from that, this game is a mess. The graphics are questionable, the exp system is literally broken, for some other reason when enemies bite or tackle you, they shoot fireballs instead. The puzzles are here but in much less verocity than Lufia II. So why is it on this list? I couldn't put it down. I put 62 hrs on it the first time I played it. As unbalanced as it is, and you will see IT BLOODY WELL IS, it always seemed to have a cool dungeon right around the corner and a challenge I wanted to sink my teeth into. Give it a try. It might be that ugly mutt that you grow to love.
It was hard to judge which Metroid I should use for this slot. Both games are, for all intents and purposes, pretty much the same basic thing - the next "Super Metroid". Well, neither of them could wear that title, but both should be in your GBA library anyway. If I could only pick one, however, I'd choose this one. For one reason I could probably find it easier and cheaper than the other one. Second reason is the overall setting and plot revolving around an abandoned space station and the "X" parasites and evidently your own evil twin. Granted, we have done the evil twin thing to the point of genocide, but I found this one more intriguing - you're basically fighting yourself at your peak while you're still recovering from a major surgery (and thus, unable to use all your weapons at the start of the game) and it makes for some really good action. The game itself does a remarkable job of recreating the Super Metroid experience, but as you should expect by now, it doesn't have the depth or reach of Super Metroid. The linearty and lack of unlockables holds it back. You could beat this mutha in about 10 hours - making it perfect backseat entertainment on your way to or back from anything. Likely, if you're young enough to still be going on car trips and needing a gameboy to entertain you, you might be too young to really care how much it holds up against a video game released in 1994. I would say this is a good introduction into the Metroid series - Nintendo's most consistantly qualified series.
10 years ago, Konami made Castlevania: Symphony of the Night... and they have continued to do so ever since. Of the.... 6? 7? SOTN sequels, this one comes the closest in recapturing the magic while branching out some new ideas. I think IGA wanted to see what it would be like if Super Mario 64 and Resident Evil 0 were combined into a Castlevania game and, as it turns out, its pretty damn good. Controlling two people in Dracula's castle works REALLY well and adds more dimensions to a tired genre. You're also no longer confined to the castle this time, you get to travel to some kick ass locations (like a gravity defying circus in what I'm guessing is London during the blitz, a "Dark Academy" and a couple pyramids). You get to meet the ghost of an old Castlevania protagonist who will send you on a bunch of quests for rewards and get your ass kicked in some pretty tough and creative boss fights. My only gripe about this game is that they really could've done a lot more with the World War II era they placed this game in. Imagine doing an official Metroidvania through a Nazi Castle to stop Hitler from reviving Dracula! That would be awesome.
Final Fantasy Legend, released just after Final Fantasy I, was by far the most advanced Fantasy to come out until about Final Fantasy V. When you consider the age of this game, the creativity and construction of it become more evident and respectible. Despite only being long enough for a 6-hour plane flight, this game has more depth and replay value than any other portable RPG I've ever played. The story revolves around you assembling a party to unlock a tower that leads to Paradise and other worlds, and you go on some crazy adventures. There are a lot of tricks to this game and different ways to experience it and play through it. The best, in my opinion, was that it lets you fight the monsters AS the monsters long before Pokemon came around. LOTS of weapons, armors and spells, LOTS of tricks and events and LOTS of almost surreal worlds to explore. My only gripe is that unless you print out an FAQ to go with it, you will get lost more times than you want to. Otherwise, drop off by a pawn shop and pick this up. You might end up playing it through twice before you make it home, depending on where you're going.
#2: Pokémon Red (GB)
Now we're getting into obvious territory. Trying to imagine, in this day and age, portable gaming without Pokemon is like trying to imagine a modern car without a seat belt or a radio or something else you should be wearing while you're in the car so you don't fly through the windshield (there, I was looking for a place to stick in a public service announcement). Anyway, Pokemon (any of them, I just chose Red for its convenience) is the perfect portable gaming item and you won't even remember being in the car or plane or train or boat or whatever with this by your side. Hundreds of monsters you have to fight and fight as, catching them and using them in a variety of ways, God-only-knows how many skills and abilities and strengths and weaknesses and strategies to employ to get through and add in a system that lets you connect with someone else and battle them and you've basically found a legal way to print money. I really don't know what to say that isn't already known by now. Just buy one - any one, if you don't have one already and your vacation is pretty much secure.
#1: Tetris (GB)
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