Game Boy Games That Pushed The Limits of Graphics & Sound

Pushing the Limits of the Game Boy and Game Boy Color
Presented by Zen Albatross and Racketboy
Special Thanks to Satoshi_Matrix, Noiseredux, and other Racketboy forum members

See Older Entries of the Games That Pushed The Limits Series

In the 1980’s, a loose international culture of computer graphics artists and musicians formed what is now known as the demoscene. These artists, many of whom went on to make games themselves, engaged in programming contests, creating increasingly impressive audiovisual demonstrations that pushed the physical limits of the hardware they used.

Decades later, countless console historians have credited the Game Boy as an impressive feat of engineering that championed the hardware of its time. Modeled closely off the design of the NES, it miniaturized Nintendo’s already successful formula for computer entertainment in a compact form factor, igniting the portable gaming market as we know it today.

But like many consoles past, the Game Boy’s true potential would remain obscured were it not for the efforts of the inventive software engineers who, like the demosceners before them, pushed the hardware to its maximum. This article will touch on a few examples of notable Game Boy software that resulted from such efforts.

While most of the games that we cover in this piece are only playable on the more powerful Gameboy Color (The processor is twice as fast as a Game Boy’s, and has three times as much memory), there will be some mentions of some games that were primirily for the original Gameboy.   It was quite a chore going through the Gameboy’s large library (especially when you consider how long the handheld was on the retail market), so I’m sure I missed a few titles. I’m still digging around more, so I just may find some more titles to add to this list. Either way, I’m sure you will find some times below that are quite impressive for this little 8-device.

Game Boy Technical Overview

First let’s briefly glaze over some of the technical capabilities of the Game Boy hardware. Don’t be frightened — this won’t hurt a bit.

Processor & Memory:
The original Game Boy is loaded with an 8-bit microprocessor based heavily off the Zilog Z80 series, the same type used in early home computers like the ZX Spectrum, TRS-80 and Amstrad CPC. Thus, the software built for it had to be written using a slightly different form of assembly language than the NES, which was built on 6502 architecture.  The core clocks at just over 4 MHz , although the Game Boy Color added an additional mode that could run at 8.3 MHz. The original and Pocket run with just 8kiB of RAM, whereas the Game Color bumps the number up to 32 KiB.

Graphics:
To the average player, the most apparent limitations are found in the system’s graphics and sound. For graphics, the Game Boy renders sprites and backgrounds in a way very similar to the NES — a grid divides the screen into 8×8-pixel ‘blocks’ forming a total resolution of 160×144 pixels. There are several memory restrictions which determine how graphics are displayed in relation to these blocks, such as the number of sprites that can be on a single line of pixels (10) and the maximum sprite size (8×16). Of course, the Game Boy’s most distinguishing graphical limitation is its green-tinted, 2-bit color palette, which provides a grand total of 4 monochrome shades. We’ll see how developers used this minimalist setup to great effect in just a bit.

Sound:
Sound capability is also comparable to that of the NES. The Game Boy has 4 audio channels of stereo sound and each has a unique role. The first two are Pulsewave channels, typically used for melodies and occasionally sound effects. The third is WAV, a powerful custom waveform channel which is capable of making much more complex sounds than the Pulsewaves, but has far less volume control. And finally, the last channel is a white noise generator, responsible for a majority of the percussion and sound effects you’ll hear. While it’s upsetting that a majority of early Game Boy composers didn’t fully utilize these capabilities, we’ll be hearing some surprising exceptions that loaded their unfettered virtuosity into the cartridge memory.

Shantae (GBC)

ShantaeRelease Date: 06/02/2002
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Key Technical Features:

  • Color and animation on par with early GBA games
  • Interesting lighting and scaling effects used in a complimentary way
  • Masterpiece of a soundtrack that stood out from the crowd

What Makes The Game Special:
Shantae is one of the most commonly cited examples of latter day technical amazement for the Game Boy Color. Backgrounds and menu graphics are stylized and lavishly colored. Sprite animations, particularly those of the leading lady herself, are so incredibly smooth that you might be fooled into thinking that this is the later-released Game Boy Advance version of the game. It’s clear that developer WayForward used every trick in the book and then some to make this game come to life, including some clever routines with color and light sourcing to give a wonderful illusion of time in both day and night.

And let’s not forget the absolutely amazing soundtrack by legendary game composer Jake “Virt” Kaufman, an achievement in its own right. Considering that 90% of Game Boy soundtracks are comprised of vanilla-sounding software instruments and half-cocked melodies, Kaufman’s is one of the few that should be regarded as a masterpiece, seamlessly blending middle eastern modes into insanely complex hip-hop and rock arrangements. Combined with all that graphical data, it’s a small wonder that all this content fits on a Game Boy cartridge.
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Faceball 2000 / MIDI Maze 3 (GB)

Faceball 2000Release Date: 12/1991
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Key Technical Features:

  • Pseudo 3D graphics with first-person perspective
  • Lots of pre-rendered graphics add up to convincing environment

What Makes The Game Special:
Another example of ported software trying earnestly to crunch itself inside of a Game Boy cartridge, Faceball 2000 deserves mention not as a gameplay achievement (its painfully low frame rate makes it just barely playable) but as an example of another unique and unintended application of the Game Boy hardware: First-person 3D environments.

Faceball (known at first as MIDI Maze) originated on the Atari ST as a quirky and simple multiplayer deathmatch game featuring cartoon smiley faces. On the Game Boy, it retains the honor of being the only title to have supported 16 simultaneous players, although special hardware was required to make this possible. Also, good luck finding even one other person who owns this insanely obscure game.

It’s obvious that a lot of technical work went into rendering the 3D environments of this proto-FPS on the Game Boy hardware. After all, the Game Boy’s 8-bit core doesn’t typically display graphics in the way a game like Faceball requires. Despite the simple textures and abysmal (by today’s standards) draw distances that resulted, the team at Xanth Software somehow managed to do it. If I had to venture a guess based on the slow framerate, I’d say that portions of every frame are individually pre-rendered. But if you have any leads or ideas as to what’s going on here, let us know in the comments.
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Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS (GB)

Chikyuu-Kaihou-Gun-ZASRelease Date: 12/18/1992
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Key Technical Features:

  • A masterpiece of scrolling parallax layers
  • Making use of extremely limited color palette to create useful textures
  • Larger-than-average-sprites

What Makes The Game Special:
The scrolling parallax layers in Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS are a prime example of a Game Boy screen packed to the gills with graphics. Unlike with the Donkey Kong Land series, the limited color palette is implemented smartly, utilizing nearly every available pixel of the screen to build complex textures and sprites without confusing the player or overwhelming the system memory.

There’s also some extremely elaborate sprite graphics, especially for the boss characters, which move surprisingly well despite their large size. ZAS is easily one of the most technically impressive shmups you’ll ever play on the original Game Boy.
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X (GB)

Release Date: 05/29/1992
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Key Technical Features:

  • Impressive 3D environments with vector graphics

What Makes The Game Special:
Faceball 2000 is usually the main example given of psedudo 3D graphics being utilized on the original Game Boy, but a Japan-only titles that was released 6 months after Faceball 2000 also uses some creative programming to try to imerse gamers in a 3D world in an 8-bit, monochrome world.

Those that have played X often describe it as “Star Fox for the Game Boy”.  Those comparisons are even more understandible once you realize that the chief programmer and designer was Dylan Cuthbert, who worked on Star Fox, the cancelled Star Fox 2, Star Fox Command and Star Fox 64 3D (along with the PixelJunk games).    However, it is worth noting that X ultized vector graphics (similar to Battlezone), while the Star Fox titles used polygon graphics.   Regardless, X was a technical marvel on the DMG-01
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Donkey Kong Land (series) (GB)

Donkey Kong Land ScreenshotRelease Date: 06/26/1995 (first game in series)
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Key Technical Features:

  • Using limited memory effiently to capture the essence of a groundbreaking SNES hit
  • Impressive animation
  • Using multiple sprites to create large, detailed character models

What Makes The Game Special:
One of the first obvious choices for technically impressive Game Boy software, the Donkey Kong Land series began at the tail end of the original Game Boy’s lifespan. Programmers at RARE wanted to retain as much fluidity and detail from the SNES version’s graphics as possible and as a result, all three iterations of Donkey Kong Land had to work some serious magic to run smoothly on Nintendo’s 8-bit portable. (The first game’s humorous, self-referencing plot hook even acknowledges this.)

Miraculously, for better or worse, all three games look and play similarly to their SNES counterparts, low pixel counts and limited color palette notwithstanding. One obvious challenge is displaying and animating DKL’s character sprites, and to avoid excessive memory use, only one ‘Kong’ could be displayed at a time. The sprites themselves, oversized to preserve the detail of the CGI originals, were composed of multiple sprites stacked together and animated independently. This was a common trick used in many graphically intense games made for the similarly-limited NES hardware. Its flawless, lag-free execution here on the Game Boy, however, is unparalleled.

But as complex and well-animated as the sprites are, there is also the problem of the limited color palette and screen real estate. Since RARE was dead-set on putting equal detail into both sprites and background elements, the inability to distinguish the two on the Game Boy’s 4-tone LCD is easily the most glaring flaw common to all three DKL titles. HardcoreGaming101 criticizes this decision, calling the results “a blurry, unplayable mess.”

Of course, this is somewhat alleviated when loaded onto a Super Game Boy or Game Boy Color. But strangely, with the exception of Donkey Kong Land 3’s Japanese version, none of the games in this series were released for anything but the original B&W Game Boy. Still, RARE’s choices with this series, while perhaps not so wise overall, were uniquely impressive feats for the Game Boy hardware.
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Dragon’s Lair (GBC)

Dragon's Lair ScreenshotRelease Date: 01/15/2001
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Key Technical Features:

  • Amazing conversion of a laserdisc classic considering the technical limitations
  • Smooth animation
  • Vibrant colors

What Makes The Game Special:
A lot of people had to pick their jaws up off the floor when the original laserdisc version of Dragon’s Lair started appearing in arcades in 1983. Composed entirely of lightly-interactive animated cutscenes, the game became known as the originator of the oft-used, oft-loathed “Quick-Time Events” that have come to populate many modern action and adventure games. But even with the interactivity turned down, squeezing all that pre-rendered animation into a Game Boy cartridge had to have been quite a challenge for engineers at Capcom back in 2000.

And yet, despite being down-rezzed and re-colored to fit on the Game Boy Color’s screen, Capcom’s remained the most faithful portable version of the original game all the way up until 2009 when it was re-released on iPhone. Considering memory limits, the mere fact that a good majority of this game runs so well off a cartridge is worthy of praise. Dragon’s Lair is indisputably iconic to the storybook adventure genre, and the Game Boy Color has the honor of being among the few portable platforms in history to do it justice.

Admittedly, a few scenes have been abbreviated, but the 29 distinct scenes that are present is certainly more than expected out of a 32-megabit Game Boy Color game. Its color palette is less than that of the arcade version, but instead of dithering colors to create new ones, the team at Digital Eclipse repainted the entire game in a more pocket-friendly manner.

The gameplay isn’t exactly cutting edge, but the experience is immensely pure and the onscreen result is immediately gratifying and you can’t ignore how good the game looks on the screen. The motions are smooth and the graphics are quite vibrant using the limitations of the GBC.  Dragon’s Lair purists will find faults throughout the game, but you have to give credit where credit is due — the Game Boy Color was never designed for this type of game.
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Warlocked (GBC)

Warlocked ScreenshotRelease Date: 07/24/2000
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Key Technical Features:

  • Using the Game Boy Color’s limited resources to create a full and rich RTS setup
  • Lots of sprites on screen at once
  • Large maps filled with moving sprites scrolling smoothly
  • Using a limited color palette effectively to create engaging environments
  • Memorable soundtrack and crisp digitized speech

What Makes The Game Special:
Strategy games are great on the go, but it’s hard to believe that developers could fit a Warcraft-like RTS experince on the Gameboy Color.    The development team at Bits did an amazing job of having reasonably-sized sprites, have plenty of them on the map (sometimes more than ten on the screen at once), and have it scroll smoothly under most circumstances.   Understandibly, the little 8hz processor gets a bit strained and shows some slowdown, but it’s amazing how efficiently Warlocked uses the Game Boy Color’s limited resources.

There were some wonderfully colorful GBC games released in 2000 and 2001, but Warlocked was one of the most skilled in using the limted color palette stragically to create different environments and adapt them to different factors.  For instance, in a snowly level, the entire color palette seems to change to become more winter-like.

As if the impressive graphical feats wasn’t enough, Warlocked also has a respectible combination of soundtrack (listen to a sample), digitized speech, and sound effects.   The soundtrack was composed by Jeroen Tel, who was behind many Commodore 64 games.   The voice clips were crisp and clear — possibly the best examples of the technology on the Game Boy platform.
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Gradius: The Interstellar Assault / Nemesis I & II (GB)

Gradius ScreenshotRelease Date: 08/09/1991
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Key Technical Features:

  • Great use of parallax layer scrolling
  • Larger ROM size for a GB cart, especially in 1991

What Makes The Game Special:
While not nearly as impressive as ZAS, Konami was no squelch when it came to shmups on the Game Boy either. You can see some early examples of parallax layer scrolling in Gradius: The Interstellar Assault and its prequel, Nemesis. The latter was also, during its time, one of the larger games put be put on a Game Boy cartridge (2 MBit).
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Project S-11 (GBC)

Project S11 ScreenshotRelease Date: 01/03/2001
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Key Technical Features:

  • Rich soundtrack and sound quality when played on real Game Boy Color hardware

What Makes The Game Special:
An obscure title arriving late in the console cycle, Project S-11 for the Game Boy Color is pretty average as far as shmups go. But it deserves special mention for its outstanding soundtrack, one of the very few for Game Boy made by demoscene composers.

Much like in Shantae, it doesn’t take long to hear the enormous jump in audio quality compared to other Game Boy titles. Developers Paragon 5, a small studio founded heavily on the demoscene mantra of “more with less”, had the good fortune of having esteemed composers Jonne “Purple Motion” Valtonen and Aleksi “Heatbeat” Eeben on call. It’s a good thing they did — no sonic space remains unfilled and no note unrefined throughout the length of this impressive 8-bit score.

In fact, these compositions are so rich and complex that they actually drag quite a bit when played in-game using emulation. Fortunately, this isn’t an issue when playing on the actual GBC hardware, although the music remains at least partially obscured by the constant sound of bullet fire (Remember, like the NES the Game Boy has to occasionally surrender some of its audio channels to play back sound effects).

Luckily, the unaffected sound tests are up on YouTube, though it would still be great to have a proper soundtrack release. Even if the game as a whole is a fairly average shmup, you can be sure you won’t hear anything like it in another Game Boy game.
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Ottifanten: Kommando Störtebeker (GBC)

Ottifanten-Kommando-StortebRelease Date: 2001
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Key Technical Features:

  • Impressive soundtrack that makes the most of the GBC’s sound capabilities
  • Brilliant color and stylized graphics.

What Makes The Game Special:
Ottifanten: Kommando Störtebeker is another obscure ‘soundtrack’ pick that has a couple of other things going for it as well. The game is based on a popular German cartoon from 2001 and I can only assume that some combination of that and blind luck led them to recruit a composer that clearly knew what they were doing with Game Boy music.

Once again, there is a masterful, “no stone left unturned” approach to this soundtrack, and the composer’s familiarity and skill with tracker-based composition really shows. The graphics, too, are bright and well-stylized, even if the game itself is a fairly straightforward, “rail-oriented” platformer (it reminded me quite a bit of those Bart Simpson games for NES). Overall, it’s another great example of a last-minute effort to squeeze those last bits of power out of the Game Boy Color platform before the Game Boy Advance took over.
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Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare (GBC)

Alone in the Dark ScreenshotRelease Date: 06/27/2001
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Key Technical Features:

  • Psuedo 3D with pre-rendered environments
  • Impressive use of color
  • Large ROM size

What Makes The Game Special:
It’s impressive seeing tons of complex sprite graphics and such, but Alone in the Dark totally goes off the deep end when it comes to the kinds of graphics we’re expecting to see on a Game Boy screen. Sure, they’re messy and kind of ugly in some cases. But the Game Boy Color port  of this survival horror classic is pulling some serious stunts to simulate the ambience of its PC and home console counterparts.

Of particular note are the intensely shaded environments, rendered as faithfully as possible from the the console version.  Developers Pocket Studios to created a pseudo-3D environment by putting your character in a series of beautiful pre-rendered environments and having certain points by which your character changes size to make it look like the character is moving towards and away from the camera. There are over 300 of these high colour environments and 6 different camera angles in total in the game, another feat to pull off on a Game Boy Color.   Aside from other adventure titles like Dragon’s Lair, there aren’t many other games that went to these lengths on the Game Boy.

The use of color on Alone in the Dark is outstanding and the the backgrounds look like paintings specially colored for the Gameboy Color. The game actually does portray a creepy experience, but personally, I look at this title as more of a technical demo than a good form of entertainment.

All this technical wizardry takes its toll, however. Areas from the original are squashed and shrunk so they’ll fit onto the screen and the cartridge memory, and the entire game takes only around an hour to complete. Still, I have a feeling that if you were to approach most people about doing something like this on Game Boy circa 2001, you’d scare them off, so the effort is certainly commendable.
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Rayman (GBC)

Rayman Game Boy Color ScreenshotRelease Date: 03/2000
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Key Technical Features:

  • Wonderful character animations
  • Colorful and lush background
  • Cool pre-rendered intro screen

What Makes The Game Special:
The Rayman series has always been known for its great character animations, and this version didn’t use the GBC’s 8-bit restrictions as an excuse to break that trend. There’s a lot of graphics packed in here in general, more than the average GBC game. There’s also a CGI animated Rayman that dances before the game’s start screen, just because they could. You might want to turn the sound off though — as nice as some of the graphics are, the soundtrack is painfully underdeveloped and really quite annoying.
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Toki Tori (GBC)

Toki Tori Game Boy ScreenshotRelease Date: 09/12/2001
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Key Technical Features:

  • Impressive character animations
  • Layered background to add depth
  • Good use of sound chip for the soundtrack

What Makes The Game Special:
A simple puzzle platformer that had the misfortune of releasing around the same time as the Game Boy Advance in 2001, you can tell Toki Tori got some special treatment as a late-to-the-party Game Boy Color release. The main character animations are obviously a cut above the rest, and look CGI quality. Many of the backgrounds also move on separate layers, creating an amazing sense of depth rarely seen on similar GBC platformers. The soundtrack, though repetitive and nauseatingly cheery, also fills out nicely compared to other titles.
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Tomb Raider (GBC)

Tomb Raider Game Boy Color ScreenshotRelease Date: 06/12/2000
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Key Technical Features:

  • Larger-than-average sprites with fluid animations
  • Intensive background graphics
  • Excellent use of sound effects

What Makes The Game Special:
In addition to the pre-rendered still images used in its cutscenes, the Game Boy Color version of Tomb Raider is noteworthy for its great use of sprites and graphic-intensive background work. Lara Croft moves around in surprisingly fluid motions, very much akin to the animations in the PSX original, and overall it’s a pretty solid 2D adaptation.

There’s also a nice minimal feel audio-wise as sampled sound effects carry the mood while exploring and solving puzzles — refreshing to hear considering that most games avoided or otherwise under-utilized the Game Boy’s sample playback capabilities.
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3D Pocket Pool (GBC)

3D Pocket Pool ScreenshotRelease Date: 03/30/2001
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Key Technical Features:

  • Pretty cool, but gimmicky pseudo 3D graphical effects

What Makes The Game Special:
When you’re working on a game about something as simple as billiards, it’s in your best interests to throw in some sort of gimmick. In the case of 3D Pocket Pool, that gimmick was a rough 8-bit estimation of what the title implied.

Since the core gameplay was so rudimentary, developers were left with plenty of room to include faux-3D animation effects as balls roll around and the pool cue circles the table. A novelty at best, but it deserves mention in that it signifies a point when even small-time developers saw fit to push Game Boy games beyond the typical sprite-centric paradigm.
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Toy Story Racer (GBC)

Toy Store Racer Screenshot

Release Date: 02/28/2001
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Key Technical Features:

  • Used pre-rendered graphics effectively to create a Mario Kart-like experince to the GBC

What Makes The Game Special:
As much as I’d like to avoid including franchise cash-in games on this or any list, it’s hard to ignore Toy Story Racer. It’s one of the few games that attempted to use pre-rendered “3D” gameplay graphics and actually did a halfway decent job of doing so.

Being a racing game, you’ll certainly notice some stuttering as the environments blow past you, but it’s not as bad as you’d expect considering what it’s running on. Despite that there was only room enough for 10 simplistic tracks, whatever programmers Disney hired to make this definitely had their work cut out for them.
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Cannon Fodder (GBC)

Cannon Fodder ScreenshotRelease Date: 12/05/2000
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Key Technical Features:

  • Eye-popping FMV cutscene animations
  • CGI Menu animations
  • Huge ROM size

What Makes The Game Special:
The Game Boy Color port of Cannon Fodder is another journey into “What The Hell, How Did They Do That” territory. Specifically, when you stumble upon the fact that this game has a fully-rendered CGI cutscene animations, accompanied by an over-compressed 4-bit audio sampling of the series’ “theme song.”

There seems to be trouble running this sequence smoothly in emulation, likely due to whatever crazy / mad scientist video codec the developers used to make it run on a Game Boy Color, and the physical cartridge itself has become a rarity among collectors. But if you do happen upon a copy, you’ll agree that it’s certainly one heck of a trip watching a PSX-style FMV play on a Game Boy.

Also worth noting: As far as file size goes, this game is huge. The cartridge it comes on uses MBC5, the last and most spacious memory module made to house Game Boy Color software. In this case, most of that space is likely devoted to storing that impressive (though admittedly gimmicky) opening FMV and various CGI menu animations. But the rest of the graphics are nothing to scoff at either, and the game as whole stands as a decent port of the PC original.
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Wendy: Every Witch Way (GBC)

Wendy Every Witch Way ScreenshotRelease Date: 08/28/2001
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Key Technical Features:

  • Wonderful character animation
  • Bright and colorful graphics
  • Cool physics effects

What Makes The Game Special:
While not quite as visual engaging as Shantae, Wendy: Every Witch Way is from the same era and it shows.  This late release is colorful and vibrart with a great cartooney look that makes good use of the Gameboy Color.  However, there is more than visuals that make Wendy worthy of this list.

Unlike most platformers on the Gameboy, Wendy is more than just your standard running and jumping.  Things get much more interesting when you have the ability to reverse gravity on the fly.   Physics aren’t discussed a lot in the Game Boy era, but the gravitational pull effects are actually impressive for the time.  Wendy also has a  There are also three levels that are only available if played on a Game Boy Advance.
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Street Fighter Alpha (GBC)

Street FIghter Alpha Game Boy Color ScreenshotRelease Date: 03/2000
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Key Technical Features:

  • Smooth character animation
  • Recreates the arcade experience surprisingly well for the GBC

What Makes The Game Special:
Just as it was surprising to see Street Fighter Alpha 2 show up on the Super Nintendo, it was equally surprising to see a port of the original Alpha game on the Gameboy Color. Crawfish Interactive (the team behind the Alpha 3 port for the GBA) produced a surprisingly good port of this great fighter, complete with amazing graphics and excellent control.

You won’t see really much of any facial expression on the fighters, but there are a surprising number of frames per character. This leads to smooth animation, which in turn, leads to better gameplay. There is no jerky motion like the GB version of Street Fighter II. Gameplay is extremely smooth and accurate, and you’ll find that you can pull off your favorite combos without any difficulty.

Alpha is also nice and colorful, making good use of the Game Boy Color’s palette. The fighter sprites are also not super-deformed like the popular SNK vs Capcom: Match of the Millennium on the Neo-Geo Pocket, but do their best to recreate the arcade original, thereby keeping the Street Fighter purists happy.

The backgrounds of the arcade version are duplicated pretty well, and some even feature animation. This is a very pleasant surprise and adds depth to an otherwise limited Gameboy atmosphere. You’ll find lots of small yet very pleasing surprises all throughout the game. Street Fighter Alpha also featured vertical scrolling — something else that the Neo-Geo Pocket’s fighting games lacked.
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Donkey Kong Country (GBC)

Donkey Kong Country Game Boy Color ScreenshotRelease Date: 11/04/2000
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Key Technical Features:

  • Smooth animation
  • Fit what it could in the GBC’s limited memory

What Makes The Game Special:
Of course, Nintendo brought us Donkey Kong Land on the original Game Boy, but they decided to give the series one more try with a better color palette on the GBC.   Even though, we wouldn’t see a really good port until the Game Boy Advance, who would have thought that Rare and Nintendo would be able to so closely replicate the look and feel of that ground-breaking game on the aging Gameboy Color platform.

Because of memory constraints, the main difference you will notice about the Gameboy version of Donkey Kong Country is that they don’t have both Donkey Kong and Diddy on the screen at once. This will initially throw of many Donkey Kong Country veterans, but its an acceptable trade-off to keep a smooth and enjoyable gameplay experience.

Even though it look better than Donkey Kong Land for the original DMG-01, it didn’t push the GBC hardware quite as hard.  It still has some good animations and some really slimmed down 3D models.  It’s impressive, just not compared to some lesser-known titles.
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Dragon Warrior III (GBC)

Dragon Warrior III Game Boy Color ScreenshotRelease Date: 07/16/2001
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Key Technical Features:

  • Impressive sprite animations
  • Beautiful backgrounds
  • Impressive audio production
  • Large ROM size

What Makes The Game Special:
The graphics in Dragon Warrior III are vastly improved over the NES version. In fact, this game is based off of the Super Famicom (the Japanese version of our SNES) incarnation of the game. Thus the game features colorful sprites, more varied tiles, and animated battles. With all of this graphical wonderment, it is no wonder the game takes up a 32 Meg cart.

What was really neat about the animations was that every enemy had different animations, depending on what attack they performed, and they all were smooth and accuratly portrayed. In addition to the battle graphics, the towns all looked unique. Every little area is well-detailed, and many places look better than a lot of what has been seen on the SNES.

It is also worth mentionning that the opening scene where Ortega battle the Demon Lord is the most beautiful cinematic scene that you will ever see on the GBC, and even topples most of them on the SNES’ RPGs. After seeing graphics of this caliber on the GBC, you have to wonder why Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire on the GBA doesn’t even look this good.
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Mario Tennis (GBC)

Mario Tennis ScreenshotRelease Date: 01/2001
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Key Technical Features:

  • Beautiful color with wonderful textures
  • Impressive opening graphics and menus
  • Smooth character animation

What Makes The Game Special:
A lot of effort was taken by Camelot to make Mario Tennis game look good on the Gameboy, and it paid off . The character sprites are very detailed for a Gameboy game and they even manage to squeeze some personality into those tiny pixels. You can easily see all of the features on people’s faces and you can even see the little white lines on the tennis ball move as the ball spins.

Mario Tennis also has a lot of shading instead of having big ugly blocks of solid color. A tennis court will be lighter at the top then gradually fade into a darker shade at the bottom. Mario Tennis has many vibrant colors and nice looking environments. The best example is shown when flying to the Island Open as you can see the ocean and various islands.

With Mario Tennis, you almost have to remind yourself that the Gameboy Color is an 8-bit system Because of the high amount of detail, it can easily be passed up as a 16-bit game at first glance. In fact, having both this game and the recent release of Mario Tennis: Power Tour for the Gameboy Advance (both developed by Camelot), I can tell you that the Gameboy Color version isn’t far behind its 32-bit sibling in terms of animation and how well the system handles the gameplay.

While on the court, the game runs smoothly with singles and both doubles action. If you look at everything going on, it’ll be hard to believe the GB Color can handle this, With 4 players, all with a high amount of detail on them, you would think this would get hard on your eyes, but there isn’t even a single flicker. Just some of the best graphics on the GBC hands down.
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Perfect Dark Game Boy Color ScreenshotPerfect Dark (GBC)

Release Date: 08/2000
See Game In Action

Key Technical Features:

  • Cool character perspective with smooth animation
  • Impressive digitized speech

What Makes The Game Special:
Rare did an excellent job on bringing their SNES powerhouse game, Donkey Kong Country down to the Gameboy. So why not try to bring their headlining N64 shooter to the Gameboy Color as well? Obviously, this time around there needed to be more drastic adjustments in the graphics.

Instead of being a first person shooter, the GBC version of Perfect Dark is built around Konami’s Metal Gear Solid engine for the Gameboy. The most noticeable similarity is the camera perspective, which is from a 45-degree view. (I wonder how it would turn out if they used the Faceball 2000 engine instead)

Even though its not in 3D, the graphics in Perfect Dark are still a highlight, with some of the smoothest animation seen on the Gameboy. Joanna is rendered fairly large walks very naturally. The game is viewed on an angle from above, and the game includes some basic “cut scenes” that add to the story. Perfect Dark probably has the best sound of any original Gameboy game. The digitized speech in the game is gonna blow you away. There must be like 5 minutes of it — pretty good for a Gameboy cart.  I didn’t enjoy the gameplay nearly as much as Metal Gear Solid, but the animation and large sprites definitely pushed the Gameboy Color’s extra power.

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Alice in Wonderland (GBC)

Alice in WonderlandRelease Date: 10/04/2000
See Game In Action

Key Technical Features:

  • Lots of vibrant color
  • Excellent parallax scrolling effects
  • Plenty of frames of animation

What Makes The Game Special:
You would think that a Gameboy game that is both targeted toward younger girls and uses a licenced Disney theme would suck, but Alice in Wonderland is actually a game that is actually of high quality. Due in part to its Game Boy Color-only status, the screen is overflowing with vibrant colors. They are so good that it’s hard to believe that this game is being played on an 8-bit portable system.

With parallax scrolling and wonderful special effects the game almost reaches Super NES quality. The animation in the game is also very impressive. Alice probably has more frames of animation than some of the characters seen on more powerful home consoles. The locales are ripped right from the cartoon and the characters resemble their on-screen counterparts. The developers did their homework in the graphics department and Disney should be proud to have a game with such fantastic visuals associated with its license.
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Scooby-Doo Creep Capers , The Fish Files & The New Addams Family (GBC)

Scooby Do ScreenshotyRelease Date: 2001
See Game In Action

Key Technical Features:

  • Lots of wonderful color and animation to bring graphical adventure games to the GBC

What Makes The Game Special:
These three Gameboy Color games are third person adventure games that have a similar style to the LucasArts PC adventure games of old. They were both humorous and enjoyable, but they also utilized the color palette to effectively create enjoyable scenes.

Due to the comical nature of the game, the graphics are animated in a 2D cartoon style which is generally very clean, fresh, and pleasing to the eye. However, due to the limitations of such a small screen, some areas come across as too busy, with the developers obviously trying to cram in as much detail as possible.

Wario Land Series (GB/GBC)

Wario Land ScreenshotRelease Date: 08/1994 (first game)
See Game In Action

Key Technical Features:

  • Some of the best sprite work on both the GB and GBC
  • Detailed backgrounds
  • Cool graphical effects

What Makes The Game Special:
The first Wario Land brought new life to the fairly plain Mario Land series on the Gameboy while not only bringing a new gameplay dynamic, but also upping the size of the sprites. Two more Wario Land installments followed, including Wario Land 3 which utilized the Gameboy Colors extra processing power to bring some amazing colors, scenes, and graphical effects.

Each level is very vivid in detail and each enemy is very unique. The trees sometimes have leaves falling from them and other elements such as fire are very well-done. This platformer, Wario Land 3, in addition to Shantae are excellent transition games between the Gameboy Color and Gameboy Advance.
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The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages/Oracle of Seasons (GBC)

Legend of Zelda: Oracle of SeasonsRelease Date: 05/13/2001
See Game In Action

Key Technical Features:

  • Nothing gimmicky, but well-rounded graphics and sound
  • Game-linking capabilities

What Makes The Game Special:
As usual, Nintendo packaged a wonderful combination of graphics and music in this late entry of its landmark series for the Game Boy Color.  If this had been on the original DMG-01, this choice would have been a no-brainer to be a top selection.

These two Zelda games started a partnership between Nintendo and Capcom and could be linked together to maximize gameplay. There wasn’t anything revolutionary, in these games on the technical end (the use of color was the strongpoint), but the games simply were painstakingly polished to bring one yet another wonderful Zelda title.
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Honorable Mentions

  • Megaman Xtreme Series – The Game Boy and Game Boy Color library was loaded with solid Mega Man titles.  The most impressive of the bunch was Mega Man Xtreme and Mega Man Xtreme 2.   They are adaptations of the Mega Man X series and features some impressive sprite work and well-rounded technical production..  These are some of the better examples of technically-impressive mainstream and highly-rated games, but it’s hard to compete with some of the other gems on this list.
  • Mr. Driller – While Mr. Driller for the Gameboy Color doesn’t use any highly technical graphical effects (what version of Mr. Driller did?), it definitely makes the best use of the Gameboy color’s limited color palette in addition to maxing out the handheld’s memory to keep the animation and gameplay smooth.
  • Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble – This game is worth mention simply for its creative built-in tilt sensor functionality. The goal of the game is to guide Kirby to the level’s goal within the allotted time by physically tilting the Game Boy in the direction in which the player wishes to move him. The game registers a “pop” action when the player quickly jerks the Game Boy in the vertical direction; doing so will jerk Kirby into the air.
  • Street Fighter 2 – While this port of the arcade classic is about as good as you can expect for the original Gameboy, its not nearly as enjoyable as Alpha for the color. Besides the undeniable fact that they’re in black and white, the graphics are really quite good and more arcade-acurate that Alpha’s. However, the game’s choppiness really degrades the game.
  • Metal Gear Solid: Ghost Babel – The wonderful installment that blends the MSX originals with the modern features of the PS1 games features fluid animations and well-built mechanics
  • Samurai Shodown 3 – This port plays almost identical to Samurai Spirits on the Neo-Geo Pocket. Sprites are drawn in a similar Super-Deformed style to the SNK fighting games that came before it, although they’re a bit larger and animated slightly better this time around, but this actually comes at the price of a slightly wonky frame rate
  • Resident Evil – This unfinished GBC port was similar to Alone in the Dark but not as good.
  • Star Ocean: Blue Sphere – Lots of fancy sprites, and a fairly sized JRPG
  • Pokemon Gold/Silver/Crystal – standard Pokemon fare, but used system clock for time-sensitive quests.  I think the entire Pokemon series could be included. The amount of programming tricks they used to make those games fit on those tiny carts is amazing. Especially with Pokemon Gold and Silver.
  • Pokemon Puzzle Challenge – In addition to some colorful visuals, this wonderful puzzler had a facinating combination of sound effects and music (listen to sample).
  • Ganbare Goemon – Hoshizorashi Dynamites Arawaru!! – KNown for it’s impressive visuals, audio, and technical production
  • Mario Golf – This is another great Mario sports title developed by Camelot. And while it is a great game and does look pretty nice, its not quite as technically impressive as Mario Tennis.
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – The last GBC game released in North America and it certainly had the effort put into it
  • Megaman IV & V
  • Pokemon Trading Card Game Series
  • Return of the Ninja
  • SD Hiryuu no Ken EX
  • Daikatana
  • Xtreme Sports

28 Comments

  1. Bill says:

    Nice writeup. I never knew that Toki Tori was a GBC game. I have it for the iphone and thought it was originally an iOS game. Will have to explore some of the lesser known (to me) GBC games mentioned here.

  2. hobie-wan says:

    Memory specs are wrong. 4 Megabytes of memory cost upwards of $500 in 1989. Looking at WIki, assuming it is correct, it doesn’t appear to just be a KB/MB mixup, so I’m not sure what’s correct.

  3. marurun says:

    hobie-wan, you are correct. Excluding video memory, the original GameBoy had 8kiB of RAM, not 4. The Color did have 32kiB, however.

  4. Aaron says:

    Zas and X Ebay/Amazon links both lead to Faceball.
    Nice article though. Very interesting.

  5. racketboy says:

    RAM amounts and links have been fixed 🙂

  6. Thiago says:

    No mention about Densha de Go! 2? This is the largest cart for the GBC.

  7. peridot says:

    I’d also offer Killer Instinct as an impressive achievement on the original Game Boy. It featured eight of ten main playable characters and most of the backgrounds (with parallax scrolling) and music. And despite only having two attack buttons it managed to have the most, if not all of, the special moves and combos thanks to using reverse controls for medium-strength special moves. To top it off it had a practise mode like the SNES version and had an option for using lighter, less detailed backgrounds for more visibility.

  8. Vanderklipp says:

    Alone in the Dark’s youtube link leads to the (still very impressive) unreleased Resident Evil game. Other than that, this article is absolute gold. I had no idea how fantastic cannon fodder looked on GBS, and I’m very interested in getting my hands on as many of these beauties as I can. Stellar work. It’s a damn shame I can’t find a copy of The Fish Files anywhere…

  9. pakopako says:

    Woah, this was a huge read, and a good reminder of just how deep the Game Boy library can go. Quite a lot of detail was dredged up, and that was no small feat. (Surprised there wasn’t a Metalstorm reference with Wendy.)

    Also on that note, the last sentence of “Wendy Every Witch Way” has some extra s that need to be removed. “”Wendy also has [a There are also] three levels that are only available if played on a Game Boy Advance.”

  10. 87th says:

    Syphon Filter for the Gameboy? Excuse me?

  11. Sgt. Flanders says:

    Yeah I’m pretty sure Syphon Filter was never a Game Boy game.

  12. Patrick BBE says:

    But I own Syphon Filter on my Sony PSP.

  13. Alienjesus says:

    I just wanted to post a few errors I noticed. The Wendy entry link doesn’t work and there is an unfinished sentence near the end. The Alone in the dark link leads to a video of the cancelled resident evil game on GBC rather than alone in the dark. Great list though!

  14. brendan says:

    Project S-11 looks incredible on the volcano level ! you should see the effects i don’t know how they got the GBC to do that at all !

  15. Jon says:

    I’m pretty sure Faceball 2000 uses a very simple ray casting engine, much like Wolfenstein and other early “3D” first person games.

  16. Sam Murdock says:

    Thank you this was the most interesting video game related article I’ve read all week.

  17. Anon says:

    I nominate Wacky Races and Test Drive Le Mans. Impressive graphics for the GBC handheld. Fernando Velez & Guillaume Dubail would later do the ambitious V-Rally 3 and Astérix & Obélix XXL for the GBA.

  18. Patrick BBE says:

    Any plans of a Sega Game Gear article?

  19. racketboy says:

    There’s always plans 🙂 Not sure where it fits in on priorities/schedules though 🙂

  20. brendan says:

    I just noticed a old gameboy game from 1991 called Mysterium it may look primitive but i am absolutely sure there is not many games like that on gameboy the closest games i can think of like that are X and Faceball 2000 but they arent like Mysterium and generally more advanced !

  21. shahid afridi says:

    very nice all games…………………………………………………..

  22. Black Angel says:

    You should add Tomb Raider: Curse of the Sword to this list. I have it, and its graphics and sound are quite amazing, possibly better than the other title.

  23. Thomas says:

    I agree with Anon, Wacky Races looked really great on the GBC : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Btd45BomdMo

  24. silvermoondrow says:

    what, no mention of links awakening DX, which was the gbc remake of links awakening.

  25. 8bitbrain says:

    funny…I have warlocked, and the music does sound great!

  26. Devo3000 says:

    What no mention of Race Drivin’?

    A full 3D racer on the original Gameboy which actually played better than both the Snes and Megadrive ports. Not the smoothest racer you’ll play but it’s great to see the original GB hardware push some polygons around. Well, more like shuffle them around but still….

  27. speedyink says:

    I agree, Race Driving should be on here. It’s made by the same people to did X, and it features filled polygons. It’s seriously the greatest achievement for 3D on the original gameboy.

  28. Yvan256 says:

    Video was also possible on the *classic* Game Boy, as shown in my demo ROMs: http://www.yvan256.net/projects/gameboy/#democarts