2003 was a pretty good year for gaming, but an outstanding one for Game Boy Advance. It’s sometimes difficult to remember because it remained prominent for only three years before being replaced by Nintendo DS, but GBA had an amazing library of new and old games. What’s that saying? A star that burns twice as bright lasts half as long?
Tactics Advance was my first meaningful exposure to Tactical RPG genre. Not Final Fantasy Tactics on PS1. Not any Tactics Ogre game. And not Fire Emblem, which wouldn’t see its first English release for a few more months. While some glare at Tactics Advance with disdain, spatting at the simpler story about schoolkids sucked into a world from a children’s book, I fondly remember spending hours on non-story encounters. Truthfully, I made little progress on the story after a certain point, instead choosing to grind. And I loved every moment because it was something genuinely new for me. Maybe I would’ve had such a mind-blowing experience had I played Final Fantasy Tactics first.
Although I doubt anyone currently working on Call of Duty remembers, the first game was originally about regular soldiers, not one-man armies. You never played a major role, never launched nukes or killed the primary antagonist, but was just another recruit, another cog. By Call of Duty 4, the franchise moved away from that, but the original Call of Duty is that. Sadly, I don’t expect Sledgehammer Games, developer of the upcoming Call of Duty: WWII, to realize what made the first Call of Duty so good.
For a time, Nintendo handhelds were an outstandingly welcoming place for Castlevania fans, starting with Circle of the Moon on Game Boy Advance and ending with Order of Ecclesia on Nintendo DS. That’s six games in seven years, and Aria of Sorrow is easily at the top. (Only its direct sequel, Dawn of Sorrow, bests Aria.) The Tactical Soul system is a fun gimmick, while the twist of playing as a possible host for Dracula’s soul and rebirth was genuinely surprising. As the final Castlevania on GBA, Aria of Sorrow was a hell of a conclusion.
If Metal Gear is Hideo Kojima creating movies within games, then Zone of the Enders is Kojima creating anime. The second game fulfills the promise of the original game to create fast-paced action involving a large mech where the cockpit is located between the legs. Yep, that’s Kojima for you. The voice acting was surprisingly mediocre for a Kojima game, which is a pity because there’s constant dialogue outside of cutscenes. Fortunately, the action is enjoyable enough to ignore that white noise. Both Zone of the Enders games were given the HD remaster treatment and bundled together, which goes for pretty cheap.
Cooperative chaos — the yelling and arguing in service to working together — rarely exists in the Mario Kart series, but Double Dash is a notable exception. This game features two characters on a single kart, allowing players to hold two items at the same time. Having two players in a single kart is infuriatingly entertaining because it forces cooperation. Switching items (along with control of the kart) requires both players hit the same button, which is hectic when a red shell is approaching rapidly. Sadly, the mechanic was removed from future sequels, which is a damn shame. Why not the option? A separate mode?
The Wind Waker is stunningly beautiful and a fun adventure, but I would never rank it towards the top of the franchise. We already know the problems — sailing is a chore, and the Triforce hunt is tedious. But let’s not focus on the negative, because while The Wind Waker isn’t my favorite Zelda game, I’d still recommend it to anyone who plays games. I already did, actually, encouraging my father to purchase The Wind Waker HD recently. Because there’s no game quite like The Wind Waker, within the Zelda franchise or beyond. It’s a work of art, and now I’m questioning the game’s placement on this list.
(This was initially lower on the list, but was bumped forward.)
Few games are as weird as WarioWare. It’s intentionally juvenile at times, tasking players with picking noses and sniffing up dripping snot. Other times, it’s more referential. There’s a character obsessed with everything Nintendo, and each microgame associated with him revolves around Nintendo. But it works because the microgames are never around long enough to question what’s being viewed. Don’t think, just do in rapid successful. Fail that microgame? Don’t worry, a different one is immediately demanding your attention. WarioWare is simple and weird, and I hate that we haven’t gotten a new one in years. (Game & Wario doesn’t count.)
There is a multiplayer map in Return to Castle Wolfenstein that is, truthfully, the only reason why this game makes my list. The map is essentially a miniature recreation of the storming Omaha Beach, with one team running up a beach, destroying a wall, and transmitting stolen plans. The other team defends, starting with gun emplacements and later close-quarters gunfights. The beauty is that, similar to Battlefield 1942, there’s a constant tug-of-war as the teams control a handful of spawn points, making them as vital as the actual objective as losing one or more is damaging.
Of course, Return to Castle Wolfenstein contains a full single-player mode and additional maps, but nothing compared to the map I highlighted above. The push-and-pull pacing, combined with multiple routes and character classes, gave matches an almost predictable unpredictability, if that makes any sense.
Mark MacDonald wrote in a review for Eletronic Gaming Monthly how when his apartment lost power, he unplugged the fridge to continue playing Phantasy Star Online. Such an idea was, at that time, absurd, until I played PSO myself and became similarly addicted. When I lost characters to data corruption, I embraced the opportunity to jump into the world anew instead of being angry at what I lost. It always sucked to lose a rare weapon, but that compared little to the euphoria of finding a red box seductively spinning above a monster corpse. Red boxes meant rare loot, which meant a chance for rare weapons.
That sensation is comparable to today’s free-to-play games. Money isn’t involved, but you’re still paying for your troubles because the game isn’t that good. The combat is shallow and enemies are idiots. Environments are random, so puzzles never become more complicated than finding a button or, in multiplayer, people standing on multiple pads at the same time. Worse yet, the camera is atrocious by today’s standards.
Multiplayer is the game’s saving grace, however. Not because it alters how Phantasy Star Online is played, but because it offers the feeling of hunting with a group. You tear through waves of smaller monsters before facing the main boss together, often requiring a certain degree more cooperation to survive. You might get away not healing anyone against wolves and Rappies, but being frugal against De Rol Le is a mistake. Being uncooperative during bosses is a great way to get an entire team wiped. Then a red box drops and all civility is lost.
Had I only known that Fire Emblem — later subtitled The Blazing Blade — would make me into a huge fan of the entire franchise. When I first played Fire Emblem, it was only because Marth and Roy from Smash Bros. were originally in Fire Emblem. And because I was a teenager experiencing the weird and foreign world of anime. Advance Wars and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance introduced me to strategic gameplay on the Game Boy Advance, but I had no idea that I’d be introduced to a cast of characters that I’d grow to love.
And I had no clue how often I’d retry maps to ensure that everyone survives. Support conversations enabled a greater attachment to these fictional people, and although I never unlocked most of them, they remained memorable aspects of characters. I can’t see Rebecca in Fire Emblem Heroes without being reminded of how she kicked Wil in the stomach, or how her brother is likely the amnesiac pirate Dart. Or how burly Wallace slaughtered the Taliver Bandits that killed Lyn’s family and tribe. Or poor Matthew finding the corpse of her beloved Leila for him to uncover. (That last one isn’t from a support conversation, but I couldn’t not mention it.)
Support conversations are a common feature for Fire Emblem, but this batch stuck with me because they’re the first ones that I experienced. If offered the notion that, unlike in Final Fantasy Tactics, these people I’m controlling aren’t blank slates or vessels for special skills. They’re characters with relationships. And that’s why I shake my head whenever someone suggests removing support conversations.
Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand
Produced by Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima, Boktai is a weird stealth game that uses real world sunlight hitting a sensor inside the GBA cartridge to charge the in-game gun. It’s an inventive use of the handheld, but seeing the screen was often difficult with the sun beating down, and later GBA models obstructed the sensor. Regardless of those shortcomings, Boktai remains an interesting footnote in Kojima’s legacy, and a decent little game.
Burnout 2: Point of Impact
The Crash mode, where players are tasked with causing the most amount of damage within pre-set stages, is what I most fondly remember from Burnout 2. Traditional racing was good — this is a Criterion game, after all — but my friends and I couldn’t get enough of Crash mode. Sadly, Crash wasn’t included in Burnout Paradise (as far as I’m aware), so I passed on purchasing that game.
F-Zero GX is a stunning game that nails the incredible sense of speed that the franchise is known for, but it never surpassed F-Zero X as my favorite game. The electronica soundtrack is a downgrade from the N64 game’s metal tunes, the track designs never felt as varied, and no “Death Race” blows (and, sadly, isn’t immune to GX). I’d still love if GX hit Switch’s Virtual Console, but after F-Zero X.
Skies of Arcadia Legends
Damn that random encounter rate. I can’t attribute my inability to get into Skies of Arcadia entirely on that, but it didn’t help. It’s a shame because I really wanted to love this game — the setting alone is awesome — however, it never grabbed me. Maybe if the rumors of GameCube games on Switch prove true, I’ll get a second chance on a more portable platform. On the plus side, Vyse and Aika are regular squad members in Valkyria Chronicles.