The gaming landscape in the early 2020s is a far cry from what it was in the 1990s and early 2000s. In my humble opinion, that was the golden era of handheld gaming. The Original GameBoy, GameBoy Color, and GameBoy Advance all featured tons of incredible titles, and I had loads of fun playing many of them. But it was the GameBoy Advance SP and the best Game Boy Advance SP games that really took center stage for me.
While the GBA was a huge leap forward from the GBC, it was the SP that took the industry to the next level. This handheld console modernized the design and improved on a ton of features. The main selling points included the backlit screen (I could finally play my GameBoy in bed without alerting my mom) and the folding design, which gave extra protection to the display.
Revisit this excellent console and its array of fantastic titles as we check out the 10 best GameBoy Advance SP games from back in the day.
Top 10 Best GameBoy Advance SP Games
Let’s jump into the list with a look at our number 10 pick. Keep scrolling to uncover the #1 best GBA SP game!
10. Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hands
Genre: Action-Adventure // RPG
Release Year: 2003
You may not be familiar with this one, especially if you stuck to the core Nintendo experiences of Mario, Donkey Kong, or Zelda. But this hidden gem was a fantastic RPG with a truly unique feature.
Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hands was developed by Konami in 2003, and followed the pursuits of vampire hunter Django (no relation to the unchained hero played by Jamie Foxx). The young boy is tasked with saving humanity from extinction during the Age of Darkness, fighting the undead with his Gun Del Sol, a unique weapon that wields the power of sunlight.
The trait that truly set Boktai apart from its contemporaries is that the cartridge itself had a built-in photometric light sensor. This sensor required the player to take their GameBoy Advance SP outside in the sunlight, which would charge up Django’s legendary weapon, the aforementioned Gun Del Sol. The sensor specifically looked for UV in the light sources, so using artificial light from regular bulbs wouldn’t work, meaning the players had to go outside if they wanted to vanquish their enemies.
Boktai was an impressive role-playing title that naturally integrated a real-world element into its gameplay, transforming it into a challenging and thoughtful experience. It was succeeded by two more games, Boktai 2: Solar Boy Django and Boktai 3: Sabata’s Counterattack, the latter being a Japan exclusive.
9. Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising
Genre: Turn-Based Tactical
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Release Year: 2003
The original Advance Wars was a great introduction to the tactical turn-based strategy genre. But the sequel took everything from the first game and improved on it, and should be among any GameBoy Advance SP game collection worth its salt.
Carrying on more or less where the original game finished, Black Hole Rising continues to follow the Orange Star army (along with the other Allied Nations forces) as they defend Macro Land from the invading Black Hole army, their COs, and their mysterious leader, Lord Sturm.
The main draws this time around include the new commanding officers (particularly from the villainous Black Hole), the ability to play levels in the campaign with other armies (as well as split narrative paths), and a new unit called the Neotank. You also gain access to Super CO Powers, as well as various battlefield additions like factories, pipelines, and cannons.
To be sure, the game is a definite challenge for even the most acute tacticians. But where the game truly shined was in its PvP aspect and the scope of its map creation. Few handheld games could boast such a genuine and engaging multiplayer mode, but Advance Wars 2 is undoubtedly one of them.
8. Mario Kart: Super Circuit
Genre: Kart Racing
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Release Year: 2001
Mario Kart: Super Circuit had a lot to live up to after the tremendous success of its predecessor (Mario Kart 64). But the definitive kart racing series crammed a whole load of content into that fairly petit cartridge, and it’s widely recognized as one of the best GameBoy Advance SP games ever made.
Super Circuit doesn’t reinvent the wheel (no pun intended), but nor does it intend to. What it does do, however, is provide the same solid gameplay that the two games that preceded it did. Not only that, but it has better (or at the very least, more charming) graphics than Mario Kart 64 and more precise controls than the original Super Mario Kart.
The game provides the classic collection of racers, including the likes of Yoshi, Peach, Toad, and Bowser, along with the subtle mechanics of weight and coins. MK:SS also features 20 original tracks to powerslide around, and even includes the original tracks from Super Mario Kart, to boot!
On top of that, it had an extremely challenging set of time trial goals to beat and an excellent battle mode. But its most altruistic feature was the shared experience if offered. If you wanted to have a four-player race with your friends, you only needed one copy of the game to have everyone enjoy, which at the time was something akin to sorcery.
Every Nintendo console owner should have a Mario Kart game in their library, and Super Circuit is more than worthy.
7. Golden Sun
Developer: Camelot Software
Release Year: 2001
In a similar vein to Boktai, Golden Sun might be an unfamiliar name to some. But even today, this JRPG holds up remarkably well.
Released in 2001 and developed by Camelot Software Planning (the same people behind Mario Tennis on the N64), Golden Sun follows a group of young friends who have harnessed the power of Psynergy. Each member of the party has a particular elemental alignment that bears a resemblance to classic class archetypes (Tanks, Healers, etc.).
And it’s a good thing, too! You’ll need a diverse pool of talent to bring down a nefarious duo hellbent on bringing about a cataclysmic event!
If you enjoy Final Fantasy, you’ll be right at home with this series. The battle mechanics function almost identically, with each character having their own abilities, and parties attacking in turn. Not to mention, certain characters complement each other, especially when you find a Djinn, mythical creatures that let you unleash furious attacks.
A world-ending plot, a team of young friends, over-the-top powers and attacks — this has all the makings of a great JRPG, and it’s one of the best GameBoy Advance SP games ever made.
6. Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3
Release Year: 2003
Widely regarded as one of the best Mario games ever made (and by extension, one of the best GameBoy Advance SP games), Super Mario Brothers 3 is given a portable incarnation in this rendition of the hit title. And, it comes complete with the features it gained when included on the Super Nintendo collection, Super Mario All-Star!
Super Mario Advance 4 gives you the brilliant level design and punishing challenge of SMB3, complete with its graphical boost. But it also comes with the added mechanics of the e-reader. If you were lucky enough to grab a copy that came with the included e-cards, you could upload new content to the game! This included never-before-seen levels and the almighty cape feather from Super Mario World.
There are also many, many small quality of life changes made from the original SMB3 (the Hammer Bros aren’t as insane in this version) and tweaks to certain level elements. But overall, the game is cherished so widely for a reason.
It’s simply a fantastic game that’s been made even better. One of the best Game Boy Advance SP games ever made.
5. Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga
Release Year: 2003
Side-scrolling and jumping on angry sentient mushrooms is the bread and butter of the Super Mario games. But the pair of Italian plumbers have equally impressive titles when they get behind the wheel, pick up a tennis racket or golf club, or in this case, star in their own quirky and humorous RPG.
Superstar Saga was developed by the now (sadly) shuttered studio, AlphaDream, and served as the spiritual successor to Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Superstar Saga follows two Mediterranean tradesmen as they travel to Beanbean Kingdom to defeat Cackletta, who has stolen Princess Peach’s voice to unlock the power of the Beanstar. While that’s a very, very brief overview of the story, the game provides countless hour’s worth of content. And that’s just the primary quest!
Breaking away from the well-traveled Mushroom Kingdom means the game explores many weird and wacky locations (Woohoo Hooniversity and Little Fungitown are my personal favorites). It also introduces cartoonish and fourth-wall-breaking characters like Fawful and Prince Peasley. But the game’s crowning achievement is its battle system.
Mario and Luigi are controlled independently, with their movements assigned to the A and B buttons, respectively. The real beauty of the game design is that every enemy can be understood and analyzed. That means if you know the tells and visual cues during enemy attacks, you can effectively play every fight perfectly (if you’re good enough, of course). Effectively, this is what you’d get if you crossed Super Mario with the intricate enemy design of something like Dark Souls.
And they constantly make fun of Luigi, which is awesome.
4. Metroid Fusion
Release Year: 2002
Like many entries on this list, the Metroid series has a lineage of games that make it such a critical success. That said, it often loses out in many classic Nintendo fan’s hearts to other series like the legendary Mario and the numerous Legend of Zelda masterpieces. Nintendo proved with Metroid Fusion that Samus Aran deserves to be on the same list as those names.
The game takes many cues from the Alien film series, with Fusion taking place on a space station that has been overtaken by the X parasite. What’s the X parasite? It’s a lifeform that mimics and mutates its host into powerful and grotesque monstrosities. Samus must take back control of the space station and defeat the SA-X, a doppelganger created by the X parasite infecting Samus and her Power Suit.
The game stays true to the Metroid formula. As such, you must explore areas, defeat bosses, and gain new abilities to reach previously inaccessible areas — all with a twist that is courtesy of the X parasite. Having survived her infection, Samus can now absorb the floating X enemies to regain health and missile ammunition, but the enemies respawn if their X is not collected.
This results in a more thoughtful approach to combat, rather than blasting away at everything in sight, as failing to finish several enemies may result in them combining into one considerable threat that can easily overwhelm you.
Few games (particularly within the handheld realm) capture the tone and set the mood better than Metroid Fusion. The eerie silence of the hallways, the ferocious pounding of the machinery, and the frenetic chaos of boss encounters all blend into a thematic cocktail that makes it one of Samus’ most memorable outings.
3. Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald
Developer: Game Freak
Release Year: 2002
Being the best selling game(s) on the Game Boy Advance, how can we not talk about the third-generation Pokémon RPGs? It’s without a doubt one of the best GameBoy Advance SP games ever created.
Being a follow up to the amazing Pokémon Gold/Silver/Crystal was no easy feat, even with a technological and graphical jump. The pressure was on for Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald to emulate those that came before it, and thankfully it did not disappoint. In fact, far from it…
I won’t tread over the story, as that’s kind of moot nowadays. Instead, we’ll focus on the improvements and additions that came about in this era. The most significant addition was, of course, the stars of the show — the Pokémon themselves. This generation received 135 new battling buddies, taking the grand total up to 386. Moreover, the new generation meant a new setting, new gym leaders, a brand new Elite Four, and the introduction of Double Battles.
The most significant changes came in the nuance of the battle mechanics. There were countless new mechanics, including things like Pokémon abilities, which meant that certain attacks healed certain Pokémon. There was also the addition of Pokémon natures (where Pokémon have individual temperaments or personalities that affect their stats). And, new weather effects would affect specific Pokémon types adversely or advantageously. All of this had a significant impact on the standard game, but also massively shifted the multiplayer proponent.
You can never go wrong with a Pokémon game. It provides hours and hours of fun as you journey to become the very best, like no one ever was.
2. Super Mario World: Super Mario Advance 2
Release Year: 2001
Some people may argue that this title should swap places with Super Mario Advance 4, and I completely understand that argument (to a degree). However, my own bias is playing favorites here, as Super Mario World is my favorite game of all time. And, being able to play it on the go was the only thing missing!
The story of Super Mario World: Super Mario Advance 2 is a classic Mario tale. This time around, it’s the newly-introduced Yoshi and his pals that have been imprisoned by the Koopa Kids, with Bowser taking Princess Toadstool (as he so often does).
The main reason this game is so good is due to the new mechanics it introduces, which allow you to interact with the game in so many different ways. For instance, Mario’s status and powerups can completely change how you approach a level (let’s be honest — the cape is overpowered). Moreover, revisiting levels often uncovers new secrets, which can seriously change how you play the game. While these may seem like staple mechanics nowadays, they got their start in this stellar title.
I believe that Super Mario World is the definitive 2D Super Mario experience. Its level design is varied, with classic platforming levels, swimming levels, underground areas, fortresses, secret exits, “bridge levels,” ghost houses, and themed end-of-world boss fights. It also implements a difficulty curve that gradually increases as the game progresses, but never overwhelms the player.
The whole experience is a pure testament to game design in a beautifully simple form. It’s, without a doubt in my mind, one of the best GameBoy Advance SP games ever made.
1. The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
Developer: Capcom & Flagship
Release Year: 2004
It should be no surprise that a Zelda game tops this list. You could make a solid case that Legend of Zelda titles are the best games for pretty much every Nintendo console. That holds true whether it’s A Link to the Past for the Super Nintendo, the immersive Breath of the Wild for the Switch, or the often-touted greatest game of all time — Ocarina of Time for the N64. The Minish Cap gave players an equally authentic Zelda adventure on a handheld, and it sits strong among its series brethren.
The port of A Link to the Past with the added Four Swords expansion is a great package, but the original tale of Link, Ezlo, and the Picori is a better candidate for King of GBA SP games.
In this adventure, Link must forge the Picori Blade, defeat the evil wizard Vaati, and rescue Princess Zelda (who has been turned to stone). All the while, he must rely on help from his talking hat, Ezlo, and the Picori, a race of minuscule elf-like creatures.
Compared to things like music in OoT or the wolf transformation in Twilight Princess, the unique design mechanic in this game is Link’s ability to shrink down to the same size as the Picori (AKA Minish). In this form, Link can interact with the world in such a way that puzzles take on entirely new perspectives.
The usual Zelda axioms of exploring dungeons are also here, of course. For instance, you’ll still need to gain new key items to use in the next dungeons and progress in the main quest.
Overall, this unique, charming Zelda title shines abundantly in this absolute classic. And it takes our top spot on this list of best GameBoy Advance SP games.