Pokémon evolved from the mere seed of an idea into the largest video game franchise in the world. For decades Nintendo has continually enhanced the Poké formula, adding new monsters and innovative mechanics year after year. Even in the 2020s, Pokémon is still burning bright like a Charizard’s tail.
But today’s article isn’t about the latest and greatest titles in the Pokéspere. Instead, we’ll be stepping back a few generations — to the time of the best GBA Pokémon games.
Pokémon was a key series, arguably the key series, for Nintendo’s Game Boy consoles. Pokémon Red and Blue exploded onto the scene, becoming some of the best-selling Game Boy games of all time. This was followed by the Gold and Silver sequels, which cemented Nintendo’s grip on the handheld market. But the GBA, with its advanced graphical fidelity, is where Nintendo really began its push to innovate and expand upon the core mechanics.
This article showcases all of Nintendo’s greatest hits from the early 2000s, ranked by official critic scores. Ready to begin? It’s time to see ’em all.
Best GBA Pokémon Games RANKED
Starting at #5, let’s work our way down to the best of the best GBA Pokémon games.
5. Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Red Rescue Team
- Rating: 67/100
- Genre: Roguelike
- Developer: Chunsoft
- Release Year: 2005
This may be a lesser-known title, but that doesn’t mean it’s not one of the best Pokémon games on GBA.
Red Rescue Team is one half of the introductory Mystery Dungeon series (the other being Blue Rescue Team released on Nintendo DS). This arc of Pokémon games has had several excellent representations over the years, with unique, lighthearted gameplay that offers an alternative approach to the standard Pokémon formula.
Unlike the traditional Pokemon series, in Red Rescue Team, you won’t be taking on the role of a young trainer seeking to become a Pokémon Master. Instead, you’ll assume the role of a trainer who has mysteriously transformed into a Pokémon!
Your goal as the trainer-turned-Pokémon? To regain the memory of who you were, dive into the meaning behind your transformation, and uncover the sinister pieces at play.
Containing all of the Pokémon available from Generation III and prior, you level up your character and any assisting Pocket Monster through jobs that earn you Rescue Points. Anyone who’s played games like Final Fantasy Tactics or Golden Sun for the GBA will be more acquainted with the systems in place in PMD. Since Red Rescue Team is a roguelike, a large portion of the game is about venturing into randomly generated dungeons and completing objectives for the main story and side quests. While this system was mostly well-executed, it may seem repetitive to those not inclined to the roguelike genre.
That said, this may not be the game for hardened fans of the Pokémon formula. Why? Well, instead of the usual party of six monsters to do battle with, you control just one creature (your player character) with the other three Pokémon in your team acting more as companions.
Does the concept sound a bit strange? It is. But the developers at Chunsoft did a fantastic job merging such a unique blend of mechanics, and the game is quite good overall. I mean, think about it. Nintendo doesn’t hand out the Pokémon license to just any developer that comes knocking.
Since the creation of the spin-off series, it has spawned other related media, such as an anime cartoon called Pokémon Mystery Dungeon Team: Team Go-Getters Out of the Gate! And a Manga called Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Ginji’s Rescue Team. It’s last on this list of the best GBA Pokémon games, but it still deserves mention.
4. Pokémon Emerald
- Rating: 76/100
- Genre: RPG
- Developer: Game Freak
- Release Year: 2004
Like the rest of the series, the best GameBoy Advance Pokémon games follow a formula. Nintendo releases two virtually identical titles, followed by a new-and-improved version a few years later. Pokémon Emerald is the 3rd-generation’s “refined” version, following Ruby and Sapphire.
I’m speculating slightly, but I would imagine Nintendo uses these extra games as a way to achieve a more polished product and to toy with mechanics in different ways.
What unique mechanics can you find in Pokémon Emerald?
While Pokémon Emerald features the story beat we all know and love (young trainer embarks on a journey to catch all the Pokémon and become a master), there are actually several changes from Ruby and Sapphire.
Most notably, Emerald significantly ramped up the game’s difficulty. Gym Leaders were given much stronger teams of Pokémon, and the Battle Frontier that becomes available after the player has conquered the Pokémon League adds much more challenging post-game content. As the game’s poster child, the plot is also revised to focus more on Rayquaza and his intervention in stopping the cataclysmic battle of Groudon and Kyogre.
Emerald did have a few limitations imposed upon it from a technical standpoint, however. It didn’t offer support for e-readers, and it had restrictions regarding what games it could initiate trades with (depending on the Pokédex the player possessed). It is also unable to trade with Gens I and II from Game Boy and Game Boy Color. So while fairly minor, the game has some idiosyncratic flaws.
In hindsight, Pokémon Emerald is a better package than its preceding games in the same generation. It packs in more content that rewards the player for their efforts, and refines the minor erroneous areas of R&S. Being the third best-selling GBA of all time, had it been released at the same interval as Ruby and Sapphire, it may well have taken the crown.
3. Pokémon Pinball: Ruby & Sapphire
- Rating: 81/100
- Genre: Pinball
- Developer: Jupiter
- Release Year: 2003
Next on our list of best Pokémon GBA games? Pokémon Pinball: Ruby & Sapphire!
You may be perplexed as to how in the name of Ho-oh someone could adapt the primary concept of the Pokémon series (that being to “catch them all”) into the retro arcade paradigm of pinball. Yet somehow, it works. And it works surprisingly well.
Nintendo toyed with the Poké pinball idea one handheld generation prior, with the original Pokémon Pinball for GBC. While Pokémon Pinball isn’t the Mona Lisa of its genre, it was a fun and novel title that received critical acclaim. That meant the sequel, Pokémon Pinball: Ruby & Sapphire, would need to knock it out of the (pin)ballpark.
And so it did. PP: R&S incorporated a ton of new Pokémon from Gens II and III, and altered the pinball playing fields to represent the latest games from the Pokémon universe (Ruby and Sapphire).
The goal of Pokémon Pinball: Ruby and Sapphire is simple. You’ve gotta catch them all and complete your Pokédex. There are three game modes to help you do so: two from the original and a brand new mode.
First up is Catch ‘Em Mode, where you must repeatedly hit Pokémon with the pinball to catch them. Next is EVO Mode, where you must hit special points on the pinball field to evolve your existing Pokémon. Last is the newly-introduced Egg Mode, a time-based challenge that requires the player to hit an evasive Poké hatchling enough times to catch it!
Of course, you’ll find Pokémon themes sprinkled throughout the entire game. For instance, Lotad and Shroomish act as bumpers. You can call on Pikachu to use thundershock and save your ball. And the Pokémon Mart lets you purchase bonus items (like extra balls).
The sequel also has bonus or boss stages, where you’re sent to a unique pinball table and have a specific objective to catch a legendary Pokémon like Groudon or Dusclops.
This certainly won’t be a Pokémon game for everyone, especially if you’re looking for numerous hours of the charming RPG action the standard games are known for. However, Pokémon Pinball can definitely offer hours of entertainment and retro vibes.
2. Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen
- Rating: 81/100
- Genre: RPG
- Developer: Game Freak
- Release Year: 2004
In today’s video game climate, remasters can be something of a dirty word. But there are some good examples out there, including hits like the Spyro Reignited Trilogy. Games like these offer an updated graphical design and a simultaneous homage to the original architecture, all while fixing whatever foibles or missteps were made the first time around.
Another excellent example of a remaster done well? Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen.
FireRed and LeafGreen are a near-perfect blend of old and new, offering traditional Red and Blue gameplay with a modern flavor. The core gameplay remains the same, with Professor Oak as your encyclopedic guide, Gary butting heads with you at various points throughout your adventure, and the Kanto region yours to explore. But FireRed and LeafGreen also brought the old-school in line with features introduced in Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, and it was all the better for it.
The remakes gave birth to a whole host of quality of life improvements that the original adventures lacked (given the series’s technologic limitations and infancy at that point. For instance, the new versions include Team Battles with 2v2 matchups, and Team Rocket takes on a more prominent role in the story (particularly in the post-game on Sevii Island).
The games also adopted logical inclusions from other games, like equipable items, a more organized backpack, and a visible EXP bar to see how close you were to leveling up. Since the series was on Gen III at the time of release, there were also new types, stats, and moves to learn and use.
I think what makes the remakes of FireRed and LeafGreen such fantastic games was the palpable care and attention they received to make them eons better than the originals. Arguably, these games didn’t need to be made, as the GBA played host to the amazing Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald, but these were a proper love letter to the games that started the globally adored franchise. And, without wanting to reiterate the same point of balance, the nuance and care were masterfully done.
No game is a (Seafoam) island either, and Nintendo ensured these games did not exist in isolation. As such, you could trade between the other GEN III R/S/E titles. You could also sync up with the Gamecube titles, Pokémon Colosseum and Pokémon XD. Overall, these remakes were among the best GBA Pokémon games to hit the iconic handheld system.
1. Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire
- Rating: 82/100
- Genre: RPG
- Developer: Game Freak
- Release Year: 2002
The development team over at Game Freak sure had their work cut for them with Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire. Pokémon Gold/Silver/Crystal for the GBC were a monumental success that raised the Poké bar ever higher, and these new titles had to outshine even those. Fans were expecting a fresh story and setting, as well as a plethora of unique Pokémon, moves, and mechanics — all on a brand new piece of gaming hardware.
In my opinion, the most ground-breaking changes that these iterations of the games made (many of which became a new gold standard that successors continued to follow) were how individual Pokémon became more personalized with their unique natures and abilities.
The natures and abilities gave the series a more profound sense of its RPG stylings. How so? Well, they influenced the player’s interactions with the PvE environment and had a higher magnitude of impact on what the game could be in a PvP capacity.
This deeper level of immersion allowed the game to occupy a niche seldom filled by handheld games at the time, in that it was genuinely fun and engaging to do battle with your friends and required a tactical and considered approach if you wanted to emerge victorious.
Adding to the immersion, Ruby and Sapphire also told a more involved main story. Instead of Team Rocket’s (mostly annoying) escapades, Ruby and Sapphire saw Team Magma/Team Aqua underpinning the player’s entire adventure.
A gripe you could make at the game is that if you distill it down and take a reductionist view, the gameplay is largely fetching from the well that the original game dug many years ago. I believe that is a fair criticism… to a degree. My riposte to that would be: how much can you change the heart of a game before it’s not that game anymore?
Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire grasped the baton from Pokémon Gold/Silver/Crystal firmly with both hands, and sprinted into the future with gusto. It did exactly what a new installment in a gaming series should do. It added new elements and features with its own marked personality, and kept up the good name of the Pokémon series.
After all, these are the best-selling Game Boy Advance games and best GBA Pokémon games for a reason.