Nintendo’s 3DS currently prevails over the dedicated games handheld market, as have all Nintendo’s handheld since the original Game Boy in 1989. Smartphones may dominate mobile in general, but they lack a handheld’s deterministic nuance (read: buttons, triggers, and thumbsticks), to say nothing of the 3DS’s indispensable two-screen interface. And because the 3DS has done so well in its own right, it’s the mobile platform game developers gravitate to, culminating at this point in a library of compelling choices. Here’s a list of the ones we think are the best at the moment.
Fire Emblem Awakening
The Fire Emblem games are as old as the Game Boy, though they didn’t appear on a Nintendo handheld (the Game Boy Advance) until 2002. They’re some of the best turn-based tactical roleplaying games you’ve probably never heard of, and Fire Emblem Awakening is the perfect opportunity to make their acquaintance. This above all others is the 3DS game to buy for depth and breadth, with customizable characters (who can marry, have children, then battle alongside their offspring), a skill-dependent multi-class system and an enthralling interwoven story.
Buy this game if… You’re in the mood for a thoughtful, chess-like tactical battle simulator.
Steer clear if… Poring over battlefields while finessing tactical minutia, one turn at a time, turns you off.
What critics said: “This is a special game. The kind that makes you stop and think for a long time about whether it’s ever been done better” (Eurogamer); “Intelligent Systems has produced some fine games for Nintendo over the years; Awakening can proudly sit next to fellow strategy gem Advance Wars as the studio’s best work to date” (Telegraph); “… completely engaged me while I was playing it, whether I was connecting with its well-written characters or taxing my (limited) intellect as I tried to win a difficult battle while keeping everyone alive” (GamesBeat).
ESRB Rating: Teen
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
A direct sequel to Super Nintendo game The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, A Link Between Worlds hews close to Zelda traditions like roving around an enemy-thronged overworld between dips into dungeons or dalliances with mini-games and collection quests (here, one involving the return of child-like creatures to their mother). The gameplay twist this time involves being able to flatten against walls and move along 2D planes, picture-like, to solve spatial puzzles.
Buy this game if… You loved A Link to the Past and you’d like to play its superior companion.
Steer clear if… You didn’t care for A Link to the Past, or you’ve simply had enough of the Zelda franchise.
What critics said: “A perfect handheld Zelda experience, offering the classic gameplay you cherish at a snappier pace” (Joystiq); “Not only does it feature some of the best dungeons and bosses in the series’ long history, but its stunning use of the system’s 3D effect should make anyone thinking about saving a few bucks by getting a Nintendo 2DS pause and reconsider” (GamesBeat); “…as amazing as A Link to the Past is, I can’t think of a single thing A Link Between Worlds doesn’t do better” (Game Informer).
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Pokémon X & Y
The 3DS’s first full-fledged Pokémon game (if we don’t count Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity) recasts the series in full polygonal 3D, which may be the most remarkable thing about it, since the game mechanics sound mostly un-messed-with: You still play as a Pokémon novice, off to round up the little critters and challenge other Pokémon trainers in turn-based battles on your way to becoming a Pokémon Grand Master.
Buy this game if… You’ve been waiting forever to play a 3D version of Pokémon.
Steer clear if… You’re looking for an edgier roleplaying game or a dark fantasy world to save.
What critics said: “…the various design tweaks and visual upgrades brings out the joy of this world to match that first time you caught a Pokemon or beat a gym leader” (Quarter to Three); “It’s a coming of age story, essentially, with the saccharine beginnings of a jolly jaunt giving way to harsher challenges along the way” (Telegraph); “For the young, the game is a soothing promise that, if you work hard, concentrate and look after others, victory and success will be yours. For the young at heart it’s a warm reminder of the childlike thrills of discovery, compilation and care” (Eurogamer).
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Pushmo is as it sounds: a puzzle game about pushing things, though it’s not the name of the protagonist. That would be Mallo, who happens to be a sumo wrestling cat (who knows why–just go with it). Your job is to move blocks around each “Pushmo” playground (the game has more than 250) to create steps that let you climb to rescue trapped children. It sounds simplistic, and in a way it is, but it’s also arguably the best puzzle game a Nintendo studio’s ever made.
Buy this game if… You love deceptively simple block-based puzzles games.
Steer clear if… Cutesy puzzlers aren’t your thing.
What critics said: “Move over Minesweeper, ta ta Tetris, leave it out Lemmings – Pullblox is the new puzzling gaming god in town” (Pocket Gamer UK); “In many ways, Pullblox is Nintendo’s answer to Portal. Both are budget puzzlers released to little fanfare that exhibit the finest qualities of their respective developers” (Eurogamer); “Simple gameplay and a great level creator help make Pushmo a stellar puzzle game for your pocket” (GameSpot).
ESRB Rating: Everyone
The best NES game you never played sporting glorious high-definition pixel-block levels and incredible chiptunes and superlative platform-bounding gameplay? Shovel Knight is something like a crowdfunded miracle, the new archetype in gaming (or any other creative medium) for what letting developers who know exactly what they’re doing actually do it, unencumbered.
Buy this game if… You miss the 8-bit NES aesthetic, you want to play the apotheosis of the best side-scrolling, platforming games popularized by Nintendo’s breakthrough 1980s system.
Steer clear if… You never really went for the whole NES thing.
What critics said: “Shovel Knight is, at the risk of repetition, brilliant, beautiful stuff” (Cubed3); “Dig out some eShop credits: you’re not going to want to miss ye olde Shovel Knight” (Pocket Gamer UK); “…a game that handles like a brick that handles like a Maserati” (Wired).
ESRB Rating: Everyone