With a decade-long lifespan and immense library, the Gameboy has proven itself the ultimate underdog. Debuting in 1989, the handheld system was designed to be inexpensive. Bells and whistles like a backlight or color screen were cut to make room for battery life and an appealing price tag. That same hardware would go on to host hundreds of titles. Visionary Gunpei Yokoi began his Nintendo career as a toymaker, but ended it as a legend. To this very day, many gamers name Gameboy as their favorite system, hardware limitations be damned. And they’ve got an incredible catalogue to back up their argument, as 5-star entries in the Mario, Zelda, Castlevania, Metroid, and many other franchises are found on the system.
But here’s the thing…
Everyone knows about Six Golden Coins. Everyone’s talked about Link’s Awakening. Hell, people are still talking about Pokemon. These and other classics have been discussed at length. And for good reason.
But want about those oddball games? The bizarre titles that no one would’ve ever expected to appear on an 8-bit handheld. Gameboy outlasted both the NES and SNES, but also saw games adapted over from the PC, Arcade, and even Playstation. How did these unlikely titles fare on such scaled-down hardware? How in the world did developers even fit these games onto the system in the first place?
That’s what we’re here to explore today. The following are some of the most unlikely ports to have had Gameboy adaptations. I stumbled across many of these titles after I began collecting for the system, and I’m hoping your reaction matches my own upon discovering them in the wild:
“Wait, they made that for the Gameboy!?”
Developer: Midway, Ported by Malibu Games
Cramming a chaotic, blood-happy arcade shooter onto the humble gray brick required no small degree of sacrifice. Most Gameboy ports see a major hit to the graphics and music department in order to fit onto the system. If you’re lucky, gameplay will be left intact. Few other ports illustrate this as much as Total Carnage.
An enemy-swarm shooter in the vein of Smash TV, Total Carnage finds wave after wave of mutated foe descend upon your character. In true 80’s/90’s-fashion, your hero is lone warrior who’s left his shirt at home. But fear not, for your glistening pecs and array of munitions is more than enough to save the world! Foes attack in large groups and from multiple directions, forcing you to keep your feet and bullets moving nonstop. Along the way, you’ll rescue hostages, collect power-ups, and battle bosses that may just be the biggest damage sponges I’ve ever encountered in a Gameboy game.
With limitations to the number of assets onscreen at one time, it’s a marvel Total Carnage fit onto the Gameboy. Malibu Games clearly had to cut a lot to retain the frenetic action. Graphics are severely limited, with simple sprites and sparsely-decorated backgrounds. Though they did manage to squeeze the “body flying at the screen” death animation of the original. Albeit without the dash of gore. Music is nonexistent, so your machine gun is the primary soundtrack. But it’s all in service of the gameplay, which is able to retain multiple enemies onscreen at a time. The baddies pop out from everywhere, making the edges of the screen very dangerous to hang out near. It’s tempting to dash after a powerup the moment it appears onscreen, but rushing too hastily towards the edge can land you face-to-face with a newly-spawned foe. And with 1-hit kills, you can bet death will come often, so keep your eyes open as the screen scrolls from area to area.
Though not the prettiest to look at, Total Carnage on the Gameboy nonetheless plays smoothly. Even when enemies were closing in from all sides, I didn’t run into slowdown. I can’t think of another run n’ gun on the system that manages this feat, an utter army of simultaneous attackers. For that reason alone, Total Carnage deserves recognition. The tongue-in-cheek humor is frosting on the cake.
Developer: Shiny Entertainment, Ported by Eurocom
Speaking of humor, squirmy intergalactic hero Earthworm Jim also found his way onto the Gameboy. With him comes the same sprawling levels, quirky aesthetic, and solid controls. It’s surprising how little needed to be cut in order to squeeze Jim’s platforming onto the system, as much of what the series is loved for remains intact.
When the insidious scheme of Queen Slug-for-a-Butt goes awry, the result is a biomechanical super suit crashing landing on Earth. Directly onto the squiggly body of an earth worm. When armory meets annelid, the result is Earthworm Jim, who sets out to defeat Queen Slug-for-a-Butt and rescue the fair Princess What’s-Her-Name. Expect many cartoony shenanigans to ensue, many of which will be gunning to squash our legless hero. Fortunately, Jim’s new suit makes him quite the nimble adventurer, able to fire in multiple directions and employ his own body as a whip.
For the Gameboy, the graphics are surprisingly true to the original. Naturally, character sprites are scaled down and the lack of color obscures details, but the entire oddball cast remains recognizable. Jim even keeps the cute little death animation of the suit blowing up, frying the little guy within to a crisp. The warped levels keep their foreground details, but the backgrounds have been nixed. As such, it can be difficult to tell what you can and cannot grab whilst leaping around. A two-button layout also means your ‘worm-whip’ requires precise tapping of the D-pad in conjunction with the B-button, which can be finicky. Hit detection via raygun can also be a tough, as enemies are evasive, but the ability to fire in multiple angles helps a great deal.
Despite some limitations, this Earthworm Jim deserves praise for the amount of the original left intact. The infamous cow-catapult in the beginning, wormhole races against Psy-Crow, even a rendition of “Night on Bald Mountain” on the Heck level. Speaking of music, most of the other tunes are arranged in fittingly jaunty fashion for Jim’s adventures. The entire package makes for a very solid and faithful adaptation of the old-school platformer.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Arcade Game
Developer: Midway, Ported by Beam Software
Mention T2 on the Gameboy, and most folks think of LJN’s frustrating side-scroller. However, did you know that another, superior adaptation of the sci-fi classic appears on the system? And it was also published by LJN?
Of all the games on this list, T2 Arcade is the one I’ve the most nostalgia for. Many fond summer memories involve adding quarter after quarter into the Judgment Day cabinet and blasting away at an army of T-800’s. The rattle of the plastic uzi, the hellish landscapes, the care not to hit you own troops as they hid behind cover.
I was joyfully shocked upon the discovering that this arcade classic had miraculously found its way onto Gameboy. How in the world did they fit such an arcade gallery shooter onto the handheld?!
Turns out, pretty decently, actually.
Beam Software managed to roll with the limitations and carry over much of what made the arcade game fun. Hordes of enemies pop onto the screen, making much of the game a race to get your targeting reticule over to them before they fire back. Your rate of fire slows to a crawl as your ammo depletes. Hunter Killers launch missle salvos towards the screen unless you can swiftly bring them down via rocket launcher.
Many of the backgrounds are fully destructible, allowing for plenty of hidden powerups. You still have allies fighting in the foreground, and you’re penalized for accidentally hitting them. On occasion, a terminator will even pop right up in your face, draining your health until you’re able to pop it’s head off with some well-placed shots.
Not everything makes the port, unsurprisingly. The truck and van-based escort missions are removed entirely, though considering how annoying those levels were, I’m not complaining. Levels lack music, though I doubt you’d hear anything over your gunfire, anyhow. Moving around your targeting cross-hairs via the D-pad can be clunky, but you get used to it after a minute.
You quickly learn to stick to the center of the screen whenever possible, as enemies pop out from the sides and start attacking if you can’t get to them quickly enough. Graphics are more simplified, but they clearly capture the post-apocalyptic battlefield. The ground-based Hunter Killer boss of Level 1 actually looks pretty damn cute in 8-bit. Sorta like R.O.B.’s murderous cousin.
As with all gallery-style shooters, tedium sets in after a while. There’s only so much novel content the Gameboy can keep throwing at you to keep the adventure fresh. While you won’t see the biggest assortment of enemies or variety of modes, Terminator 2: The Arcade Game is a fun diversion you can pick up and play for a few minutes at a time. It’s not a long game, taking less than 30 minutes to beat, but for a handheld system, that’s actually more of a strength than drawback.
Dragon’s Lair – The Legend
Developer: Elite Systems
It should be obvious to say the Dragon’s Lair for the Gameboy is not a port of the cinematic arcade adventure. Should being the key word, as somehow the Gameboy Color was able to pull of this mind-boggling feat and all its quicktime twitchiness. The idea sounds like madness on paper, so it’s no surprise that Elite Systems designed the original Dragon’s Lair Gameboy port as a puzzle platformer. Much like the maligned-NES version, this take is entirely original. While the NES attempted to capture some of the cinema quality of the arcade via large sprites and slow, deliberate gameplay, the Gameboy leans in an entirely different direction.
See those little squares strewn about? They’re your main objective. Each is a fragment of the Lifestone, a mystical artifact that grants immortality. Collecting all 194 of them will enable Dirk the Daring (that’s you!) to resurrect the slumbering Good Knight and save the day. So rather than sword n’ sorcery adventure, Dragon’s Lair on the Gameboy instead puts you on a collect-a-thon quest. Most of the fragments are in tricky spots, requiring you to flex your puzzle-solving brain cells to access. But even if you’re able to decipher how to reach a fragment, actually surviving to touch it is a whole other matter.
Alas, controls are awkward. You’ve the option of setting the game speed to either slow or fast, but both come with pitfalls. Slow mode is almost required to make much of the precision jumping in the game. And there is a lot of it. Platforms move at an insane clip on Fast mode. Slow mode brings them down to a more reasonable level, but also reduces your character movement to a plodding pace.
You’ll find yourself mashing the jump button over and over, trying to cling onto whatever surface will hold your weight. It’s not always clear what’s a ledge. To make matters worse, a fall from any height greater than half-screen is death.
Enemies are few, which is a good thing, as you’ve absolutely zero offensive capability. That’s right – no sword. But don’t worry, the landscape of the overworld is far more likely to kill you than enemies. Much like the original, you’ll die often. The game starts you at ten lives, but they don’t last long.
So if Dragon’s Lair amounts to a frustrating mixture of puzzle solving, platforming, and a fetch-quest, what’s there to recommend? While I can’t really recommend the game – it’s not the most fun experience to play – I wanted to note the beautiful level details and background designs.
Though Dirk’s sprite is squat and undefined, the environments he treads are incredibly detailed. And varied, as you’ll come across classic Medieval fantasy settings, Egyptian ruins, haunted cemeteries, and much more. Each of these scenes could easily have fit into an RPG-style game, where I’m sure we would’ve loved them. Don’t let this game’s flaws overshadow its pixel art. It’s the primary reason I wanted to give Dragon’s Lair: The Legend a moment in the sun. The real shame is how, with a bit of controls tweaking and the addition of an attack (both A and B just make you jump), this could be a solid game.
Any modders out there feeling up to the task?
Contra 3: The Alien Wars
Developer: Konami, Ported by Factor 5
Fans of classic Contra for the NES have long had Operation C as an excellent portable alternative, but that’s not the only entry to have made its way onto the Gameboy. While Operation C is an original title (albeit heavily inspired by Super C), Contra 3: The Alien Wars is a startlingly-faithful adaptation of the SNES classic.
Crazy set pieces you’d never imagine possible on the system are recreated in 8-bit, but accurate fashion. Consider all the little details in Level 1, alone: The early ride in a tank, going hand-over-hand across fiery chasms, squaring off against a giant mutated turtle…thing. They’re all here!
That said, Factor 5 couldn’t fit everything. There are only five levels, but they do alternate between side-view and top-down. Stage 4, what with its transition from motorcycle to missile-jumping, didn’t make the cut. A few mini-bosses were left on the cutting room floor, too.
Still, though not able to capture all the ever-increasing absurdity of the original SNES version, Contra 3: The Alien Wars for the Gameboy does its damnedest to pack as much as possible. And that includes the hair-pulling difficulty. The hardware may not be able to include as many enemies onscreen at a time, but the reduced screen size means maneuverability is far more tricky. You’re also only able to carry a single special weapon at a time, unlike the SNES version where you could keep a spare in reserve in case of untimely death.
Contra 3: The Alien Wars on Gameboy is as faithful an adaptation as I imagine possible given the system specs. Were this released for the NES, it would’ve been held in similar high regard to the other two classic entries. The controls may be a tad stiffer than the buttery-smooth movement we’re accustomed to, but you get used to it quickly. The 8-bit graphics also do a great job capturing all the grotesque alien adversaries of the SNES version. The music is successfully translated too, with each memorable track humming its way out of the tiny speakers. In all, this is a stellar port that deserves to be part of every Gameboy collection.
We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of bizarre Gameboy ports. A great deal more surprising titles exist and deserved to be discussed. The journey has only begun. Better pack some extra AA batteries.
What are some other games I missed? Feel free to let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading, and stay awesome, fellow retro gamers.