Counting down the 10 best games on the Nintendo 3DS.
The Nintendo 3DS turns seven in North America on March 27. That’s an abnormally long life cycle in the realm of a handheld gaming system. And with approximately 72 million units sold worldwide (21 million in the U.S.), it makes sense why Nintendo would still want to support its aging handheld. Yet there’s a rather large elephant in the room — the massively popular Nintendo Switch, which doubles as a home console and handheld powerhouse. The brunt of Nintendo’s attention has rightly gone toward the trendy new platform that has taken the world by storm.
Nintendo is trying to prolong the 3DS’s life with a brief but attractive lineup of upcoming ports like Luigi’s Mansion, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker and Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey, but the docket of original games in the pipeline is incredibly small — Detective Pikachu and WarioWare Gold.
Make no mistake, though: the 3DS phase-out is here. Considering how consumers have gravitated toward the Switch, the 3DS’s slow march toward extinction could bring the end of the 30-year era of dedicated Nintendo handhelds.
To both celebrate the seventh birthday of the Nintendo 3DS and reflect on the possible end of a cultural staple, we’ve gathered the 10 best Nintendo 3DS games. (To avoid repetition, we’ve included only one title per series — apologies to Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask.)
1. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
The follow-up to the Super Nintendo classic The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is a perfect blend of nostalgia and new ideas. The idyllic world of Hyrule and the ominous and dreary lands of Lorule nod back to the Light and Dark worlds of A Link to the Past. The game expertly incorporates new mechanics into the tried-and-true Zelda formula. Link’s ability to flatten himself and merge into walls add depth to the game’s dungeons and open up a wealth of opportunities for discovering secrets. Instead of finding integral weapons one by one in each dungeon as in most Zelda games, Link rents and buys them from a shop, which ultimately allows players to explore many of the game’s dungeons in any order they please. With warm, charming visuals and a dazzling score, A Link Between Worlds is more than just a worthy ode to one of the most beloved Zelda games of all time. It hits a level of wonder and pure joy that very few games manage to reach.
2. Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon
Pokémon Ultra Sun and Pokémon Ultra Moon (separate but virtually identical games) provided the definitive version of the most innovative entries in the franchise since the long-running monster-catching series debuted in the ’90s. Sun and Moon retain the standard premise in which the player becomes the very best Pokémon trainer, but it reworked the progression system in surprising and fun ways. Ditching the traditional gym battles for trials, trainers now fought a series of progressively more challenging Pokémon before fighting each island’s Kahuna. The addition of Ultra Beasts, new Pokémon from other dimensions, new techniques such as Z-Moves, and a fresh coat of paint made Sun and Moon the most interesting and engaging Pokémon titles in quite some time.
3. Super Mario 3D Land
The first truly great original game for the Nintendo 3DS remains one of its best more than six years after its launch. Super Mario 3D Land makes great use of the 3DS’s stereoscopic visuals to meld classic Mario side-scrolling with 3D Mario titles. Once again Mario has to work his way through a series of levels and castles to save Princess Peach from Bowser. 3D Land plays like a Mario side-scroller but with depth that in many cases allows Mario to move both left/right and up/down. The brilliantly designed demos make you wish the journey will never end. Luckily, once the first eight worlds are cleared, the game beckons you to play through the eight much more challenging special worlds.
4. Fire Emblem: Awakening
Fire Emblem is an excellent strategy series, but before Fire Emblem: Awakening, it was a relatively niche franchise outside of Japan. That all changed with Awakening, arguably the greatest Fire Emblem game to date. For those unfamiliar, Fire Emblem uses turn-based combat with a top-down perspective. Each player takes turns moving their characters around a grid-based board. It’s basically chess with swords, plus a whole lot of fun dialogue between its anime characters. Awakening improved on the Fire Emblem formula largely by making its rich, layered tactics more accessible. For the first time in the series, Awakening let players turn off permadeath, meaning that if a character dies on the battlefield, they will be gone for just that mission rather than forever. Brimming with missions, characters and an addictive progression system, Awakening took the series to a whole new level.
5. Mario Golf: World Tour
Mario Gold: World Tour is the best sports sim available on the handheld. The game offers simple arcade-shot mechanics that make it easy for beginners to pick up and play while providing enough depth for seasoned players to sink their teeth into. With 16 eclectic and increasingly challenging courses in all, the golf sim delivers a great balance of traditional courses and wacky layouts. The 21 playable characters hailing from the Mushroom Kingdom each has their own unique play style. World Tour also hosts a variety of recurring online tournaments that let virtual golfers compete with players across the world (online tournaments still take place today). Nearly four years after its launch, I still find myself returning for a relaxing round of golf in World Tour.
6. Animal Crossing: New Leaf
The storied life simulation series shined brighter than ever before in Animal Crossing: New Leaf. As usual, you create a character and arrive in a new town filled with anthropomorphic animals. Once there, you are mistaken as the mayor and thus become responsible for the prosperity of the village. In reality, most of your days are spent catching bugs, picking fruit, fishing, and running errands for your neighbors. New Leaf may sound like a chore, and it kind of is, but it’s one that compels you to turn your 3DS on every day to check in on your beautiful town.
7. Bravely Default
Nintendo handhelds have always been home to great Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs), and 2014’s Bravely Default was further proof that innovation could still be achieved in a genre that had become somewhat stale. Players control four young characters on a mission to save the sprawling fantasy world of Luxendarc. Battles are turn-based, but the addition of the smart Brave points system allows users to stack multiple moves into one turn at a cost to add an extra layer of strategy. An arresting score and beautiful hand-drawn towns that look like watercolor paintings make Bravely Default’s lengthy adventure a pleasant and enticing experience throughout.
8. Super Smash Bros.
Super Smash Bros. has been the ultimate competitive experience on Nintendo platforms since its debut on Nintendo 64. The series’ first appearance on a handheld system turned out much better than anyone could have anticipated. With a whopping 58 characters and 42 stages for the cast to duke it out on, Super Smash Bros. keeps the devilishly strategic brawler fresh, thanks to its wide array of options. Throw in a ridiculous number of collectibles and challenges to complete, and Super Smash Bros. for 3DS became the perfect evergreen game to play with friends.
9. Metroid: Samus Returns
A reimagining of the Game Boy classic Metroid II: Return of Samus, Samus Returns, the most recent release to make it on this list, brought the iconic series back to its 2D side-scrolling roots in admirable fashion. Samus Aran’s mission is to infiltrate a group of space pirates on a far-off planet, which brings players to a labyrinthine planet filled with secrets, gadgets to discover, and droves of ruthless enemies. Metroid has always been about the joy of discovery, and Samus Returns perfectly encapsulates that identity.
10. Picross 3D: Round 2
Picross, also known as Nonograms and Griddlers, is a logic puzzle that tasks you with using numeric clues to reveal a picture on a grid. Picross 3D: Round 2 expands on this premise by adding colored blocks into the 3D puzzles, each with their own set of rules. With the 3DS’s stylus, players whittle away at the blocks using both numeric and color clues to reveal a three-dimensional image. It’s the best puzzle game on the handheld and one that will endlessly test your wit and resolve throughout its more than 350 puzzles.
What are your favorite games for Nintendo handhelds?