Here’s a theory for you: maybe Reggie Fils-Aime is retiring next month because he finally got fed up of defending Nintendo’s continued support of 3DS. (Of course, had Nintendo ditched it as soon as Switch took off, he’d have had fanboys whingeing about that, too.)
Regardless, Nintendo’s 3D portable – in its various guises – has been with us for eight years, and while it does now appear to be shuffling off to the great console graveyard in the sky, having outlasted a rival many said would blow it away, it’s an ideal starter console: cheap as chips, and boasting a software library studded with absolute gems. Here are 15 of the very best, with an alternative option for each, because I’m good like that.
Super Mario 3D Land
Possibly the most underrated of the plumber’s adventures – though any game that had to follow Super Mario Galaxy 2 was always on a hiding to nothing. Admittedly, 3D Land seems a bit too modest at first. But it’s a necessary scaling back: its compact stages are not only perfect for snack-sized play sessions, but a welcome mat for the huge audience that prefer Mario in two dimensions. It makes dazzling use of depth, particularly in the vertiginous propellor-block stages, while making it easier to judge distances in 3D space. And from a dead-on Zelda homage to its tough-as-nails post-Bowser remixes, its level design is EAD Tokyo on its A-game.
Alternatively: New Super Mario Bros. 2
A solid but fairly routine sequel enlivened by some exceptional DLC and a weirdly avaricious theme: Mario’s ultimate objective is to get his hands on a million coins. Something something capitalism.
Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon
The other best argument for the merits of autostereoscopic 3D is this follow-up to the much-loved GameCube original. It’s like peering into a series of delightfully dinky dioramas: a virtual haunted house where you want to reach in and rearrange the furniture. Rather than one big mansion, Dark Moon gives you several themed ghost houses to clear out. Its puzzle design is a cut above the original, not least in its sparklingly inventive boss fights. But the star of the show is Luigi himself: as he shivers, yelps and hums nervously, it’s a reminder that while he may be less famous than his big brother, he’s easily the more charismatic of the two.
Alternatively: Luigi’s Mansion
The original and no longer the best (because, well, see above) but this downsized port is a nostalgia trip overflowing with charm – with wireless co-op play and a bonus boss-rush mode to boot.
Fire Emblem: Awakening
Intelligent Systems’ strategy-RPG series was on its last legs when Nintendo decided one of its best developers deserved a decent budget for a final shot at glory. It didn’t miss. Awakening reinvigorates the series with a fresh focus on building relationships between units. Partner up on the battlefield and friendships (and even romance) can bloom off it – increasing the chances of watching a spouse leap in to protect their partner from a fatal blow. Battles become all the more dramatic when you care about the cast, and Awakening features plenty of memorable characters. Nurture pan-wearing village idiot Donnel and he’ll grow from a weakling into your best fighter, while introverted dark mage Tharja is an emo badass.
Alternatively: Fire Emblem Fates
An ambitious, multifaceted epic that depicts war in all its complexities, some would argue this is even better than Awakening – but if you want the full picture you’ll ideally need to buy all three chapters. Excellent but expensive.
Kirby: Planet Robobot
Fight giant bosses by unscrewing their arms! Smash speeding cars into tiny pieces from inside a giant mech suit with flamethrowers! Is this really a Kirby game? HAL’s pink puffball goes postal in a creative platformer that borrows plenty from Triple Deluxe but gives everything a mechanised twist. It’s still pretty easy, as Kirby games tend to be, but that’s besides the point: the level design is consistently strong, it has a whale of a time with its robotic theme, and there’s a fantastic final boss, which I’d be tempted to say is like Star Fox if it was designed by PlatinumGames, if that hadn’t already happened. Anyway: it’s really good.
Alternatively: Kirby’s Extra Epic Yarn
A little more genteel, though you do get to play as a tank made out of wool. And lots of other things made out of wool, for that matter. Adorable, crafty family fun.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf
While we all eagerly await the Switch version of Nintendo’s pastoral life sim, New Leaf is here to offer us a glimpse at a gentler, kinder world where everyone is friendly, favours are rewarded in kind, and, most unrealistically of all, you can own your own house and pay back what you owe at your leisure. It’s a relaxing haven away from the real world, where Brexit is no more than a daft catchphrase you’ve given one of your villagers – and it’s stuffed with activities, seasonal events and disarmingly witty dialogue that convinces you these anthropomorphic critters are more than just vending machines for new furniture. Also: Tom Nook is actually a good guy. Thank you for attending my TED talk.
Alternatively: Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer
If you’ve become hooked on redecorating your New Leaf gaff, this thrifty spin-off lets you go all Linda Barker with your favourite animal friends. And it turns out building their dream home feels pretty gosh-darned great.
Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story + Bowser Jr.'s Journey
The dungareed duo (as no one calls them) finally team up with their arch nemesis, shrinking Innerspace/Fantastic Voyage style to control him from within. The platform-puzzle segments where the two mess around with Bowser’s innards let developer AlphaDream tap into a rich seam of surreal humour. And then there’s antagonist Fawful, whose every wonky expression is a joy, particularly at his most exasperated: "You keep appearing like an ugly rabbit out of a hat of a magician who stinks!" Bowser Jr.’s Journey is an inessential add-on, but with more dynamic presentation in battles and cutscenes than the DS original, this is the best Mario & Luigi RPG to date.
Alternatively: Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions
Equally clumsily titled and equally funny, this remake of the series’ sublime debut is, among many things, your best opportunity to see Mario in his underpants this side of DeviantArt.
Kid Icarus: Uprising
How wonderful to see what Masahiro Sakurai can do when he isn’t hospitalising himself over the stress of making fan-service brawlers for kids. Uprising revives one of Nintendo’s forgotten 8-bit heroes in wisecracking angel Pit, who enjoys a sparky rapport with his boss, Palutena, aka the Goddess of Light. A slightly awkward control scheme – stylus-controlled trackball, anyone? – leaves Pit feeling a bit sluggish during Uprising’s ground-based skirmishes, at least until you acclimatise. But its high-octane airborne sections are often jaw-dropping: a combination of Star Fox, Space Harrier and Afterburner conducted at blistering speed, they’re inventive in their conception and executed to near-perfection.
Alternatively: Star Fox 64 3D
Another old favourite given a new lick of paint, this remaster of the N64’s Lylat Wars is another game worth playing with the 3D slider all the way up. It’s the definitive edition of the best Star Fox game to date.
Mario Kart 7
It’s since been superseded by Mario Kart 8 (and its Deluxe update on Switch) but there’s a reason MK7 is the biggest-selling 3DS game to date – because it’s still a bloody good arcade racer. Besides, it’s a reminder that MK8 owes quite a debt to its handheld predecessor, which introduced gliders and underwater racing to the series, as well as the ability to customise your vehicles for the first time by mixing and matching chassis, tyres and glider. Beyond that, it has a slightly gimmicky but fun first-person mode, a better Rainbow Road than its successor, and one of the finest Mario Kart tracks of all in the superb Waluigi Pinball.
Alternatively: Super Smash Bros. for 3DS
Hardly a direct analogue, but both games have been subsequently topped by Switch versions yet still play well. And given the limitations it’s technically staggering, pushing the 3DS harder than any other game.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
After Ocarina of Time 3D, some were surprised that Nintendo dared to revert to the classic top-down view of SNES classic Link to the Past – as if it wasn’t still an all-timer. Worlds shows the value of not always following modern trends. It’s a spiritual sequel that pinches a few ideas (chiefly its light/dark world dichotomy) and chucks in several of its own, letting you hire items to tackle dungeons in the order you wish – a freedom that partly inspired the approach Nintendo would take with Breath of the Wild. And the ability to transform into a 2D drawing to bypass obstacles in the 3D world proves an ingenious touch, especially in the outstanding final fight: another thrilling twist on an old standard.
Alternatively: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D
Wot no Ocarina? Sorry, but this has aged more gracefully. More unconventional in its structure, it’s a darker, sadder, cleverer and just plain better Zelda than its celebrated forerunner.
Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
The long-awaited meeting of DS favourites Hershel Layton and Phoenix Wright doesn’t disappoint. Shu Takumi’s clever crossover blends Layton’s thoughtful puzzling with the thrilling melodramatics of Ace Attorney’s courtroom battles, while taking the pair out of their comfort zone and into a world of magic and witches, where real-world logic no longer applies. Its plot is twistier than a family pack of fusilli, and the climactic moments where the mismatched pair finally join forces is fan-service at its best: a moment of delayed gratification that’s all the more powerful for making you wait for it. Oh, and it has a grandiose score that sounds like this.
Alternatively: Ace Attorney: Duel Destinies
There’s little to choose between Dual Destinies (bad second case, improves greatly) and Spirit of Justice (better plot, worse prosecutor), but the earlier game gets the nod, because the Pursuit theme is the cornerstone of any Ace Attorney and DD has the better of the two.
Pokémon Ultra Sun/Moon
The last Pokémon games for dedicated portable devices are, coincidentally enough, the best. They mightn’t feel as new as their non-Ultra variants, but the number of tiny nips and tucks here and there allied to a better story and more expansive endgame collectively make a bigger difference than you might expect. Descending through wormholes to fight bizarre Ultra Beasts gives the whole game a weird sci-fi vibe, but for every futuristic element there’s a nostalgic throwback. With a cute photo mode, a surfing minigame and plenty more asides, it feels like one last blowout: a generous and heartfelt goodbye to flip-screen hardware.
Alternatively: Yokai Watch
Ostensibly a brazen attempt to create a rival to Pokémon, Level-5’s anime-styled RPG manages to find a voice of its own. It’s steeped in Japanese culture, which both explains its popularity there and helps sets it apart – as does its unconventional battle system.
An object lesson in design by subtraction, HAL’s minimalist puzzler is the opposite of a technical showcase: it’s black and white, doesn’t use 3D at all, and you play as a square block with stick legs. This is Qbby, who can squeeze out boxes and either drop them to use as platforms, bridges and weights for pressure plates, or use them as an extension of himself, hooking onto switches, grappling up to higher ground or shielding himself from hazards. It might look like a load of blocks, but it’s an elegant puzzler whose simple looks belie a work of understated brilliance.
Known as Pushmo in the US, this devious puzzle game does make good use of 3D as you pull out and push back sliding layers of increasingly complex structures to create a path to the top.
Bravely Second: End Layer
The title might sound like a cryptic crossword clue, but this is one of the 3DS’s finest JRPGs. That’s mostly down to its unique spin on turn-based combat, which lets you defend to store up ‘brave’ points, soaking up damage before unleashing a flurry of attacks when you next act. It streamlines the grind, too, letting you blitz weaker enemies, challenge tougher ones for bigger XP boosts, or even chain battles, risking it all to multiply rewards. But the real joy is in finding unbeatable combinations of outlandish jobs. One lets you feed enemies poisonous cakes, another lets you learn enemy moves by spending cat food. And a third lets you equip weapons on your head. Enough said.
Alternatively: Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology
Mario & Luigi aside, I’ve tried to avoid ports for the main entries here, which is the only reason I haven’t swapped this with Bravely Second. Atlus’s terrific JRPG has great characters, an even better battle system and a typically stellar Yoko Shimomura soundtrack.
Monster Hunter Generations
Monster Hunter World may, in many ways, have been the overhaul the series needed to reach a mainstream audience. But while it sensibly streamlined a mass of unwieldy systems, it lost something in the process. Generations’ quirky routines build anticipation and a greater sense of connection with your environment and the creature you’re hunting: here, there’s more gathering, preparation and study involved before you can kill a beast to wear it as a hat. And there are more monsters and fighting styles here, too. Generations might not offer anywhere near the exhilarating spectacle of World, but for some it’s still understandably Monster Hunter’s finest hour.
Alternatively: Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate
Once you’ve tried Generations’ Hunter Arts it’s hard to go back to a single fighting style, but Ultimate certainly has the stronger narrative thrust of the two.
Attack of the Friday Monsters! A Tokyo Tale
The pick of Level-5’s Guild series, this downloadable visual novel is a wistful paean to a more innocent time: a coming-of-age tale with kaiju. Once a week, the eponymous monsters visit the smalltown home of 10-year-old Sohta, a kid with a vivid imagination who’s obsessed with TV serials and loves playing silly card games with his friends. Beyond the card battles, there’s no real challenge – all you have to do is reach the next story trigger – but that’s hardly a criticism. This moving, funny game manages to evoke a time and place so completely that it’s a wrench to leave it behind.
Alternatively: Crimson Shroud
FFXII director Yasumi Matsuno is behind this brilliantly written short-form RPG, which is styled like a tabletop game with die-cast figures and dice you can roll around in your hand. A single, frustratingly opaque moment holds it back from greatness.