Nintendo's top console? It isn't the Wii U, not by a long shot: it's the Nintendo 3DS, the handheld that launched to mixed fanfare in 2011 and has gradually become home to some of the best Nintendo games released in years. Don't believe me? Check out the best titles out there already. And, be sure to read our reviews of the three different 3DS models out there: the 3DS, 3DS XL, and 2DS.
Nintendo's best example of how a persistent world that's not online can still manage to utterly captivate, even when all you’re doing is hunting for butterflies and paying off your rent. The latest in a series that goes back to the Nintendo DS and the GameCube before that, this is a heavily addictive town simulation that lets you customize, befriend, and play mayor for a bunch of cuddly animals with attitudes. And you'll play it forever. Read more about it here.
/ Photo: Screenshot by Scott Stein
The best Nintendo 3DS games
Animal Crossing: New Leaf
Fire Emblem: Awakening
Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon
Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons/Ages
Super Mario 3D Land and New Super Mario Bros. 2
Mario Kart 7
Pushmo and Crashmo
Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask
Mario and Luigi: Dream Team
Kid Icarus: Uprising
This more hard-core turn-based strategy game has something in common with XCOM and the old DS game Advance Wars, with a fantasy role-playing epic storyline threading each of the missions together into a whole. It’s hard, it’s immersive, it's Japanese RPG-ish, and it’ll easily suck up 50 hours or more of your life. And there are extra downloadable maps in Nintendo’s eShop.
The forgotten cult GameCube game gets a 3DS sequel, and it’s wonderful. Think "Ghostbusters" meets Nintendo: Luigi explores haunted houses, solves puzzles, and turns up secret treasures. Each level is perfectly broken up for long road trips. It's a great piece of portable entertainment, and uses nearly every 3DS button. Read more about it here.
The Nintendo 3DS is positively dripping in Zelda games, but this one's at the top of the heap: a true sequel to the classic SNES game Zelda: Link to the Past, this feels like an old-fashioned game but continually shifts between 2D and 3D-style play and has the best dungeon puzzles seen in years. Read more here.
The 3DS is a Zelda museum: I count seven games, including the original Legend of Zelda, Link’s Awakening, Ocarina of Time 3D, Four Swords, Link Between Worlds, and the underappreciated Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, two Game Boy Color games that are well worth the $6 each from the eShop.
Nintendo’s ace-in-the-hole is retro family-friendly platformers that take you back to happy memories of NES consoles. There are already two great Mario games on the 3DS: Super Mario 3D Land, which marries side-scrolling with full-world Super Mario Galaxy-style play, and the totally 2D (with 3D effects) New Super Mario Bros. 2. Honorable mention goes to Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, a well-done port of a retro-style Wii game that loses nearly nothing.
The Nintendo DS was an RPG fan's paradise. The Nintendo 3DS is slowly gaining ground with titles like Bravely Default, a sprawling game developed by Square Enix that has an epic story, strategic combat design, and beautiful graphics and music. It feels close to a Final Fantasy spin-off in spirit.
The 3DS' best racing game is yet another version of Mario Kart, but the 3DS version has some of the best controls and action this side of a console. Online or local multiplayer options add extra challenges after you've tried making it through 32 tracks. Read our detailed impressions from when the game was released.
I'm not a huge Pokemon fan. But I appreciate that the series means quality and some seriously long-term game play. Pokemon X and Y are a full design overhaul for the series, and still offer up a traditional full-scale game for fans, in two slightly different versions (as always). As good a way as any to kill 100-plus hours on a 3DS in no time at all.
There are a lot of good downloadable puzzle games on the 3DS, many of them made by Nintendo. Pushmo and Crashmo are must-haves: they cost $7 and $9 each but offer hundreds of clever puzzles based on block-pushing. Honorable mention: Ketzal’s Corridors, a 3D Tetris-like puzzle game, costs $7 as well.
Mixing feature animation with children’s-book-style stories and ingenious puzzle-solving, the Professor Layton games have been Nintendo DS mainstays. The 3DS sequel has great puzzles, and a revamped 3D interface.
The Mario and Luigi role-playing games have been around for years, and always mean a good dose of bizarre and oddly humorous adventuring. Dream Team is an oddball experience, but a big and consistently fun one...and it shows that Nintendo does have a sense of humor, in case you forgot.
I’m not going to say that HarmoKnight is necessarily the best game on the 3DS, but it’s one of the coolest: music-rhythm and side-scrolling combine to create a very mobile gamelike experience. It’s not as cheap as it should be ($14.99), but it’s a great example of the type of Nintendo eShop games that lurk beyond the cartridge zone as download-only discoveries.
Kid Icarus came out back in 2012. But, if you missed it and you like shooters, this is cult classic that proves how deep the 3DS game library is becoming. Tons of unlockables, weird monsters, and plenty of reasons to replay levels make it an excellent used-game purchase, as long as you can live with the strange controls. Read more here.
There are cheaper downloadable games out there in the Nintendo eShop, and some are quite good. The best of the batch might be Gunman Clive, a clever Western-on-acid platformer featuring pen-on-paper sketchpad-style art design. And it’s only $1.99, the same price it costs on iOS; but in this case, it has a physical controller.