The Best Portable Spin-Off Games, From GTA To Kingdom Hearts
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Over the years--though not so much today--there have been a whole bunch of console and PC game series that also came to handheld systems. Some of those games ended up getting pretty similar versions on the portable systems, especially as the hardware began allowing for higher-fidelity and more-complex gameplay. However, there have also been quite a few portable spin-off games over the years that tried something much different from their big siblings, and many have stood the test of time. We got to thinking about the very best portable spin-off games there have ever been, and it brought back some fond memories.
For inclusion on this list, we stuck to a few criteria, though we did bend the rules on occasion. The games we chose vary from their console and PC counterparts in a few ways. The most important of these is gameplay, either by starring a character who differs greatly from the usual protagonist or even being in an entirely different genre. The other was visual style, with a couple games on this list offering a very different look for well-known series while retaining some of their gameplay elements.
These are some of the very best portable spin-off games ever made.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Though Nintendo had developed a reputation as the family-friendly game company with the help of Mario, this had started to soften after the turn of the century, and the Grand Theft Auto series eventually made its way to Nintendo platforms--handheld ones, that is. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, which released first on DS and later on the PSP and mobile devices, felt like a smart nod to the series' older top-down era while also remaining distinct and modern. The comic-book-style presentation of the DS version has made it age better than the similar PSP version, which went with a more realistic gameplay visual style, and the intuitiveness of the touchscreen made it easy to check the map or complete little minigames.
Metal Gear Acid
Finally, Metal Gear fans were going to get a full-on Metal Gear Solid game with 3D graphics on a handheld device! Well, not exactly. Those games did come later with Portable Ops and Peace Walker, but the most interesting Metal Gear handheld game was a completely different genre: stealth card battler. Playing out more like a tactics game than a standard Metal Gear title, Metal Gear Acid (officially styled as Ac!d) turns famous franchise weapons and tools into cards. These include grenades and firearms but also something as simple as a cardboard box, all of which can be used to your advantage when facing off against enemies. Like any stealth game, you have to pick your next move carefully, just in a very weird way.
Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars
Before the Ghost Recon franchise turned into a massive open-world sandbox shooter, it had undergone some pretty radical transformations. It went from first-person to third-person, but one of the most interesting experiments came with the 3DS launch game Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars. Produced by XCOM series co-creator Julian Gollop, Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars plays like a Fire Emblem turn-based tactics game, albeit without quite as much punishment. It seems odd to showcase a new system's hardware with a turn-based strategy game, but the 3D effect is used brilliantly for the terrain on each battlefield. Shadow Wars might not be the first game you think of when you hear "Ghost Recon," but it remains one of the series' very best.
The Sims: Bustin' Out (GBA version)
A spin-off of a spin-off? Yes, that's essentially what The Sims: Bustin' Out for Game Boy Advance is. A completely different game than its console counterpart--which put more focus on storytelling than normal The Sims games--the Game Boy Advance version is a brilliant minigame-filled adventure set during a teenager's summer vacation. It's filled with fun twists alongside the usual Sims activities like eating and not pooping your pants, and seeing the story evolve is a whole lot of fun despite the relatively low power of the handheld.
A few different portable spin-off games took the "sidekick gets to star" approach, especially during the height of the PSP's lifetime, and Ready at Dawn's Daxter was one of the most successful. After Jak and Daxter, the series had cut poor Daxter out of the games' titles, but he got to take the lead in this portable game. Daxter is an excellent melee combat fighter, which he was able to display on the handheld's little screen, while also making use of his stealthy traversal abilities. It certainly isn't as different compared to the mainline games as some of the other entries on this list, but it reminds us of a time when your favorite side character still had a chance to get the spotlight.
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories
There have been over a dozen Kingdom Hearts games since the series debuted in 2002, but one unique entry actually came right near the beginning of its life. Released in 2004, the Game Boy Advance's Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories combines action-RPG gameplay with a brilliant card system. It's not a card battler, but rather something of a beat-'em-up mixed with resource management whenever you head into combat. Choosing when to combine cards for special attacks--which eliminates some of them for the rest of a battle--is rarely easy, and late-game bosses truly push Sora and his friends to their limits.
Kirby Tilt 'n' Tumble
Kirby Tilt 'n' Tumble was a brilliant spin-off that was only possible on a handheld device. By utilizing an accelerometer in the cartridge itself, the game was able to effectively transform the Game Boy Color into a motion-controlled system. Sure, it didn't involve all the same gameplay elements we'd expect from a Kirby game, but as its own unique maze experience, it was tough to match. Few other games have tried anything similar in the years since, though the Monkey Ball series did eventually introduce motion controls that should please fans of this classic adventure.
Mario Tennis (GBC)
One of the best Mario sports games of all time barely features Mario. You'd think that would be a problem, but Mario Tennis on GBC is an exception. The story mode focuses on a new student at a prestigious tennis academy named Alex who learns to play both singles and doubles, and you gradually make progress toward tougher competition as you learn the basics of topspin, powerful serves, and more. It's unlike any other Mario Tennis game--even the more experimental Mario Tennis Aces--and still stands out more than 20 years after its release just because of how unexpected it was. Yes, the disappointment of not entering this mode as Mario was there at first, but it washed away remarkably quickly.
Kid Icarus: Uprising
This one is a little bit controversial to put on this list, because it's from a series that had been dormant for more than 20 years, but the fact remains that the first two Kid Icarus games were action platformers--something Kid Icarus: Uprising is not. A 3D action-shooter with rail-shooting segments not unlike Star Fox, Kid Icarus: Uprising is both lighthearted and incredibly fun to play. For lefties (like yours truly) the control scheme made things a little challenging without the Circle Pad Pro attachment, but flying through the air and blasting at enemies with Pit's weapons remains a great time. Even the online multiplayer--not Nintendo's strong suit--actually turned out well, and it's a tragedy that we haven't gotten another one yet.
Killzone: Liberation wasn't just a first-person Killzone shooter on a handheld system--without two analog sticks, that wouldn't have worked well, and it wasn't until Killzone: Mercenary that we'd see it done. Guerrilla Games smartly chose to completely change perspectives and gameplay styles for Killzone: Liberation, moving to a Diablo-like isometric view while retaining action-oriented combat and exploration. The result is a game that feels like it was made for the PSP from the start, hiding the system's weaknesses while highlighting its strengths.
The R-Type series is one of the most legendary in the history of shoot-'em-ups, both for its tough-as-nails stages and its signature sci-fi setting. It would be simple enough to develop a handheld sequel that uses these same elements, but that's not what Irem did. Instead, R-Type Command is a turn-based strategy game for PSP, resembling R-Type in its visual and level design but differing completely in gameplay. Sure, an arcade shooter could have worked--and you can certainly play R-Type on the go via a variety of systems these days--but being able to pause a game at any moment makes it a great choice for a portable spin-off. Now if only we could have that extra thinking time to beat those tough stages in R-Type Final 2…
Dark Void Zero
Dark Void Zero finds itself in very rare company, as it's a portable spin-off to a game that actually released after the spin-off came out. Announced via a fun marketing campaign as a sort of "lost media" piece from long ago, Dark Void Zero was developed by Other Ocean Interactive and is a retro-style sidescrolling action game. Though short, as it was primarily intended to drum up excitement for Dark Void prior to its launch, Dark Void Zero vastly surpassed that game in terms of critical reception. Dark Void itself would fade into obscurity, and unfortunately, its "lost" sibling is now truly lost, as it's no longer available on Steam and the DSiWare store has long since gone dark.