Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the lights on at MakeUseOf. Read more.
Whether you’ve just picked up a 3DS, or have owned one for a while, there’s never a bad time to expand your games library. But with the wealth of titles on offer, how do you choose? Allow us to show you the very best titles for your handheld console.
There should be plenty in this list for everyone, but not every game will appeal to all. However, even if you’re not keen on racing games, for instance, you can still give those discussed a try because if anything will change your mind, it’ll be these!
We’re excluding eShop titles because the scope is simply too great. Additionally, it’s not fair to include Virtual Console releases from previous systems such as the Game Boy. Thus, the following 25 games are retail releases for the 3DS family, so they all work on the New 3DS XL (our review) and 2DS (our review). Note that many of these titles are also on the 3DS eShop if you prefer digital downloads, or if physical prices are too expensive.
Genres are listed alphabetically, as are the games within each section, so we’re not giving any particular preference.
1. LEGO Jurassic World (2015) [UK]
LEGO games don’t always command the best reviews, but they remain hugely popular with the buying public. This game perfectly encapsulates why LEGO is such a massive brand, more so than its fellow LEGO titles for the 3DS.
Children will love exploring the environs of Jurassic World. For “big kids” who remember the original trilogy of films (or have read Michael Crichton’s brilliant novels), you also get the chance to play campaigns from Jurassic Park, and its two sequels. The later movies are available as unlockable content, so there’s plenty to do in this game.
It’s a divisive title, but if you embrace it for what it is, you’ll find it an enormous amount of fun. Plus, you get to build and play as a LEGO dinosaur. Beat that.
2. Kid Icarus: Uprising (2012) [UK]
You might recall Pit the angel from two incarnations of Super Smash Bros., but not realize his legacy stretches back to 1986. Before 2012, his most recent appearance in his own series was in Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters on Game Boy. That was in 1991.
When Pit came back to a handheld console, he did so in style. Sporting a new look and complete with new abilities, this angelic archer proved himself the hero our gaming landscape needed.
This is a third-person shooter, and you can fight missions in the air or on the ground. It looks fantastic, though the controls admittedly take some getting used to. As a neat addition, you can change the difficulty of levels, meaning this has great replay value. Plus, it’s a rare title that takes advantage of the 3DS’s cameras and augmented reality capabilities. If you want to test out your system and have great fun at the same time, Uprising is an essential purchase.
I never talk abt kid icarus uprising but it was my favorite game for years and is still firmly in my top 5
— ???Splash Damage @ Support your locals! (@Splash_Dmg) March 27, 2017
3. Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (2013) [UK]
If there’s something strange in the neighborhood, who you gonna call? Luigi!
Mario’s bubbly brother is back in one of his few outings as a game’s sole protagonist, Dark Moon. This is the long-awaited follow-up to the 2001 GameCube title Luigi’s Mansion, and sees Luigi return to vacuuming up ghosts. This time, he’s collecting pieces of the Dark Moon — an object that pacifies the spirits in the vicinity — after it’s shattered by King Boo.
This release is full to the brim with ingenuity, whimsy, and most importantly, heart. It’s accordingly received overwhelmingly positive reviews, and has sold some 5.2 million units worldwide, as of the end of 2016.
4. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (2013) [UK]
How do you choose which Legend of Zelda game to pick up? The series has a considerable following who would happily recommend most of the titles featuring Link. Numerous 3DS installments makes narrowing it down even tougher.
But there’s something truly special about A Link Between Worlds. The 2013 game appropriately harks back to its SNES cousin, A Link to the Past. It’s not only set on the same world as its predecessor, but also manages to evoke the feel of classic gaming thanks to an open-ended design. It’s also perfect for those who enjoy exploration, and anyone fresh from Breath of the Wild!
It’s smart, imaginative, and looks beautiful. The little knowing nods to source material will satisfy the long-term Zelda fans, but not to an extent that excludes complete newcomers. And because it’s a Nintendo Selects title — meaning it’s sold particularly well and showcases the best the system has to offer — you can pick it up cheaply.
5. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D (2011) [UK]
We couldn’t leave it at just one Legend of Zelda game, especially considering the quality of content on offer.
This title is, of course, a remake of the Nintendo 64 (N64) game of the same name, and what’s perhaps most startling is how great the gameplay remains. The 1998 original is generally considered as one of the greatest games of all time; this Ocarina of Time remaster can easily maintain that accolade.
After much press hype, a lot was riding on the remake. Thankfully, its updated graphics, quality of life tweaks, and unlockable Master Quest cemented the title’s reputation, garnering numerous 10/10 reviews.
6. Super Smash Bros. for 3DS (2014) [UK]
There are few fighting games available for the 3DS, but at least we have Super Smash Bros., the first handheld version of the popular brawler.
Of course, you might’ve picked up its Wii U brother already. That home console sadly hasn’t sold as well as it should’ve, so it’s more than likely you’ve got a 3DS instead. This version hasn’t got as many stages as the Wii U counterpart due to limited space, but you do get the superb Smash Run and the enjoyable Street Smash modes.
And this is where the 2014 title comes into its own. Super Smash Bros. was always best when playing against other gamers, not the computer. The 3DS’ portability means you can easily challenge your family and friends wherever you go, and still enjoy the same roster (including the newly-added Bowser Jr., Greninja, and Mii characters).
Our coverage of Smash 3DS concluded:
[T]his version of Smash screams to be enjoyed in short bursts. You don’t have to wait for the system to boot up and tweak a bunch of settings. If you have a few minutes on your commute, before a class, or before bed, you can get your Smash in without much setup.
7. Kirby: Triple Deluxe (2014) [UK]
“This sucks!” is normally an insult, but in this instance it’s an accurate description of protagonist, Kirby. If you’ve stuck with the pink puffball since his 1992 inception, you know and love the unconventional hero, and the whimsical gameplay and graphics his games feature. These are shown off to their best in Kirby: Triple Deluxe.
The 13th platformer in the series sees Dream Land split apart by a huge beanstalk. Naturally, Kirby’s mission is to track down the miscreant responsible and restore harmony to his home. In addition to the core Story Mode, you can take time out and enjoy the two minigames, Dedede’s Drum Rush Z and Kirby Fighters Z.
Playing Kirby: Triple Deluxe is a wonderful experience; it’s colorful, charming, and suitable for the whole family. The title really utilizes 3D capabilities without giving you a headache!
8. New Super Mario Bros. 2 (2012) [UK]
This game works on so many levels. (Sorry.)
Mario has been a Nintendo staple since the early 1980s. Anyone picking up this 2012 game knows exactly what they’re getting: a bright, fun, and sometimes infuriating side-scrolling platformer. That doesn’t stop it from being thoroughly addictive, and without doubt one of the best titles on offer — not just for the 3DS but of any system.
This is obviously a sequel to 2006’s New Super Mario Bros. for the DS, and continues to encapsulate everything the franchise stands for. With more power-ups, downloadable content, and added emphasis on coin collecting, there’s enough material to revisit it time and time again. But due to its popularity, you may be hard-pressed to find it at a cheap price. At the time of writing, a copy on Amazon was going for about $30.
9. Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse (2014) [UK]
If you’ve never heard of the Shantae series before, you’re not alone. It’s well worth exploring the brand, however, because its stylized graphics, humor, and offbeat main characters have earned it a considerable global following.
Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is the third in the Shantae series, and was released on numerous platforms. However, it feels best suited for the compact nature of the 3DS. The aesthetics will no doubt remind you of the 16-bit days of the SNES and Genesis!
Its fast-paced action means a deceptively difficult game, dressed up with manga frivolities and a camp wit — key ingredients in making this release so endearing. If you’re interested in Shantae‘s origins, you can pick up the original Game Boy Color title for just $5 on the eShop.
10. Shovel Knight (2014) [UK]
If Shantae has you pining for simpler times, Shovel Knight is a must-have. Mixing 8-bit visuals with a modernist approach to design and gameplay, this title supersedes other retro-inspired indie games to achieve something truly special.
Again, it was released on a few systems, but definitely benefits from being played on a handheld device. Combining elements of DuckTales, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and Mega Man, Shovel Knight involves a quest to collect treasure and fight off the nefarious Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter… with a shovel.
Forget the NES Mini. If you want to go back to rose-tinted days, this is the most fun (and cost-effective!) way. You’ll come for the nostalgia, and stay for its inventiveness and levity. In the years since release, the developer has even added new DLC campaigns that let you play as some of the bosses.
11. Sonic Generations (2011) [UK]
Many Sonic the Hedgehog titles are available for the 3DS, but sadly, they’re not generally acclaimed. While Sonic Generations isn’t the best in the franchise, there’s nonetheless a lot of fun to be had, and it best captures the tone of the original games.
This is a case of old meets new, and in some ways comes together as a joyful appraisal of all Sonic’s best assets. You play as both classic and modern Sonic — the former as a 2D side-scrolling platformer, and the new counterpart in 3D — so these distinct styles certainly keep your interest. So too do the levels, drawn from across the series’ timeline, with bosses similarly snatched from different eras.
For all intents and purposes, this is a Sonic party, and it should be celebrated as such.
12. Super Mario 3D Land (2011) [UK]
We’ve argued that everyone knows what they’re going to get with a Mario game. Super Mario 3D Land (and Super Mario 3D World on Wii U) tried to subvert expectations, yet keep the familiar trappings that make the plumber’s titles so highly anticipated.
Princess Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser, and Mario’s off to rescue her. So far, so typical. But as creator Shigeru Miyamoto explains, this is a “3D Mario that plays as a 2D Mario game.” It’s a beautiful mix of Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Sunshine — a winning combination!
That much is evident from its critical and commercial successes. As of the end of 2016, it’s sold 11 million copies internationally, and was named Best Handheld Game in the 2011 Spike Video Game Awards. It’s also picked up awards for Game of the Year (Nintendo 3DS) by Go Nintendo, Best Platform Game by GameTrailers, and that year’s VGX for Best Handheld/Mobile Game.
13. Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask (2012) [UK]
The popularity of puzzle games was arguably spearheaded by the Professor Layton series. It’s certainly brought up whenever anyone mentions the genre, and became the most successful brand for developer Level 5 back in 2013.
Miracle Mask released as a 3DS launch title in Japan in 2011, then filtered across America, the U.K., and Australia the following year. It’s actually the middle game in a prequel trilogy, but fortunately doesn’t exclude newcomers. This is a prime example of how affecting and thought-provoking games can be. Miracle Mask presents players not only with a range of complex puzzles, but also an engaging narrative.
Because it’s a few years old, you should be able to pick this up pretty cheaply.
my love for the professor layton games is: pic.twitter.com/isgX99s6u9
— makki (@adoredan) March 26, 2017
14. Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (2014) [UK]
Puzzle and visual novel are two genres that should meld together well. Nonetheless, with Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright, the heavy-hitters from each category, crossing over, their respective fanbases were anxious to see how the two would marry up. Fortunately, this title received great acclaim upon its Japanese release in 2012, and international fans eventually persuaded its makers to distribute to other regions.
Players who have only experienced one of the two franchises might initially be on the back foot, but it doesn’t take long to get a hang of the pairing. After all, the analytical skills you’ve obtained from one are naturally transferable to the other (and, indeed, to everyday life).
Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney‘s strong narrative heart and design make this a distinctive, mad, and enjoyable installment in both series, and will hopefully introduce you to at least one new game series.
Love this? You’ll also like — Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy (2014)
15. Bravely Default (2014) [UK]
Bravely Default isn’t just the spiritual successor to 2009’s Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light — it was actually conceived as a sequel!
The game is accessible to those unfamiliar with Japanese RPGs, but challenging enough for hardcore players. Indeed, it remains one of the most difficult but addictive titles on the 3DS, and you’ll need to sink considerable hours in order to properly develop the skills to defeat big bosses. It’s worth it, however, and you won’t feel the time passing.
Bravely Default‘s storyline is strong, and its battles impressively innovative, but arguably the most successful element here is design. The world of Luxendarc (and beyond) is rendered beautifully, meaning the universe feels fantastic yet real. Dig in for a genuinely rewarding and stunning experience.
16. Mario and Luigi: Dream Team (2013) [UK]
Mario gets all the press and praise. You can’t blame Luigi for feeling a little resentful.
Fortunately, when traveling to the realm of dreams, Luigi outshines his brother — though the pair still rightly fight side by side against Dream Bowser and his minions. The action takes place as the Mario cast are on vacation, and that’s pretty much how Dream Team feels — like a wonderfully jovial holiday.
Especially as you can spawn loads of Luigis and mold them into all sorts of objects!
The gameplay brilliantly mixes role-playing strategies with platform ideals. Admittedly, it’s somewhat let down by the extensive tutorials. Still, there are plenty of great challenges on offer that these handy hints will help with. Because it’s a pretty long game, you can happily take it with you on a summer break.
17. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate (2015) [UK]
How immersive do you like your games? If you like a story that’ll pull you in for hours on end, and challenge you throughout, this title is the one for you.
As you can infer from its name, you split your time between hunting down and slaying fearsome monsters, and preparing for those battles. Originally made for a Japanese audience with the original 2004 PlayStation 2 game, Monster Hunter swiftly grew a following in the West, too. It’s no surprise: the quality and longevity of gameplay combine with gritty visuals to create a truly memorable adventure.
This is the second Monster Hunter for the 3DS, and if you’ve never played one before, this’ll seem pretty intimidating. But trust us: it’s worth it.
18. Pokémon Alpha Sapphire / Omega Ruby (2014) [UK/UK]
Some might think that Pokémon X and Y are superior (and they really are wonderful games), but for a particular generation, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire will tick more boxes and equal a more satisfying experience.
Legions of fans have heady memories of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, released in 2003. Just over a decade later, their remakes capture the magic of those gaming sessions, enhanced by truly stunning aesthetics — in 3D, no less! — and advancements from X and Y. Most notable is Mega Evolution, a method to increase the power of Pokémon once during battle with the assistance of a Mega Stone.
As of the end of 2016, these titles have sold some 13.68 million copies, and will surely soon beat the 16 million copies achieved by their early-2000s counterparts.
It doesn’t matter whether you’ve stayed true to the series or let your interest waiver over the years: these are the perfect pair to reignite your Pokémon passion.
19. Pokémon Sun / Moon (2016) [UK/UK]
Fresh from the monumental success of Pokémon Go, the brand returned to the 3DS two years after Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire — with big developments.
You get a whole new region to explore. Alola, based on Hawaii, comes with an array of new monsters (including the legendary Pokémon Solgaleo and Lunala in their respective titles), plus variations of classic first-generation Pokémon. For instance, the Alolan Vulpix is an Ice type, and accordingly comes with a cloud-like appearance. Exeggutor’s Alolan form has a neck that gives giraffes a run for their money, and Dugtrio now sports fetching blonde wigs, as if it’s a girly pop group.
The narrative is loose, so the onus is now more on training, filling out your Pokédex, and exploring the environs. Though you might argue the series hasn’t evolved as much as it could have, if it ain’t broke…
20. Animal Crossing: New Leaf (2012) [UK]
Is it fair to compare the Animal Crossing series to The Sims?
On the one hand, both are life simulations that indulge in the ridiculous, and have similarly sold enough copies to warrant a place in the hearts of global gamers. On the other, Animal Crossing‘s attitude is far more upbeat, its scope arguably bigger without the need for expansion packs, and it has far fewer errors that end up being mocked on Twitter.
"No, I must dance" pic.twitter.com/UDKwnYdku8
— The Sims Logic (@TheSimsLogic) January 6, 2016
This isn’t about challenges or boss fights or leveling up. Since its 2001 inception, the Animal Crossing franchise has become synonymous with feel-good fun, and New Leaf is the best at delivering that promise. The game personifies simplicity itself, wrapped up in cute visuals, with an emphasis on customization.
New Leaf also received a big update in 2016 that gives it Amiibo support!
21. Cooking Mama 5: Bon Appetit! (2014) [UK]
You might be new to simulation games and find the idea of them strange. Indeed, the premise for Cooking Mama is odd: you have to follow recipes, create tasty virtual dishes, and manage a kitchen in order to impress Mama.
Nonetheless, once you start, there’s plenty to keep you entertained. The various minigames prove addictive and will eat up hours of your day.
You won’t see this title on bestseller lists — nor being praised by critics — but there’s a beauty in its modesty, charisma, and simple but effective graphics. Not much has changed since the series’ DS debut in 2006, but perhaps that’s the key to its success. A well-honed recipe will yield pleasing results time after time.
22. Mario Golf: World Tour (2014) [UK]
Virtual golf games sound like a bore. Fortunately, the Mario series manages to heighten the excitement with its characteristically inventive charm, bright and fun design, and challenging style.
You don’t even have to be a big fan of golf. This release is a welcome breath of fresh air for the genre, offering near-endless fun with superb tournaments both via unlockable content and through its online capabilities. The tutorials aren’t taxing, and the difficulty levels increase just enough to spur you on, without making you feel like there’s a huge hurdle ahead.
More akin to crazy golf, Mario Golf: World Tour is simply a joy.
23. Mario Kart 7 (2011) [UK]
This series has a special place in the hearts of millions of gamers. And rightly so. Has there been a bad Mario Kart? Some installments were not quite as fantastic as we were expecting, but each one has remained a delight. This seventh title is no different, selling 14.82 million pieces worldwide as of December 2016. It’s thus the second best-selling 3DS release of all time (behind Pokémon X and Y‘s 16.1 million).
The 2011 version added new items, tracks, and characters, but its most significant addition is the ability to completely customize your kart. Bigger tires and different framework are all well and good, but pale in comparison to the handgliders. Yes, you can fly.
Just remembering long sessions playing Mario Kart 7 makes you want to pick it up again. That’s the sign of a quality game. It’s undoubtedly the best handheld Mario Kart ever.
24. Fire Emblem: Awakening (2013) [UK]
The popular Fire Emblem series burst onto the 3DS with a game that proved it still had plenty of mileage and relevance.
Competing with the rise of strategy games on smartphones, Awakening showcased the considerable ambitions of its developer, Intelligent Systems. And that’s just what this title is: smart. Fire Emblem is a game that encourages creative thinking. Turn-based strategy tests feel like playing chess, except the aesthetics are a real treat, and the characters never cease to entertain.
Overwhelming critical and commercial acclaim meant it was named the Best 3DS Game of 2013 by Metacritic. As one of the best Fire Emblem installments, you’d be mad to miss it.
25. Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward (2012) [UK]
A fantastic novel grabs you. It feels immersive, and offers you plenty to mull over. It stays with you, and when you read it again, you get a warm feeling.
This game is just the same, and is therefore one of the best examples of the visual novel genre on any system.
Virtue’s Last Reward is a follow-up to 2009’s Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors — a surprise hit for the DS. The sequel captures the same tone, albeit with an ingenious new narrative. This isn’t just a sequel for the sake of it. Developer Chunsoft and writer/director Kotaro Uchikoshi have put a great deal of consideration into delivering a tense plot, unusual structure, and thought-provoking challenges. It all adds up to an additive game that’ll likely result in a few sleepless nights.
All in all, a masterpiece.
Love this? You’ll also like — Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney — Dual Destinies (2013)
These 25 titles make purchasing a 3DS more than worth the cost. No matter your favorite genre, you’re sure to find something you will love from this list. If price is an issue, Nintendo sells a 2DS bundle with a copy of Mario Kart 7 for just $80!
I’ve probably missed your favorite game, haven’t I? Do you love shooters? What about Disney titles? Or superhero games? Which further releases deserved a place on our list? Let us know in the comments section!
Image Credit: chrisjohnsson via Shutterstock.com