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2014 in review: The year's must-play handheld games

At age 25, I'm starting to feel a little old.

It's not because I'm already a couple years into my career with college memories fading fast, or that weddings and baby showers are events I frequently attend. It has nothing to do with the fact that I now consider myself a master of cooking sort-of-alright things that are sometimes OK to eat. No, it's because I can barely get hooked on console games these days.

The demand of pouring time, hour after hour, in one spot seems archaic to me. If I'm curling up in bed, or more embarrassingly, nodding off on the couch, I'm probably about to drool on my Nintendo 3DS or PlayStation Vita. If I travel anywhere, it is imperative for me to pack my purse with both. Handhelds aren't my quick fix anymore — they're a source for some of the best games around.

Whether you're away from the TV or just need a solid list of new games for your handheld, here are the best selections for Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita from this year.


Bravely Default on Nintendo 3DS

In many ways, Square Enix's Bravely Default is reminiscent of classic role-playing games — specifically, Final Fantasy. A group of heroes, charged with a colossal task, must work together to stop evil. Although its story is familiar, Bravely Default infuses modern features into its gameplay. Turn-based battles become more strategic affairs as you can choose to attack or wait, gather strength and unleash more powerful attacks. Bravely Default combines and capitalizes on the best parts of RPGs.

binding of isaac rebirth

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth on PlayStation Vita

Released in 2011, The Binding of Isaac combined randomly generated dungeons with tough, roguelike gameplay to great success. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth repackages that into an even bigger experience that fits more conveniently in your bag. With included add-on content, new characters, new items, a new chapter and more, it's an easy choice for players both familiar with the old game and new to Isaac.

The game is also available on PC and consoles, but the handheld version makes it easier to sneak in a quick death.

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Danganronpa for PlayStation Vita

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc isn't just one of the Vita's best games, but one of the best games of the year. A murder mystery told through a visual novel, Trigger Happy Havoc stars a group of talented kids trapped in their high school. As if that doesn't sound like everyone's nightmare already, the students are given only one option for escape — kill another student, and then get away with it. The catch: If they're successful, everyone else dies.

Danganronpa mixes the bonding aspects of social sim games with the detective-style gameplay of Phoenix Wright. Its story is gripping, even at its goofiest, and nearly impossible to put down.

When you're finished with Trigger Happy Havoc, move on to its equally enticing sequel, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair. No spoilers.

final fantasy 10 hd

Final Fantasy 10/10-2 HD Remaster for PlayStation Vita

The best thing about the HD remaster for Final Fantasy 10 and 10-2 is that it packages these two classic JRPGs into one. Final Fantasy 10, arguably the last truly great Final Fantasy game, follows the story of a summoner named Yuna as she embarks on a journey to defeat a monster known as Sin. And OK, yes, the game actually stars a jock-type guy named Tidus, but we'll agree this is Yuna's story too, you know? It sticks to the classic role-playing rules with slow, strategic turn-based battles, a big party and a lot of serious narrative.

In a tonal departure from its predecessor, Final Fantasy 10-2 casts aside the heaviness of 10 and tries something a little more quirky. But in spite of its occasionally clunky story and cheesy musical numbers, 10-2 is fun, breezy play with an addictive job system and fast turn-based battles — who knew such a thing existed?

kirby triple deluxe

Kirby: Triple Deluxe for Nintendo 3DS

Pink, puffy and absolutely adorable, Kirby tends to be of the reliable sort when it comes to games. When you pick up a title in this Nintendo franchise, you can expect to platform, adopt new powers and eat a lot of things. Kirby: Triple Deluxe doesn't stray far from this formula, but it does make the most of it.


Luftrausers for PlayStation Vita

Airplane-filled shoot-'em-up Luftrausers is the latest game from Ridiculous Fishing creator Vlambeer. Like its predecessor, Luftrausers is absolutely addictive and has a certain nostalgic charm about it. But don't be fooled by its simple aesthetic — this is a tough game that requires constant vigilance as you attempt to navigate your ship through the sky and dodge enemy fire.


OlliOlli for PlayStation Vita

Roll7's OlliOlli is the slickest skateboarder we've encountered in a long time. It's built on a simple idea: Board and perform tricks to the best of your abilities without wiping out. And though you'll slam onto your face fast and frequently, it makes success all the more enjoyable.

If you dig the Vita version and want OlliOlli on your 3DS, keep your eyes peeled for a port in 2015.

persona q

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth for Nintendo 3DS

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth mixes together the cast and social elements of Persona games with the infamously tough dungeon-crawling of Etrian Odyssey games. The result? One of the best mashups in gaming.

You'll split your time between hanging with party members — a great way for Persona fans to reunite with old favorites — and exploring the game's punishing dungeons. Persona Q's random battles often prove to be tough enough, but the game adds another level of complexity with self-made maps. Persona Q is the best kind of fan-pleaser.

Before you get started, be sure to check out our tips for beginners.

pokemon omega ruby review hero The Pokémon Company

Pokémon Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire for Nintendo 3DS

Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire offer a revamped version of the original Ruby and Sapphire games released more than 10 years ago. In addition to a facelift, the game includes new story content and features that use the 3DS' capabilities.

But more importantly, a new year, a new Pokémon game — do you really need convincing?

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Rogue Legacy for PlayStation Vita

Rogue Legacy is a rogue-"lite" with a pretty cool twist: You don't play as a set hero, but continuing family members in their bloodline. This opens up the potential for hundreds of different characters, thanks to randomization of class, gender and bonus traits. And while these traits might not always help you — some will flip your run upside down, or change the game to black and white — they do keep things interesting.

Vita owners with a PS3 or PS4 can also play the game on consoles, as it's a cross-buy, cross-save title.

shovel knight

Shovel Knight for Nintendo 3DS

2D side-scroller Shovel Knight is the tale of yep, you guessed it, a knight with a shovel. More than that, however, Shovel Knight serves as an homage to the best games of the NES era. It recalls the look and difficulty of retro games, the mechanics of DuckTales and a sense of goofy joy that you rarely get in modern games.

As we said in our review, Shovel Knight is "the kind of game people write love letters about."

nintendo 3ds super smash bros

Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS

Super Smash Bros. is a solid choice every year a new one arrives, but in 2014, players got their first-ever handheld version. For a tiny game, Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo 3DS packs a lot, with almost 50 characters, a surprisingly deep customization system and tons of unlockables. And thanks to the 3DS, the game is a social affair more than ever. Playing Smash wherever you want, with whomever you want, makes this one of the strongest contributions to the series.

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Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call for Nintendo 3DS

Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call is the last rhythm-based Final Fantasy game we'll get, but it's not a bad way to go. In Curtain Call, you select characters from the full Final Fantasy roster and physically tap your way through famous series songs. The game packs in even more content than the last, with more than 200 songs (with more available through DLC), quests and different modes to play.

Curtain Call is charming for more than its cutesy visuals. It's a way for Final Fantasy fans to relive the best tracks and explore with favorite characters in a whole new way.


That wraps up our favorite handheld games of the year, but we'd love to know what kept you company. Tell us about your picks in the comments below.

This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.

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