The 12 Best Games on the 3DS

Ah, the Nintendo 3DS. The days when we weren’t sure about Nintendo’s handheld are long since behind us. Four years after the original 3DS launched, there’s a new version with better 3D, improved controls, and of course, a wealth of excellent games to play.

Below, find our 12 favorite games for the 3DS. All of these games will play on the original 3DS, the 2DS, and the New 3DS.

The 12 Best Games on the 3DS

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In Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you’ll decorate and expand a house, fish and catch bugs, and assume a number of mayoral duties—all while you make a bunch of new, quirky friends. Who knew that a sleepy town of anthropomorphic animals could be so fulfilling?

A Good Match For: Self-directed gamers with a strong, child-like sense of wonder and a penchant for creativity. You’re given a house and a whole town to play with, along with charming villagers. What will you do with it all, how will your personality shine?

Not a Good Match For: Those who want something fast-paced. This isn’t a game you’ll want to run in, and most of the exciting things tend to happen “tomorrow.” Anything worthwhile requires patience in this game.

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The 12 Best Games on the 3DSFire Emblem: Awakening revolves around two things: Complex tactical combat and sweet, sweet romance. It’s a turn-based tactical role-playing game like Final Fantasy Tactics or Devil Survivor, but with a twist: As your combatants fight alongside one another, they can fall in love. If you keep them paired up, they’ll boost one another’s stats, and they can even get married and have kids together. Without all the love and marriage, Fire Emblem: Awakening would be an immaculately designed, rewarding, and difficult strategy game. With all the love and marriage, it becomes one of the best strategy games on any system, and certainly one of the best games on the 3DS.

A Good Match For: Strategy fans, people who like games where loss carries real consequences, romantics, micromanagers, matchmakers.

Not a Good Match For: Those who want-paced action, uncomplicated rules, unchallenging games, or main characters who have feet.

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The 12 Best Games on the 3DS

The latest Phoenix Wright game is the best one yet, and that’s saying something, given the generally high quality of Capcom’s long-running series of comical lawyer-simulators. One part detective game and one part visual novel, Dual Destinies tells the tale of defense attorney Phoenix Wright and his can-do subordinates Apollo Justice and Athena Cykes as they embark upon zany adventures in the name of justice. The new game is a great entry point for the series, as knowledge of past games isn’t required, though there are still plenty of fun callbacks for longtime fans. Phoenix’s world may be trapped in a dark age of the law, but Dual Destinies is a 3DS bright spot.

A Good Match For: Wannabe detectives, anime fans, people who like jokes, hawk-enthusiasts.

Not a Good Match For: Those who want a lot of action—Phoenix Wright games involve a lot of reading, and the new one is no different.

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Purchase From: Available digitally from the Nintendo eShop.

The 12 Best Games on the 3DS

There hasn’t been an action role-playing game quite like The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds in more than 20 years. What began as a remake of the Super Nintendo classic The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is now one of the most delightfully charming adventures available on any game platform. The perfect melding of the old and new into something better than the sum of its parts.

A Good Match For: Old-school role-playing fans looking to recapture the magic of the 2D era without sacrificing fidelity — and just about everyone else.

Not a Good Match For: Sub-humans. People allergic to joy.

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The 12 Best Games on the 3DS

Sequels don’t all have to be bad. Take Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon. It’s a follow-up to sequel to the 2001 GameCube game that will make players chuckle, as Mario’s skinnier brother suck sucks up ghosts using a souped-up vacuum. More than that, though, it’s a new installment that successfully adds multiplayer and new mechanics—love that Dark Light!—in ways that don’t ruin an already-fun experience.

A Good Match For: Sidekick lovers. Sure, he’s a big ol’ fraidy-cat in this game but Luigi gets to amble through an exceedingly clever set of designs in Dark Moon. Whether it’s things like pulling away curtains to reveal coins and secret passages or stunning a handful of ghosts to suck them up all at once, Luigi feels resourceful in a way that’s not possible when he’s playing second fiddle to Mario.

Not a Good Match For: Those who want to leave previously explored environments behind. This Luigi’s Mansion makes you backtrack and revisit various levels a lot, without offering up compelling reasons for doing so.

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The 12 Best Games on the 3DS

So you want to go hunting monsters, do you? Stand toe to toe with a leviathan, kill it, and wear its face for a hat? Well, your game is here. Grab some friends (or a friendly cat), chow down on some delicious food, suit up, and go do something reckless. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate takes the series’ tried-and-true formula and improves on it in several welcome ways. Get past the initial learning curve, and it’ll become a minor obsession.

A Good Match For: Those looking for a demanding, rewarding action game; people with a few friends to play with; anyone who ever wanted to adventure alongside a talking cat.

Not a Good Match For: Those who’d rather play something simple—MH4U is the most welcoming game in the series, but it’s still loaded with complicated menus and dense terminology, especially at first.

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The 12 Best Games on the 3DS

The Mario Kart formula wasn’t broken so you can’t say that Nintendo needed to fix it. What they did need to do, though, for the franchise’s 3DS debut was find a way to add new elements that would tap into the device’s key features. Hence, the addition of glider wings, aerial sections, submersible karts and underwater detours. You can steer using the gyroscope while airborne and the will get the benefit of a nice 3D pop when you’re soaring or submerged. Just goes to show that your wheels don’t have to be in the ground for a Mario Kart to still be great.

A Good Match for: Bumper car addicts. The wild unpredictability of Mario Kart races are what make them so fun. Just like the theme park staple, there’s only a loose connection to these vehicles and actual real-world automobiles. Until Toyota includes a forcefield as a standard option, that is.

Not a Good Match For: Those who want customization choice. While the ability to swap out bodies and add on details is a new one in MK7, new parts get doled out to you automatically.

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The 12 Best Games on the 3DS

Could the sixth Professor Layton game really be the best one? It’s at least the best one on the 3DS, trumping the already-impressive Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask as it caps off the Layton series’ prequel trilogy. (In terms of timeline placement, think Star Wars… this game is the Revenge of the Sith, but just way better).

Professor Layton games present a mix of exploration-based, story-heavy adventuring mixed with lots and lots of brain teasers and other puzzles to solve. In this game, which you can enjoy with no prior knowledge of the others, Layton and friends are trying to unlock the power of an ancient civilization and are doing so in a game that actually plays out as a series of short adventures nestled within one grand globe-spanning episode. The game is more open-world than its predecesors—not quite Grand Theft Layton, but nevertheless set in a rich world full of colorful characters with lots of things to do and more player choice regarding in which order you’ll do them.

A Good Match For: People who like puzzles and thinking—and who want a game that unlocks new puzzles every day for a year following its release date.

Not a Good Match For: Fans of the earlier Laytons on the Nintendo DS who want a swift-playing 12-hour adventure with minimal chatter. There’s a lot of story in this one and at least double the play time.

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The 12 Best Games on the 3DS

For years, Majora’s Mask was the “cool” Zelda game, the one the hip kids all said was their favorite. Now it’s been re-released on 3DS, and we can all play it and see… oh, hey, the hip kids were totally right, this game is amazing. It’s not much like any other Zelda game, but that’s a good thing. Don’t let the time constraint or the freaky moon stress you out. It’ll all be fine…

A Good Match For: Anyone who didn’t play it the first time around, anyone who did play it the first time around.

Not A Good Match For: The easily stressed, those who hate having a time constraint, anyone who didn’t like it the first time around.

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The 12 Best Games on the 3DS

BoxBoy is an excellent teacher. The side-scrolling puzzle game will show you how to do something new—like, say, how to get your little replicating box person to build himself into a hook and climb over a ledge—and then it will let you figure out how best to use that knowledge. It starts simply, asks little of you and then, soon enough, has taught you moves that would have seemed like wizardry mere minutes before. The last game to do that this well was Portal, and yeah, we know that’s a bold statement.

A Good Match For: People who like brain-tickling games, people who like solving puzzles, fans of boxes.

Not A Good Match For: People who hate boxes, people who need their games to be in color.

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Purchase From: Available digitally from the Nintendo eShop.

The 12 Best Games on the 3DS

While Pokémon has always been a staple of Nintendo handhelds, Pokémon X & Y are definitely the highlights of the franchise. You’ll still play as a kid who catches and raises as many cool or cute creatures as he/she can, and you’ll use those beasts in battle against friends and rivals. But the games feel somehow more indulgent this time around. Pokémon can mega evolve into ridiculous forms. You can pet and play with your favorite ‘mon. You can dress your character up and be as stylish as you want. You can connect with players around the world and trade with ease, which really helps keep the game from feeling lonesome. And you’ll get to explore a country that looks suspiciously like France, all while shredding on skates or a bike.

A Good Match For: Those who don’t need a stiff challenge—the new Pokémon is definitely an RPG that you’ll play mostly because it’s charming, though competitive play does provide good material for those looking for a challenge.

Not a Good Match For: Jason Schreier, aka those looking for a mature, nuanced story—Pokemon likes to keep it simple. Also probably not a good match for people that dislike the idea of owning pets or raising cool/cute things.

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The 12 Best Games on the 3DS

Of course, it’s a Super Mario game that validates the decision to base Nintendo’s newest hardware around glasses-free stereoscopic 3D. Even with the gameplay as familiar as always, the mid-air blocks and moving hazards seem more dreamlike and surreal than ever, floating somewhere between the device and your brain.

A Good Match For: Folks who need a little bit of help. 3D Land riffs on the play-assisting Guide features that Nintendo’s been putting in games for the last year or so with the Super Tanooki Suit, which makes you nigh-invulnerable

Not a Good Match For: Those who want the rug to stay right where it is. If Super Mario 3D Land’s rug is warm nostalgia, then it gets ripped out from you once you finish it the first time. A whole new level of challenge opens up for subsequent playthroughs and there’s nothing warm about it.

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The 12 Best Games on the 3DS

How has this list changed? Read back through our update history:

Update 8/12/2015: List mainstay Pushmo has been edged out by the upstart BoxBoy.

Update 3/2/2015: Mario & Luigi Dream Team and Bravely Default step aside to make room for The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D and Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate.

Update 11/26/2014: The big fall update is... there is no update. All 12 games on this list have held strong in the face of some worthy challengers. Good show, games.

Update 4/02/2014 : We’ve made a Layton swap, subbing Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy for last year’s Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask.

Update 2/21/14 : We’ve retired Project X Zone to make room for the fantastic JRPG Bravely Default.

Update 12/11/13 : We’ve launched a newly redesigned Bests and have taken the opportunity to swap out some old games with some new ones. Resident Evil Revelations, Kid Icarus Uprising and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time have made way for new additions Pokémon X & Y, Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.

Update 08/28/13: Today saw the announcement of an all-new Nintendo handheld called the 2DS, which will play all the games in the 3DS catalog without the 3D. In honor of this news, we’ve given the Bests list for the 3DS an once-over. And what do you know, it sure seems like it’s time for one Mario game to take the place of another. Out you go, New Super Mario Bros 2. And hello to Mario & Luigi: Dream Team.

Update 07/05/13: Nintendo’s handheld continues to build an impressive library of titles. Two of the latest releases are so good we think they deserve a spot on this Bests list. Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Project X Zone jump onto the list, knocking off Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars and Ketzal’s Corridors.

Update 04/18/13: Why should Mario get all the fun? Somebody at Nintendo decided that he shouldn’t, because there’s a ton of enjoyment to be had in Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, which joins the 3DS Bests list. So, say a fond farewell to Cave Story 3D and shake hands with Nintendo’s other adventuring plumber.

Update 02/26/13: The call has sounded! And it says “Fire Emblem is pretty great!” Who are we to ignore the call? Of course, one game has to get the boot to make way for Intelligent Systems’ fine RPG. So, wave goodbye to Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition and say hello to an addictive new handheld experience.

Update 11/14/12: We’ve added the newest Professor Layton to our Bests list for Nintendo’s stereoscopic portable. Whether you’ve sporting the original 3DS or the newer, super-sized version, these games will make the most of the handheld.

The 12 Best Games on the 3DS

Want more of the best games on each system? Check out our complete directory:

The Best PC GamesThe Best PS4 GamesThe Best Xbox One GamesThe Best Wii U GamesThe Best 3DS GamesThe Best PS Vita GamesThe Best Xbox 360 GamesThe Best PS3 GamesThe Best Wii GamesThe Best iPhone GamesThe Best iPad GamesThe Best Android GamesThe Best PSP GamesThe Best Facebook GamesThe Best DS GamesThe Best Mac GamesThe Best Browser GamesThe Best PC Mods

Note: While some games on this list are download-only, most if not all of them can be purchased through the 3DS’ online store. If you buy any of these games through the retail links in this post, our parent company may get a small share of the sale through the retailers’ affiliates program.