The best of the Nintendo 3DS: a guide

The venerable Nintendo 3DS is well into its twilight years. After a rocky, uncertain launch, the system built a following and a library that allowed it to become one of the most successful systems released, and it certainly has the top-tier games to show for it. Before you put the handheld into long-term storage (or if you’re picking up one for cheap now that they’re largely off the market), check out our guide for the best the system has to offer!

Updated 12/16/20!

Editors’ Note: While Michibiku typically focuses its coverage on Japanese games, this guide will cover games developed in all territories.

The Hardware

The most difficult thing about the Nintendo 3DS may be parsing its hardware lineup and finding the best option for you. Our heartiest recommendation goes to the New Nintendo 3DS, the faceplate-sporting, cool-colored-button-having release that delivers both on pure system specs and on the ease of use and travel needed with a handheld platform. The New 3DS XL adds bulk without power and often comes in cases that show fingerprints and wear in a truly annoying way, and the latest release, the New 2DS XL… well, it doesn’t have 3D! And that won’t bother everyone, but that function truly shows what the 3DS can do that others can’t, and we’d hate to throw out that possibility.

Also, though, all 3DS and 2DS models play 3DS games. There’s not a crucial release that needs the extra power and functions of the “new” models (even though they’re nice), so getting yourself any of them is fine in a pinch.

The Essentials

Fire Emblem: Awakening

2013, Intelligent Systems/Nintendo — Retail/eShop
The game that saved — and, in many ways, truly launched — the franchise, Awakening is a labor of love that showcases all of the most interesting tactical systems of Fire Emblem‘s history. With a story that serves primarily to facilitate interesting support and inheritance systems, it puts its neck on the line for its ideas and is all the better for it. You’ll get attached to your characters through their quirks and strategic use, not just through arbitrary story moments. And you can play at the pace and difficulty you find most comfortable, but we’d strongly recommend Classic mode so the game’s real tension to shine through and force you to make daring moves to save your squadmates. – Graham

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

2013, Nintendo — Retail/eShop
Nintendo rarely makes direct sequels, and when it does, it’s usually immediately after the previous game’s development. So A Link Between Worlds, a followup to a SNES release decades earlier, is certainly a weird one. But its appeal isn’t just nostalgia! The game plays with the ideas of depth and wall travel, while also modernizing its approach to linearity in dungeons. You’ll probably still have more fun if you’ve played A Link to the Past, but on its own it’s still the best two-dimensional Zelda adventure. – Graham

Sega 3D Classics Collection

2016, Sega — Retail/eShop
For a system where its 3D effects were intended to be so important, they were actually put into the handheld’s name, you would expect more games to take advantage of that technology. Unfortunately, it is a rare and often ignored element. Unless, of course, you are playing the Sega 3D Classics Collection. This is an opportunity to play Altered Beast, Fantasy Zone, Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa, Fantasy Zone II W, Galaxy Force II, Maze Hunter 3-D, Power Drift, Puyo Puyo 2, Sonic the Hedgehog and Thunder Blade. By the way, this is the first time Power Drift and Puyo Puyo 2 appeared outside of Japan. Each one has stereoscopic 3D effects, some support local multiplayer, there may be save states and you can enjoy other features that help make these occasionally difficult games a little more accommodating. – Jenni

Kirby: Planet Robobot

2016, HAL Laboratory/Nintendo — Retail/eShop
Kirby‘s more traditional outings are about two things: having pleasant fun and playing around with powers. In addition to being nice and shiny, Robobot experiments with sprinkling in the third dimension in otherwise-2D platforming, and it uses its big robot armor to give Kirby additional ability sets for absorbed powers. It’s inventive in ways that some of the pink puffball’s recent “boring” entries haven’t managed, and for those who have just tuned in when Kirby gets good and weird, this one’s worth a closer look. – Graham

Rhythm Heaven Megamix

2016, Nintendo — eShop
We’ve heaped praise upon Rhythm Heaven Megamix before, but in case you missed it: it compiles the best the series with new games and puts it on a system that has no problem just letting it use much more precise button controls rather than crossing fingers and hoping stylus play works right or demanding precise TV calibration. It’s so full of charm in a way that beat-based microgames really shouldn’t be able to muster, and even longtime series players will find new twists (and gems from Rhythm Heaven‘s Japan-only GBA game) to savor. – Graham

Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past

2016, Square Enix/Nintendo — Retail/eShop
Dragon Quest VII arrived at a time when Dragon Quest was a phenomenon overseas, but not as well known in other regions. As such, many probably missed out on the PlayStation original. Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past a full 3DS remake from ArtePiazza, remedies that. It has a new translation, 3D graphics, a tablet radar system, job system improvements, an extra character, more equipment, randomized dungeons people can access via swapping StreetPass tablets and a bonus dungeon. It is essentially the ultimate edition of one of the best Dragon Quest games. – Jenni

Super Mario 3D Land

2011, Nintendo — Retail/eShop
Mario’s strongest outing on the handheld is a showcase of the system’s 3D capabilities. (You know, if you have one of the 3D-capable ones.) It uses the idea of three-dimensional space and revels in the presence of a third-person camera. It’s paired with Wii U release Super Mario 3D World in many of its ideas, but its single-player focus means it’s the only game to really do what it does. It’s a can’t miss Mario experience. – Graham

Fantasy Life

2014, 1-UP/Level-5/Nintendo — Retail/eShop
It’s the ultimate comfort food game: an action-RPG with quests to complete, jobs to master and lands to explore. You can spend time cooking, you can take on big monsters or you could just fish if you want! Half-Rune Factory, half-Animal Crossing, it’s all wrapped up in Level-5’s signature charm. Lose a few hundred hours with it and regret nothing. – Graham

The Gems

7th Dragon III: Code VFD

2016, Sega — Retail/eShop
In many RPGs, the world depends on you. In 7th Dragon III: Code VFD, multiple time periods all fall within your jurisdiction. Dragons are descending to consume life as we know it, and it is up to players to determine the best way to address the situation. You build up your teams, choosing exactly what character classes and builds to use. You traverse different eras, facing general and True Dragons. If all goes well, you might just save the day and complete quests to create your own cat café. – Jenni

Gotta Protectors

2016, Ancient — eShop
Combining nostalgia with modern ideas is a path to success, and Gotta Protectors does that with its gameplay, writing, visuals and top-notch soundtrack to deliver a “small” game that shines even surrounded by polished, first-party peers. It’s an action-tower-defense game, essentially, every bit as Dungeon Defenders as it is Gauntlet but with a progression and loadout system that beats both of those franchises. It may not have online multiplayer, but its implementation of local play is worth the hassle of getting four people and 3DS systems in the same place — and it could be the best case for the concept since the days of link cables. – Graham

Ever Oasis

2017, Grezzo/Nintendo — Retail/eShop
Fast isn’t always best. Sometimes, you need an adventure you can stretch out over days, weeks or even months. Ever Oasis is that game. It combines town maintenance duties plucked from games like Animal Crossing or Harvest Moon and mixes them with The Legend of Zelda-like action-RPG dungeon crawls. It might just be one of the most mellow games on the Nintendo 3DS, even though it tasks you with destroying an evil that is ravaging an entire ecosystem. – Jenni

Puzzle & Dragons Z

2015, GungHo/Nintendo — Retail/eShop
Know all the things you don’t like about mobile games? That they have exploitative business models, that they’re unbalanced to support those business models, that they don’t present a unified whole and seek to keep you coming back through drip-feeding content? Hey, Puzzle & Dragons Z doesn’t have those! It’s a coherent, engaging puzzle-RPG with tons of fun creatures to use and a base puzzle formula that really is that good. You can ignore the Mario side of the Western release — it’s a separate game without a lot to it — but Z does more than enough to carry the package. – Graham


2015, Intelligent Systems/Nintendo — eShop
Do you like thinking about how things fit together? I certainly do! Apparently, Intelligent Systems does as well, as it created Stretchmo! The fourth entry in the Pushmo series sees players helping Mallo, a sumo wrestler, save children who found themselves inadvertently trapped in puzzles while playing on them. Each one condensed down to a single player, and it is up to you to push, pull, and stretch blocks to help Mallo traverse the area and reach the child at the top. Each one really makes you think! Plus, there are over 250 total courses, provided you purchase the Playtime Plaza, Sculpture Square, Fortress of Fun, NES Expo and Perilous Peak packs. And, if you still don’t have enough puzzles, you can use the editor to make your own! It is great. – Jenni

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker

2015, Atlus — Retail/eShop
Sure, there are demons and you can fuse them, but don’t confuse them: each brings its own tactical options to your squads and should be used in different ways. Atlus’ enhanced port of Devil Survivor 2 packs in even more demons-fighting-demons action, combining its dungeon-crawler combat with grid-based maps that give it a feeling that’s not like either of those often-overdone genres. If you like fine-tuning your units and giving them just what they need to get stronger and have all the options they need in battle, you need to check this one out, because no game does it better. – Graham

Picross 3D: Round 2

2016, HAL Laboratory/Nintendo — eShop
There’s a saying that sculptors aren’t really creating art, and that they are really just chipping away at a block to find a form already hidden inside. Well, in Picross 3D: Round 2 we get to be the sculptor. This takes the classic nonogram and transforms it into a three-dimensional block. We chip away at the indicated numbers to reveal a shape within. If you happen to have some amiibo, that shape might just be an iconic Kirby character. This is one of those relaxing games that makes you think, then rewards you with a delightful character or item as a reward for your efforts. – Jenni

Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight

2015, Atlus — Retail/eShop
Prepare yourself for the game that will make you fall in love with cartography. The Etrian Odyssey series relishes the minor details, glorifying dungeon-crawling, party customization and map making since the first game debuted on the Nintendo DS in 2007. Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold does its best to make the series more accessible, as it is a remake of the second installment that offers a Story mode with voice acting and pre-made characters in addition to the original Classic mode. It also has Picnic, Normal and Expert gameplay, so everyone can have the exact turn-based, mission-based adventure they want and need. – Jenni

The Curiosities

Pocket Card Jockey

2016, Game Freak/Nintendo — eShop
When Game Freak isn’t making Pokemon games, it sometimes spends its time experimenting with unorthodox adventures. One such outing is Pocket Card Jockey, a horse racing game where players go through hands of solitaire for each race. The more hands you match and complete, the greater your unity with the horse. This has a direct effect on the animal’s movement and speed. The better you do, the higher levels it reaches and better babies it breeds. Is it weird? Absolutely. But, it’s also one of the best card and simulation games on the Nintendo 3DS. – Jenni

The Denpa Men 3: The Rise of Digitoll

2014, Genius Sonority — eShop
Walk around the city! Find cool creatures! Catch them with your camera! Fight with your favorites! Does… does that sound familiar? Yep, The Denpa Men did the Pokemon Go thing first and better, building around an innovative party system and focusing on dungeon-crawling and the single-player experience rather than flimsy competitive play. Try it for yourself! Really. It’s a lot of fun to find your favorite Denpa Men generated from Wi-Fi signals and build out a team that works effectively. – Graham

Attack of the Friday Monsters!: A Tokyo Tale

2011, Level-5/Nintendo — eShop
The closest thing we’ll likely ever get to a localized Boku no Natsuyasumi, this game explores not just the events of an idyllic childhood but also the feeling of it. It captures the feeling of having free time and an unbridled imagination to pursue. It’s a small game, an experiment in the Guild (or Black Box) collection that gave 3DS owners a whole host of inventive releases. – Graham

Culdcept Revolt

2017, Omiya Soft/Nintendo/NIS America — Retail/eShop
Okay, bear with me for a minute. Culdcept Revolt is both a property-management board game and card game at the same time. It also has a rather lengthy campaign and cards you can customize and evolve. Weird, right? But it is odd in the best sort of way. You build a deck of cards, containing monsters that could be neutral or from four different elements and items. You then take this deck to a board and attempt to dominate it, placing monsters on squares to acquire territories and accumulate manna. The person with the most magic wins. But really, everyone who gets to play Culdcept Revolt wins, because it is such a good game. – Jenni

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars

2011, Ubisoft — Retail/eShop
The best 3DS launch game started life on the handheld’s predecessor and was shepherded by X-COM creator Julian Gollop. It’s barely Ghost Recon, instead using the trappings of a covert team to build a tactical strategy game that plays with elevation and weapon ranges to give it a feel totally distinct from games like Fire Emblem and Advance Wars. It’s a great little morsel of interesting decisions. – Graham

Style Savvy: Trendsetters

2012, Syn Sophia/Nintendo — Retail/eShop
Aren’t dress-up games for girls? Nope! Besides, Style Savvy: Trendsetters is about more than getting clothes and dressing up characters. It is actually a shop management simulation where you accumulate attire for men and women. There are over 12,000 different pieces of clothing to choose from, taken from 19 brands, and you need to decide which items to stock in your shop and recommend to customers. You can even participate in competitions to show how well you can meet criteria. While subsequent entries added design elements, this installment is best for people who really want to put together a shop that can cater to their clientele’s wants and needs. – Jenni

Inazuma Eleven

2014, Level-5 — eShop
The long-running Inazuma Eleven series got lots of releases in Japan and Europe, but America got this one: a 3DS port of the original DS game. Luckily, it’s still great! You don’t have to like sports to like this charming JRPG with a cool tactical battle system and a ton of playable characters to recruit. It’s exciting and relaxing and engrossing and all the sorts of things that you want a game to be. There just happens to be soccer also! Please play it. – Graham

Tomodachi Life

2014, Nintendo — Retail/eShop
I am still amazed that Tomodachi Life managed to make it overseas. This is a life simulation game where the player is more of an observer who watches what Miis get up to in their daily lives. These are mostly self sufficient individuals, but you can feed them, offer them clothes and help them interact with one another. You might even help with some matchmaking, which can result in marriages and children. It is like owning a fish tank filled with avatars of family members, friends, and perhaps even some fictional or actual celebrities. You know, a diversion you fire up when you – Jenni

Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.

2015, Intelligent Systems/Nintendo — Retail/eShop
Wait! Come back! Seriously, it got a bad rap at release for various reasons out of its control, but Intelligent Systems’ other strategy game has a heck of a lot going for it. It’s a game that uses observation to its advantage. It has a fun cast of characters, each playing differently and making you adjust your tactics. It even has a fun online multiplayer mode if you can find a friend to play, and the game’s cheap enough that you can buy two and send one to a friend to do just that. You can use the fast-forward function to make enemy turns pass faster if you really want, but we don’t recommend it… that’s a valuable recon opportunity. – Graham

The Imports

Oh, hey! We have a whole separate guide for those! Check it out; many of the Nintendo 3DS’ best releases are Japan-only.

This list of games, while not an exhaustive catalog of every good thing on the platform, should give you a well-rounded, fulfilling Nintendo 3DS experience. And so many are replayable! We’ll definitely miss our 3DS, but that doesn’t mean we’re letting it go anytime soon.

Questions? Comments? Talk to us on Twitter or Facebook!