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The 7 Best Nintendo 3DS Action Games That Every Gamer Needs to Experience

When it comes to on-the-go gaming, few handhelds can match the incredible library and legacy of the Nintendo 3DS. Released in 2011 as the successor to the wildly popular Nintendo DS, the 3DS introduced glasses-free stereoscopic 3D to handheld gaming. But beyond the flashy tech, it was ultimately the games that made the 3DS such a must-have device for any Nintendo fan.

In particular, the 3DS became a haven for action games of all kinds. The system‘s processing power allowed for more ambitious titles compared to the original DS, while the 3D effect, dual screens, and precise button controls were all expertly leveraged by developers. Whether you prefer 2D side-scrollers, 3D platformers, beat ‘em ups, or fast-paced arcade action, the 3DS has something for you.

But with a library of over 1,300 physical and digital games, which action titles truly stand out from the pack? I‘ve poured over critic reviews and fan feedback to narrow it down to the 7 absolute best Nintendo 3DS action games of all time. If you‘re an action junkie, you owe it to yourself to track down and play each and every one of these stellar titles.

#7: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 3D

Kicking off our list is a stone-cold classic of the 16-bit era: Sonic the Hedgehog 2, now masterfully ported to the 3DS with added depth and visual flair. Originally released for the Sega Genesis in 1992, Sonic 2 refined the breakneck speed and momentum-based platforming of the original game while adding Sonic‘s sidekick Tails into the mix.

In 2015, developer M2 and Sega brought Sonic 2 to the 3DS with an immaculate port that runs in a crisp, colorful resolution. But the real star here is the 3D effect. Sonic‘s loops and corkscrews pop off the screen, while foreground elements like trees and clouds create an impressive sense of depth and immersion. It‘s enough to make you forget about Sonic‘s more modern, uneven 3D outings.

Of course, underneath the cosmetic upgrade is still the same incredible "run-and-gun" gameplay that made Sonic 2 a hit in the first place. With memorable zones like Chemical Plant and Casino Night, clever new abilities like the Spin Dash, and the thrilling race against Metal Sonic, this game absolutely deserves a spot in your 3DS collection. The 3D enhancements just sweeten the deal.

#6: Rage of the Gladiator

Here‘s an under-the-radar 3DS action gem that deserves way more love and attention. Originally released in 2010 as a WiiWare title, Rage of the Gladiator is a fantasy-themed first-person fighting game that feels like a successor to Punch-Out!!. You play as Gracius, a gladiator out for revenge against the evil sorcerer who murdered his father.

What sets Rage of the Gladiator apart is its cleverly designed enemy encounters. Each opponent has their own distinct weapons, attacks, and behaviors that you‘ll need to learn and exploit. One foe might throw daggers from afar that you need to deflect with your shield, while another will bum rush you with a spear that requires precisely timed dodges. The game steadily layers on new mechanics to keep you on your toes.

The 3DS version not only adds a nice stereoscopic effect but also touchscreen controls for your shield that work wonderfully. And despite the budget price, this is a surprisingly meaty game with branching paths, upgradable weapons and armor, and loads of endearing voice acting. If you love skill-based action games, Rage of the Gladiator will absolutely delight you.

#5: Streets of Rage 2 3D

Widely considered one of the best 16-bit beat ‘em ups ever made, Streets of Rage 2 got the 3D Classics treatment on the 3DS in 2015. For the uninitiated, Streets of Rage 2 is a side-scrolling brawler originally released for the Genesis in 1992. You and a buddy pick from four badass characters as you fight your way through seedy city streets and the army of Mr. X, a ruthless crime syndicate boss.

So what makes this decades-old game still worth playing today? The answer is simple: it absolutely nails the fundamentals. The controls are tight and responsive, allowing you to string together deeply satisfying combos with punches, kicks, throws, and jump attacks. The level design constantly keeps you engaged with new enemy types and memorable set pieces, like the battle atop a moving elevator. And it‘s all backed by one of the most iconic soundtracks in all of gaming, a gritty blend of house, techno, and funk.

The 3DS version is arguably the definitive way to play. The 3D effect is subtle but adds pleasing depth to the comic book-like visuals. More importantly, this version includes two crucial new modes not found in the original game. Rage Relay lets you and a friend swap between characters between deaths, while Casual Mode offers a more forgiving, modernized take on the brutal difficulty. But if you‘re a Streets of Rage veteran, you can stick to the hardcore vanilla experience.

#4: Gunstar Heroes 3D

Another fantastic Sega 3D Classic for the 3DS, Gunstar Heroes is a frenetic run-and-gun shooter that absolutely oozes style. Developer Treasure was and still is the master of intense 2D action, as evidenced by games like Dynamite Headdy, Mischief Makers, and Ikaruga. But for my money, Gunstar Heroes remains their crowning masterpiece.

You play as either Gunstar Red or Gunstar Blue, a pair of mercenary brothers on a mission to save the world from an empire made of jelly beans. (Just roll with it.) What follows is an onslaught of explosive, neon-drenched 2D shooting across a series of wildly inventive stages. You‘ll climb the spiky pillars of a temple while dodging laser fire, leap across crumbling rooftops during a high-speed hoverbike chase, and even battle a gigantic rolling die inside a board game.

The 3DS port is a loving recreation of the 1993 Genesis original, complete with multiple difficulty options, local co-op, and a host of unlockable weapons. And just like the Sonic and Streets of Rage ports, the 3D effect adds an impressive layer of visual polish and immersiveness. If you‘ve never experienced the manic brilliance of Gunstar Heroes, this is absolutely the way to do it.

#3: Super Mario 3D Land

You didn‘t think we‘d make it through this list without an appearance from Nintendo‘s mustachioed mascot, did you? As a huge fan of the mainline Mario games (which I consider the pinnacle of 3D platformers), I‘m thrilled to say that Super Mario 3D Land fully lives up to the high standards set by its console cousins.

Released in 2011, Super Mario 3D Land brilliantly captures the essence of Mario gameplay while catering it to a handheld experience. Levels are shorter and breezier than in the sprawling Super Mario Galaxy games, allowing for quick pick-up-and-play sessions. But there‘s still plenty of depth to uncover, especially if you go for all 90 Star Medals.

What really impresses me is how well the game takes advantage of the 3DS hardware. Not only does the 3D effect look fantastic, drawing you into the Mushroom Kingdom in a whole new way, but many levels are actually designed around the depth. You‘ll find yourself leaping between foreground platforms and tilting the system to line up jumps through the background. Later stages even play with AR, having you physically walk around to peer behind objects using the system‘s gyroscope.

Add in the return of the fan favorite Tanooki Suit, a generous hint system for newcomers, and an unlockable Luigi campaign, and you have a new gold standard for portable Mario. Don‘t you dare sleep on this one.

#2: Shovel Knight

Next up, we have an indie sensation that rose from humble Kickstarter beginnings to become one of the most acclaimed and beloved 2D action games in years. I‘m talking, of course, about Shovel Knight.

Developed by Yacht Club Games, Shovel Knight is a loving ode to the 8-bit platformers of the NES era, combining the level design of Mega Man, the RPG elements of Zelda II, and the tight controls of DuckTales. You play as the eponymous Shovel Knight on a quest to rescue his partner Shield Knight and defeat the dastardly Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter.

What elevates Shovel Knight above mere retro pastiche is how fully realized it feels. The pixel art is bursting with personality, from the expressive character sprites to the lushly detailed backgrounds. The chiptune music is catchy as all heck. And the level design constantly surprises, pitting you against massive bosses, tricky platforming gauntlets, and clever AI opponents that demand strategic approaches.

But Shovel Knight‘s greatest strength is its staggering amount of content. The original campaign is meaty enough on its own, but free updates have nearly quadrupled it in size with three additional character campaigns, challenge mode, body-swap mode, and even a fighting-game inspired multiplayer battle mode. And it‘s all presented in glorious stereoscopic 3D on the 3DS version.

It‘s hard to oversell just how much passion and polish is packed into Shovel Knight. This is a masterpiece that can proudly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the classics it homages. Dig it up and prepare to be delighted.

#1: Cave Story 3D

Finally, we‘ve reached the cream of the 3DS action crop. I had tough time choosing between Cave Story and Shovel Knight for the top spot, but ultimately I gave the edge to Cave Story for its groundbreaking influence and the definitive nature of this particular version.

Like Shovel Knight, Cave Story began life as a humble indie project, originally released as freeware way back in 2004. It was entirely the passion project of one man: Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya. But despite its unassuming origins, Cave Story quickly spread through word of mouth to become one of the most revered 2D action-adventure games of all time.

You control an amnesiac robot named Quote as he awakens in a mysterious cave and becomes entangled in the plight of the rabbit-like Mimigas. The gameplay takes cues from Metroid in its sprawling, interconnected world, along with Castelvania in its focus on combat, platforming, and RPG-lite progression.

In my opinion, the two elements that really set Cave Story apart are its weapon system and its touching, minimalist story. The weapons, of which there are many, level up the more you use them and gain all sorts of new properties and abilities. It lends a great sense of experimentation and replayability as you try out different loadouts.

And without spoiling anything, the story has a beautiful and bittersweet quality that sticks with you long after the credits roll. It‘s told with very little dialogue or exposition, but somehow forges a real emotional connection between you and the strange denizens of the island. Multiple endings and crucial story moments that can be easily missed encourage you to play it again and again.

The 3DS version is the ultimate realization of Cave Story, featuring a complete visual overhaul that transforms the original‘s blocky sprites into smooth, expressive 3D models and backgrounds. The stereoscopic effect looks fantastic, giving depth and texture to the cavernous environments. And unlike the PC original, this version has extra modes, unlockables, and even more weapons to experiment with.

Whether you‘re a retro enthusiast or just looking for a deep, engrossing handheld experience, you absolutely owe it to yourself to play Cave Story 3D. It represents the pinnacle of everything great about the 3DS action library.

Wrapping Up

Well there you have it, folks. The seven essential action games for Nintendo‘s stereoscopic wunderkind. As much as I love my Switch, I find myself returning to the trusty 3DS again and again for its peerless selection of pick-up-and-play gems like these.

But I want to hear from you: what are your favorite 3DS action games? Are there any I missed that would make your personal top seven? Let me know in the comments and maybe I‘ll spotlight them in a future post!

For more 3DS love, check out my list of the best 3DS RPGs, best 3DS multiplayer games, and my retrospective on the system‘s incredible legacy. And as always, thanks for reading!