The answer is: it depends. Companies don’t exactly come out and say, “This here handheld game is a full-fledged entry in the series, Goddammit!” or “this is a half-assed sidegame that only the hardcore fans need bother with”. However, there are clues. Is the handheld game being developed by the same group of talented folks that design the main console games? Is the game in question being treated like the next chapter in an epic saga or as a “side story”. Also, is the publisher hyping it the way they would a console release or just kinda floating it out there? Finally, does it feel like a cool new game or just a rehash? The contestants:
Super Mario Land (Game Boy, 1989)
When Nintendo launched the Game Boy they knew they needed their most popular series to help make a splash. Did they turn to Shigeru Miyamoto and his team at Nintendo EAD? Nope. Nintendo R&D1 took the reigns and made a mediocre game based somewhat on Super Mario Bros. with international themes and sloppy controls. Verdict: Not a real Super Mario game
Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (Game Boy, 1992)
Nintendo R&D1 struck again with a much better effort. It attempts to capture the look and feel of Super Mario World but comes across pretty differently. A decent game in its own right but not up to the standards of a REAL Super Mario game. Verdict: Not a real Super Mario game
New Super Mario Bros. (DS, 2006)
Developed by Miyamoto’s Nintendo EAD team, including several of the developers that worked on the Super Mario Advance ports. It’s too easy, but it’s definitely a satisfying game and feels right. Nintendo hyped the hell out of it. Verdict: A real Super Mario game
LEGEND OF ZELDA!
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Game Boy, 1993)
This game picks up right after the SNES game released 2 years later. It pushes the Game Boy to the limits and has practically the exact same team of developers as the previous game. Verdict: A real Zelda game
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons (ame Boy Color, 2001)
These games reuse the 8-year old Link’s Awakening engine and their development was farmed out to Capcom. They’re very good games but not exciting or important enough. Verdict: Not real Zelda games.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (Game Boy Advance, 2005)
Looks nice, is a lot of fun. Farmed out to Capcom (again). Doesn’t do too much that’s new. A very good game but Not a real Zelda game.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS, 2007)
Attempts to continue the story from The Wind Waker but it’s the easiest Zelda game ever. I never even had to use a guide and I’m pretty stupid. Not really an epic adventure and not a real Zelda game.
Metroid II: Return of Samus (Game Boy, 1991)
Nintendo gives away the answer in the title. The II shows that they’re treating it as a for-real entry. It had been 5 years since the first Metroid and this new game was treated like a big event. Verdict: a real Metroid game.
Metroid Fusion (game Boy Advance, 2002)
Great game with a lot of new ideas, directed by Yoshio Sakamato, the director of Metroid and Super Metroid. In other words: a real Metroid game.
Metroid: Zero Mission (Game Boy Advance, 2004)
A re-telling of the original Metroid game with a great new chapter added on and new gameplay elements, again directed by Yoshio Sakamoto. Verdict: a real Metroid game.
Metroid Prime Hunters (DS, 2006)
The gameplay is mission-based instead of exploratory and it was developed by Nintendo STC and not Retro Studios, the developers of the main Metroid Prime games. Not a real Metoid Prime game.
Mario Kart Super Circuit (Game Boy Advance, 2001)
It was developed by Intelligent Systems but overseen by Miyamoto. It feels totally true to the series, has very high production values and has been referenced in the later Mario Kart games. Verdict: a real Mario Kart game.
Mario Kart DS (DS, 2005)
This one just has to be real cuz it’s the BEST game in the series. Developed by Miyamoto’s crew. Some of its tracks are reused in the new Wii game. Verdict: the real deal.
SONIC THE HEDGEHOG
Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic Chaos, Sonic Triple Trouble, Sonic Blast (Game Gear, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996)
These games try really hard to look and feel as good as the Genesis games. The result is that they feel like replications rather than fresh new chapters. Not developed by Sonic Team, either. Verdict: Not real Sonic games.
Sonic Pocket Adventure, Sonic Advance, Sonic Advance 2, Sonic Advance 3, Sonic Rush, Sonic Rush Adventure (NeoGeo Pocket Color, 1999, Game Boy Advance, 2001, 2002, 2004, DS, 2005, 2007)
Sonic basically split into 2 separate series: the console series and the handheld series. They share a continuity but have very different styles. PS – the console Sonic games of the last few years are terrible while the handheld ones are great. Real Sonic games.
More later? I dunno.