It took a long time for the Analogue Pocket to finally arrive at our doorstep. I was a few minutes too late to pre-order the very first batch more than a year ago, which was of course delayed multiple times. I was determined to jump on board as soon as the announcement of the second pre-order wave went online but still had to wait about half a year (!!). The 2021 chip shortage further increased its price to
$220. Include a Game Gear cartridge adapter—because you never now, right?—and international shipping from America (
$35) and the grand total is
$285. Well, not really. The European Union’s bonkers-insane-maddening tax import rates demanded another
€387 for a retro game console that only plays twenty year old Game Boy (Color/Advance) cartridges. For comparison, a Nintendo Switch Lite costs
€225, more than forty percent cheaper with a larger screen and modern capabilities! Have I gone insane? Who buys these things anyway, and more importantly, why?
Question 1: Is it built well? The Analogue Pocket is clearly geared towards the vintage Nintendo handheld connoisseur. For one, it can only play “real” cartridges. Compare that to cheap Android-based alternatives such as the ANBERNIC RG351P which simply emulate the older games based on a ROM file. The Pocket contains multiple FPGA chips that effectively re-implement the Z80 CPU of the original Game Boy (and the ARM-based GBA ones). The difference is a compatibility and authenticity rate of
99,99%. Yet, Game Boy emulators—even the Advance ones—have matured well the last ten years. If you play an old GB game now and then on your PC, chances are you won’t notice the difference between that and the original experience. I know I don’t. But as I mentioned before, the physical experience matters.
Most carts I threw at the Pocket were handled without problems, although booting Yogi Bear on the GB and Speedy Gonzales resulted in a white screen with the letters ERROR. Great. Most of these cases come down to screwing open the cartridge and giving the contacts a good rub to remove years of yuck and dust. It is worth noticing that those carts worked perfectly fine on Nintendo hardware. I’ve also encountered scary videos on YouTube of people having to straighten a few pins from the Pocket cartridge slot. The pins and the plastic of the slot isn’t 100% straight, and for such an expensive device, I expected more.
Question 2: Is it comfortable to hold? The form factor is clearly inspired by the original Game Boy. Ergonomically speaking, it is fairly comfortable to hold, but surprisingly heavy. There are two small shoulder buttons on the back for the GBA that seem to require a bit more pressure than on a regular GBA. I personally prefer the form factor of the GBA, which is still more comfortably to play. The problem with the GBA is that playing GB(C) games results in either a very small screen or a stretched out and blurry one, since the screen is landscape-oriented for widescreen GBA games. Either way, the shoulder buttons are a lot more sturdy than the flimsy ones from the Evercade retro handheld system.
As for the rest of the buttons, they’re mostly fine, I’d say. Analogue worked closely with 8BitDo but their D-pad has been a hit-or-miss affair on a lot of controllers. Fortunately, it’s, well, fine. Not the greatest, especially when trying to aim for diagonal input. The original GBA D-pad is, to me, still king, but it’s a lot better than the original DS. The A and B buttons sometimes do not seem to register when trying to select a menu in the OS—whether that’s a software or hardware problem, I don’t know.
The most irritating buttons are the power and volume ones. The volume ones are tiny and do not protrude, making them hard to hit correctly. The power button is not a slider. Not a slider! What the hell, Analogue? A retro device that is powered on by holding a springy green button? Sure, it’s a minor annoyance, but still—even Blaze got that right with the Evercade.
Here’s how some properties between devices compare:
|Analogue Pocket||Original GB||GB Pocket||GBA||DS Lite||3DS XL||Evercade|
As you can see, the 1989 GB with 4 AA batteries and a cartridge is surprisingly heavy! I never quite realized that as a kid, yet now that I hold and play the Analogue Pocket, I complain about the weight nearing the
300 gr, only the 3DS XL is heavier nowadays (even a Switch Lite weights only
277 gr!). The screen size of the GBA gets heavily reduced to
4.2x3.7 when playing GB(C) games in the correct resolution.
It still surprises me how light the GB Pocket actually is, plus, its screen is a noticeable improvement: slightly larger, no green but gray tints, and most importantly, the horrible ghosting problems from original GBs is gone. That brings us to the next question…
Question 3: Can you see what you’re doing? The screen is mind-blowing. Its quality, at
615 ppi, is exceptional, and it’s almost impossible to try and capture in a few photographs or even videos. Still, I attempted to do a few comparisons between the Pocket and the classic Game Boys, as seen above. For each hardware type (GB, GBC, GBA, …), you can configure the graphics to for instance emulate the four colors of green drab from the original, including a slight scent of scanlines. For the moment, the options are limited but sufficient. The “Analogue GB” setting, as seen on the right, is the sharpest and brightest one I suspect almost everyone will prefer.
The brightness can be set from 10 to 100, where 50 more or less equals the brightness of my modded Game Boy Advance. The max brightness setting hurts my eyes: it’s very bright and allows for playing even with a lot of direct sunlight. Taking a picture of the Analogue Pocket next to an unlit GB (Pocket) is very unfair. Remember that this comes at the price of battery life. Several tests online claim that with brightness and volume turned up halfway, a GBA game holds up for about
6.30 hours, while the 4-AA powered GB can hold the fort for over twenty hours! Obligatory fiddling with the contrast wheel included. See also: the decline of battery life.
The real question then is: is it worth it to burn all that money on a fancy screen? Why not modify an original GBA and add in an aftermarket backlit LCD screen, like I did for
$40? Game Boy modding is immensely popular lately, and rightly so. Does playing GBA games on the Pocket work well enough, considering the screen size is optimized for older GB(C) games? I’d say it’s still a feast for your eyes. The vertical black borders on the GBA when playing GB(C) games is more annoying than the horizontal black borders on the Pocket when playing GBA games because of the royal screen real estate.
The huge boost in resolution is very apparent when you directly compare the GBA screen with the Pocket’s, as is hopefully visible in the above photos. That said, I was never bothered with the “low” resolution of the GBA—it’s a twenty year old device, and this is retro gaming after all. There are even people who ask for scanline filters in modern devices… But it’s more than the resolution: it’s also the color dept: games look a lot more alive and vivid on the Pocket. Even an GB IPS LCD MOD doesn’t make the cut: pixels become “harsh” while the Pocket manages to blend these in seamlessly without degrading into a blurry mess.
I simply can’t say enough about the screen quality. There is no angle where the screen looks sub-par, which was a big problem for me on the cheap LCD screen of the Evercade last year. Seeing is believing. We haven’t answered the question: does it deserve the exaggerated price tag?
Question 4: Are the extras worth it? The Pocket comes with the Analogue OS interface. Sadly, at this moment, version 1.0b doesn’t offer anything even remotely exciting that was promised: screenshots, sharable save states, calendars and play time records, … These additions would make the packet a no-brainer, especially for me as an amateur game reviewer who likes to create his own screenshots without having to resort to dumping the ROM, going into an emulator, and taking a screenshot there.
So what is included? The most important feature is a short-press of the power button, resulting in a SLEEP message, after which the Pocket is turned off—sort of. Think Nintendo DS clamshell that automatically suspends the game as soon as you close the lid. This seems hardly worth mentioning, but consider this: we’re suspending games from the 1990s that mostly had no form of save or password system in them! That means you were supposed to finish them in a single sitting—something deemed impossible by many children including my younger self. I tried sleeping a GBC game for 24 hours: before battery life 96%, after 92%. That means it’s fairly efficient, great!
Since the 1.0b firmware upgrade (it came stocked with 0.9), an experimental save state is included by pressing HOME+UP. It works, but I haven’t fiddled with it too much, and it is a lot less impressive than the Evercade’s feature set with multiple states and a beautiful menu system. If the promised features are delivered somewhere in 2022 I’d be happy (and surprised, given Analogue’s track record of postponing stuff time and time again).
In the end, I still have a hard time justifying the
€387 price tag which Europeans will have to pay. The Pocket is certainly not light and is not the most ergonomic gaming handheld ever created. Furthermore, its feature set is currently quite lacking. Yet, it’s hard to look past the staggering screen quality. If you are a retro Nintendo handheld fan and own a moderate to large cartridge set, I’d say close your eyes, press pay, and go for it.
If you’re mainly set on GBA carts and you’re on a budget, buy a GBA and mod the screen yourself—It’s still a great alternative! Remember that the DS Lite is still a great choice for backlit GBA goodness with the added bonus of the DS library compatibility. If you don’t care for physical carts, then any ANBERNIC device, like the
$120 RG351V, will suit your needs.