skip to main content

A Decision Tree For Buying Retro Gaming Handhelds

published icon  |  category icon hardware retro

tags icon gameboy analogue pocket

Every time someone asks me which retro handheld gaming console to buy, I point them towards an Analogue Pocket, or the cheaper cartridge-based emulator the Evercade. But that story is far from complete: there is much more choice than I initially realized. Still, how to choose? Fear not—observe the following Decision Tree:

The Decision Tree.

The decisions I’ve included are the following, from left to right:

  • An original DS Lite (white, of course) or a New 3DS XL. Both can be hacked to install custom firmware for homebrew. The DS Lite still supports Game Boy Advance cartridges though, so if 2001 retro carts is your thing, you might want to go with that. The New 3DS XL will serve you well when it comes to Nintendo’s golden age of DS and 3DS games. Budget: hard to say, depends on your second hand dealer or eBay scores. Some DS Lites go for €70.
  • A modded original Game Boy Advance or Game Boy Color. If these machines don’t emit retro, I don’t know what does. Be sure to replace the screen with a backlit variant. There are ample of other cool mods that further increase the price, but you can get a GBA for €45 and a spare screen for €35 to solder it in yourself. The GBA still supports original GB and GBC games, although the resolution is very limited due to the widescreen layout. If you prefer 8-bit goodness, I’d buy and mod a GBC. Unless you have the money to get an Analogue Pocket, of course.
  • A PSP Slim or PS Vita with custom firmware installed that can boot ISOs instead of that horrible miniCD loader. These are actually popular choices in the retro community: the screen is excellent, they’re not that expensive, and you can run Sony’s entire PSP and PS1 library, besides the conventional (S)NES emulators! Be careful with PSP Slim revision numbers, some are more easily hackable (and wanted, thus more expensive) than others.
  • An Evercade for those in need of physical cartridge loading that want something different than Nintendo’s popular machines. It is very affordable—for €90, you have the handheld with three carts!—but comes with a sub-par screen. Its cart library is rapidly expanding, but still only contains a bit more obscure games. Remember that this is still emulation, albeit in a properly licensed way. The battery life sucks though.
  • The Play Date, a weird newcomer with a crank and a monochrome screen that, as The Retro Book dictates, isn’t even backlit. It comes with a subscription service and is fairly expensive itself (€180), but game development support is great. This is one of those new old retro devices. Let’s hope long-term support will be lasting.
  • The Analogue Pocket, one of the more expensive machines—Europeans, watch out with hidden import taxes. This thing’s screen is one of the best I’ve ever seen and it carelessly gobbles up any GB(C)(A) cart I throw at it. Supposedly comes with save state and screenshot etc support, but the OS is for the moment still a bit lacking. If you want to go physical cart hunting and want only one device, this or the (3)DS is probably it.
  • The Switch Lite. If you want a retro fix (through emulation and a monthly subscription service) but still want to play newer games now and then, you can’t go wrong with a Switch (Lite). There are so many superb retro-inspired games released on the Switch lately, it’s becoming hard to keep up! Nintendo’s own older console emulation support is not great but at least this is a sure way to play N64 games. I don’t recommend getting an original Switch, the Lite is where the real handheld fun is at: the D-pad is better and it (almost) fits in your pocket.
  • The Anbernic RG351V and its variants. This is a Chinese quad core emulation machine with supposedly great PS1 and N64 emulation (don’t believe that). However, with only €105, you can’t go wrong. Do remember that you’ll have to dip a toe in that shady looking gray area of “stumbling upon” ROM files, or have to dump them yourself with the help of GBxCart-related PCBs. You can slot in any Chinese or Raspberry Pi-based emulation solution in here.

To follow the tree, answer the following questions:

  • Is your budget > €150?
    • If yes, do you also want to play more modern games?
      • If yes, get a Switch Lite!
      • If no, do you have or want to buy physical cartridges?
        • If yes, get an Analogue Pocket!
        • If no, get a Play Date!
    • If no, are you okay with emulation?
      • If yes, do you want legally licensed games?
        • If yes, get an Evercade!
        • if no, do you care about proper PS1/PSP support?
          • If yes, get a PSP Slim/Vita!
          • If no, get an Anbernic variant!
      • If no, do you want more than 1 screen?
        • If yes, get a DS Lite or New 3DS XL!
        • If no, get a modded GBA/GBC!

I purposely left out the recent Steam Deck since that’s anything but a retro machine. And to all Sega Game Gear or Neo Geo Pocket fans: sorry! Replace the modded GBA/GBC with your favorite nineties handheld. The Analogue Pocket supports Game Gear games through a converter at an additional cost. Also, there’s the Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol.1 (among others) available for the Nintendo Switch, but it does run on emulation.

Happy handheld retro gaming!

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a level 36 Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

If you found this article amusing and/or helpful, you can buy me a coffee - although I'm more of a tea fan myself. I also like to hear your feedback via Mastodon or e-mail. Thanks!