Best retro handhelds: Emulate classic console and computer games

Old slot machines never die – they are only emulated. Today, even very affordable modern technology is powerful enough to let you carry decades of gaming history in your pants. Dedicated retro handhelds emulate classic consoles and computers – everything from old Ataris to comparatively modern Dreamcasts (and beyond).

But which is the right retro handheld for you? And what do you need to consider before you pounce on a cute device to twitch your thumbs in a whirl of pink retrogaming bliss? Find out here Things Guide to the best retro handhelds.

What to look for when buying a retro handheld

Retro handhelds are not created equal. Watch out for:

  • screen size: Bigger means less pocketable. Some screens are sharper than others. And remember that a screen’s aspect ratio may not be optimal for the games you prefer.
  • Hardware quality: Build. controls. Battery. You don’t want the hardware to let you down when your thumbs are fine.
  • Where to buy: Retroid and Anbernic are based in China and sell directly. They are reputable but errors/returns may take some time to resolve. There are also resellers in the UK and US, but you’ll often pay a lot more for the same devices.
  • faff factor: Some handhelds are plug-and-play capable. Others are gone for days, building the thing and playing (if you still have the energy).
  • Hackability: Do you like to bend hardware your way? Then buy a handheld with alternative firmware options.

Regarding the last two points, we highly recommend Retro Game Corps for setup tips.

Best for widescreen and pure power: Retroid Pocket 3+

Retroid Pocket 3+: Retro handhelds

This Android device is the most powerful device in the test. It runs solidly up to PSP and some GameCube and PS2 tiers. Native Android titles are hit-and-miss: Controller support is spotty on Android, and while games like horizon hunt And Mo’s speed run are great with physical controls, the Pocket 3+ chipset can’t handle the more demanding ones Rocket League jab.

Back in Retroville, setup is more daunting than Linux-based systems since you start from scratch and install emulators and such. Retroid’s built-in game launcher is only serviceable and doesn’t work well with all retro formats. The free Daijishō is far better, even as a full replacement for the stock Android launcher.

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The 4.7-inch 1334×750 touchscreen is impressive. Its widescreen format suits PSP and Android, and it’s large enough that black bars flanking 4:3 (and similar) systems don’t get in the way. The controls are solid, but the analog sticks are inferior to those on the Anbernic 353M, and start/select on the unit is awkward. When playing games in vertical mode, the triggers (and the headphone jack if headphones are connected) get in the way.

Since it’s an Android device, you could argue that you could stick your phone in a controller instead. But there’s something to be said for a dedicated retro handheld, and physical controllers for Android cost almost as much as the Retroid Pocket 3+ anyway.

To that end, this device represents great value – especially if you prefer titles that take full advantage of the widescreen display.

Best for solid controllers and 4:3 systems: Anbernic RG353M

Bernic RG353M

Since Anbernic has released about five billion handhelds to date, the choice is difficult. We like the 353M best. It’s a premium number with a solid metal body and great controls – not least the wonderful analog sticks. The device is compact – the same size as an iPhone, but thicker – and feels good in the hand even when playing vertically. We like that Anbernic has the confidence to leave a logo on the front.

The 4:3 3.5 inch 640×480 display looks fabulous and is ideal for legacy systems and modern mimics (hello, Pico-8); but the device is powerful enough to emulate up to the Dreamcast, even if it doesn’t quite have the punch of the Retroid Pocket 3+. However, there is dual boot functionality to leave the standard Linux OS and switch to Android for extra performance. However, we didn’t think the experience was that great and quickly gave up.

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One reason is that the standard Linux operating system is so easy to use. You put a bunch of games in folders on an SD card, boot up the device, and it organizes everything for you. The user interface is top-notch, and if you connect to Wi-Fi, the 353M box art can suck and preview videos. And for the tinkerers out there, there are alternative systems.

So what’s the catch? With our test model, audio interference that sometimes occurred in the WLAN, and very visible when using headphones. Still, this is the retro handheld we return to most often. Just remember this one big mistake if you prefer headphones over speakers when playing old games.

Best for cheap and happy retro thrills: Anbernic RG35XX

Anbernic 35XX retro handheld console

The RG35XX is the cheapest retro handheld in the test. It’s also the only vertical with nice Game Boy vibes. But you can see why most people prefer horizontal form factors when a cramp sets in during a long gaming session. Although this device has L1/2 and R1/2 buttons on the back, they are not ideally placed. Still, they provide a place to rest your index fingers.

The low price does impact a few areas on the 35XX, but not the 3.5-inch, 640×480 screen, which is very nice indeed. However, the D-Pad is prone to accidental diagonals, the speaker is weak, and there’s no Wi-Fi. Also, the default operating system is best described as “serviceable.” Luckily, you can flash Garlic OS to an SD card and use that instead, opening up more platforms and options.

The catch is that not all of them will work. That’s because the 35XX is less powerful than the previous two units we’ve covered. It’s fine for 8-bit consoles and computers (like C64 and Game Boy) and 16-bit consoles along with PlayStation; but it struggles with some arcade and pico 8 games. With GarlicOS, you can press Select to temporarily overclock the device to squeeze out extra performance, which noticeably improves Pico 8 compatibility. But our test unit choked on Amiga games no matter what we tried. Forgiveness, stunt racer fans.

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Still, it’s hard to be too critical of a device that exists in full impulse buying territory and costs little more than a third of a Pocket 3+ or a 353M. Know its limitations and you’ll find the 35XX a powerful, portable, and fun addition to your gaming collection.

Note: if you’re reading this and you’re thinking, “man, I wish you could have the performance of the 353M and the form factor of the 35XX,” then you’re in luck.

Best for car collectors: Blaze Entertainment Evercade EXP

Blaze Entertainment Evercade EXP: Retro handheld

Every other retro handheld on test invites you to throw a bunch of games, sometimes from dubious sources, onto an SD card and load it up to access your favorite retro titles. The Evercade EXP scratches another itch for folks who grew up in the days of spangles and smash hits: it uses physical cartridges.

The carts are proprietary and come in custom boxes with small paper manuals. Collections look pretty pretty on a shelf, and you’ll quickly discover how handy physical instructions are when it comes to mastering games your brain forgot decades ago.

Evercade gets it right with IP holders too – they get a truncation. Since the company curates indie collections, that’s a particularly good thing. And since collections are limited, the choice paralysis doesn’t end when you turn on the device. Well, unless you can’t decide between playing a cart and the 18 Capcom hits on the device.

But what about the hardware? Our full review goes into depth, but the UI is great, the 4.3-inch 800×400 screen is just fine, and the controls are quite nice — albeit with more precision in the D-Pad and less cramped buttons would prefer tate (vertical) mode.

But this one is really there for a kind of nostalgia factor that goes beyond the games alone. Again, Blaze deserves credit for getting it right when it comes to licensing old titles; but it deserves more credit for designing a complete package that understands what makes a certain type of retro gamer.

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