I recently purchased this really fun Game Boy refurb called “Pastel Boy” from Vapor95 which is a reseller for Gamerchanger Mods. They took a case from MizuCat (which was limited to 50), some upgrades and voila: you get a new Game Boy. I haven’t received it yet but it got me hankering for more: I realized this wasn’t a Game Boy Color. This was, by all accounts, a wonderful decoration for my house and nifty toy but it wasn’t really useful.
I needed something where I could bring my massive library that I have amassed of portable games around with me and the Zelda Game & Watch is really useful, but it only has Zelda. I don’t want just PSP either, I want GBA! Luckily that’s where retro handhelds come in.
My hunt went on rapidly for the best Retro Handheld and I was just slammed with bad options, cheap plastic and a naming scheme that is just out of this world by vendors who operate on or about the same level that those odd household gadget folks work on Amazon (i.e. one company makes the product and 1000 try to rebrand it?) and wow just it’s not fun.
It’s very frustrating understanding what is even going on in the retro handheld market because there is so much and so many products around the sub $200 price point. There’s a lot of creators out there who put out excellent videos, but the watch time you need alone is probably hours and hours.
I’ve watched ETA Prime and Taki Udon and even with all of their videos, it took me awhile to realize the fruit of my journey: the decision on what is the absolute best Retro Handheld. There’s a lot of products again in the market, so it takes a hot minute to figure it out.
Specs to Consider
Here’s the deal: dedicated retro handhelds are a very niche market due to the Android phone market & the attachable side controllers to the phone. This makes most recent Android phones excellent retro handheld devices with a few apps installed and some setup. This can get you up to a 7″ full 1080p 144hz display along with blazing fast top tier graphics & processor. The Red Magic 6 is quoted as 2021’s top tier device for gaming.
So with that said, when we talk about a dedicated unit we need to focus on what they can’t offer over a phone: form factor. That means we need something that’s small, pocket sized and limited in screen size between 3.5″ and 5″ displays with very low resolutions (in order to handle the limited power inside of them). They also need to be very inexpensive, once they reach the price of a decent Android phone then there is no purpose in buying them.
There’s also a current sort of generational limit on the devices. There hasn’t been any big system on a chip advances to reach the level of PS2 or above yet on these small form factor devices and that’s more than OK. These are to replace your GB, PSP, GBA, etc.
The Absolute Best: The Retroid Pocket 2 + (Plus)
The RP2+ is an S Tier and the absolute best, barely beating out the runner up (mentioned below). Here’s my logic:
- This thing is an absolute beast, you are going to be able to play PS1 games without an issue.
- The form factor is very clean, easy to hold and the Retroid Pocket 2 is already everyone’s almost favorite handheld.
- The touchscreen takes the Retroid Pocket 2 to another level, letting you deal with some of the Android games that need the touch screen.
- You can play Android games. No funky linux based operating systems. It’s just an Android device in a neat shell.
This thing is going to have everything you need and more at just $100 without any sales. Right now they’re on a 35 day construction time on the units, but once stock enters in they should be good to go. They have a Discord where you can talk to the folks who make the device directly and get support there.
Runner Up: Powkiddy Max 2 & the X18S
The Powkiddy Max 2 is basically everything the RP2+ is except that it’s bigger but look. It is using the same RK3326 chip many of the other handhelds are using. It’s got a good grip and it does emulate well, but it’s much more expensive and at this price range you might be better off using your own Android phone and picking up a controller or the side grips. I just don’t feel like the Powkiddy Max 2 fits the niche.
The X18S is more powerful but reports on build quality have it out the door as an S Tier or “best” option. Clamshell is sweet though!
Runner Up: ANBERNIC RG351MP or RG35X
The RG351MP is $159 and does about the same as the RP2+, if not worse by comparison. You’re better off getting an older RG350 on some sale for $50ish and just soaking in the fact it has about the same chip as everything else does, without the metal frame and any screen upgrades.
The three main players right now in the niche retro handheld market seem to be ANBERNIC, Powkiddy and Retroid. You’re probably going to be better off with the Retroid’s newer processor and better operating systems (plus Android) and skipping some of the older tech. Android is the future in the retro handheld market: others have to adapt or move on.