This year, I’ve been on a portable game console kick with ROMs in mind. I’ve tried DIY and roll-your-own solutions, so when BittBoy asked me to try its premade ROM machine, I said yes.
The PocketGo is designed to accomplish three things: portability, flexibility, and an absolute dirt-cheap price. It hits all three. As long as you don’t expect miracles from a $40 purchase, it delivers on its promise of being a fun, portable ROM machine.
Right at Home in Your Pocket
The PocketGo’s dimensions (4-1/2 inches long, 2 inches tall, and 1/2 inch thick) make it feel similar to Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance Micro (if you’re old enough to remember that). This makes it super-easy to slip into almost any pocket—and it’ll get positively lost in a purse or backpack. It’s the kind of portable that’s a joy to take with you because, even if you move around a lot, you forget you have it with you.
The big difference between the PocketGo and the GBA Micro is, of course, it doesn’t rely on cartridges. Instead, it’s got a MicroSD card slot, filled with an 8 GB card in the standard $40 package. Fill up that sucker with game ROMs or open-source homebrew, and you can play hundreds (maybe thousands) of games at a stroke.
The layout is essentially the same as the classic Super NES controller: D-pad, four buttons for your right hand, and two shoulder buttons for your index fingers. This layout should work for any console game made before the PlayStation era—although, fighting-game fans might prefer a few more face buttons.
The mono speaker hangs out beneath the A/B/X/Y buttons, with a volume wheel on the right edge, and a power switch on the left. Both of them feel a little flakey but are surprisingly unobtrusive when you play. There’s one extra button on top, which doesn’t factor into gameplay—it’s to manage the various emulators.
That screen is a 2.4-inch IPS panel. It’s much smaller than, say, an emulation window on any modern smartphone. Despite being only 320 by 240 (a resolution that’s as good, or better, than any of the consoles it emulates), it’s also surprisingly bright and sharp. And, unlike most of the classic devices it’s aping, the screen cover is tempered glass, which is nice.
If there’s a weakness in the physical design, it’s the buttons. They’re a bit loose and mushy, and not as satisfying or clicky as those on something like the Nintendo 3DS. But considering the price, I wouldn’t expect them to be. They are worlds better than the touch screen I typically use for portable gaming. There are some alternative buttons in the package (to match the color scheme of the Japanese and European SNES), but it hardly seems worth the hassle of disassembling the device to install them.
Other hardware options are slim. There’s no Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and while the gadget technically supports video-out, it hardly seems worth it since RCA is the only option. At least there’s a headphone jack—how weird is it that this is an advantage a $40 impulse buy has over a $1,000 phone?
Plays Everything You Throw at It
The software loaded onto the PocketGo puts the emulators front and center—dozens of them. Everything you’d expect to see from the Atari 2600, all the way up to the original PlayStation is represented. All of them are open-source freeware, of course, and a few popular consoles (like the Game Boy) have multiple emulators to choose from. There are even some esoteric choices from niche companies, like the Lynx and Wonderswan.
Performance is generally good, thanks to the modern, inexpensive SoC. It’s using an ARM9 processor (no speed is given) with 32 MB of RAM, and a tiny 1,000 mAh battery that, nevertheless, lasts for five to six hours of gameplay. The PocketGo handles SNES and Genesis games well, although, you might need to tweak the emulator menu for sound processing sometimes. Emulators for anything older than the mid-to-late ’90s will positively fly, but a sliver of the games I tested seemed to have slowdowns corresponding to semi-random shaders or audio.
The PlayStation emulator is, frankly, a very optimistic inclusion. It might be possible to get through some classic JRPGs or puzzle games on this thing, but anything that needs faster reactions (or analog sticks) is out.
You Get What You Pay For
Getting your games onto the PocketGo is pretty easy—especially since the package includes a USB 2.0 MicroSD card reader. You just drop them onto the premade folders in the card. However, managing them is a different story. Each emulator has its own settings menu you activate with the button on top of the device. The layout and settings are wildly different from program to program—they’re not even consistent when it comes to which face button is the primary action. It makes loading up game save states and adjusting video playback very confusing.
All these emulators come from different sources, but you have to install and set them up on this hardware by the manufacturer. Slightly better management would have gone a long way.
The device’s input and output also lack some polish. For example, there’s no sleep state—like an old Game Boy, it’s either on or off. If you want to stop playing for more than a few minutes, you have to save the game manually, power down, boot back up, and then navigate to the correct emulator and file. Some of the installed games don’t even have that option; the only way to exit is to power down.
While gameplay itself is quite satisfying thanks to the quality screen and real buttons, it doesn’t come anywhere close to the convenience of running an emulator on your phone.
Overall, that old maxim “you get what you pay for” comfortably applies to the PocketGo. It’s a wonderfully portable way to relive your favorite classic console games—especially in bursts of more than 20 minutes. And the built-in software supports almost any old 2D game ROM quite well. Just don’t expect miracles in terms of power, user interface, or usability.
Here’s What We Like
- Tiny and lightweight
- Tons of built-in emulators
- Bright, clear screen
- The price can't be beat
And What We Don't
- Mushy buttons
- Inconsistent settings menu
- No sleep function