While you may love playing games on your home console or powerful desktop PC, those aren’t exactly portable machines. If you want to play games on the go, you’re going to need something more pocket friendly. Sure, you could just play on your phone, but there are many handheld gaming systems that offer a much better experience.
What to Look for in a Handheld Gaming System
Whether it’s running an emulator or official cartridges, a few things must be considered when selecting your system.
- Library: The library is the most important part of any game system. Sometimes, this library will be accessed through the use of official cartridges or downloads. Other times, it will be through third-party emulators and read-only memory (ROMs). Official cartridges and downloads tend to be the simplest way to acquire games, but ROMs can provide a much larger catalog of games to play at the cost of being more complicated and, depending on how you acquire your ROMs, legally gray.
- Compatibility: If you are going down the emulation route, you’re going to need to know what systems your new handheld can safely emulate. Some emulators struggle with certain titles, so keep your expectations in check.
- Build Quality: While you can’t expect anything crazy in terms of build quality for less than $100, that’s not an excuse for the build quality to be straight-up bad. The build should match the price you paid, and any system you buy should feel nice to play on (because if it doesn’t, then what’s the point?).
- Battery Life: All gaming sessions must come to an end, and if you’re playing on a handheld, that end may come from a dead battery. Obviously, longer is always better, but it is important to note that battery life will be affected by what games you play. (Basically, more intensive games burn through the battery quicker.) Most modern handhelds (and all the ones on this list) use rechargeable batteries, so we’ll be sure to note the estimated battery lives of each system—at least when the manufacturers supply one.
For the Biggest, Easiest Library: Nintendo 2DS XL
If you don’t want to worry about dusty old cartridges or deal with the inherent complications of emulators and ROMs, then the 2DS XL is the way to go. While the specs are by no means impressive, this is a Nintendo system, and Nintendo knows how to make incredible games on underpowered hardware. The 2DS XL shares the same hardware as the New Nintendo 3DS (yes, that’s the actual name, the New 3DS is a more powerful version of the original 3DS) but without the 3D screen. So, you can play any 3DS game on the 2DS XL, but it is important to note that games that make heavy use of the 3D effect (which are few and far between) might not be fully playable.
Even with that limitation, there are still plenty of games to play on the 2DS XL. From original titles like Super Mario 3D Land and Kirby Planet Robot to full remakes of classic titles like Star Fox 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the 2DS’s library is chock-full of quality games. And that’s not even mentioning third-party releases like Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate and Shovel Knight.
The 2DS’s library doesn’t stop with the recently released either, it fully supports any DS cartridge (which alone doubles the game library) and, with access to the eShop—Nintendo’s digital storefront—the 2DS can also play classic titles from systems like the NES, SNES, Game Boy, and even non-Nintendo systems like the Sega Genesis. The available libraries for each of those systems aren’t massive, and some systems are obviously missing (namely, the Game Boy Advance), but it’s still a good selection of retro titles.
As far as the 2DS XL itself goes, it’s what you would expect out of the DS line. A clamshell design that makes it ideal for portability, two screens that are small enough (top screen is 4.88 inches and the bottom is 4.18 inches) to make the 240p display passable, 3.5-7 hours of battery life, and a nice-looking and colorful exterior.
Overall, if you want a system with zero complications, the 2DS XL is the way to go. It is one of the pricier systems on this list, just scraping the line of being under $100, but hey, at least it comes preinstalled with Mario Kart 7 out of the box. And, who doesn’t like Mario Kart?
For Playing Old-School ROMs: PocketGo V2 and RG350
If you’re willing to go down the route of ROMs, then the Bittboy PocketGo V2 is your best bet at the price point. It’s built to play any game from the pre-PlayStation era, which includes such iconic systems as the SNES, Game Boy Advance, and Sega Genesis. And, the MicroSD card slot (which supports cards up to 128 GB in size) makes it easy to load ROMs onto your system. The screen measures at 3.5 inches and displays a 240p image (which, considering the games you’ll be playing on this, is more than fine).
If you want a bit more power though, then the RG350 is the logical step up. It has a similar design to the PocketGo V2, with the ability to emulate PlayStation 1 games as well (along with all the systems the PocketGo V2 can). Unfortunately, it doesn’t support other fifth-generation consoles like the Sega Saturn or N64, but for fans of the PS1, this is a no-brainer upgrade. Same as the PocketGo V2, it supports MicroSD cards up to 128 GB in size. And, the screen is identical to the PocketGo V2’s as well.
Both of these systems are priced under $100 (with the RG350 costing about $10 more than the PocketGo V2), but they both come in a couple of different bundles that vary in price that can include accessories like carrying bags and 32 GB MicroSD cards. An aluminum version of the PocketGo V2 is also available if you want something more premium, but that increases the price to about $110.
For Playing Real Game Boy Advance Cartridges: Revo K101
The Game Boy Advance had some fantastic games, but if your old GBA bit the dust (or can’t deal with the non-backlit screen anymore), then the Revo K101 is the simplest way to play those old cartridges once more. Functionally speaking, the Revo K101 is basically just a Game Boy Advance clone, but with a rechargeable battery, adjustable backlit screen, MicroSD card slot (if you prefer ROMs over cartridges), and the ability to output to a TV. The build quality won’t blow you away, but it’s enough to make the K101 a viable handheld. The screen measures at 3 inches and displays a 480p image.
The Revo K101 comes in a lot of different names from different manufacturers, and you’ll probably have some trouble tracking an original model down because production was halted. The one we linked to specifically is the Goolsky Q9—one of the easier rereleases to get your hands on.
Goolsky Q9 Handheld Game Console Roker Portable Gaming Machine Music Player Built-in 3000 Classic Games Color Screen AV + 3.5mm Audio Out TF Slot 1800mAh Battery 3.0 inch
If you want to play your old Game Boy Advances cartridges once more, a Revo K101 is the best way to do so.
An NES You Can Fit in a Carry-On: Retro Champ
Plenty of ways exist to play the most iconic games the NES offered today, but what about the more niche titles? Those only tend to be found in their original format: cartridges. And if you have a collection of those either sitting in storage or proudly displayed on a shelf, then the Retro Champ will allow you to play them once again. (And to be clear, the Retro Champ only supports playing with cartridges.)
The Retro Champ allows for both NES and Famicom cartridges to be slotted in and played on either the handheld itself or a TV with an HDMI cable. (Some wireless controllers are even available). The screen on the Retro Champ measures at 7 inches (resolution isn’t provided, but it’s not like you need a high-resolution screen for these games), and you can expect the Retro Champ to last about 3-5 hours on a full charge.
Besides that, there’s not much more to the Retro Champ, and there doesn’t have to be. If you want to revisit this generation of gaming in a portable and authentic way, then the Retro Champ is the best option.
For Even Older Games: Evercade
If you want to dive deep into the earlier days of gaming, then the Evercade is the system to buy. It’s a fantastic little system capable of running cartridges jam-packed with retro games. Simply purchase one of the game-pack cartridges off of Evercade’s site, and you’re ready to play. You can even plug your Evercade into your TV with an HDMI cable to play on the big screen.
You can play games from big-name developers like Atari and Namco, while also getting a glance at some relatively smaller developers like Interplay and Data East. There’s a decent selection of games available, so if you have a passion for this generation of gaming, you’ll have a lot to work through.
As far as the actual system itself goes, it’s pretty great for the price. The design is colorful, and all the inputs feel solid to use. The battery lasts for about 4 hours, so you’ll definitely need to charge it between play sessions.
Evercade Premium Pack Includes 3 Cartridges Collections: Atari Volume 1, Interplay Volume 1 and Dataeast Volume 1 - Electronic Games
Play even older games in a simple manner with the Evercade.