I consider myself a relatively savvy consumer, and typically don’t fall for targeted ads online—but there was something about the onslaught of those retro gaming handheld emulators that kept catching my eye. They just looked so fun. All those old Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog games in your pocket? Plus PS1 classics like Metal Gear Solid or Need For Speed? All for a hundred bucks or so? Yeah, that’s enticing.
They’re small, cheap, colorful and loaded with just enough hardware and software tricks to put all the old videogames you loved as a kid (or adult, no judgment here!) in the palm of your hand. They even come in a whole lot of different shapes and sizes, ranging from everything to Game Boy-esque to something more in line with a Nintendo Switch.
So, after getting sucked into a few videos on TikTok and Twitter ads, I started doing a bit of research to figure out the potential options and which one might be right for what I wanted to do. Turns out, there are a lot of options. Not to mention the fact that none of this is actually all that easy to do, at least for an average person without a ton of expertise in the minutia of various emulators, ROMS and all the settings tweaks and work it takes to make those things work together smoothly in a little handheld device.
There’s a reason Nintendo charges a premium for its Nintendo Switch, and why Sony made you pay a high price for its PSP handheld of yore: There’s something to be said about the simplicity of pick up and play, and sometimes it can be worth paying for it.
My own research into the retro gaming handheld scene ended with the purchase of a Retroid Pocket 3 (a relatively popular option in this ecosystem), which cost around $120 and can emulate most games ranging from the Genesis and SNES era all the way up through the PS1, N64 and Sega Dreamcast. Yes, you can rock a Crazy Taxi session in the palm of your hand, and it is pretty glorious when it works.
That said, it wasn’t an easy journey to get it all working, and it still remains frustratingly complicated at times. I spent the better part of a weekend going down the rabbit hole of set-up guides, YouTube walk-throughs and myriad Reddit threads with folks asking a lot of the questions I had until I finally got it up and running. For most of these handhelds (the majority of which run Android), you have to add the relevant emulators, locate your own digital copies of games (files called ROMs) and follow all the directions for naming conventions and folder hierarchies to ensure your particular handheld can access and recognize them all. Plus, you have to actually acquire the ROM files for the games, which can be a legally dubious exercise in itself.
Along the way, I had to do a full reset of my Retroid Pocket 3 because of a bizarre crash loop, though it didn’t take awfully long to set it back up, since I’d just spent the better part of a Saturday figuring out how to do it all the first time around. Then I had to figure out which emulators worked best for the types of games and systems I wanted to run, though thankfully most of these products make that easy enough on set-up to walk you through the nitty-gritty. Is it worth the effort? Sure. Once it’s all said and done, these things can be crazy handy. I had a marathon day in a hospital waiting room recently, and it proved a lifesaver to provide a few hours of distraction. Just be prepared to invest some time in getting it all up and running, and all the frustration that can bring.
So where should you start if considering a handheld to revisit some of your favorite old school games? There are plenty of options, but I’ve highlighted five of the best ones below, broken down from cheapest to most expensive, as well as based on their respective capabilities and ease of use. The starting options are borderline stocking stuffer prices, while the top end will run you around what a Playstation 5 might cost.
Want something small, cool, relatively cheap and a whole lot of fun? The Funkey S more than fits the bill. Its shape and aesthetic is right out of the old school Game Boy wheelhouse (just with a clamshell design), and as you’d suspect, it can effortlessly emulate Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, Sega Genesis, Super NES and even some Playstation 1 games. It’s one of the least-powered options available, but also among the cheapest. The best part? It’s tiny enough to literally fit on your keychain, making it an imminently useful little gadget to have on hand for anytime you’re waiting in line, on a short commute, or just generally bored. It only gets around one to two hours of battery life, but considering its tiny size and full color screen, that’s no surprise. This is arguably more of a novelty option, but an incredibly fun one for the price point.
Retroid Pocket 3
This is the one I eventually landed on myself, and I’m still happy with the decision. It hit the price point I wanted, and can handle most of the games I wanted to play on the go. The device comes with a decent walk-through to try and make set-up a bit easier, and it does at least make things a bit less intimidating while you’re getting started. The build quality is good, and the size is right in line with a Switch Lite. It can run 16-bit consoles, plus PS1 and Dreamcast games smoothly. You’re obviously not getting any smooth PS2 action here, and your mileage will vary a bit when you get into high-end PSP games as far as slow down and stuttering, but it’s still remarkably fun and versatile for the price.
If you’re looking for an upgrade, the AYN Odin seems to land in the sweet spot above the Retroid Pocket 3 and something truly mega-expensive (which we’ll talk about next). It can handle game streaming, but is also loaded with enough juice to handle Playstation 2 and Gamecube games fairly well. Meaning if you want to have access to games all the way up to that era, this is probably the best option when it comes to price point and performance. The design is what you’d expect from something like a Switch, with a 5.98 inch screen and that same horizontal device layout. Personally, I considered pulling the trigger on an Odin, but the Retroid provided enough power for most of what I was wanting to do. But if you want a mini-PS2 in your pocket? This can check a lot of the boxes.
Go big, or go home. That’s pretty much the motto if you’re looking at a Steam Deck. This thing is essentially a fully-powered gaming PC packed into a big ol’ handheld device. It has a 7” screen, and enough hardware power to fully emulate plenty of Wii, PS2 or Gamecube games. The emulator power only hits the wall when you start trying to tackle PS3 games, which makes sense, because that’s a massive power drain for something this size to emulate. But the Steam Deck isn’t really built for emulation—it’s made to take PC games on the go. Users are able to access their Steam game library and play it pretty much anywhere. It’s amazing and cool, which is admittedly why it’s so expensive. But if money is no object? This is definitely the way to go, though it’s probably overkill for a lot of folks just wanting to take Mario or Crash Bandicoot with them wherever they go.
Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, and freelance editor and writer with bylines at lots of places. He likes to find the sweet spot where pop culture crosses over with everything else. Follow him at @trentlmoore on Twitter.