The best way to play Game Boy games

A couple of weeks ago, I did not expect to be playing Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins from start to finish.

But when the Analogue Pocket arrived for review, and I excavated a stack of Game Boy cartridges from a box in my basement, I found myself sucked in. The $219 handheld gaming system, whose primary function is to play actual game cartridges from 30 years ago, is more engrossing than I’d anticipated.

Analogue Pocket on the left, Game Boy Color on the right. [Photo: Jared Newman]

Analogue is a tiny company whose goal is uplift gaming history. Its previous endeavors include an aluminum-clad version of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, a wood-paneled Neo Geo with parts sourced from old arcade machines, and miniature versions of the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis that output flawlessly to modern HDTVs.

The Pocket is Analogue’s first portable system and its most versatile product yet. It plays Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance cartridges out of the box, along with Game Gear, Neo Geo Pocket, Atari Lynx, and TurboGrafx-16 games through additional cartridge adapters. It also doubles as a music creation tool through its included copy of Nanoloop, and it can play homemade Game Boy games created in the no-code creation tool GB Studio.

The bundled Nanoloop software lets you write your own chiptunes [Photo: Jared Newman]

All of which makes the Analogue Pocket a surprisingly compelling package. This year has been largely bereft of new gaming hardware, with delays for both the Steam Deck and Playdate, and only a modest display upgrade for the Nintendo Switch. Against all odds, then, the best console launch of 2021 is a system for playing games from the 1990s.

Don’t call it an emulator

There are much easier and cheaper ways to relive portable gaming’s past. With handheld emulators such as the Retromimi RK2020 and Retroid Pocket, you can load up a MicroSD card with ROM game files and play games from practically any classic system at a fraction of the cost.

But the Analogue Pocket, like the company’s previous systems, is not an emulator. Instead of simulating old game systems through software, the Pocket uses customizable chips called field programmable gate arrays to replicate the transistors inside the original systems.

An emulator on the left, Analogue Pocket (with the Game Boy’s original display mode) on the right. [Photo: Jared Newman]

That means the games play exactly like they did on the original hardware, right down to the slowdowns that occur when too much is happening on the screen. Analogue even tried to mimic each system’s original display style, so you can get the same dot matrix pattern and green tint of the original Game Boy or opt for the gray background of the Game Boy Color. Alternatively, a set of enhanced display modes does away with those original styles in favor of making colors pop.

The Pocket is also just a nice piece of hardware, with a hefty plastic enclosure and satisfyingly snappy buttons. The 3.5-inch screen is covered in Gorilla Glass and has a resolution of 1600 by 1440, more than enough to accurately render each system, though it’s optimized for the Game Boy in particular, with the same proportions but 85% more surface area. (With games from other systems, you’ll see black bars on the top and bottom of the screen to preserve their aspect ratios.)

Just as importantly, Analogue provides no way to run ROM game files, which are illegal to distribute but are nonetheless widely available online. If you don’t have your old game cartridges sitting around, you’ll have to buy them on eBay, find a used game store that sells them, or get in the habit of hunting for games at garage sales.

This will certainly limit the system’s appeal, especially at its $219 asking price, but it also creates an effect that’s like listening to an album on vinyl: Once you’ve inserted the cartridge, you’ll be inclined to stick with it for a while, even when the going gets tough.

Living in the past

Admittedly, this loving treatment can sometimes feel undeserved. Lots of old video games haven’t aged well, especially on the handheld side where hardware limitations forced developers to put out weak imitations of their home console games. Streets of Rage was a classic on the Sega Genesis, for instance, but I quickly remembered that the Game Gear version is intolerable, and I felt no great urge to revisit the Game Boy version of Grand Theft Auto.

But it’s all the more rewarding, then, when you unearth a true classic. Super Mario Land 2 and Metroid II: Return of Samus show how the extreme constraints of ’90s handhelds could produce brilliant game design, and the Game Boy version of Tetris is no less addicting than it was three decades ago. (It’s also refreshingly free of ads and microtransactions, unlike the mobile app version.)

Cartridge adapters allow the Pocket to support more systems, such as Sega’s Game Gear [Photo: Jared Newman]

The Analogue Pocket, at its best, feels like a celebration of those creations, casting them in the best possible light. It strips away the original handhelds’ hinderances—like the Game Boy’s lack of backlighting, or the Game Gear’s pitiful battery life—while adding an appropriate number of modern touches. You can put the system to sleep, for instance, then pick up where you left off, or create save points to cope with more difficult games. An optional $100 docking system even lets you play on a TV with an external controller.

Into the future

Analogue says that it has more in store for the Pocket. While the device’s operating system is currently bare-bones, an upgraded version is coming in January with cover art for each game, sharable playlists, and an expanded save system called “Memories” for revisiting the best parts of each game.

Also intriguing are Analogue’s plans for a developer program, which will allow developers to tap into the Pocket’s field programmable gate array chip. This could theoretically extend the Analogue Pocket’s support to even the most obscure old consoles.

Beyond that, Analogue is hinting at a platform that isn’t strictly tied to the past. I’ve only played a single game created with GB Studio—a short horror game called Deadeus—but one could imagine a burgeoning scene of indie games for sale now that they have hardware on which to shine. An newer version of Nanoloop may also expand the Pocket’s potential for music creation.

[Photo: courtesy of Analogue]

I would not buy the Analogue Pocket based on those promises of what’s to come. Analogue first announced the hardware itself in October 2019, started taking pre-orders mid-pandemic—they sold out almost immediately—then delayed the product several times. Investing in a device’s imagined future is seldom wise.

But even in the present, the Pocket is Analogue’s best work so far. Whereas its previous systems merely made old games playable on modern televisions, the Pocket goes a step further by making those old games more enjoyable to play in the first place. For those who adored ’90s handheld games, that experience may be worth the premium.