Analogue Pocket Review: History in your hands
The Analogue Pocket is a vessel for your reverence of Game Boys, Game Gear, and old-school handhelds.
How far would you go to recreate the feeling you got playing video games as a child? Based on the general love and admiration for Analogue, a company that makes sleek new consoles for playing old games, there are a lot of us who would pay handsomely for the chance. The company’s newest device, the Analogue Pocket, finally extends that deeply detailed love to the early portable consoles of the 1990s and 2000s. It plays Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance cartridges out of the box. An optional adapter allows it to play Game Gear carts and, in time, the Atari Lynx and Neo Geo Pocket Color.
Like Analogue’s Super NT and Mega SG, which play Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis games, respectively, the Analogue Pocket offers a masterful adaptation of old-school technology adapted with and, in many ways, enhanced by modern design sensibilities. The $220 retro console goes to great lengths to let you recreate the experience of playing Game Boy games on a Game Boy-like device. At the same time, it introduces new luxuries, including save states, modern display settings, and the ability to play on a modern TV using the optional dock. It’s an extremely impressive piece of equipment. It can also be used to make music—and is easily the best device way to play the portable games of generations past, whether you display your collection prominently or have it stashed in a basement or closet.
Is the Analogue Pocket a Game Boy?
The Analogue Pocket evokes the original Game Boy, without trying to imitate it. Measuring 3.5 by 0.88 by 5.84 inches (WDH), it’s smaller than the actual Game Boy, closer to the size of the Game Boy Color, but the overall design is similar. The rectangular plastic console body has the same rounded bottom corners and sharp top corners as the original. Its 3.5-inch 1660 x 1440p LCD display has the same thick bezel. When you play it, you really feel like you’re holding a Game Boy from the ‘90s.
Between the fact that it supports a wide array of consoles and a host of new features, it isn’t actually identical. The Analogue Pocket has the full input set for the Game Boy Advance, including four face buttons, a four-way D-pad, and two triggers. The front also has a trio of system-level buttons, the classic start and select buttons, plus a logo-laden home button. On the side, you have a two-part rocker for controlling volume, plus a power button.
There are also more ports than you might expect. On the back, of course, you have a wide, open cartridge slot—It’s larger than you might remember if you haven’t touched an old handheld in a while. On the sides, you have a pair of very noticeable speakers, as well as a MicroSD card slot, which you’ll need to install software updates. (Installing firmware this way is time-consuming but Analogue plans to make it possible to update the console via USB in the future.) On the bottom, there’s a USB-C port for charging, a 3.5mm analog headphone, and, amazingly, a classic Game Boy Link Cable port, allowing you to play multiplayer Game Boy games the old-fashioned way.
What makes the Analogue Pocket so special, then?
There are many emulator boxes that will let you “dump” a game from your old game cartridges and play them using an emulator on a TV. (There are also plenty of ways to get retro game ROMs and an emulator program to play said games on your computer or an Android device.) Emulators have their disadvantages, though: They can change the way things look in subtle ways. Emulators can simulate playing a game the old way, but they don’t “recreate” it.
Analogue achieves a higher level of technical accuracy through a computer chip called a field-programmed gate array, or FPGA, which can be configured and reconfigured after its manufacture. For the Analogue Pocket, as well as Analogue’s previous retro-facing consoles, the chip is used to reproduce the hardware inside old game consoles at the hardware level, rather than using a piece of emulation software to make old game files compatible with new machines.
For game preservationists, for the deeply nostalgic, and, yes, eccentric perfectionists, the FPGA gets you “closer to the metal.” It is, realistically, the closest you can get to a perfect recreation of playing these games on the original hardware without buying the old consoles, which can be hard to find in working condition. As someone with a childhood filled with old games, there’s comfort in knowing that there will still be ways to keep playing these cartridges after all of those machines eventually die.
Okay … but it works just like a Game Boy, right?
More or less. For the three consoles it supports by default, you simply plug the cartridge in, same as the original systems. When you turn the Analogue Pocket on, it brings you to a home screen in AnalogueOS, a bespoke operating system where you can choose to play the inserted cart, run a compatible game on an SD card, or adjust settings. You can set the console to boot up the cart when it turns on, though, to more accurately recreate the Game Boy experience.
Once you turn on a game, it plays just like it would have on the original hardware. All the games I tried across the Game Boy lineage played perfectly, without noticeable input lag or any visual issues. (A pro tip, should you choose to buy one: Make sure to clean your cartridges before playing if they’ve been in storage. The console seems fairly sensitive to dust and some of my games drew AnalogueOS system error screens on boot up until after they’d been cleaned.)
There are a few extra little quality-of-life features you can access, like the ability to create a save state or put the console in sleep mode so you can stop playing without losing your place. This is a standard feature for emulators and other retro machines at this point, but it’s worth noting because it dramatically changes how you interface the console and its games. In a smartphone-enabled world, restarting a game from scratch every time you turn the machine on would be insufferable for most people.
For preservationists and historically curious, the Analogue features sound and display settings, which replicate how games would look on different versions of various consoles. For example, when playing a Game Boy Advance game, you can use the default display, a display that replicates the picture from the original Game Boy Advance’s LCD display, or a version that replicates the brighter, backlit screen from the Game Boy Advance SP. Likewise, you have the option to play the original audio or allow the console to “enhance” it. The console’s “enhanced” audio varies much more from game to game than the modernized “default” display setting, which generally looks brighter and sharper than the retro reproduction modes. In a few cases, the audio sounds slightly cleaner. In others, you can’t really hear a difference.
Battery life is a slight weak point for the Pocket, at least on paper. According to Analogue, you should expect to get “over 6 hours” of gameplay time on a single charge under optimal conditions. In practice, I found it lasted somewhere in the neighborhood of 4-7 hours on a charge, though those numbers can be deceiving, depending on whether you play for long stretches or short bursts.
And there’s more to come
Analogue also has larger plans for AnalogueOS, the operating system at the heart of the Pocket. There are a few features the company promised and are on its roadmap, but aren’t available yet. First and foremost, a reference tool called the “Library” will offer a Wiki database of information about the games that the console’s designed to play. You will also have the ability to create your own custom catalog of your games, as well as playlists of games you like.
Analogue has also committed to some technical improvements, including the aforementioned ability to update the console’s firmware via USB or the optional Analog Pocket Dock.
Analogue Pocket accessories
If there’s one flaw to the Analogue Pocket, it’s the fact that you need to buy a fair number of optional accessories to get the complete experience. First and foremost, there are the adapters: In addition to playing the first three Nintendo handheld consoles—Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance—the Pocket can run Sega Game Gear, TurboGrafx-16 Atari Lynx, and Neo Geo Pocket Color games, but only with special adapters that cost $29.99 per console. There are also Pocket-to-MIDI cables to support the console’s music production features; these cost $19.99 per cable. It makes sense that these niche peripherals aren’t included in the core package, but they heap a lot of extra cost on top of an already-expensive device, especially for those who primarily care about the optional, adapter-enabled console libraries.
There is one peripheral, though, that probably should have come with the console. The Analogue Pocket Dock is a charging cradle and hub that allows you to connect the portable console to a modern TV to play in 1080p via HDMI. It also allows you to connect both wired and wireless controllers via USB and Bluetooth, respectively. (It will also, eventually, be the easiest way to update the console.) On its own, the dock costs $99.99, nearly half the price of the console itself.
You could argue that the dock is gravy: None of these consoles could dock to a TV or monitor, so why should that come standard? But, given the console’s preservationist mission and the need to interface with a PC, it feels like a disservice to tell people that these aspects of the device are optional. The dock enables the ability to stream your games, arguably a necessity for modern consoles. It also gives you the ability to easily get up close and personal with these games on a larger screen, another basic amenity of many other cartridge- and ROM-based emulators. The dock is carefully constructed; worth the money if you’re inclined to buy it. But It seems a shame that there will be users who don’t get to indulge in those aspects of the experience.
What else does the Analogue Pocket do?
In addition to playing cartridges, the Analogue Pocket has two features that facilitate niche cultural pursuits. First, in addition to playing cartridges, the Analogue SP can play new independent games made to run on it using a free game development tool called GB Studio. You can download those games on a PC and transfer them to the console using a MicroSD card. This opens the door to play new, amateur-made games, which is very neat. But, more importantly, it opens the door for people to make games and play them on a game console, which I think (or at least hope) could be an eye-opening experience for aspiring designers.
Second, the Pocket features a synthesizer and sequencer app called Nanoloop, which allows you to create and record music. Using optional Pocket-to-MIDi cables, you can connect the console to a keyboard, MIDI controller, or another device to make beats or samples for larger audio projects.
With very little electronic music-making experience of my own, I’m not going to speak much to Nanoloop’s utility. Personally, I found the basic system for laying down notes to be very intuitive … up until the point where you want to play multiple kinds of sounds. Then the Game Boy interface seems to complicate things.
So, who should buy the Analogue Pocket?
At $220, the Analogue Pocket system is among the most expensive devices out there for playing the portable games it supports, but it is undoubtedly the best. It’s sleek, works well, and features modern conveniences that make the experience of playing retro games less temperamental than using a 30-year-old Game Boy. And for preservationists who, like audiophiles, crave the most precise replication of the original gaming experience possible, the Analogue will get you very close to that place. Retro gaming and collecting, particularly from this era, is an expensive hobby. If you’re going to get into it, you may as well buy a console that will let you savor that playtime as much as possible.