Analogue Pocket review: Vintage fun with a new age feel

·Editor-at-Large
·22 min read
James Trew / Engadget

Earlier this week we gave a preview of the Analogue Pocket handheld retro gaming system. The modern take on ‘90s portable gaming ($220) offers so much more than just the ability to play most vintage portable games. It has built-in music making software, TV/video out via an accessory and, well many other things we wanted to do a proper dive on. We’ve had so much fun with this thing it’s very easy to recommend right up top. If you simply wanted to know if it’s a good gaming device, I can safely say that it is and thanks for stopping by. If you want to know more (and you should) then get comfortable as we’re going for a ride.

First, a little history. Analogue is often described as a “boutique” console manufacturer. It specializes in a very specific type of retro remake. Instead of building a small PC that can run emulators, Analogue’s FPGA “cores” allow it to mimic vintage consoles at the hardware level. The idea being, all games play as nature intended with none of the emulator quirks to contend with. The company’s early creations were more in the “how to spend it” category. This walnut Neo Geo, for example, or how about this slightly too-fancy NES (and the all-metal reboot).

More recently, Analogue’s Mega SG (Genesis) and Super NT (SNES) took a slightly more accessible approach, cementing the company’s place as the retro console maker de jour. The Pocket aims to build on this legacy with a focus on, somewhat obviously, gaming on the go. It’s also the first Analogue console to play carts from different retro brands.

At launch, it natively plays cartridges from any of the Game Boy variants. It’ll also play Game Gear cartridges with an adapter. Neo Geo Pocket Color, TurboExpress and Atari Lynx adapters are on the way.

Another key difference to most retro machines is that Analogue products are designed to play physical media, not ROMs (although you can sometimes find ways around that as the internet is ever industrious). This really is about doing the old school thing in a modern way with minimal adulteration. That said, the Pocket is compatible with flash carts (that can play ROMs from an SD card), but that’s a quirk of its fidelity – if it works on a Game Boy, it likely works here etc..

By extension, you can also use any of the original Game Boy accessories such as the GB Camera, printer and any titles that had extras such as rumble packs or gyro sensors. You can even connect the Pocket to an authentic Game Boy for multiplayer player fun. In short, all of Analogue’s consoles are functionally 1:1 reproductions of the hardware they honor, just with the Pocket it’s multiple systems in one.

There are, of course, some modern advances that are deemed useful enough to not distract from the authentic experience. For one, the Pocket has a backlit display. Something that didn’t make its way into a Game Boy until the Advance SP (although there was the Game Boy Light in Japan). The Pocket’s 3.5-inch screen is also bigger than the largest on any Nintendo GB handheld (2.9-inches on the Advance SP) and covered in modern Gorilla Glass. Then, of course, there are some modern tweaks such as “save states” and a variety of display presets to match the original hardware (including modes for different iterations of Game Boy).

Analogue Pocket review.
Analogue Pocket review.

What you won’t see here are endless submenus with the hyper specific settings that you tend to find in emulators (or their frontends) like RetroArch. It’s clear the goal with the Pocket is to remove as much user configuration as possible so you can plug in your game and go. Likewise, the Pocket’s connectivity is limited to the Game Boy link port, a headphone jack and an IR port for Game Boy Color (GBC) games that support it (such as Donkey Kong Country or Pokémon Crystal). That’s to say, there’s no touchscreen, no WiFi or any other such redundant jazzy features.

Alas, there’s also no video out, but this can be added with the Dock accessory ($99) which allows for Bluetooth/USB controller connectivity along with an HDMI port for connecting to a TV. Battery-wise, thankfully, it’s not a trip to Target for a big stash of AAAs. The 4,300 mAh cell is good for around six hours of play time and it charges over USB-C.

It’s pretty clear that the Pocket’s design was heavily inspired by the original dot-matrix Game Boy (aka DMG – that’s the iconic one pictured here) and GBC with its portrait configuration. Although one obvious difference is you’ll find four main buttons, which is curious as every system the Pocket imitates only had two – although some, like the Atari Lynx, do have additional system buttons. There are also (slightly spongy) shoulder buttons around the back which were introduced on the Game Boy Advance (GBA), along with “start” and “select” buttons at the bottom, with one more inbetween them that brings up the Analogue menu whatever you’re playing/doing.

Those extra thumb buttons make more sense when you take into account that Analogue has not only partnered with GB Studio — a popular drag-and-drop Game Boy game making tool — but has also added a dedicated spare FPGA for developers to tinker with and use for their own homebrews. How that gets used we’ll have to wait and see, but if you make games in GB Studio you can run them right off the Pocket’s SD card using a proprietary .pocket format. In short, the handheld is aiming to be a viable platform for indie titles made within the constraints of ‘90s era hardware.

Did I mention that it has music production chops, too? The Pocket comes with a version of Nanoloop — a lightweight but comprehensive music-making app for Game Boy — baked right in. Analogue even made cables specifically so you can connect it to desktop and MIDI sequencers. More on this later.

Analogue Pocket review.
Analogue Pocket review.

The above is a long way of saying that it’s obvious Analogue has put a lot of thought and care into making something that isn’t just another way to play Super Mario Land. The addition of tools for developers and an easy pathway to play indie creations give the Pocket one foot in the present. The addition of Nanoloop, likewise, gives it a broader appeal without breaking away from its retro authenticity.

So, you get it, it’s a clever little thing, but what does it play like? I won’t lie, when I inserted Tetris and powered the Pocket up I was, well, I was taken to the Analogue OS home screen. Right now it’s very simple with five menu options, of which, only three are currently available: Play Cartridge, Tools and Settings. The other two are Library and Memories which are currently grayed out until the first firmware update — which Analogue says is coming in a few weeks from publish time. There’s a lot to be excited about in Analogue OS, but for now it’s pretty straightforward, and I’ll flag the more interesting parts as they come.

Back on the home screen, tapping “Play Cartridge” suddenly teleported me to my secondary school in 1990. The Game Boy had just been released and a few people in my year had one. I still remember being fascinated by the weird green and black display and crunchy sound. The Pocket in its original DMG screen mode replicates this look with amazing accuracy. I have other retro handhelds, and the “authentic” green-and-black modes combined with a mishmash of resolutions and displays never look quite right. Even the fact that the Pocket has a backlight, which of course the first ever Game Boy never had, somehow doesn’t break the spell.

For example, the Pocket even replicates the tiny gaps between pixels on the DMG’s display. This means that the fist-pumping plumber in the top left of Super Mario Land’s home screen looks almost indistinguishable from how he did in 1989 (bar that light). My other handheld that runs a fork of RetroPie doesn’t have this level of fidelity. You can do all sorts of custom configurations to possibly come close, but that’s long and life is short. Pocket does it out of the box, no tweaking needed.

Analogue Pocket review.
Analogue Pocket review.

If you prefer your nostalgia hit to feel like other versions of the Game Boy, there are modes for those, too. Specifically the Game Boy Light and the Game Boy Pocket. There’s also Analogue’s own custom mode. What’s interesting is that if you place a GBA game into the Pocket, the choice of display modes changes to match. That’s to say, you’ll get the screen variants of that platform (Original LCD, SP 101) along with another custom Analogue mode specific to that system. As for the Game Gear, you’ll get Analogue mode, GG LCD mode and “GG LCD+” which is like the former, with just a shade more pop in its colors.

Analogue’s own display modes tend to be more modern in style with higher color saturation and no pixel grid. Beyond the presets there are some controls for customization within the menus. These are done by system, and include desaturation controls, sharpness and a frame blending toggle (to mimic the original hardware’s slow responsiveness). Though they are nowhere near as extensive as on most software emulators, and I feel it’s all the better for it. I am not against deep levels of control, but navigating RetroArch’s deep menus has never been my kind of fun.

One slight quirk here is that when you change the volume during play, you’ll see a corresponding plus or minus sign float over the left side for a second or so. But if the Pocket is in certain display modes, like Analogue’s own custom preset, or any game with a white background, you can’t see it because it’s showing white on white. It doesn’t change anything, but it did catch me out for a moment wondering if the volume control wasn’t working.

Thanks to the square display, original Game Boy games perfectly fill the space available and, not coincidentally, the Pocket’s display is exactly 10x the resolution of the original on each axis. This means upscaling is really just a case of adding a zero onto the end of the number of pixels being displayed. Specifically it’s an 1600x1440, 615 ppi LCD.

This sort of detail is almost as important (maybe as important) as running emulation at the hardware level rather than software. Retro gaming has a storied history of using computational and display limitations for creative effect. If you’ve ever played old games on a modern emulator and display, you may have noticed something was a bit off; that retro “feel” wasn’t there. That’s why many emulators offer things like scanlines — because they soften square edges and make things look a bit more authentic.

Analogue Pocket review.
Analogue Pocket review.

The problem is, scanlines are a bit of a blunt tool. Analogue claims it went out of its way to mimic original displays, “quirks” and all. And from what I can tell, that includes things like response time and refresh rates.

An example of this is found among the GBA screens. Despite being a big step up in the number of colors it could display at one time (512 up from the GBC’s 56) the screen still didn’t have a light until later iterations. This gave the games on the early GBAs a distinct look and you can activate a mode that replicates that, if that’s your preference. Or go more modern if it’s not. The benefit to this will largely depend on the game you are playing, as some lean into the limitations of the hardware more than others, but it feels much more authentic than regular old scanlines to me in terms of juicing that vintage vibe.

I, personally, love the original screen modes. They feel like scanlines done right. The start screen for Sonic on the Game Gear, for example, somehow seems more detailed when viewed in the original GG LCD mode. Our hedgehog’s wagging finger seems just that little more detailed and the font more “3D” – for lack of a better word.

In terms of game compatibility, theoretically, there should be very few titles that worked on original hardware that don’t work here, if any. I only had 10 or so games to test with, but the only things that were problematic were a US version of Mario Kart Super Circuit and Mickey Mouse - Castle of Illusion on the Game Gear which loads fine but crops off some of the bottom of the game.

The European version of Mario Kart I had worked just fine, but the US one seemed to stall after loading. Analogue suggested I give that cart a good clean, which I did, several times, but I never got it to work despite it working instantly on my GBA. It’s clear that there’s no reason it shouldn’t work, and a company rep confirmed their copy works their end, but such are the quirks of very old cartridges, perhaps there’s just something off with the pins on that one copy that doesn’t sit right on the Pocket. As for Mickey? Analogue says that’s to do with how that particular game was programmed and there’s already a fix coming in new firmware.

The only other thing that didn’t work was a very unofficial “108 games in one” multicart. That also seemed to at least open but then just hung. This also worked in original hardware, but again… it’s hard to know if it’s just a physical quirk (pins aligning etc) or something else.

Analogue Pocket review.
Analogue Pocket review.

What did work was the Game Boy Camera. It’s always surprising to me that cartridges that relied on watch batteries for saves would still work today, but both the camera and every other game I had with a cell in it seemed to still be going strong with saves intact. Either way, the Game Boy camera is a delight on the Pocket, that backlight really helps. It remains pretty awful on vintage hardware. Analogue also tells me that in the forthcoming erosion v1.1 firmware update, you’ll be able to save your Game Boy Camera photos directly to the Pocket’s SD card. This is actually very cool indeed given that, right now, extracting images from it is kinda a pain in the butt and involves either getting hacky or spending out on something like a ROM dumping cart.

For anything other than the Game Boys, you’ll need a separate $30 adapter to play. Right now the only one available is the aforementioned Game Gear one. I won’t lie, with a game inside it does look a little inelegant, with the cart popping right over the top of the Pocket. I was only able to test the two games on it, and one is the weirdly-cropped Mickey Mouse, but it was still playable and just as much fun (and infuriating) as I remembered the first time around. The fact you can’t jump on top of and ride those tree stumps still doesn’t sit right with me all these years later.

Of course, three generations of Game Boy plus the Game Gear already opens up a pretty substantial library but once the adapters for the Atari Lynx, the Neo Geo Pocket and the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 arrive there’s a whole lot of fun to be had with this one tiny console. Notably, the last system in that list is technically a home console and not a handheld. So there’s more than just portable gaming here. The TurboExpress just happened to take the same game cards as the home-based PC Engine. Such is the curious world of retro gaming.

Analogue OS

I already mentioned the basics of the Pocket’s native operating system. Right now, it’s mostly limited to playing cartridges and some high-level system tweaks. You’ll find some video and audio options and a few system-specific settings (like playing GBC games in GBA mode). Right now, even save states are barely supported. The version of the OS I tested has a quick-and-dirty save/load state option and that’s it. Analogue claims, however, that version 1.1 “will allow you to do everything imaginable with save states.”

Analogue Pocket review.
Analogue Pocket review.

The more intriguing feature that’s currently unavailable is “Library.” On its website, the company describes Analogue OS as “purpose-built for exploring and celebrating all of video game history.” It claims to offer the option to install the artwork for every single game it could play, full save states, game “playlists” and more.

That “more” includes the ability to develop custom FPGA “cores” so you can, within limits, turn the Pocket into other retro systems, although there are plenty of caveats and also, a high level of skill in this area is involved. A skill I definitely do not have. Fortunately, there’s a strong community around Analogue and its open source rival MiSTer. Both pull from the same family of FPGA chips so the likelihood of cool stuff coming further down the line is very high.

Though it’s not clear how playlists or the game library will work, given that you have to have the cartridge inserted into the Pocket to play a game, any software shortcut for that seems a little redundant, at least for now – I’m interested to see how it’s actually implemented. Where this will really come into its own, I suspect, is in making the Pocket experience more holistic and complete. Having access to information and data about the entire world of retro gaming in your hands along with the ability to share playlists and game progress will definitely add a robust layer to the platform. Either way, for now there really does seem to be a lot of exciting new features coming, yet sadly we can’t test them until that next firmware update gets released.

The Dock and other accessories

While the Pocket is all about reviving the handheld magic and all its portability, Analogue made a dock that adds a few important features. Most obviously, it allows you to play your favorite retro games on the biggest screen in the house over HDMI. I won’t lie, it wasn’t quite the seamless experience I was expecting. First, I needed to update the firmware. That’s normal given this was an early test unit, but I still had a few occasions where I had to do things in a certain order for it to take.

Once I had it working though, it’s pretty straightforward. The first thing you’ll notice is how pixelated things are. No fault of the Pocket’s obviously. This is just what happens when you upscale a game made for a 2.5-inch display and run in on a 55-inch modern TV. It’s still perfectly playable though and adds a nice alternative playing option.

Analogue Pocket review.
Analogue Pocket review.

There are some other important benefits to the dock. Not only can you add USB controllers as mentioned, you can also connect Bluetooth and 2.4g controllers. This opens up the possibility of four players where GB Studio titles developed for third-party FPGA cores support it. Given there are only two USB ports on the dock, you’ll need two wireless controllers as well to achieve this. Though it appears you could use four Bluetooth ones at the same time (but support for 2.4g controllers tops out at two).

Right now, you’ll either need a USB controller with a long cable or one of the officially supported 8Bitdo wireless controllers (Pro 2, M30 and the Arcade Stick). PS4 and Switch Pro controllers will also work. More options will be supported in that all important 1.1 update (SN30 Pro, PCE and so on).

That said, I was able to pair an SN30 controller today and it worked just fine. I also had success with a very old, very generic Xbox controller, so it seems support is there, perhaps they are just ironing out some kinks.

One final thing I should note is that when playing via the Dock, most of the display modes become inactive and you’re shuttled onto what appears to be the Analogue preset by default. Analogue’s home consoles to date have come with extensive options for filtering, resizing, adding faux scanlines and the like when playing on a modern TV, so it would be good to see a similar suite of options come to the Dock.

Multiplayer

There’s an unsung benefit to imitating a system at the resistor level via FPGA – you can connect the Pocket to original Game Boys for multiplayer fun. This is no small thing. Modern software emulators allow for online multiplayer on many systems (usually with Netplay), but often this falls apart for handhelds. The need for a cable back in the day made it quite a lot harder to trick a game into thinking it’s connected to another “machine.” There are some workarounds, but they aren’t always so elegant or authentic (half the magic with handhelds is your own private screen).

With the Pocket, you can literally just plug it right into another Game Boy, if you have the right cable. The port on the Pocket matches that of the Game Boy Pocket (GBP) and onward. That’s to say, if you had a GBC and two copies of Tetris you can use the original Nintendo link cable and it should work. If you don’t happen to have the original cable you can buy Pocket’s own do-it-all link cable ($16). The only two models that aren’t instantly compatible are the DMG and the Micro.

I tested out the following scenarios using Analogue’s own cable: Pocket GBC and Pocket to GBA. All worked perfectly. Even GBA games that support Single Pak two player (only one copy of the game needed) work. Mario Kart Super Circuit is one such title and the experience is just like the old days – just a little bit of waiting for the game to setup and you’re off to the proverbial races. Two player Tetris was as fun as it ever was and I might just have to buy another one of these things as you can, of course, also just connect two Analogue Pockets together, too.

Analogue Pocket review.
Analogue Pocket review.

Nanoloop

It’s beyond the scope of this review to give a full breakdown of what Nanoloop is, but if you’ve ever seen (or heard) music made/performed on a Game Boy, this humble app is likely running the show (or LSDJ, but they are both conceptually similar).

A version of Nanoloop is built right into the Pocket’s OS and it’s not just a nice add-on feature. This is evidenced by Analogue selling no less than four different cables ($20 each) that allow you to connect Nanoloop on the Pocket to external MIDI hardware, Desktop music MIDI software, other Pockets and hardware with audio sync (such as Korg’s line of Volcas or Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operators).

I won’t lie, if you’re not familiar with music sequencing, the learning curve here is steep. Add into that the limited sonic capabilities of the Game Boy and it’s hard to eke something musical out of the app. At least at first. Persevere, though, and you might just find that Nanoloop is something of a stealth addiction – certainly it’s a great value add that I really hope draws in more people to the platform. Given that you can pipe out the audio to headphones or a dedicated speaker via the headphone port it’s not just a time sink, you can be annoying your friends and neighbors in no time.

Wrap up

Analogue Pocket review.
Analogue Pocket review.

If you’ve got this far, then there’s a good chance that, like me, you’re pretty excited about the Pocket. For casuals, $220 to play games you might already own (or worse, have to navigate the second hand market to buy) might not quite be the value proposition you were looking for. And that’s fine, Pocket isn’t aimed at casuals. Pocket is for those that love, live and breathe retro gaming and who want the absolute best experience possible.

For handheld gaming, right now, Pocket is that best experience. Absolutely hands down, no doubt about it. Everything from start to finish is as authentic as it can be without being needlessly pedantic (like not having a backlight for DMG/GBC games etc.). The experience is further elevated by select modern concessions. The aforementioned light, the curated display presets and the smart features in the operating system to mention a few.

The fact that Analogue added in some complementary additions, such as that spare FPGA core and the tight support for GB Studio only serves to reassure me that the Pocket will just get better with time. There are, of course, a few areas for improvement. The shoulder buttons aren’t the best. Some of the display modes obscure on-screen messages at times. The adapters look a little goofy with a game in them. But these are details. And detail is, apparently, what Analogue does best. And perhaps the bigger detail to be concerned about is getting yourself a spot in line. Orders just reopened, but already demand has been so high that you likely won’t get one until 2023.

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