Nostalgia is a sentimental affection for something one experiences in their past. For most people, these are old places, books, movies, or even TV shows. For a lot of people growing up after the mid-80s or 90s, Nostalgia takes the shape of video games. It also happens to be a major selling point. Companies will happily sell old consoles with a fresh new coat of paint if there is a market for it.
To be perfectly honest, there is a huge market for it. A lot of collectors and even casual gamers are always looking for ways to play older games. There are a lot of ways to go about it, you can either emulate them on your PC, hunt down an old console, or buy a retro-inspired device built for this purpose only.
That’s what we’ll be taking a look at today. We will be breaking down the top five retro handhelds in 2021. But for those of you who are new to all this, we’ll give you a bit of background to what retro handhelds actually are.
What Makes A Great Retro Handheld?
The premise of these consoles is quite simple. They allow you to take a large library of games with you on the go. If you ever had a Gameboy, Nintendo DS, or other handheld growing up (which you most likely did), it’s the same concept. The only difference is that you have to manually install games or ROMs on them. That’s a story for another day.
So, what makes a good retro handheld? First off, the screen should be viewable yet small, and resolution is important too. Other than that, the feel of the buttons, performance, intuitive design, and aesthetics are all important things. Some handhelds will even allow you to plug cartridges in if you’re really feeling old school.
Those are all the things that make a good retro handheld. Of course, there’s more to the story than that, but this brief intro should bring you up to speed.
Something we don’t see in most retro consoles is attention to detail. This is exactly why the Retroid Pocket 2 stands out from the crowd. The design is surprisingly incredible, it has a lot of customization features, and everything is put together quite well. While no retro handheld can ever really be perfect, the Retroid Pocket 2 comes quite close to it. That’s why it is our favorite.
Relatively speaking, the Retroid Pocket 2 is competitive in pricing considering what it offers. It has a 3.5-inch IPS display which has a resolution of 640 x 480. It has 1GB of RAM and a 1.5GHz processor. Other than that, it has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and Android 8.1 Built-in. Android allows you to use this for Steam-link, Xbox Cloud gaming, and of course, Android games.
Other than that, the performance is quite surprising. It can emulate almost any console up to Dreamcast. This includes N64, PSP, and Playstation 1 games. It even works with Nintendo DS titles. The screen is great, so higher fidelity games look great when combined with the great performance metrics. Android also allows you to play around with any emulator you want. Personally, we just advise using RetroArch, as it’s easier that way. Other than that, all the buttons, sticks, and D-pad feel excellent.
We didn’t even talk about the best part yet. The build quality and design, both of which are excellent. You can easily mistake this for an official Nintendo console, and we can’t blame you. It feels excellent in the hand, and they have a lot of color options to choose from.
The only issue is they are hard to get a hold of, even through Amazon. Some people might not be a fan of the analog stick location either. But in reality, it is very difficult to find any flaws with this device. We highly recommend it.
Anbernic is one of the more popular names when it comes to retro handhelds. The RG350M is their most popular release, which is largely because of the metal design. As expected, the RG351P serves as a spiritual successor to the 350M. While there are no major changes here, it feels a bit better in the hand and is more comfortable.
That’s largely thanks to the revamped design. In terms of shape, Anbernic gets rid of the big chin this time, and the bezel around the screen is smaller too. This makes the console smaller and more portable. The D-pad is on the top left side, while both analog sticks are at the bottom on either side. We know many people prefer this layout. For those of you wondering, the 3.5-inch IPS display has a resolution of 320 X 480.
The screen is pixel-perfect for Gameboy and Gameboy Advance games. All of the buttons feel excellent, even the shoulder buttons at the top. They can make the shoulder buttons better by making them a bit bigger. It can emulate consoles like SNES, NES, Gameboy, and Playstation 1 flawlessly.
Battery life is also solid, coming in at around six hours or so. A major difference here is that the RG351P uses plastic instead of metal. While that’s not a big deal, it feels like a downgrade from its predecessor.
When it comes to N64, Dreamcast, or PSP, that’s where it starts to struggle. You can get N64 working with some tweaking, but Dreamcast and PSP are next to unplayable. But if you don’t care about those two consoles, everything else is excellent. Personally, the lovely screen, great build quality, and brand recognition really have us sold.
The GPD XD plus isn’t the best console on this list, nor is it the most affordable one. With that said, it is definitely the most interesting one here. It’s quite similar to the Nintendo 3DS XL in terms of design. The handheld is comfortable, has a large screen, and is a joy to use. But those aren’t the reasons why it’s on this list in the first place. While it is quite expensive, it might be worth it for the right person.
The GPD XD Plus uses a clamshell design like the DS. Closing the hinge turns off the screen and saves battery life. This is a feature we always love to see. The analog sticks are at the top and they feel excellent. Furthermore, the D-pad is quite good, and so are the face buttons. In fact, the entire layout feels more comfortable than any handheld we’ve seen.
A great feature on this console is the bright 5-inch touchscreen. It packs quite a punch and is very vibrant. The GPD XD runs on a build of Android 7.0. While it is an older build, it gives it a lot of customization. You can use it for Steam-link, Xbox Cloud gaming, Android games, and much more. Stardew Valley is a perfect game for a console like this.
Moving on, the hardware is where the XD Plus really shines. This thing has a 6000mAh battery, which can easily last a whole day. Performance is excellent as well, thanks to the hexacore processor, 4 gigs of RAM, and plentiful 32 gigs of storage. The only problem is that it isn’t exactly a user-friendly device.
A lot of emulators on the PlayStore aren’t exactly the most high quality. You’ll either have to use RetroArch or tinker around to find a solution. Nothing a bit of research can’t fix, but it does require you to put in some work. Other than that, it’s also quite expensive for what’s simply an emulation device.
Anbernic finds themselves another spot on this list. This time it thanks to the console that sort of started the hype and brought retro gaming back for many people. Of course, we’re talking about the Anbernic RG350M. The “M” indicates that this is the metal version of the console. It has everything you need and still holds up in 2021.
The RG350 is considered by many as the best retro handheld, period. The metallic design of this thing still holds up. We’ve yet to see a handheld that feels better in the hand than the RG350M. Everything from the size to the shape is near perfect. It has four shoulder buttons and two analog sticks. The 3.5-inch 640 x 480 IPS display is perfect for retro gaming.
It charges via USB-C, which is always nice to see. The analog sticks sit almost flush with the body, which makes it more portable. Compared to other interfaces, Anbernic’s UI is easy to get used to. It works well and should be easy to pick up and play for most people. Performance is decent, as it can play Playstation 1 games perfectly.
It’s also a great handheld for playing NES, SNES, and Gameboy games. Unfortunately, there is no official support for DS games. And if you want to play games from N64, Gamecube, or Dreamcast, then you should look elsewhere. Other than that it’s a great console and we can recommend it to most newcomers. However, it’s a bit pricey considering competitors can deliver better performance for cheap. You are mainly paying for the build quality here.
The PowKiddy RK2020 is a very surprising handheld, that’s for sure. While most companies tend to focus on the overall package, they went the route of undercutting the competition. It seems to be working for them, as the RK2020 is cheaper and performs better than some of the pricier options on the market. But, that does not make it perfect.
The RK2020 uses the RetroArch OS, which is quite user-friendly. It uses a 1.3GHz processor paired with a Mali G31 GPU. It has 1 gig of RAM and a slot for a microSD card. The 3.5-inch 320 x 480 IPS screen isn’t the sharpest in terms of resolution but doesn’t look bad by any means. It has a 2600mAh battery, which is not bad for the price.
But none of that really matters for this console. What matters is performance, and it gets interesting here. It can easily play most consoles up to the PS1. However, it also manages N64, Dreamcast, and PSP games quite well. We have never seen this before at this price. Of course, it’s not all silky smooth, but it’s more than playable. We are doubtful that anyone is going to complain about performance.
What people will complain about is the design and build quality. The design is generic, which is still a passable attribute. However, the build quality is quite good bad. It feels like a cheap toy at times. Plastic isn’t necessarily bad, but in this console, it feels kind of detrimental. The analog stick is quite poor as well.
However, taking all of that into account, if you just need a powerful handheld for cheap, this is the one to get. Just make sure that you are ready to deal with the poor build quality.