Analogue Pocket first look: Handheld gaming as good as it ever was

Modern technology meets '90s nostalgia.

Far too long ago (for our impatient souls), boutique console maker, Analogue, teased something exciting. A retro handheld that mimicked multiple classic systems, including: All the Game Boys, the Sega Game Gear, the Neo Geo Pocket and the Atari Lynx. Oh and more recently announced: the TurboExpress, too. In other good news, Analogue also just announced that orders for the Pocket will open again on December 14th (tomorrow). The slightly less good news is that at $220, it'll cost $20 more than originally planned, but you can blame the virus for that and its impact on supply chains.

Finally, it’s here and it’s… still just as exciting. So much so that the short time I've had with the Pocket isn't enough to give it the deep dive review it deserves. You have to remember, this thing not only plays old games from original cartridges. It does so using a party trick called field-programmable gate arrays (or FPGA). All you need to know is that FPGAs effectively mimic old consoles at the hardware level. When you plug in a game, it thinks it’s in an original Game Boy (or whichever system for the relevant adapter you might be using). Couple that with a display custom-designed to replicate vintage screens, quirks and all, and this has all the ingredients to be the most authentic retro handheld you can find. Our early testing with Game Boy (original) and Game Boy Advance games indicates this really is one of the most authentic experiences you can find.

Pretty much the moment you pick this thing up you know you’re in for a treat. If the original Game Boy had been released today with a Scandinavian design, this is what it would look like. The clean lines and monochrome aesthetic tell you this is all about the game; there are no garish colors of cliche nods to the '90s here. Just one dash of color on the left-hand side for the power button and that’s as flashy as things get.

The general layout broadly matches the first-gen and Game Boy color, with the screen up top and controls underneath. Though there are four thumb buttons instead of two as you’ll be able to create games for this yourself either with GB Studio or via the spare FPGA core Analogue added just for developers. There are shoulder buttons, too, as per the Game Boy advance.

Fortunately, the display is thoroughly modern and not like the squinty, if much loved, one from back in 1989. It’s also handily 10 times the resolution on both axes so it can serve up pixel-perfect renditions of your favorite original Game Boy titles. The way it reproduces original Game Boy games is quite remarkable.

Turn the Pocket on and the minimalist interface leads you straight to the good stuff: Playing games.

I won’t lie, firing up Tetris for the first time and changing the Pockets display mode to the original green-and-black game boy mode was quite the dash of nostalgia. I’ve played Game Boy games on several “modern” handhelds and none of them looked like this. Even the pixel grid of the original is here, the motion blur (if you want it), the sound. Everything felt just as it did all those years ago.

The same goes for Game Boy Advance games. If you ever owned the first model of GBA, you’ll (painfully) remember that it still didn’t have a lit screen. The Pocket does, but everything else matches, including a preset for that slight washed-out look that comes with just colors on a non-illuminated LCD. You can, of course, choose a more modern display mode if you like, but purists are going to love the attention to detail here.

The authenticity doesn’t stop at the fidelity of the games. The “link” port on the Pocket happens to be the same as the one found on the Game Boy Color and onwards. That means if you have the original hardware (or another Pocket) you can play with friends just like you would have back in the proverbial day. I do have the original hardware, and we’re testing those features right now which you’ll see in our full review.

In terms of compatibility, so far the only glitch we've had is with a very unofficial Game Boy Advance multicart, everything else has worked a charm — including fund stuff like the Game Boy Camera. The same goes for Game Gear titles, which is the only other platform we can try right now.

There’s so much more to cover here we kinda can’t wait to show you it all. There’s the dock accessory for playing on a TV with real controllers, there’s the aforementioned music-making app, there’s Analogue’s own operating system which hides more than a few perks and then there are the adapters for all the other consoles.

For now, we’re excited to say that the Pocket appears to deliver on its key promises. The hardware feels fantastic and we keep going back for more Tetris even when it's way past our bedtime. You’ll just have to wait a few more days for our comprehensive review.