In this article:
- Discover the best retro handheld consoles on the market and what games you can expect to play on them.
- Figure out whether you really want an old console, an emulator console, or just an emulator software.
- Learn the basics of how to shop for secondhand retro consoles, get the best deals, and not end up scammed.
There’s no denying that retro handheld consoles are among the most nostalgic gaming devices from our childhoods. Their old-school charm reminds us of simpler days when Gameboys didn’t have color, Nintendo’s best console was the DS Lite, and microtransactions were non-existent.
In recent years, there has been an uptick in interest in retro gaming devices.
Regardless of whether that’s pandemic-induced comfort-seeking or genuine love for old consoles, the end result is that retro handheld consoles are now rarer and pricier.
So before you buy your first retro handheld console, it’s important to figure out whether you really need one, which one gives you access to games you want to play, and how to choose a retro console so you don’t get scammed on the secondhand market.
What Is the Best Portable Handheld Console for Emulation?
Nostalgia aside, the most powerful device for classic retro games emulation is already in your pocket. Heck, you’re probably reading this on it right now.
The best handheld for emulating games is your smartphone.
Sure, it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing option, but most entry-level smartphones these days can outclass handheld gaming devices no matter how recent they are. Just to give you an idea of how underpowered handheld consoles are, the Nintendo Switch only has 4GB of RAM.
If performance is the only thing you’re after, you’re better off downloading an emulator like PPSPP, which lets you run PlayStation Portable games, onto your phone.
You can then purchase a controller like the Razor Kishi or PowerA MOGA XP5-X to make your gaming experience more comfortable.
That said, don’t rule out actual old-school handhelds and emulator consoles yet. They are a must if you’re planning to collect retro handheld consoles.
Other than aesthetics, real handheld consoles also offer a different feel that you just don’t get with a regular smartphone. Not to mention, it’s easy to get distracted from your retro games when you have social media just a tap away.
So what’s the best old handheld for emulating games with?
The best retro handheld console out there is none other than Sony’s PlayStation Vita.
The Vita has the following advantages over other retro handheld consoles:
- It has great ergonomics and is far more comfortable to play on than the Nintendo DS and 3DS family of consoles.
- It is insanely easy to hack and can be homebrewed in under an hour. This makes it better than the Nintendo Switch when it comes to emulation because the Switch still needs an expensive modchip before you can run custom firmware on it.
- It can run PSP and PS1 games natively meaning that your games can run much smoother on the PS Vita than on other consoles or emulators.
But of course, the Vita isn’t the only memorable old console out there. If you’re not a fan of how it looks or you’d like another collection-worthy handheld, one of these following retro handheld consoles may be a better choice.
7 Powerful Retro Handheld Consoles for Retro Gaming
1. Nintendo DS Lite
Let’s clear up one thing first: The better DS is the DS Lite, not the DSi. If you get the Nintendo DSi, you will lose out on the key advantage that the DS Lite offers over the other consoles on this list.
The Nintendo DS Lite lets you play Game Boy Advance cartridges.
Sure, you could still get a Game Boy Advance, but they’re currently more expensive than the DS Lite because there’s simply less of them to go around. Less GBAs and fewer parts mean more chances of not being able to maintain your console in the coming years.
Compare that with the Nintendo DS Lite which still has a lot of replacement buttons, screens, styli, and cases available online and the choice is pretty easy for newer collectors.
This lets you play: The World Ends with You (2007), Animal Crossing: Wild World (2005), and The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (2007).
2. PlayStation Portable
Nintendo made a ton of memorable retro handheld consoles, but none of them can beat the PlayStation Portable (PSP) when it comes to ergonomics. If you don’t believe me, try gaming on any DS device for more than a couple of hours and compare the level of comfort you get with a PSP.
Now, the PSP isn’t anywhere near as powerful as the PS Vita and it can’t let you play PS Vita games the way you can play PSP games on the Vita. But if you’re really collecting consoles, the PSP is a must-have item.
The PSP also boasts an impressive library of games and can easily emulate games for the SEGA Genesis, Amiga 500, Game Boy Advance, and NES.
This lets you play: Obscure The Aftermath (2007), Crisis Core: Final Fantasy (2007), and Patapon (2011).
3. Nintendo 3DS
Moving onto the more powerful consoles, we have the Nintendo 3DS family of consoles. The 3DS family includes the Nintendo 3DS, the 3DS XL, the New 3DS, the New 3DS XL, and all of their 2DS counterparts.
If you can forgive the 3DS’ weird naming conventions, you’ll be treated to a more powerful version of the DS Lite that has enough computing power to emulate more or less the same games as the PS Vita.
But be warned: The 3DS/2DS can’t play New 3DS/2DS games.
While you won’t be able to play The Binding of Isaac (2014), Minecraft (2011), and Fire Emblem Warriors (2017) on older 3Ds and 2DS devices, you can still play all of the DS Lite games on old 3DS/2DS systems.
This lets you play: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (2011), Shin Megami Tensei IV (2013), and Bravely Default (2012).
4. Anbernic RG503
You don’t have to play on an actual old handheld to get an old-school experience. This is where new retro-style handheld consoles come in.
The Anbernic RG503 has all the aesthetics of an old console and access to older games without making you feel like you’re playing on an antique.
The device has a 4.9-inch OLED screen, a 3500mAh battery, a quad-core 64-bit processor, and built-in 5G, Wifi, and Bluetooth support.
It’s basically a smartphone locked into the role of an emulation device.
This lets you play: Games on the PSP, N64, Neogeo, GBA, Arcade, Famicom, PS1, NDS, Super Famicom, etc.
5. Miyoo Mini Portable Retro Handheld
The Miyoo Mini Portable Retro Handheld is perfect for you if you want the Game Boy experience without a Game Boy’s level of performance.
This retro handheld console packs a crisp 2.8-inch 640x 480 display, 2000mAh battery, and 32GB of storage in one adorable Game Boy-like package.
It’s admittedly not the most powerful emulator console you can get, but it’s the best out of all Game Boy-style retro-themed handhelds.
This lets you play: Games on the PSP, Neogeo, GBA, Famicom, Super Famicom, TurboGrafx-16, etc.
7. Retroid Pocket 2+
The Retroid Pocket 2+ is another favorite among retro handheld console players because of its form factor, clear display, and superior battery life that outclasses even the Anbernic RG503.
This is a very small console with few features that are executed well. It comes with a 4:3 touchscreen display and it runs on Android 9 OS, setting it apart from the other emulator consoles on this list. It also has rumble similar to PlayStation’s DualShock controllers.
Speaking of PlayStation, the Retroid Pocket 2+ supports remote play for x86, X-Box, PS4, and PS5. You’ll have to set it up with streaming software like Steam link or Moonlight, but it works surprisingly well for such a relatively low-powered device.
If you loved how the PSP and DS retro handheld consoles had so many color options and limited-edition versions, you’re going to love the options for the Retroid Pocket 2+.
It’s not as expansive as either the PSP or DS, but this device does come in 4 different colors and even lets you choose between a fully Retro-themed or 16-bit option.
Retro Handheld Console Collecting 101: How to Buy a Secondhand Console
If you’ve decided that buying secondhand old consoles is for you, the next step is to make sure you don’t accidentally buy a non-functioning device.
Check the Plastic
Whether you’re buying retro handheld consoles or consoles meant for CRT TVs, you need to keep an eye out for signs of wear and tear. Even if a device is working great right now, it’s likelier to break down later if it looks like the previous owner played it a lot.
Generally, you need to make sure that the buttons are still crisp and the sliders aren’t loose. If a device has folding parts, check the hinge for cracks.
If you’re buying online, you can also request a picture of the edges. Plastic grows brittle over time and those edges are going to be the first ones to crack if the previous owner was careless.
Watch Who You’re Buying From
Do not buy retro handheld consoles from sellers who also sell parts or do repairs. Get as much information as you can about who you’re buying your console from. If they offer repair services, there’s a chance that your console has been picked apart for its nicer parts.
This isn’t the case for all sellers, but it’s another thing to keep in mind.
It’s best if you can buy your console directly from its first owner since you can likely get a better idea of the console’s history (i.e if it’s been dropped, damaged, or repaired before).
Get a Second Opinion on Prices
There are online communities dedicated to collecting and homebrewing old consoles. These are the best people to ask about whether you’re getting a good deal or not because they have no conflicting interests.
Do not trust a seller on their word. Ever since retro handheld consoles became more popular, there have been more resellers charging extortionate prices and lying about the condition of a device.
Go Local or Go Japanese
It’s not difficult to get popular retro handheld consoles online, but if you’re looking for a limited edition version, you’re likely to get a better deal by looking around your area.
Go to garage sales, estate sales, or open Facebook Marketplace. Yes, people still use Facebook, and sometimes they sell good condition rare consoles there.
If you’re really desperate and in a rush, you can order a console directly off of eBay Japan. Your console may be a bit more confusing to install custom firmware on, but it’s easier to get a retro handheld console that’s in mint condition and has the box included.