Interested in taking your classic games with you? Then look no further than our Beginners Guide to Retro Emulation handhelds. Retro gaming is very popular – both in collecting and play. At the same time, chip sets are getting simultaneously and more powerful and more affordable. This has meant that handheld emulators – that is: devices that ’emulate’ real console systems using software – have become readily available.
With that in mind, it isn’t necessarily just a case of hopping on Amazon, ordering a device and playing from the box. There are any number of devices, operating systems, capabilities and complexity. For newbies, it can be a bit of a minefield. So let us help by giving you some a guide on what to consider when getting into the fun world of emulation and handhelds.
What is a Retro Emulation Handheld?
That is a good question. We’d describe it as any handheld that allows you to play Retro games. By Retro, we mean sixth generation and older (i.e. PS2 and before). This is a pretty broad scope and here is where you have lots of choice.
We’ll get into it later but you could, if you so choose, modify an existing older console such as a Nintendo DS, Sony PSP or PS Vita to play retro games. Or you can buy something fully dedicated, often from Chinese manufacturers that was built solely to play retro titles. Or you could even use a mobile phone, either with a controller or touch screen. So it really depends on why you want it, how much work you want to put in and what you want to play.
ROMS and BIOS files
Before we start, we have to address the issue of actually getting older game titles. To run anything, you need the game files (ROMS) and you may need some BIOS files. These are the system files that help emulate a system. They may be copyrighted in your region or territory. It is legal to have backups of software that you own and that is our recommendation in how to obtain these. There are safe ways to backup your software available online depending on the system.
Some systems may well come with a Micro SD card that has games installed. These are often pirated. You probably won’t be in the wrong if you order them but you are technically supporting piracy. Obligational disclaimer, as a responsible site, we would recommend that all ROM’s and BIOS files are legally taken as backups from your collection.
ROMS and BIOS files can be found out on the web that can provide but you are very much on your own to do so and any risks that come with it. TLDR – don’t expect everything you buy to have games on the device. YOU may need to source them.
There is a huge range of handhelds that can play retro titles. You can pick up some very, very basic emulation systems in the region of $10-20. These are often cheap, flimsy and the games can be literal shovelware. They may be localized into random languages. Typically, to get a dedicated device you would want to actually use, you are looking at spending around $60-200 without shipping. Some may go higher than that dependent on specs. Picking up an older handheld like a DS or PSP might be a little cheaper but we have noticed that Vita’s are starting to creep into the $100-200 dollar range now.
What do you want to run?
Price is a factor that’s largely determined by what systems you want to emulate. Emulation, as a rule, takes more power to run than the original system. That’s because it’s using brute computing force with the CPU and GPU to pretend to be the original system.
Budget devices are going to be able to handle MOST systems in the 8-16bit range. That means systems like the NES, SNES, Master System, Genesis/Mega Drive, Game Boy are going to run just fine. You may also be able to play older arcade games from the 80’s and early 90’s on them. You may even squeak by with systems like the Game Boy Advance.
This is fine and typically they’ll have controls to suit those systems – single shoulder buttons, D-Pad and four button input.
The price starts to increase when you want to play games from higher generations. A lot of emulation handhelds now have capacity for two analog sticks and triggers. They may have support for the fifth generation, such as PlayStation 1, Saturn or even N64. Going further up the chain, bigger systems with heftier specs may be able to get up to Dreamcast, Nintendo DS and Sony PSP. Even Gamecube and PS2 are within reach of some newly released handhelds.
Do your research on what WILL run
Some commercially available handhelds may advertise they can run certain systems and that will be.. mostly true. Some games are harder to run than others. As an example – Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles on the PSP. Lower end systems can handle 2D platformers from the PSP quite easily. Try to run something more demanding like the 3D God of War: Chains of Olympus and the device might very well melt.
Using an existing system like a DS, PSP and even Vita is going to give different results but you’ll not really be able to get above PS1 on these devices. Google check the handheld/device you are buying and see what reviewers and forums have to say about them. We also have to be honest – there are some games, even on systems that run well, that can sometimes struggle. Such is the way with emulation.
Where can I get retro handhelds?
The truth is… all over. Sellers on Amazon and Ebay will often stock them. There are some global resellers, like Droix.co.uk. But a lot of devices are manufactured and sold in China. All the dedicated retro emulator handheld producers, like Anbernic, Retroid and Powkiddy sell at their RRP from China. That means western stockists will often add a markup.
If you are looking for the best deal, and can wait for delivery, try Ali Express or Banggood. You’ll find a lot of sellers selling these devices at varying prices. Always check the seller, see if any units have been purchased and if there are any reviews from past users. You can expect to wait weeks for delivery and that can depend on public holidays and pandemics. Remember you are always taking a bit more of a risk in getting what you ordered but you may save a few bucks.
Some manufacturers, like Retroid and Ayn only sell from their website currently so you’ll need to go direct from there or pay way more for a reseller. From a warranty point of view, major platforms like Amazon etc. will offer you more security. So that is something to consider. Or even think second hand – lots of these units go on Ebay all the time and you could get some security from the Ebay protection.
This is really something to watch out for. Surprisingly, a lot of the retro handhelds from the established makers like Anbernic are well known for very solid build quality and battery life. The catch is that you can often expect to pay a little more for those brands. That is not true across the board. Powkiddy products, from our experience, are typically cheaper to buy but equally more flimsy.
Watch some reviews and have a google to see what others think. Type in any device and you’ll see a plethora of playtests and teardowns.
To get the best, expect to do some work
There are a wealth of different systems out there with a stack of different operating systems. All of the handhelds will ship with a stock OS (operating system). These are typically basic linux forks. The thing is, they are often not the best. They may have the emulators installed and a way for selecting them but they are often clunky or not user friendly.
This isn’t true for all – versions of Android are becoming more and more prevalent in newer devices and come with the familiar android user experience. Bear in mind that you might still need to download and possibly pay for your own apps and emulators.
This is where the amazing retro community comes in. Most devices have one or more community led OS’s that are way superior to what you might get on the device when you purchase. The only downside is you’ll need to install these. This will mean a Windows PC, often an SD card reader and SD card and the download and flashing of cards etc.
If all of that made your eyes glaze over then we’d advise to check to see what the out of the box experience is like. For those interested, trialing different setups is half of the fun of retro gaming on these devices.
If you are interested in doing things with existing consoles, like a DS, you are going to have to mod or jailbreak the device. This means voiding any warranty and can damage your hardware. There are a lot of great guides out there but it does take a bit of effort and patience. It is safe for yourself (though always scan for malware etc.) but you are really fundamentally changing the OS of the system.
To add the potential complexity, some retro systems have multiple different emulators. Some work better than others for certain games on certain systems, others have different feature sets. Some are freeware that are readily available within emulation packages like RetroArch (in fact, most lower end systems will be an emulator within this package) while others may have a paywall to support the devs.
Depending on your handheld and what OS you are using, the best emulator will vary. For lower end systems, you’ll probably not go wrong on what you try but for systems like Dreamcast and N64, there are several options. Other systems, like PSP, have such an amazing emulator that there is not much competition.
It should also be noted that games will run better or worse based on their settings WITHIN the actual emulator. To go back to our PSP example, your device may struggle running God of War: Chains of Olympus at 2x resolution but drop it to one and add a frameskip and you might get better performance. For a simpler game, you might have the processing power to up to 2 or 3x resolution.
A quick tip is to select an OS that has emulators and configurations pre-configured to match the device and its hardware. Something like the Adam image for JZ4770 chipset devices like the Anbernic RG280 will boot each system it can play with the best settings for that chip and handheld.
God level handhelds
If you really want to be able to emulate some of the later systems, such as PS2, Xbox, PS3 etc. then you are going to need something more powerful than the average sub $200 handheld. For these, you’ll be looking at something like a portable gaming PC. This could be a laptop or something like the Steam Deck or Aya Neo – essentially, fully functional PC’s that you can game on.
These exist but you are going to be spending over $300 and possibly upwards of $1000 to get something capable of playing these systems well. So hey, they are there if you want them. Similarly you can get gaming specific phones that have top level specs. These will give you pretty good performance up to PS2 and OG Xbox era but again, expect to be paying well over $500 at the bare minimum.
One of the cool things about some of the newer retro handheld devices have wifi connectivity up to 5ghz and the same controller set as a modern console. This includes L3 and R3. What this means is that if it has compatible apps (such as on Android), streaming services such as GE Force Now, Stadia and Xbox become playable. Or you could do some remote play with your PlayStation or even PC via Steam Link. You can also play supported Android games and use for things like Netflix or Disney+. These tend to be the more expensive devices (approaching $200) but it can become a pretty cool entertainment unit.
SD Cards – The Hidden Expense
Something that you’ll need to consider when pricing is micro SD Cards. Most of the dedicated retro handhelds use one or more Micro SD cards. One will normally hold the OS and ROMs or there may be a dedicated card for the OS and another for ROMs. Most devices do come with the necessary micro SD card but we have to warn you… these are often very cheap and prone to fail.
If you haven’t backed up your SD card then a failure at the OS level means you’ll need to try and source an OS and flash it etc. So we can guarantee that almost every self help guide on getting an emulation device will recommend getting a micro SD card from a known brand.
This can drive up the price, especially if you want to store a lot on the handheld. If you are emulating PS1, Dreamcast and PSP, a good library of games could easily exceed 100gb. So, if you are really set on having a big library on one device, something to remember.
There is an amazing community out there
All this talk of devices and setups leads me to perhaps the best aspect out there. There is a truly great community for these devices. There are multiple websites, forums, facebook groups and Youtubers who cover these devices and offer some great advice. Getting shoddy performance on a particular game? Someone will help and point you in the right direction.
If you really want to dig further, there are sites and threads where users will share lists of games that work best on certain devices or configurations to get the best from your device. This is particularly useful if you want to push a lower end system to get the best results.
Beginners Guide to Retro Emulation handhelds
So there you have it, these are our recommendations for anyone thinking about getting into this growing gaming niche. Are you interested in hopping in and playing some classics? Do you already own one or more and think we missed something? Let us know and check back in for more retro and emulation content.
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Rudy Manchego has been gaming since the days of the BBC Micro Computer and spreads himself thin with a love of retro, indie and mainstream gaming. He’s one half of the Jambags Comedy Gaming podcast and likes nothing better than kicking back with a nice pot of lapsang souchong, a good game and a background podcast on the intricacies of Spanish cheese making.