Ever wanted to go back to the games you played while growing up and experience a bygone era of entertainment? One of the cheapest and simplest ways to do this is with a portable handheld designed purely with retro gaming in mind.
Are Handheld Emulators Legal?
The act of emulating a system is perfectly legal, which means building a handheld device or writing software that emulates a console is legal.
Downloading ROMs you do not own, however, is certainly illegal. Just like downloading a movie or book that you don’t own, downloading a ROM is considered a copyright violation. Sharing ROMs with others who do not own them is also a violation of copyright law, and something the record and movie industries have taken a strong stance against since the early days of the internet.
Downloading a ROM for which you own a physical cartridge may be considered fair use, but this has yet to be fully tested in court. Ripping your own ROMs may also fall under fair use (just as ripping music from a CD you own is widely tolerated in most jurisdictions) but there is no clear legal precedent for this either.
And that’s a common theme when it comes to ROMs and emulation. Many of the rules are theoretical in that they have never really been tested. We spoke to a lawyer about the legality of ROMs and learned first-hand that there are no simple answers.
Most portable emulation devices are designed with ROMs in mind, but not all are.
The Best Dedicated Handheld Emulators
Since older consoles are relatively low-powered compared to even modest modern smartphones, handheld devices designed with emulation in mind are suitably powerful, affordable, and efficient. As is the case with most handheld electronics, newer devices have more powerful internals which will allow you to emulate more hardware.
At the time of writing (December 2021), most systems up to and including the original PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and in some cases the Sony PSP can be emulated depending on your choice of handheld. Many of these systems use the same chips, with other elements like software, form factor, and build quality determining price and suitability.
The Retroid Pocket 2+ from Retroid uses a classic form factor that’s not unlike Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance or even the Switch. It’s an Android-powered handheld that runs Retroid OS, with good support for the PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and even Dreamcast. It has a 3.5-inch 4:3 touch screen, built-in rumble, and a 4000 mAh battery.
NEXADAS Retroid Pocket 2 Android Handheld Game Console, Dual Boot for Android and Retro Game Console Multiple Emulators Console Handheld 3.5 Inch Display 4000mAh Battery Retro Gaming System (Indigo)
A powerful multi-platform handheld that's regarded by many as one of the best portable emulators on the market.
A good alternative to the Retroid Pocket 2+ is the RG351MP from Anbernic. This all-metal design exudes built quality, with the ability to emulate most platforms up to the PlayStation (with some Nintendo 64 titles for good measure). It might not be the most powerful handheld, but it’s the quality of the components that counts here. You also get a rock-solid Linux core and easy-to-use operating system.
RG353M Handheld Game Console Aluminum Alloy CNC Support Dual OS Android 11+ Linux, 5G WiFi 4.2 Bluetooth 3.5 Inch IPS Multi-Touch Screen 64G TF Card 4452 Classic Games(RG353M-Purple)
With an all-metal design, the RG351MP is a tough and sturdy handheld emulator that can handle most systems up to and including the PlayStation.
If you prefer the original Game Boy form factor, Anbernic’s RG351V is worth a look. It’s about as capable as the all-metal RG351MP above, but it comes in a vertical form factor with a single analog stick. On the back, you’ll find a cutaway with two easily accessible shoulder buttons to make emulating systems like the SNES and Game Boy Advance possible.
RG351V Handheld Game Console 3.5 Inch Portable Double TF 64G Card Handheld Retro Video Game Two-Player Battle Soulja Boy WIFI Game Console(Black)
With that old-school Game Boy look and feel, the RG351V has both an analog stick and shoulder buttons without losing retro appeal.
One of the smallest handheld emulators on the market is the FunKey S, a tiny foldable Game Boy Pocket style device that you can carry just about everywhere. Small doesn’t mean weak, with the FunKey able to emulate original PlayStation titles, in addition to retro classics like the NES, three generations of Game Boy, and the Neo Geo Pocket.
If you prefer a clamshell design, give the Powkiddy X18S a look. The strengths of the X18S lie in its unique design which protects the screen and its ability to emulate Sega’s Dreamcast fairly effectively, but Powkiddy‘s portables generally lack the build quality seen with Anbernic or Retroid’s offerings. It’s also a bit more expensive.
Note: When buying through marketplaces like Amazon, resellers tend to put their own “brand” in the description which is confusing. Many happy customers on Reddit report that these are genuine items, though they are often slightly pricier than buying direct from the manufacturer. Read more about avoiding scams on Amazon.
Forget ROMs With the Evercade
If you’d rather not have to worry about the technical or legal aspects of relying on ROMs but still value retro gaming on the go, consider the Evercade Handheld. UK-based Evercade is currently manufacturing a new series of consoles that rely on physical cartridges, each of which contains a selection of older games.
It’s the perfect platform for the retro connoisseur who values a physical collection of games. The console is available for $79.99 (£59.99/€69.99) and features a 4.3-inch display, around five hours of battery life, and save states that allow you to save your game at any point. Saves can be stored on the cartridge, so you can pick up your progress on Evercade’s home console: the Evercade VS.
Handheld Game- Video Game Console, X9-s 8G Built-in 10,000+ Games 5.1 Inch HD Screen with Lens
Build a collection of physical games and play them on the go with the Evercade Handheld, a brand new portable console that uses cartridges not ROMs.
The system has seen support from publishers like Atari, Codemasters, Intellivision, Namco, and Interplay. Cartridges cost $20 with some (like Atari Lynx Collection 1) including more than 15 games.
Emulation on the Nintendo Switch
The Nintendo Switch is more powerful than many of the dedicated portable emulators featured above, and there are two ways you can use it as a handheld emulator. The first is using a Nintendo Switch Online subscription and the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Nintendo Entertainment System apps from the eShop.
This allows you to play a selection of games from these systems, complete with save state support so you can save your game wherever (and reverse time if you want). There’s also support for online play in compatible games, plus you can use Nintendo’s official platform-specific controllers for a more genuine experience.
You can also pay a little more to unlock Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis titles using the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack. There are new controllers available for each of these platforms too, plus online functionality in some titles.
Nintendo Switch Online costs $19.99 per year, or you can pay $49.99 to include the Expansion Pack. Check out our guide to see what else is in a Switch Online subscription.
This isn’t the only way to get emulators on Nintendo’s handheld though. You can also mod your Switch and install software from outside of the eShop. This provides far greater freedom since you can provide your own games, but it also comes at the cost of voiding your console warranty and potentially having your console banned by Nintendo.
Some models of Switch are easier to mod than others, and installing new firmware to play the latest first-party titles from the eShop or on cartridges will likely remove any mods you have installed. Read more about Nintendo Switch modding so you can decide if the risk is worth it to you.
Run Emulators on Smartphones Too
Android smartphones are capable of emulation, with many emulators available in the Google Play store. You can also side-load Android apps, including emulators. You can use an Xbox controller or PlayStation 5 DualSense and get a better experience than relying on a touch screen.
You can also install emulators on an iPhone either by building and compiling them yourself or using a service like Builds.io. This works using enterprise apps, which the service signs and allows you to install using a web browser. Setting this up can be tricky if you’re compiling apps yourself, or if you want to use Builds.io you’ll need to pay a registration fee for your device.
Lastly, if you’re interested in emulation and own an Xbox Series console you should learn more about installing RetroArch on your Microsoft console using Developer Mode.
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