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Analogue Pocket review: A Game Boy for the modern age

This all-in-one portable game console can take you way back, or introduce you to retro handhelds you missed the first time.

The past is full of half-forgotten media, and nowadays we have more than we could watch and play in a lifetime. But despite living in a world of streaming and downloadable everything, some things don't make the leap across time, leaving holes in our personal archives. 

Take Nintendo: The Switch is a fantastic gaming handheld and console, and it offers plenty for retro gamers. But it doesn't have many of the Game Boy games I grew up with. I still have a few old Game Boys, but I've long since lost their chargers. For people like me, the Analogue Pocket is the new and refreshed magical Game-Boy-and-beyond retro cartridge player you want, if you've got cartridges to play. My CNET colleague Sean Buckley agrees -- he got an early test unit and contributed his impressions and some testing to this review. 

7.5

Analogue Pocket

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Like

  • Crisp LCD screen makes old games look great
  • Plays Game Boy and Game Boy Advance cartridges
  • Adds Game Gear, Lynx, Neo Geo Pocket with extra adapters
  • USB-C charging
  • Other extras include TV dock

Don't Like

  • No Wi-Fi means sideloading OS updates via microSD card
  • A little too big for most pockets

My childhood was spread across a series of handhelds: the Game Boy, Game Gear, Game Boy Advance and more. I still have some of those games lying around in cartridge form; classics like Metroid Fusion and Zelda: Link's Awakening, but also lost weirdness. I've got a puzzle game involving a tomato (called Kwirk), Boxxle and some Japanese Bit Generations puzzle games from a honeymoon trip to Tokyo.

These are the games I popped, one by one, into Analogue's new and already hard-to-get retro gaming handheld. The $220 Pocket has a beautiful color screen, enough buttons to work with Game Boy Advance games and adapters that work with Atari Lynx and Game Gear game cartridges. There's even a separately sold dock that will connect to TVs and let you play with wireless game controllers. Could this be the ultimate Game Boy? Indeed. 

analogue-pocket-hero3

The Analogue Pocket is built for cartridge collectors.

Scott Stein/CNET

Ultimate handheld, though? That's a different story. In a world where we assume all devices connect to Wi-Fi to get software and updates or let you play online, the Pocket is a surprisingly offline device. It plays classic cartridges. It has a microSD card slot too, but that's only for firmware updates to the handheld's OS -- which you have to sideload after having downloaded them on another computer.

For $220, you can get a lot of other handheld game things. Like, for instance, the Nintendo Switch Lite, which has a phenomenal game library. But the Switch Lite won't play old Game Boy or Game Boy Advance games, aside from ones rereleased as digital downloads. Seeing as Nintendo still hasn't made a Game Boy Classic microconsole packed with retro games yet, the Analogue Pocket may be your best time machine back to the Game Boy days.

I've come to admire the Pocket during a few weeks with it. It's a gaming time machine, perfectly polished and ready to make your forgotten memories shine bright again. But a funny thing happens as I revisit all these old games, blowing out their dust to play them one more time: It turns out the past isn't always worth revisiting. It's not always as good as you think it was. 

analoguepocket-vs-gameandwatch-vs-switch

The Pocket between the Zelda Game & Watch (left) and Nintendo Switch OLED (right), for comparison.

Scott Stein/CNET

The Game Boy never had so many upgrades

The Pocket is an advanced piece of hardware for a Game Boy. The 1,600x1,400-pixel, 615ppi, 3.5-inch LCD display looks bright and sharp, and Game Boy, Game Boy Advance and Game Gear games played on it look as good as they ever have. 

The audio's fine too, but you'll probably plug in headphones. The Pocket won't do Bluetooth audio, but it has a 3.5mm audio jack. The buttons are comfortable and fall with the firm, springy pushback of a classic Nintendo controller.  

This makes the Pocket's controls feel a little more like an NES or SNES gamepad, rather than the modern clicky buttons found on the Nintendo 3DS or Switch Joy-cons. The full-size D-pad is about the same size as the directional buttons on an old SNES gamepad too, but the Pocket's four face buttons are smaller -- about the size as the A and B toggles on Nintendo's tiny Game Boy Pocket.

If you're not intimately familiar with the size and feel of various old-school game handheld buttons, just know it feels like the right compromise to make, adding up to a console that feels better to play on than the original hardware. Around back are a pair of shoulder buttons that come into play for Game Boy Advance games. Sometimes the layout feels cramped, but it's similar to the old folding Game Boy Advance SP, to drop another reference to the Game Boy family tree. 

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The system is entirely focused on playing cartridge games, though. The Pocket has its retro limits: it plays Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance games out of the box, and Sega Game Gear games, Atari Lynx games and Neo-Geo Pocket games with separately sold adapters. It can't play Nintendo DS or 3DS games, though. Anyway, how could it? It doesn't have dual screens, a touchscreen or an analog stick. And this handheld won't play ROMs (software copies of old games, mimicking those early games' read-only memory).

Instead, Analogue designed this specifically to only play physical cartridges, or certain compatible game files from developers. (Itch.io has some indie games you could try to play, again via sideload, which I haven't done yet.) A software program called GB Studio will even help program games for the Pocket, a fascinating rabbit hole to drop down if you're intrigued. It could be a doorway to intriguing stuff in the future, if programmers have the patience to explore it.

analogue-pocket-switch-metroid

Metroid II on the Pocket, compared to Metroid Dread on the Switch. Finally, you can dig into the back catalog.

Scott Stein/CNET

Display modes and the potential of Analogue OS

Analogue credits how well its consoles run games to the power of the FPGA, or field programmable gate array. It's a chip that can be programmed to accurately simulate other hardware. That means the Pocket can be 100% compatible with a retro console's game library, with no software emulation errors.

But that doesn't mean it needs to offer the exact same experience as the original hardware. The Pocket is designed to run games perfectly, but the handheld's operating system lets you choose how you want those games to look. Pop in a Game Boy Advance game, for instance, and the Pocket will simulate the original GBA's notoriously dim LCD screen, complete with desaturated colors and a thin "grid" pattern to mimic the visible-pixel look of the original low-resolution display. If you prefer the Game Boy Advance SP display, the Pocket has a more vibrant mode to simulate that, too. There's also a pixel-perfect Analogue display mode, which puts the game's raw graphics on display. If you don't like any of these modes, you can manually tweak them, adjusting desaturation and sharpness at will. 

The Pocket has a few different display modes for each console it supports. You can have a dark green display, like the original Game Boy, or a crisp Game Boy Pocket monochrome. There's one with a blue tint, to mimic the backlight of the Japan-exclusive Game Boy Pocket Light, and a handful of palettes to simulate the Game Boy Color's ability to lend extra hues to colorless titles. 

One option in the Pocket's menu, however, was never available on any gaming handheld: Pinball Neon Matrix. Activating this mode turns the display into a high-contrast vision of black and red, almost reminiscent of the Virtual Boy, but it's actually a mode designed to simulate the rounded-pixel scoreboards used in old pinball machines. Analogue says it plans to re-engineer other unique displays for the Pocket in the future, giving players the option to simulate specific PVM or CRT displays on the go. Pointless? Maybe -- but also a cool idea if you're a retro display geek.

analogue-pocket-game-boys

How the Pocket compares, size-wise to other Game Boys: It's a big one.

Sean Buckley/CNET

It's that kind of potential that makes the Pocket's Analogue OS so interesting -- and indeed, the company's website lays out a plan for the operating system that sounds amazing. Analogue tells us that future updates will add more color palettes and display modes, and even IPS patch support that could let you play game hacks, mods and fan translations using real cartridges. In theory, a future Analogue update would let you import a copy of Japan-exclusive Mother 3 and play it in English using a fan-made translation. That's amazing.

At launch, however, the system is bare-bones. It will run your games, offer the aforementioned filters and, if you update to the beta, let you use a single save state per game. 

In a lot of ways, the Pocket's best feature feels simple by today's standards. It offers a "sleep mode," like the Switch's suspend state, which pauses where you are when you're not using it. That's something that's never been possible with retro cartridges before. As a child, you may have had plenty of time to play portable games for hours on end, but as an adult, time is fleeting. Being able to pick up and play is a surprising game-changer for these old games.

analogue-pocket-nanoloop

Nanoloop is a synthesizer and sequencer program directly on the Pocket handheld. It's MIDI-compatible, if cryptic.

Sean Buckley/CNET

Extras transform it in all sorts of ways

The Pocket has a TV dock that's sold separately ($100), which plugs into a TV. If you have a compatible wireless or USB controller (8bitdo's work, or PlayStation controllers, or even the Switch Pro controller, according to Analogue), you could play on a big screen. Sean tried playing with the TV dock, and it generally works fine. But syncing controllers takes work, and handheld-size games played on a big TV screen is sometimes a weird upgrade.

analogue-dock

The dock puts Game Boy games on the TV if you want that.

Sean Buckley/CNET

Sprites seem way too big, and not all of the color palette tweaks work on TV screens with the dock. Like with the Pocket itself, much of the dock's potential is locked away in future updates. Analogue says more visual display modes, button mapping and other big features will come in firmware updates in early 2022. Still, to even be able to do this with Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, Game Gear, Neo-Geo Pocket, Turbografx-16 or Lynx games is cool.

There's also a weird music wild card baked into the Analogue Pocket: It can be a MIDI-compatible retro music synthesizer and sequencer. A program called Nanoloop is preloaded onto the Analogue Pocket, but unless you study the instruction manual, it's hard to understand how to control its features. A MIDI cable (not included) can connect it to other instruments, too. Is the Pocket a musical instrument? Technically, yes.

analogue-pocket-link

Game Boy Link Cable port? Yes. (It's also got a USB-C and headphone jack.)

Sean Buckley/CNET

If you have multiple Pockets, you can also use Game Boy link cables and play multiplayer games. Analogue sells these cables, but original cables are meant to work as well. I haven't tested the link cable for multiplayer, but Sean successfully used it to transfer Pokemon between the original Super Game Boy 2 and the Analogue Pocket. 

analogue-pocket-game-gear

Whoa, the Game Gear's back. 

Scott Stein/CNET

Game Gear, revived

I also tried the Game Gear adapter, and this was a lot of fun. I still have a handful of original Game Gear cartridges for that 1990 handheld from Sega. The games mostly worked, including Sonic, Fantasy Zone and The Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse. A few, like Joe Montana Football, seemed to act strangely or load slowly. I had to blow on a few cartridges to get them to work (seriously). 

The adapter, however, felt fragile: The clear, plastic-covered adapter sometimes had a hard time docking into the back of the Pocket, and the Game Gear cartridge bulges out the back when in use, making it a package you wouldn't carry in your pocket.

analogue-pocket-vs-nintendo-3ds

You can play old Game Boy games through Nintendo's eShop on the 3DS handheld (left), if you have one, but not on the Switch. Super Mario Land on the Pocket (right) looks good, if you own the cartridge.

Scott Stein/CNET

Ready to time travel back to the present again

The Analogue Pocket isn't for everyone. You need classic game cartridges to play on it, which can be a hassle unless you have a collection or finding old games is your passion. This isn't an emulation platform: It doesn't play ROMs and it doesn't have a digital store. Playing your favorite games on the Pocket means braving an expensive retro market and building a collection of physical game cartridges. 

If you have piles of old games you'd like to play again, this is your dream device for revisiting lost retro gems. For anyone else, you're best off staying in the present.

Systems like the Switch, or any phone or tablet, have enough games to last you multiple lifetimes. But without resorting to emulators and ROMs (a legal gray area), the Analogue Pocket is the most perfect way of firing up those classic cartridge games again. It's a premium experience that's both true to the analog, physical experience and a luxurious way to transcend the limitations of those retro trappings. But if you're not the exact right kind of classic gaming nerd, that experience probably isn't what you're looking for.