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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Analogue Pocket review – a heaven-sent gift for Game Boy fans | Games

For the past 10 years Seattle-based tech company Analogue has been making high-end retro video game hardware, with a steely focus on accurate, authentic reproduction rather than emulation. Its Mega Sg and Super Nt consoles were highly acclaimed modernisations of the Sega Mega Drive and Super Nintendo, allowing users to play all their old 16-bit game carts on modern machines with a variety of display and audio options. Now the company has finally launched its Analogue Pocket, a handheld console that will play Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance (GBA) cartridges on a beautiful 3.5in LCD display in crisp 1600×1440 resolution.

As with the other consoles in its range, there’s no software emulation of the old systems going on here. The company uses a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) circuit to replicate the original tech specs, which means it can pretty much run any Game Boy game from the thousands available, with few of the glitches, instabilities or compatibility problems often associated with software-based emulators.

The first game we try is the lovely original platformer Tiny Toon Adventures: Babs’ Big Break, and the game’s intricate cartoon-style visuals are sparklingly clear and precise on the new screen. The comprehensive settings menu allows you to select from a range of classic or enhanced display and audio options, so if you want to play, say, Super Mario Land in the original green hue of the Game Boy, you can – or it can be rezzed up for the larger clearer Analogue Pocket screen. Switching to a GBA game, in this case Mario Kart: Super Circuit, the performance is equally good, with the tiny, colourful sprites perfectly replicated and no screen blur.

Analogue Pocket.
Visuals are sparklingly clear and precise … Analogue Pocket. Photograph: Analog

The form factor resembles the old Game Boy, with its vertical design – screen at the top, D-pad and button array below. The GBA shoulder buttons are placed either side of the cartridge port on the rear, and they’re smaller and closer together than the originals so if you have big hands you might well have to claw up a little, which could lead to some wrist pain after a few hours of play. It’s reasonably heavy at 275g, but still extremely portable, and carts slide into the back very easily, with a pleasingly firm feel. There is also a headphone socket and an optional dock (sold separately) if you want to output to a TV. You can also buy adaptors to let you play Game Gear, Neo Geo Pocket, Neo Geo Pocket Color and Atari Lynx games, giving you access to even more of your retro collection.

As for saving your progress (a modern luxury we’ve become extremely reliant on), the console currently lets you save a single game, and I found the function slightly unreliable. However, the console comes with its own operating system – Analogue OS – which will allow the company to provide a range of updates, including full save game functionality. Alongside this, Analogue has also included two widely available apps: GB Studio, a simple drag-and-drop game creation package, and Nanoloop, a digital synthesiser. We could end up seeing a whole homebrew developer community spring up around this machine.

The gaming equivalent of buying a fancy new turntable to play your old records

Away from the neat extras, the Analogue Pocket is intended for people who have decent cart collections, or are intending to go on a major splurge on eBay or at their local CEX. This is not an emulator console like the RG350, and it won’t give you access to hundreds of free game ROMs (at least not yet – there’s always the chance of a fan-made update later on). Instead, it’s the gaming equivalent of buying a fancy new turntable to play your old records: you get an authentic experience but with all the benefits of fresh digital technology.

I still own a fair number of GBA and Game Boy games, as well as a few Game Gear titles, and rediscovering them on this system is proving a joy – not least because of the six to 10-hour battery life. Buying a system that’s built to get the most out of original carts also encourages you to value, explore and enjoy each game in full, rather than swapping between them like songs on a Spotify playlist. There is so much fun and challenge to be found in games such as Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons and The Sword of Hope. They still deserve your time and attention – and Analogue Pocket provides the perfect venue.

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