Handheld consoles are forever evolving, the demand for gaming on the go is bigger than ever and having not only power, but portability within a handheld console is mandatory for the customers to buy and enjoy it. I was born in 1992 the era of handheld gaming, the Gameboy was selling millions of units, and the battle for a childs hands was like titans clashing within the isles of Toys R Us. Sega wanted a piece and Nintendo was doing its best to keep them away. Now almost 30 years on handheld consoles are still selling like hot cakes.
Portability is getting even more advanced, with clam shell designs and docks that turn your handheld consoles into full blown gaming powerhouses. It’s been an absolute pleasure watching this niche evolve, and we’ve decided to put together the ultimate list of the best handheld consoles of all time, not just western consoles either, we’ve dived deep into China to find the best of the best. This list goes in no particular order.
1. Nintendo Switch
Obviously you knew that the Nintendo Switch was going to be featured, and we’re very comfortable putting this at the top of our handheld consoles list. The Nintendo Switch was released in March 2017, it’s a hybrid console that not only allows for portable play, but the ability to be docked to your TV to be used as a full blown console. The innovation behind these handheld consoles blew everyones mind. You could slide off the joy-cons to play with your friends, and then slide them onto to play solo on the go.
With the successful launch came huge titles like Zelda Breath of the Wild, and still even to this day some of the best games from your biggest franchises are being launched, and we just can’t get enough. It makes the Nintendo 3DS look like it’s from the ice age. It’s large 6″ screen, wireless joy-cons and incredible games makes it hands down one of the best handhelds consoles of all time. It’s not a cheap handheld coming in at $300, that’s for sure, but the price comes with quality and comes with years and years of enjoyment. If you want to go even cheaper, then there’s the Nintendo Switch Lite, a $200 handheld without the joy-con and docking ability. Worth it if you only ever want to play solo, it’s light, smaller and more portable, plus it gives you a bit more money to splash out on some Nintendo Switch Lite accessories!
2. Retro Game 350
This is one that you probably wasn’t expecting on the list, and one many of you have probably never heard of. But this is one of the best Chinese handhelds consoles of the year, and if you’re new to Retro Dodo, then you won’t know that we review A LOT of Chinese handhelds. Not only because they are cheap, but because they are slowly growing in demand and they can power most of your old school retro games using ROMs.
This is the Retro Game 350, an $80 handheld that can play your *BREATHES IN* Gameboy, SNES, NES, Gameboy Advance, Sega Mega Drive, MAME, Neo Geo, FBA, Wonder Swan and even Playstation 1 games. All in this tiny form factor. It’s incredibly well built, feels like a Gameboy, comes with a large 3″ screen and has the ability to use controllers, which you can then connect the handheld to the TV turning it into a home console. This is one of the most impressive handheld consoles to come out of China and it’s a small example of what’s to come. This is the best $80 we’ve ever spent, and we can’t get enough of it.
3. Gameboy Advance SP
Yep, we’ve ranked the SP above the Original. Some may say harsh, but we think it’s bang on. The Gameboy Advance SP was released in March 2003, it was the newest and latest version of the Gameboy series and totally changed the way portability was seen in handheld consoles. Nintendo revealed the “clamshell” design. This allowed to you fold your Gameboy Advance SP shut to decrease size, making it even more pocket sized.
Nintendo’s first Gameboy Advance SP wasn’t the best, it wasn’t until they revealed their AGS 101 versions with bright backlight screens that the SP become one of the best handheld consoles of the 2000’s. Before it was hard to see Gameboy screens in the dark, but now it opened a whole new world to portable gamers, and the screen was so good that players would go back through some of their best gameboy games just to experience it in full brightness. Even to this day, the GBA SP is seen as a rare handheld, they’re priced high now, and if you’ve got one boxed in good condition you can get a pretty penny for them on eBay or Craigslist. They were wanted in 2003, and they are wanted in 2020, that just goes to show how damn good they were.
4. Playstation Vita
The Sony Playstation Vita is a magnificent handheld, it was released in early 2012 as a way to play your favourite games on the go in style. Still to this day we think its one of best looking handhelds out there. It’s sleek, ergonomic and screams premium as soon as it lands in your hands. The PS Vita competed with the Nintendo 3DS, and although some say it lost, it held some of the best PSP games that to this day are still phenomenal. It captured the older market compared to the 3DS, admittedly it wasn’t exactly targeted that way but the PS Vita had a lot more mature games that capture the young teenager audience well.
The PS Vita had a 5″ screen, two analogue sticks, cameras and a bunch of other tech. But one of best features about these handheld consoles was the fact that you could not only use it as a controller for your Playstation, but you could also play your PS3 and PS4 games through the handheld, meaning God of War and Spiderman was possible on a handheld, and that alone was incredible. But, unfortunately it was Sony’s last handheld, and we can’t see Sony returning this beloved console to our hands anytime soon.
5. Sega Game Gear
The Sega Game Gear has a small place in our hearts, it was one of our first ever handheld consoles, and although it weighs the same as a small elephant it has its perks. The Sega Game Gear was released in April 1991 and was directly competing with the insanely popular Gameboy. But Sega knew where it could advance, and that was within the screen. This was one of the first handheld consoles to have a coloured screen, and boy did you notice when you opened it up on Christmas day.
The best Sega Game Gear games are all well known, for example Sonic The Hedgehog, Mortal Kombat II and even Power Rangers. All of these well known games in crispy colour all in a portable handheld? This was unheard of in 1991, and we give credit to the Game Gear for getting Nintendo in gear to release the Gameboy Color. The Game Gera was bulky, heavy and had poor audio quality but thats why we love it. It’s feels so nostalgic when you play and for us, that’s why its so high on our list. It’s one of Sega’s greatest.
6. Nintendo DS
The Nintendo DS, or as we like to call it, the Gameboy Advance SP on steroids was yet again another huge advancement in the handheld consoles scene. If only one screen was enough! In November 2004 Nintendo release the DS, it was named this due to its “dual screen” and came with it a whole new way to play games. It still had the ability to play old Gameboy Advance games but they released new DS cartridges that could hold bigger and better games, plus allowed them to advance their games with a new handheld.
The GBA SP clamshell design went down so well that they added it to the Nintendo DS, not only that it also came with a stylus, allowing even more games to us this accessory. With this game a lot of drawing games, mind games and even strategy games which used two screens and a stylus. Instead of just targeting children it also targeted adults that wanted to “get smarter” with games. It was powerful, sleek, and truly immersive. It felt like a new era, but Nintendo didn’t want to move too quickly, so the use of the GBA cartridge slot allowed for old games to be played, allowing them to sell even more stock. Still to this day we use our Nintendo DS.
The ultimate handheld. One of the most iconic handheld consoles… scrap that, games consoles of all time! The Gameboy has a place in our hearts as it was the first handheld that we ever had, the thing that introduced us into gaming. It blew our minds, the fact that we could go anywhere with our portable handheld consoles and still play where we last saved from was incredible. And still to this day it’s an amazing handheld.
It was thick, chunky, had a terrible screen that you could barely see, bulky buttons, terrible battery life and even worse audio quality. But all of that combined made it a joy to play, the imperfections made it perfect. With the Gameboy came some of the best gameboy games of all time. Pokemon, Zelda, Tetris, you name it, they were available to play anywhere, and at the time in the 90’s it was an incredible feet in the gaming world.
8. Sega Nomad
The Sega Nomad is a handheld born in 1995, a very competitive era of the 90’s that Nintendo quite literally owned. However, Sega released the Genesis Nomad, a portable handheld that can play all of your Sega Genesis cartridges on the go. It was big, chunky, but allowed true Genesis fans to take their cartridges out on the go. This saved them a lot of money because those that liked the Game Gear just had to wait a while, and they wouldn’t have to buy new games.
However, unfortunately it didn’t sell very well, the bright screen, awesome controls and portability fell short to its competition. But now, in 2020, this thing is a rare find, especially if it’s boxed. We’ve been wanting to buy one for years, but they’re north of $200 unboxed, and even then we’ll need to buy games! It looks great, and it’s aged very well, and one we’re still eager to buy before the year is up.
9. Game & Watch
Nintendo created the Game & Watch to test the handheld market in the 80’s, and boy did it work. They sold over 40 million units and some say it was the birth of the handheld. Nintendo wasn’t expecting this much demand, and the Game & Watch is what could have possibly gave them idea for the upcoming Gameboy.
They played just one game, on a tiny LCD screen which also doubled up as an alarm, should you want this thing screaming at you early in the morning. I think ours is still ringing in our basement to this day. It came in Nintendo’s iconic gold and red colour variant, with a left and right button to play your game. They made a number of different editions that played different games, for example, here we have “Octopus” but they also had “Fire” and “Ball” which used the same controls but came with a different LCD screen “game”. This is also a much wanted console, and worth of anyones handheld consoles collection.
10. RetroPie Handhelds
Number 10 on our best handheld consoles lists goes to a group of retropie handhelds that are really breaking the boundaries when it comes to retro gaming. These are handhelds that run off a Raspberry Pi CPU, a cheap, affordable computer that can handle powering all of your old school games from an SD card.
Do you want to play Nintendo 64 games from your pocket? Or even want to complete your old Gameboy games on the go, on a huge 3.5″ display? You can. Heck, you can even build these things yourselves if you really want to. Some of our best retro handhelds are actually build on the Raspberry Pi, because they are affordable and pack a lot of power. These things range from $50 – $250, so whatever your price range there’s something for you. They aren’t targeted at collectors, because we’ll be honest you won’t be able to flip them in 10 years time, but they’re for retro gamers that want a cheaper alternative to play every old console under the sun, wherever they want.