If you have followed the emulation handheld scene for the past few years, then you have probably had some of the same contrasting feelings that I have had: excitement & boredom, satisfaction & disillusion, fear of missing out & buyers remorse.
I find myself swaying between feeling happy & content with what I have and then wanting something shiny & new. Nothing really seems to satisfy that need for a new toy for very long.
I guess that’s one of my own personality flaws, never being satisfied. However, this is also something that the makers of emulation handhelds can count on for recurrent business.
They know that they can just keep releasing incremental updates and we will keep buying them. Even if the updates do not represent much change for our experience.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what could come next in the handheld market and what could create some sort of lasting excitement. What do we need in the handheld scene that isn’t already covered by the many devices already available?
I, for one, do not need a new handheld. I currently have nearly 20 different devices in my collection that cover a wide range of gaming possibilities. But if I really had to, I could reduce that to maybe three devices.
For the most part, my own gaming interests are in very early generation consoles like the Game Boy, Super Nintendo, Pokemon Mini, Neo Geo Pocket. The kind of games that I wanted to play when I got back into retro gaming in 2020 during the pandemic.
And that was kind of a perfect time to get back into retro gaming. Because at that time, we already had a pretty decent selection of devices that could handle those 8-32 bit era games.
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Retro video game emulation really started to get interesting (and profitable) was when the quality of the dedicated portable hardware and the software could play the games in practical and reliable form. For the most part, this happened sometime between 2019 and 2020.
When I started exploring handheld emulation in 2020, the consoles were not yet at 100%, but certainly improving at a rapid pace.
We had some of the best retro console libraries at our fingertips and in our pockets. Stuff like Game Boy, NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, Neo Geo Pocket, and Arcade systems. It was everything I wanted in a handheld emulation device.
But like many of you who were around at that time, I started to wonder what else these devices could do. Maybe we could start to get solid Nintendo 64, Nintendo DS, Dreamcast, Playstation, and PSP performance out of these small handhelds.
And as the technology improved, so did the performance and the possibilities. So those 64-bit consoles were now the norm for an emulation device.
And even in 2023, a lot of devices are hovering around that max level of emulation. We still see new devices coming out every week that focus on 8-64 bit gaming.
But we still look to the horizon and wonder what is going to be possible next in a device that fits in our pockets. What comes next in handheld emulation devices?
It seemed like all that was left was to start reaching beyond the 64-bit era. Which means the new goal marker would be to have a small handheld that could play consoles like the Nintendo Game Cube, the Playstation 2, and the Nintendo 3DS.
And it honestly didn’t take companies very long to start offering devices that could do just that. Keeping in mind that it was just three years ago we couldn’t really do 64-bit all too well.
And devices like the Pimax Portal are handling anything up to the PS2, Game Cube, Wii and even some Switch with little trouble.
If you want to play current generation games, we’ve got that in handheld form too. Devices like the Steam Deck or the AYANEO 2 are handheld PCs with large screens, great controls, and connect to your Steam library or remote play services.
So as you can see, there is a handheld device that covers nearly all areas of gaming content with few exceptions.
Because pretty much everything has been done in a portable device to play video games, companies are just offering every combination of form and features to see what will stick. Again, playing into our desire for something shiny and new, even if it doesn’t offer anything truly new for the game play experience.
On the other hand, devices from companies like AYANEO or Powkiddy are going as large as possible to offer better ergonomics, bigger batteries, and more screen space.
But for the most part, we are getting the same thing over and over from handheld makers. Maybe a little more power, maybe the screen is a little bigger, maybe it’s available in new colors.
But most new emulation handhelds are playing the exact same games as previous devices that we have seen for three or four years.
Which leads me to the first major problem that emulation focused handhelds will always have – they have no new, original content to keep them evolving.
Handheld emulation consoles are always going to be limited to what already exists in the retro game library. And the devices will always be formatted in a way that is tailored to play those existing game consoles.
So I believe one of the biggest unexplored areas of handhelds is new content.
One really great example of new “retro” content that makes a perfect fit on portable game devices is the Pico-8 virtual console.
Pico-8 plays 8-bit style games that are created by the community. There is a large library of free titles to explore and these are currently playable on most retro emulation handhelds.
But there is no profit to be made from the Pico-8 library, so it doesn’t really have a large audience or a way for the handheld makers to benefit. Pico-8 also does not really offer anything that we have not seen before in the games or the way we play those games.
One great example of a handheld that offers retro style games and also innovates in the way we play those games is the Playdate.
This is the best example of a company attempting something entirely new and original, and also giving us something we’ve never had before… a new gimmick.
The particular gimmick of the Playdate is the hand crank on the right side of the device that offers a new way to play games.
Of course, that means that you need the new games and apps that actually make use of this gimmick. It opens up new opportunities for interaction that we do not get in a device focused on playing retro video games.
The Playdate is a beautiful handheld and the library of games for it are exclusive and unique. And that library of games is growing every day. Those games are available directly from their developers on websites like itch.io or on the Playdate’s own Catalog store.
If it were not for Playdate’s premium pricetag and limited availability, it could possibly be a huge success in the gaming market. I also think it was a big mistake releasing a device in the current market without a backlight on the screen.
But the Playdate definitely had the right idea when introducing a device with both a new gimmick and original content. And, to me, that is the future of handhelds.
If something new is going to create excitement in the handheld scene, I believe it will be in a device that offers new content and a gimmick that makes that content a must-have for video game enthusiasts.
I think this will have to be an effort realized by a new first-party device. I do not see the makers of emulation handhelds offering something like this, because again… their entire focus is on creating devices that play the existing library of retro games.
The handheld niche does already have a perfect device that has offers a massive library of games, as well as offering a new way to experience those games and a smart gimmick. Probably the best handheld game console ever created – the Nintendo Switch.
The Switch is a portable gaming device that is not necessarily just a handheld and not a full home console. It sits somewhere in between and in its own lane.
It also has a unique gimmick that makes it stand apart with its detachable controllers. The Switch was probably not the first to offer detachable controllers, but they certainly perfected the concept in how they give so many unique options for game play.
The Switch also has a large selection of game titles that appear on other consoles, exclusive games, as well as retro classics that we know and love.
Really, it would be hard to deny that the Nintendo Switch is the perfect gaming handheld device. It has everything.
But of course, even a device as comprehensive and versatile as the Switch still does not really fulfill our need for more. And handheld gaming enthusiasts can probably give you a laundry list of reasons why the Switch is not exactly what they want.
That is kind of the problem at hand, isn’t it? We are never going to be completely satisfied with just one device.
We will always want something new, and we will always have our wishlist of the fine details that could make for our own perfect handheld gaming device.
We may never reach any solid conclusions for what makes a perfect gaming device. Because there is not a one-size-fits-all device that exists today, and it will probably never exist.
And the companies focused on retro game emulation will continue to release devices incrementally with no ambition of big innovation. Their business model is based on releasing more hardware for small profits. It requires us to buy an updated model every few months.
But if a company does take a big risk to push the market forward, we have a responsibility as the buyers to reward that creativity with our support.
Producing a unique device takes a lot of courage and risk of failure. It is an expensive venture that very few are willing to attempt. But this is absolutely something that needs to happen some day.
If there is anything that can inject excitement into the handheld market, it will be a company stepping up to the plate and give us something really different. Something original. Something that takes a big risk. And I absolutely cannot wait for this to happen.
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Anthony has been a video game lover ever since he can remember. He became a fulltime nomad in 2018, living throughout most of Asia. He focused his passion in retro gaming and began creating a game for the Game Boy Color while living in Nara, Japan during the 2020 pandemic. He is now in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he spends most of his time gaming, going on long walks and meeting as many stray dogs as possible.