Thanks to some dedicated coders and hardware developers in China, fans of handheld gaming no longer have to rely on Nintendo to get their fix. The Anbernic Retro Game 350 might not play the latest and greatest titles like the Switch or 3DS do, but when it comes to classic gaming, the RG350 delivers the best experience yet thanks to a pair of near-perfect analog joysticks.
Note: A sample of the Retro Game 350 was provided to Gizmodo by online retailer Retromimi.
A few weeks ago we looked at the New Pocket Go, which is one of the most affordable entries in a new wave of portable consoles that rely on emulation to give gamers access to a giant back catalog of titles, including fully 3D games from popular systems like the Sony PlayStation. For $65, the New Pocket Go delivered an excellent experience, assuming the PS1 wasn’t your focus. The single analog stick it included was, unfortunately, mostly unusable, which was problematic for 3D games that often rely on analog controls for precision. If you can spare an extra $9, however, the RG350 delivers a much improved experience over the New Pocket Go.
Like the New Pocket Go, the RG350 runs on the 1 GHz JZ4770 dual-core 64-bit processor with a half gig of RAM at its disposal. At this point that processor is around nine years old and far from cutting edge, but it’s cheap, and more than powerful enough to handle the processing demands of consoles 25 years and older. Will every PlayStation, SNES, or Genesis gameplay flawlessly on the RG350? No, you’ll occasionally have to pop into an emulator’s settings and activate features like frame skip to ensure gameplay remains smooth without screen tearing, but at this point, that’s only the case for a handful of more demanding titles.
However, the JZ4770 is still not powerful enough to properly emulate Nintendo’s N64 which was released a couple of years after the original PlayStation. Many have tried, but emulated N64 games on handhelds like the RG350 that use this processor remain completely unplayable.
In terms of build quality, I’d say the RG350 slightly edges out the New Pocket Go. It feels incredibly solid, all the seams line up perfectly, and there’s no light leak around the screen when the unit is powered on. It’s ever so slightly larger than the New Pocket Go in every dimension, including thickness, but that’s mostly due to the RG350 including additional features like a pair of analog joysticks and a rumble motor for force feedback effects. Including it is a nice attention to detail on the part of the RG350's creators, but it’s also a feature that can eat away at the console’s 2,500 mAh battery which otherwise will keep the handheld running for six to eight hours, depending on how processor intensive the game you’re playing is.
There are a few hardware quirks with the RG350. The power, reset, start, and select buttons are scattered around the console, which can be confusing when so many of the operating system’s quick access menus (for tweaking emulator settings, etc.) require multiple button presses. Even adjusting the screen brightness requires users to press the power button and the volume rocker at the same time, which feels counterintuitive. After a few weeks I still haven’t developed the muscle memory, and find myself accidentally quitting back to the console’s home screen when I really just wanted to tweak the performance of the game that just unceremoniously quit.
The RG350 also includes two USB-C ports, one for charging and one for, presumably connecting peripherals. But that functionality is still to be added in a future version of the handheld’s OS, as is making the included mini HDMI port work so that the RG350 can be connected and played through a TV.
And for those who read my review of the New Pocket Go and are dying to know, I can happily confirm that the RG350's volume can be adjusted to a much quieter level at its lowest setting. You don’t necessarily have to pop in headphones when playing in a room full of people, but the option is still there.
Where the RG350 mostly outshines the New Pocket Go is with its controls. I’ll admit that I prefer the smaller, more rounded directional pad on the New Pocket Go, and the RG350's action buttons sit a little too high and have more travel than I’d like, but those are very minor complaints and the dual analog joysticks on the RG350 more than make up for those issues. Whereas the analog joystick included on the New Pocket Go was awful, the sticks on the RG350 feel fantastic and almost as good as the ones you’ll find on the Nintendo Switch. They have great tactile response, with excellent tension, and just the right amount of grip on the pads.
Some who prefer Sony’s DualShock controller have complained about the asymmetrical placement of the analog sticks on the RG350, but I far prefer it, even if it means the directional pad gets bumped a little low. I thought this would be a problem, but I still find the D-pad on this handheld to be comfortably accessible, and surprisingly, I’ve actually found I prefer playing classic 8 and 16-bit games with the RG350's analog joysticks instead.
The only caveat worth mentioning is that not all emulators or games support the RG350's dual analog sticks just yet, but support will be improved and expanded as the handheld’s software and emulators do.
As with the New Pocket Go, the software is arguably another big trade-off with the RG350. The included operating system is ugly and often times confusing, and installing new Linux-based emulators isn’t as straightforward as just popping into an app store. The software and hardware is open source, however, allowing third-party developers to create alternate versions of the OS that offer better usability and even performance. But software and firmware upgrades with the RG350 are even more of a pain than with the New Pocket Go because the microSD card containing the operating system is actually trapped inside the console, requiring you to completely remove the back panel to access it.
Simpler incremental software updates that can be loaded through the accessible microSD slot are available, but it’s highly recommended that you swap out the cheap microSD card included with the RG350 when it arrives, and perform a full OS purge and update.
There’s also the issue with finding games for the handheld. Like the New Pocket Go, the RG350 can only play games through ROM files stored on a microSD card which is a legal gray area as we’ve explained many times before. There’s also some level of technical proficiency needed to locate ROM files for games you already own and get them onto the RG350 to play. As a result, the handheld may not be the perfect upgrade for your Game Boy loving grandma.
But if you’re up to the challenge of finding ROMs, navigating tricky software updates, and living with some peculiar usability quirks, the RG350 is definitely the top pick amongst the recent pack of handheld emulators to come out of China. At $74 it’s $9 more expensive than the New Pocket Go, so if you mostly care about older consoles like the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis you can save yourself a few bucks and go that route instead. But if you want to relive some of your favorite PlayStation games, the dual analog sticks on the RG350 are an essential and worthwhile upgrade.
- Don’t expect the same level of build quality or usability as you’ll get with Nintendo’s handhelds (or customer service) but the RG350 feels satisfying solid and offers an excellent experience.
- The four-way directional pad takes a back seat to the RG350's dual analog sticks, but they work so well you might find yourself abandoning the D-pad altogether. (Although those analog sticks do make pocketability a challenge.)
- Excellent performance for most PlayStation games and consoles that came before it, even on a processor that’s nine years old.
- Includes a mini HDMI port that isn’t functional yet, but could one day allow games to be played on a TV.
- Firmware and software updates can potentially be a pain as the microSD card containing the operating system can only be accessed by opening the console.
- Dependent on game ROM files, which might not be easy for everyone to find, and whose use tends to be a legal gray area.