If you assumed that Nintendo was the only company still making handheld gaming devices, you’re missing out on some excellent hardware coming out of China. The New Pocket Go might not be as polished as the Switch or the 3DS, but for its price, it’s a fantastic little handheld that puts decades worth of emulated gaming in your pocket.
You might be wondering why anyone would spend money on a handheld console in 2020 when the smartphones most of us carry everywhere are already gaming powerhouses. There’s no denying that a high-end Android device loaded with emulators can be an excellent way to enjoy the best of mobile gaming as well as classic titles, but many of us refuse to settle for finicky touchscreen controls and have no interest in balancing a smartphone on our laps while using a wireless gamepad. If I’m going to be carrying extra hardware for gaming on the go, it’s not going to be a controller, it’s going to be a portable console.
The New Pocket Go is an update to a slightly older handheld—the Pocket Go—that was capable of playing retro games from not only older portable systems like the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance, but full-classic consoles like the NES, Sega Master System, SNES, and the Genesis. For its size and price (less than $40) the original Pocket Go was impressively capable, but it did occasionally struggle with some 16-bit titles, resulting in slow-downs, audio problems, and screen tearing, which all take away from the gaming experience.
By comparison, the New Pocket Go is considerably larger and heavier than its predecessor, but it’s just about the perfect size for a handheld console as far as I’m concerned. When rumors of the Switch Lite first appeared, this is the size I was hoping Nintendo was targeting. (It was not.) The New Pocket Go’s 3.5-inch screen dominates the front of the handheld, and the hardware is quite comfortable for even my giant hands to hold and reach all the controls, including the two sets of shoulder buttons on top.
Given its $65 price tag, I was actually pleasantly surprised with the build quality of the New Pocket Go. The action buttons and directional pad are responsive but satisfyingly mushy, the screen cover is actually made from glass to reduce scratches, it’s got a headphone jack, it charges over USB-C, and it packs a decently sized 2,000 mAh battery which can be easily replaced by popping a cover off the back of the handheld. (No screwdrivers required.)
It’s not perfect, however. Even at the lowest setting, the sound that comes from the speaker is far too loud to play anywhere but in a room all by yourself. I’m hopeful a future software update will fix that. There is also one area on the console where the wraparound frame slightly bulges out for no explicable reason. There are reports online from other users who’ve experienced unresponsive buttons and D-pads that don’t register every press, often requiring users to open up the New Pocket Go and clean the contacts inside.
And its analog joystick? It’s terrible. It’s very similar to the flat design Sony used on the PSP and PSP Go, except I remember those being genuinely usable. The analog joystick on the New Pocket Go is too stiff, too small, and very easy for your thumb to slip off. It’s essentially unusable, which is unfortunate as it was one of the hardware upgrades I was most looking forward to.
You might be wondering why a handheld that can play Game Boy, Sega, Genesis, and SNES games would need an analog joystick, when all of those consoles were strictly D-pad affairs. Inside the new Pocket Go is a 1 GHz JZ4770 dual-core 64-bit processor with 512MB of DDR2 RAM. The original Pocket Go included just 32MB of RAM, and the performance difference between the two is so dramatic that the New Pocket Go can actually emulate PlayStation 1 games as well as 16-bit classics.
You’ll start to understand why the New Pocket Go can be had for under $70 when you dive into the software The default user interface is ugly and occasionally confusing. You’ll miss having a touchscreen while navigating countless tabs using the D-pad and buttons, and while you can reskin the software to improve its icons and interface, it would take quite a bit of effort to get it to the point where it’s as aesthetically pleasing as what Nintendo and Sony products offer right out of the box.
Alternately, you can also install custom third-party firmware and software which is made slightly more convenient by the New Pocket Go’s dual microSD card slots which allow you to keep your game files separate from the OS. But out of the box, it’s usable, and mine came with a decent number of emulators pre-installed covering everything from the Game Boy to the PlayStation 1, and you can install other Linux-based emulators as well if you want to expand its capabilities.
Now’s as probably a good a time as any to address the New Pocket Go’s one big caveat. It doesn’t include any online stores to buy and download games from, and there’s no slot for loading your original cartridges as the upcoming Analogue Pocket can do. The handheld can only play games from a microSD card using ROM files, which, as we’ve explained before, is a legal grey area. Even decades later the games you loved as a kid that are no longer in production are still protected by copyright, which makes sharing them online illegal. Cases have been made for using ROMs as a backup for games you’ve legally acquired, but this review is not going to serve as an explainer for how or where to find ROMs, or how to create your own with game discs and cartridges you currently own. If you’re not technically proficient enough to perform a Google search, follow instructions, and then files to a microSD card, then the New Pocket Go will be all but useless to you.
But if you’re up to the task and the potential risks involved, the New Pocket Go provides a surprisingly great gaming experience. I’ve yet to find a Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis game (that I already own) that doesn’t run nearly flawlessly on the hardware, and even PlayStation 1 titles perform remarkably well on it. I’ve spent more time replaying Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (another game I already own) over the past couple of weeks than I’d like to admit, and from my experience, it runs as well as it did 20 years ago on the PS1—but now on a device I can slip in my pocket. Some users have reported issues with other PlayStation 1 games like poor performance or titles that simply won’t load, but the various emulators on the New Pocket Go also include extensive options in their settings that can be used to compensate for performance issues, including screen scaling, dropping frames, and other well-known tricks in the emulation community. If a game doesn’t play as well as you’d hoped it would, there’s a good chance even a few small tweaks will help.
Despite the challenges of actually getting your hands on games, the ugly user interface, the terrible analog joystick, and even occasional hardware problems, I still can’t help but highly recommend the New Pocket Go if you’re a fan of retro gaming. It puts all of the classic games I loved as a kid into a single device that I can use anywhere, at any time. You need to come to terms with the limits and challenges of game emulation to truly enjoy it, but for $65 the New Pocket Go is now the only gaming machine I leave the house with.
- The hardware isn’t Nintendo or Sony quality, but for $65 it’s surprisingly well made with excellent performance.
- The buttons and D-pad all feel great, but the included analog joystick is a disaster, and all but unusable.
- It includes a set of Linux-based emulators for consoles like the Game Boy and PlayStation 1, and you can easily add your own. But it only plays ROM files, which you’ll need to provide yourself.
- With a resolution of just 320x240, you’ll definitely see pixels on screen, but it’s protected with a glass cover that should minimize scratches.
- The 2,000 mAh rechargeable battery is easily removable and swappable without the need for a screwdriver.
- The default software and user interface are ugly and sometimes confusing, but it can be swapped with third-party alternatives if you’re willing to perform a challenging upgrade.