If you’re still coping with the tragic news of the Analogue Pocket’s release being delayed from May 2021 to later this year, I’ve found the perfect handheld emulator to tide you over until it arrives. The Anbernic Retro Game 351V is reminiscent of the Pocket’s Game Boy-inspired design, and while its software-based emulation isn’t flawless, it still provides an excellent retro gaming experience on a lovely, large screen.
After creating a series of solid and affordable handheld emulators (including the RG350P, which we highly recommend) with designs inspired by landscape consoles like the original GBA and the PSP, Anbernic has been recently dabbling in vertical handhelds, which are reminiscent of the original Game Boy, but with some serious upgrades. Had Nintendo actually released a Game Boy Classic Edition back in 2019 to celebrate the console’s 30th birthday, it would have probably looked a lot like Anbernic’s RG351V.
Those of us who grew up with the Game Boy and have fond memories of our first truly portable video game console have probably forgotten just how big it was. It was barely pocketable, and the same can be said for the RG351V, which is more or less the same size as Nintendo’s classic handheld. The 351V is a little thinner, a little shorter, but a bit wider.
If you’re after a solid retro gaming experience that’s as easy to stash away as your smartphone, you’ll want to opt for something like the Anbernic RG280V instead, or even the FunKey S, if you’ve got especially tiny fingers. The RG351V is beefy, but I can’t fault it for its size, because the console also provides a very comfortable gaming experience, particularly for gamers like myself with big hands.
I often have trouble contorting my fingers to reach the shoulder buttons on most landscape-oriented handhelds, but like the Analogue Pocket, the RG351V positions two sets of shoulder buttons halfway down the console’s back, atop the bulge created by its 3,900 mAh battery, which I found to be the perfect place for them.
As happy as I am with the shoulder buttons, I’m less enthused about some of the decisions made on the front of the RG351V.
The four action buttons, the four-way directional pad, and the Select and Start buttons all feel great, as they aways do on Anbernic’s handhelds. The analog joystick is also excellent, and feels like the same solid hardware that Nintendo uses for the Switch’s Joy-Cons.
What I don’t like, however, is where the analog joystick is located on the RG351V. It sits below the D-pad, and I find it requires some uncomfortable thumb contortions to use while keeping other fingers on the shoulder buttons. I would have much preferred to see it positioned between the D-pad and the action buttons, or to the lower right of the D-pad. I’m also not entirely sure why Anbernic decided to include just a single joystick, when a pair of them makes playing many 3D PlayStation games much easier.
Elsewhere on the console you get a real headphone jack on the bottom (where it should be located), two USB-C ports for charging and data transfers, a volume rocker to the left of the screen, power and reset buttons to the right, and a pair of microSD slots with one card being used to hold the operating system, while the other holds the actual game files. The speaker on the front isn’t exactly deafening, but it’s more than adequate.
The RG351V is designed to emulate games from dedicated handhelds as well as consoles that connected to TVs, but nearly every game from that latter group was designed for old standard definition TVs with a 4:3 screen ratio. I’m not going to pretend that the modern 16:9 standard isn’t better, but I like that the RG351V includes a 4:3 screen instead so SNES and Genesis games fill it out completely without black bars on either side.
It’s by no means gigantic, but at 3.5 inches in size it takes up half the front of the handheld and makes games seem to appear larger than they do on other handheld emulators. The screen’s 640 x 480 resolution also makes old-school games look fantastic. Like other recent Anbernic handhelds, it also has a laminated screen so there’s no gap between the screen cover and the gameplay. This helps graphics look especially crisp, with excellent contrast levels and viewing angles. Plus, there’s zero risk of dust ever getting trapped under the screen cover, which is a very real issue with Anbernic’s older consoles.
Even with a quad-core 1.5GHz CPU under the hood, the RG351V’s emulation performance still doesn’t really outperform Anbernic’s older handhelds. Classic games from 8-bit and 16-bit consoles and handhelds—Game Boy, GBA, Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, etc.—all play flawlessly, and it’s rare to find a PlayStation game that doesn’t play well on the system. But that’s about where you’ll want to draw the line with the RG351V. Awful frame rates and sound sync issues make Dreamcast and PSP games mostly unplayable (unless you have the patience of a saint), and while a few N64 games might limp along, the RG351V, like many handhelds before it, disappointingly can’t handle GoldenEye 007.
On the user interface side of things, Anbernic has always been better than most of the handheld emulators coming out of China when it comes to being user-friendly. But when powered up, you’re first presented with software called EmulationStation as your front end for selecting what game to play, which then launches RetroArch for actually playing the game. They both have their own settings and configurations, with EmulationStation having a hierarchy over RetroArch, and the approach can occasionally make things confusing. It also took me a while to figure out the button combo for exiting games without having to just reset the whole console. There’s lot of room for improvement, but out of the box you don’t really have to jump through too many hoops before enjoying classic games.
You will, however, have to source your own software, because playing games using ROM files, not the original cartridges or discs, is a legal gray area and an added technical challenge for these types of gaming devices. Popping the RG351V’s microSD card into a computer and copying files over isn’t terribly difficult, but it’s nowhere near as easy as simply swapping game cartridges in and out, which is a convenience offered by other handheld emulators like the Evercade that might be a better choice for the technologically challenged.
Although I haven’t actually gone hands-on with the Analogue Pocket yet, I have reviewed several of the company’s other retro console clones. Their use of FPGAs instead of software emulation, as well as simplified user interfaces, mean the Pocket is going to be a real competitor against devices like the Anbernic RG351V. The Pocket is also going to cost $200, almost twice what the 351V is currently selling for, but does that mean it will be twice as good? That remains to be seen.
If money and patience are no object, the Analogue Pocket is definitely worth considering, even if you have to wait well into 2022 to get one. But if you want a retro gaming handheld now, and one that can handle hundreds of 3D games from the original PlayStation era, the RG351V is one of the best Anbernic has released to date. If its size is an issue, you can always opt for the smaller and cheaper $86 RG280V instead, but the RG351V’s beautiful screen easily justifies its extra cost.