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Analogue Pocket review: It’s real and it rules

The 2019 reveal of the Analogue Pocket feels like a lifetime ago yet, despite that, it still feels unreal to actually have one in hand. Yes, some of that is phantom pains from the Pocket’s own delays on top of the delays of this year’s other handhelds, the Steam Deck and the Playdate, on top of a global pandemic, a historic chip shortage, and any number of supply chain fiascos. But Analogue’s most ambitious project is here, it’s real, and it largely meets (and in some ways even exceeds) my expectations. It’s also not quite done, but we’ll get into that.

The Analogue Pocket is a handheld retro gaming clone, built using FPGA (field-programmable gate array) technology. That means the guts of the Pocket are designed to be reconfigured to clone whatever hardware they’re programmed to, with an obsessive emphasis on accuracy. In this case, the Pocket can emulate a host of handheld gaming consoles from the entire Game Boy / Color / Advance lineup to less common portable consoles like the Sega Game Gear, Atari Lynx, and even the Neo Geo Pocket Color. While the Game Boy games will all work with the Pocket’s cartridge slot, the other three require cartridge adapters similar to how Analogue’s Mega SG handled other cartridge formats.

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Like all of Analogue’s products, the Pocket is a looker. The materials feel premium in a way the original portable consoles, not to mention the average handheld clone console, simply do not. However, the black review unit that Analogue sent over is something of a smudge magnet, so consider that if your intended use case for the Pocket is in handheld mode or docked to the television with the $99 Dock accessory. All of the button inputs do a great job of matching the feel of the original, including the L and R shoulder buttons, which actually feel better than the ones on the clamshell Game Boy Advance SP … but that’s a qualified success.

Analogue made a very intentional design choice for the Pocket to be a portrait-oriented console, whereas most people with adult-sized hands would find the Game Boy Advance’s wide, landscape layout more comfortable. Landscape is the layout you’d find on all of Nintendo’s handhelds since the SP, on all of Sony’s handhelds, and on the majority of the clone consoles that the Pocket is in competition with. The Pocket’s vertical silhouette is striking, especially when docked, but count me in the camp that believes this is a rare form-over-function oversight in the otherwise solid Analogue oeuvre.

While the vertical layout isn’t ideal for my oversized mitts, it’s hard to find anything negative to say about the Pocket’s screen. Oh, that screen! It’s a 3.5-inch LCD, with a whopping 1600×1440 resolution. For the pixel density enthusiasts in the house, that’s 615 pixels per inch, more than 30% higher than Apple’s latest iPhone display. But it’s not just the volume of pixels (there are so many!) — the Pocket’s display is an exact 10x integer multiplier of the original Game Boy’s 160×144 display, meaning that games will fill the entire screen, with no blurry pixels and no shimmering or other compromises. And all of those pixels help the Pocket deliver some really impressive screen filters that recreate the unique patina of the original screens, but at a quality level that even the most nostalgic among us will recognize as a monumental improvement. Seriously, this screen.

Image: Analogue Pocket via Polygon

Image: Analogue Pocket via Polygon

Image: Analogue Pocket via Polygon

Image: Analogue Pocket via Polygon

Image: Analogue Pocket via Polygon

Image: Analogue Pocket via Polygon

Despite not finding the Pocket particularly comfortable to hold, the screen compelled me to use it handheld more often than docked, despite usually preferring a couch and a big TV screen. While not included, the Dock is a must-have accessory for the Pocket. A handsome little thing, it props the Pocket upright, like a sculpture, and adds power, HDMI output, two USB ports, and a Bluetooth radio. After a somewhat awkward firmware update — which I’m told will later be handled directly from the Pocket — the Dock was properly pairing my 8BitDo M30 Bluetooth controllers. From there, everything works almost as it should, with two notable exceptions.

Analogue suggests removing the Pocket entirely from the Dock to switch cartridges. I decided to see what happens if I … didn’t do that, and somewhat to my surprise, it worked fine, though I didn’t love the wobble on the USB-C port that the Pocket was attached to. Sure enough, Analogue’s Chris Taber confirmed as much, saying that while it’s functionally possible to swap carts while still seated in the Dock, “you’ll want to avoid putting strain on Dock and Dock’s USB-C port by swapping cartridges.” The Pocket standing in the Dock is undeniably a cool look, but it’s disappointing that the Dock itself comes with such a steep price, especially notable since the Pocket does not allow you to rip your carts to the console’s SD card.

The other frustration: The Dock does not currently work with Analogue’s DAC accessory, which converts the HDMI output on its consoles to an analog output, suitable for use with a CRT display. For the purists in the house — certainly, a key constituency of Analogue’s high-end products — the absence of analog output may be a deal-breaker until support is added in a future firmware update. On the other hand, Pocket is designed for portable consoles that never used CRTs in the first place, so I’ll let the cathode ray crew figure this one out.

Speaking of controllers, for now only a handful of Bluetooth controllers are supported in the Pocket’s underlying software, Analogue OS. You can use 8BitDo’s Pro 2 Bluetooth controller, M30 Bluetooth controller, or 8BitDo Arcade Stick, which supports Bluetooth, 2.4 GHz wireless, or USB; as far as major console controllers go, you can choose between the Nintendo Switch Pro controller or the PlayStation 4 DualShock 4 controller. Analogue says support for additional controllers is coming in the Analogue OS 1.1 software update due in January, including the Xbox One controller, a notable omission here.

While Pocket is a major evolution of Analogue’s model thus far — it has a built-in controller, it has a screen, it has a battery — the biggest change is arguably Analogue OS. Whereas previous Analogue consoles had humble user interfaces and limited in-game functionality owing to the complexity of building such features on top of emulated, 30-year-old hardware, the Pocket (and all future Analogue consoles, the company says) has learned a thing or two from the MiSTer project. The Pocket has a consistent user interface that’s able to be summoned in any game with the press of the Analogue button.

Image: Analogue Pocket via Polygon

Image: Analogue Pocket via Polygon

A paucity of controller options isn’t the only part of the Pocket that isn’t quite done yet. Grayed out on the main screen of the OS are the Memories and Library features. While the Pocket currently supports a single save state for games — press the Analogue button and Up to save and Analogue and Down to load — the Memories feature promises to let you save multiple states, and even take them off of the SD card to share with other Pocket users.

The Library feature promises a massive database of all carts, including variations of carts, so the console knows what you’ve inserted, bringing a decidedly modern experience to these classic consoles. The experience appears similar to how the Polymega handles games, but with one major difference: Where the Polymega supports ripping your entire library onto the console so you don’t have to handle your (let’s be honest) increasingly expensive library of carts, the Pocket requires those carts.

One of the major questions looming over this entire product, just like all Analogue products before it, is: Will there be a jailbreak? The original Analogue NT Mini had an official jailbreak courtesy of the company’s in-house FPGA wizard, Kevin Horton. The later consoles — the Super NT, Mega SG, and last year’s NT Mini Noir — all featured mysterious, “unofficial” jailbreaks released within a week or so of the console’s release. These jailbreaks add, most notably, the ability to run ROMs, no cartridges required. The NT Mini jailbreaks also added support for a lot of additional consoles above and beyond the Nintendo / Famicom, while the Super NT jailbreak introduced the CopySNES utility to rip your carts, and their save data, to the console.

It’s not clear whether the Pocket will have a jailbreak, even if it does seem exceedingly likely. And if it does, will it have the ability to play other cores, a la the NT Mini? Or rip carts, à la the Super NT? And outside of the jailbreak, there are other curious, and in some cases unknown, new features for the Pocket.

Image: Analogue Pocket via Polygon

Image: Analogue Pocket via Polygon

In the known camp, there’s Nanoloop, a popular music package for Game Boy and Game Boy Advance, that comes included with the Pocket. There’s GB Studio support, a visual game building tool, whose latest release offers an option to export projects to Pocket-compatible files; just one has been shared with us so far, but it seems likely that developers will make more available following the console’s release. And perhaps most significantly, there’s an entire second FPGA here intended for use by developers. Will other console cores be ported to the Pocket? Will that FGPA be powerful enough to run some existing MiSTer cores? Will those support ROMs? It’s too early to say.

Seeing everything that Analogue crammed into the Pocket, I’m honestly surprised it hasn’t been delayed further. While previous Analogue consoles fused elegant industrial design with cutting-edge FPGA emulation, the end results were simple compared to the complexity of what it’s doing with Pocket. And to be clear, I have appreciated that simplicity — there’s something weird about updating the operating system in your Game Boy. But Pocket is such a hugely ambitious project that its asking price of $219 — the slightly increased price for all new orders, thanks to industrywide component price increases — is a spectacular value if you’re at all interested in retro gaming. And if you’re not, Pocket is a really compelling opportunity to change that.

The Analogue Pocket costs $219, and initial pre-orders begin shipping Dec. 13. The handheld was reviewed using hardware and accessories provided by Analogue. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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