Ever wanted to go back to the games you played growing up and experience a bygone era of entertainment? One of the cheapest and easiest ways to do this is by using a portable handheld designed just for retro gaming.
Are portable emulators legal?
The act of emulating a system is perfectly legal, which means that building a portable device or writing software that emulates a console is legal.
However, downloading ROMs that you don’t own is definitely illegal. Just like downloading a movie or book that you don’t own, downloading a ROM is considered copyright infringement. Sharing ROMs with others who don’t own them is also a violation of copyright law, and one against which the recording and film industries have taken a firm stand since the early days of the Internet.
Downloading a ROM for which you have a physical cartridge can be considered fair use, but this has not yet been fully tested in the courts. Ripping your own ROMs may also be fair dealing (just as ripping music from a CD you own is widely tolerated in most jurisdictions), but neither is there any. no more clear legal precedent for this.
And that’s a common theme when it comes to ROMs and emulation. Many of the rules are theoretical in that they have never really been tested. We spoke to an attorney about the legality of ROMs and learned first-hand that there are no easy answers.
Most portable emulation devices are designed with ROMs in mind, but not all are.
The best dedicated portable emulators
Since older consoles are relatively energy efficient compared to even modest modern smartphones, portable devices designed with emulation in mind are powerful enough, affordable, and efficient. As is the case with most portable electronic devices, newer devices have more powerful internal components that will allow you to emulate more hardware.
At the time of writing (December 2021), most systems up to the original PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and in some cases Sony’s PSP can be emulated depending on your handheld choice. Many of these systems use the same chips, with other things like software, form factor, and build quality determining price and suitability.
The Retroid Pocket 2+ from Retroid uses a classic form factor that’s not unlike Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance or even the Switch. This is an Android handheld that runs Retroid OS, with good support for PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and even Dreamcast. It has a 3.5 inch 4: 3 touchscreen, built-in rumble and 4000mAh battery.
Retro pocket 2
A good alternative to the Retroid Pocket 2+ is the RG351MP from Anbernic. This all-metal design exudes build quality, with the ability to emulate most platforms up to the PlayStation (with some Nintendo 64 titles for good measure). It might not be the most powerful handheld, but it’s the quality of the components that matters here. You also get a solid Linux kernel and an easy-to-use operating system.
If you prefer the original Game Boy form factor, Anbernic’s RG351V is worth a look. It’s about as good as the all-metal RG351MP above, but it comes in a vertical form factor with a single analog stick. On the back, you’ll find a cutout with two easily accessible shoulder buttons to make emulation of systems like the SNES and Game Boy Advance possible.
One of the smallest portable emulators on the market is the FunKey S, a small, foldable, Game Boy Pocket-style device that you can take anywhere. Small doesn’t mean weak, with the FunKey able to emulate the original PlayStation titles, in addition to retro classics like the NES, three generations of Game Boy and the Neo Geo Pocket.
If you prefer a clamshell design, take a look at the Powkiddy X18S. The X18S’s strengths lie in its unique design that protects the screen and its ability to emulate Sega’s Dreamcast quite effectively, but Powkiddy’s laptops generally don’t have the build quality seen with Anbernic’s or Retroid’s offerings. . It is also a little more expensive.
To note: When buying from marketplaces like Amazon, resellers tend to put their own “brand” in the description, which is confusing. Many happy customers on Reddit report that these are genuine items, although they are often slightly more expensive than buying direct from the manufacturer. Learn more about how to avoid Amazon scams.
Forget ROMs with the Evercade
If you’d rather not have to worry about the technical or legal aspects of using ROMs while enjoying retro gaming on the go, consider the Evercade Handheld. UK-based Evercade is currently making a new series of consoles that rely on physical cartridges, each containing a selection of older games.
It’s the perfect platform for the retro geek who appreciates a physical collection of games. The console is available for $ 79.99 (£ 59.99 / € 69.99) and has a 4.3-inch display, around five hours of battery life, and backup states that allow you to save your game at any time. Backups can be stored on the cartridge, so you can follow your progress on the Evercade home console: the Evercade VS.
The system has received support from publishers like Atari, Codemasters, Intellivision, Namco and Interplay. Cartridges cost $ 20 with some (like Atari Lynx Collection 1) that include more than 15 sets.
Emulation on Nintendo Switch
Nintendo Switch is more powerful than most of the dedicated portable emulators shown above, and there are two ways you can use it as a portable emulator. The first is to use a Nintendo Switch Online subscription and the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Nintendo Entertainment System apps from the eShop.
This allows you to play a selection of games from those systems, with save state support so you can save your game anywhere (and reverse the time if you want). There is also online play support in compatible games, and you can use Nintendo’s official platform-specific controllers for a more authentic experience.
You can also pay a little extra to unlock Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis titles using the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack. New controllers are also available for each of these platforms, along with online functionality in some titles.
Nintendo Switch Online costs $ 19.99 per year, or you can pay $ 49.99 to include the expansion pack. Check out our guide to see what’s else in a Switch Online membership.
This is not the only way to get emulators on Nintendo’s handheld, however. You can also modify your Switch and install software from outside the eShop. This offers a lot more freedom since you can supply your own games, but it also voids your console’s warranty and potentially Nintendo bans your console.
Some Switch models are easier to modify than others, and installing new firmware to play the latest proprietary titles from the eShop or on cartridges will likely remove any mods you’ve installed. Learn more about Nintendo Switch modding so you can decide if the risk is worth it for you.
Also run emulators on smartphones
Android smartphones are capable of emulation, with many emulators available in the Google Play Store. You can also side-load Android apps, including emulators. You can use an Xbox or PlayStation 5 DualSense controller and get a better experience than relying on a touchscreen.
You can also install emulators on an iPhone by creating and compiling them yourself or by using a service like Builds.io. It works using corporate apps, which the service signs and lets you install using a web browser. The setup can be tricky if you compile apps yourself or want to use Builds.io, you will need to pay registration fees for your device.
Finally, if you are interested in emulation and have an Xbox Series console, you should know more about installing RetroArch on your Microsoft console using developer mode.