Analogue Pocket Review: I Love the Fancy Game Boy

Well, it’s here. It’s real. The Analogue Pocket exists. And it’s a really nice way to play Game Boy games.

The Pocket is the latest in a line of high-quality video game hardware releases from Analogue, a company that specializes in hyper-accurate hardware emulation via FPGA (Field-Programmable Gate Arrays). I don’t know what that means either, but it sounds clever, and I’m told it matters for some reason.

In layman’s terms, FPGA chips allow Analogue to design and program their machines to act — at a hardware level — as if they were a Super Nintendo, or a Sega Genesis, or in this case, a Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and/or Game Boy Advance. This is different from traditional software emulation, in which a piece of software does its best to imitate, or emulate the console in question across a range of different hardware.

The Pocket also supports games from the Sega Game Gear, Neo Geo Pocket Color, Atari Lynx, and “more.” Everything that isn’t a Game Boy cartridge of some kind will need an extra adapter to slot in, however.

I’ve been using the Analogue Pocket for about three months now, and by and large, I love the thing. It’s hard to play older games in a way that is both accurate and comfortable, and the Pocket manages both easily. Its lag-free, hardware-accurate gameplay experience will have you convinced you’re playing on original hardware, and its big, beautiful, and crucially bright screen will remind you that, luckily, you’re not.

Granted, the Pocket only plays physical game cartridges, and having to acquire physical copies of old games you might not already have is certainly not the easiest way to stroll down video game memory lane. But the Pocket does support playing through a Flash Cart, and the word on the street is that Analogue products usually receive — from mysterious sources that are definitely not Analogue themselves — jailbreaks and workarounds that allow the use of ROMs.

I’ve also found that there’s a surprisingly robust community of people selling reproduction cartridges online. Whether that crosses some sort of authenticity line, as to how accurate an experience you’re ultimately having — something which may matter to you if you’re looking at the Pocket — is up to you to decide. Personally, I don’t care as long as the game runs well, and as originally designed. If you see this as a stopgap solution while waiting for ROM support, you probably won’t be bothered either.

Speaking of waiting for features, the Pocket is still missing many of the features Analogue promised with the announcement of their AnalogueOS. There’s the Library feature, which promises to be “a reference level database to play, explore and share. A scholarly cataloging of the entirety of video game history.” This has yet to materialize. There’s the Memories feature, which will allow you to save and load Save States, and take and view screenshots while playing. This one gets a half-point, as Save States were added in beta in the most recent firmware update. But you aren’t yet able to scroll through all of your Save States in a visual list, as Analogue promises you’ll be able to, and the “Memories” option remains greyed out in the Pocket’s menu. Maybe a quarter-point, then. Creating and sharing “Playlists,” and a suite of tools and stats to track your playtime also have yet to appear as of the writing of this review.

That we’re still waiting for AnalogueOS to unlock the full potential of what we were initially promised from the Pocket may be the most disappointing thing about the handheld. Every time I play a game on the Pocket, I find myself wishing I could take a screenshot of some moment or another. And every time I wonder when, if ever, this basic functionality will arrive. It’s a real shame, and one that has made a device launch that was already so beset by delays and disappointment, into something of a meme. Woe to all those who were fool enough to buy this very expensive Game Boy.

In my experience, however, it hasn’t all been woe. On the contrary, I genuinely love my Pocket, and I’ve been having a blast playing on it. Not because it delivered on every one of my wildest dreams, but because it’s very good at being a fancy Game Boy.

With all of that out of the way, let’s break the rest of this review into a few different categories that I feel it important to address. Here’s how I feel about the following:

Build & Feel

The Pocket is nicely weighted, and its plastic has a nice, soft touch. The build quality feels top notch, very solid, and not at all creaky. It’s nicely machined with no jagged edges, and nothing feeling “wonky.” I absolutely love holding it. Early on, I found myself absent-mindedly playing with the Analogue logo that’s inset into the back of the Pocket with my fingertips while playing, and I suddenly realized that I used to do that very same thing with the clip to the Game Boy Color’s battery compartment whenever I borrowed it from my friend to play Pokémon. This thing feels so close to the real deal, it fooled my brain into an old childhood habit that I’d completely forgotten.

I wish I could browse the web on this thing. Answering emails would be a joy on the Pocket. I mean, probably not, and how would you type? I don’t know. I can’t explain those impulses, except to restate that I love holding this thing. Anyone want to invest in my revival of the PageBoy…?

All that said, on the flip side, the Pocket isn’t exactly pocket-sized. While I feel it’s just the right size to comfortably hold for a longer play session, it’s a little too huge to tuck away in a pants pocket — or even a jacket pocket — for a stroll through the park or a morning commute, and will likely have to be stored in a bag, where you might be less inclined to pull it out for a quick game.

I’m also terrified of breaking it. Half of the front of the device is a big, beautiful pane of glass that I can just imagine hitting the deck and shattering into a thousand beautiful pieces. And while its build quality is good, and its construction feels solid, I wouldn’t put my money on its angular plastic body in a match-up against sweet lady pavement.

Buttons

The four main face buttons (what you might think of as ABXY) are nicely clicky, and remind me of my old GBA’s A and B buttons. They might even be a tad less mushy. The L and R shoulder buttons are dead ringers for the GBA SP’s shoulder buttons, but (again) maybe a little nicer. Their placement feels right to me, and my fingers rest comfortably on them while playing. They are a bit close to the exposed cartridge in the back, but that hasn’t caused me any problems. And we’ll get to that.

The Start/Select/Analogue Menu buttons towards the bottom of the device are shallow and clicky and do what they need to do. They’re all well within a thumb’s reach of the other face buttons, and having the Analogue Menu button function as a modifier for some quick actions with the d-pad and volume buttons is a handy touch as well.

My least favorite buttons on the Pocket are its Volume Up, Volume Down, and Sleep/Wake/Power buttons. They’re located on the left side of the device, around the middle of the display. The Power button is an oblong pill shape, accented in a nice mint green. The Volume Up/Down buttons sit just above the Power button in a sort of oblong-pill-split-in-half configuration, with Volume Up being the upper half of the pill, and Volume Down being the lower. This makes things rather aesthetically pleasing, but in this configuration the two pills feel identical. More than once, I have meant to change the Pocket’s volume, but accidentally put it to sleep, or vice versa. This is not helped by the fact that pressing both volume buttons at once will mute the device. This could have been avoided by giving the power button a different texture, using a volume slider instead of buttons, or both. Sadly, Analogue chose form over function in this case.

D-pad

Yes, the D-pad deserves its own section, as it is apparently very difficult to make one that is any good these days. Luckily, Analogue had no such difficulty in shipping a d-pad that would feel right at home on the original hardware. It’s tight and responsive, and hits a good center point between clicky and mushy. Right where a d-pad should be, in my opinion. In some cases, I have found myself accidentally moving in an adjacent direction while holding one side of the d-pad (for example, accidentally moving up or down while holding right). This could come down to how sensitive the pad is to moving in a diagonal direction, or even to my big, stupid fingers being much bigger and stupider now than when I was a kid. It’s not a huge deal.

Cartridge Slot

The cartridge slot on the back of the device is fully uncovered, in contrast to an original Game Boy or Game Boy color, to allow for both the taller GB and GBC carts and their shorter GBA brethren. This is an interesting solution to a problem made more interesting by the Pocket’s support for all those adapters I mentioned before, and I honestly don’t know that I would’ve done it any differently. But it does lead to the feeling that your carts are a bit exposed and indeed, a nudge to the side of a cartridge will absolutely knock it out of place without much force. It isn’t a move you’re likely to make (intentionally) while playing, but there it is.

However, in my experience, and its kind of weird to say this, but this cartridge slot is also kind of a dream to use. Carts click into place with a really satisfying thok. Like they’re solid and secure, but also landing on a cloud? It feels really good. The tolerance doesn’t feel so tight that it’s going to scratch or otherwise harm your carts, but not so loose that they’ll fly right out. For a piece of third-party hardware, that’s pretty big. It feels like Analogue spent exactly as much time as they needed getting the Pocket’s acceptance of cartridges right.

Display

I have nothing but praise to heap upon this beautiful screen. It’s gorgeous. It’s big. It’s extremely bright, if you want it to be. And it scales everything accurately and perfectly so that your old games won’t look weird at the relatively high resolution of 1600×1440.

The included display modes are also great. For each of the original Game Boys, the Analogue can display games in either Analogue mode, which unleashes the full power of the display, or in a number of “Classic” modes that more closely resemble the original display of each console. They all look great. I’m currently playing through Pokémon Crystal in the Classic GBC LCD display mode, and it looks exactly how I remember it.

Analogue promised that games would look gorgeous on the Pocket, and they delivered.

UI

The Pocket’s UI is relatively simple, especially while we’re still waiting for AnalogueOS to add the bulk of its missing features, but it’s functional and gets the job done. My biggest problem with the UI as it currently exists, is that messages like “sleep,” “wake,” and the little [+] and [-] icons that indicate an increase or decrease in volume respectively, are rendered on screen in a borderless white text that lays on top of whatever you’re playing or viewing. In the Pocket’s black-backgrounded menus, this is fine. But on top of games which, considering the era, may be mostly black and white, this seems like a poor choice. Even displayed over full color games, the indicators are nigh-impossible to see.

The volume indicators also annoyingly do not show you where, on a spectrum of low to high, your volume currently sits. This would be extremely helpful, considering the console’s use of buttons rather than a slider for volume management. It’s a very curious misstep in a console that otherwise mostly feels very considered, and from a company that prides itself on accuracy and attention to detail.

Nanoloop

Just breaking this out separately because I want to call out what a fun addition it was to throw in some music-making software as part of the OS. It was obviously added natively with musicians in mind, but for lowly gamers like me who just bought the Pocket to play some games, it’s fun to jump in and try my hand at making some simple chiptune loops for a while. Apparently, you can also hook the Pocket up to all kinds of MIDI controllers or your computer and make some serious jams. That’s neat!


All in all, I’m having a great time with the Pocket. It’s a great way to play some old games that just…works. It feels great to hold, I’m actually excited to carry it with me on the train or to the laundromat, it runs extremely well. It does what it says on the tin, basically. Well, most of what it says on the tin. I’m still eagerly awaiting those final updates to AnalogueOS that will finally bring the Pocket in line with Analogue’s grand ambitions.

Until then, I’ll be making my way through Pokémon Crystal, Final Fantasy Tactics, the Mother 3 fan translation, Boktai of course, and any other carts that find their way into my home, as I’m now keen to seek more out. And you can be sure that no matter what I play on the Pocket next, it’ll look damn gorgeous.

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