Handheld gaming gets the reboot it deserves next year with the Analogue Pocket
Analogue's smallest retro clone system is also their biggest project ever.
I am on the record as being a fan of Analogue's high-end retro console products. They shipped their repackaged NES, the Analogue Nt, right as I began exploring high-quality solutions for NES capture for the Video Works series. Despite being a steep investment, it turned out to be a perfect fit for my needs, thanks to its flawless compatibility, top-level fidelity, and excellent RGB output options. Analogue replaced the Nt a year later with the Nt Mini, which switched conceptual gears: Rather than being built around salvaged Famicom motherboards, the Mini contained a well-designed FPGA (field programmable gate array) processor, which expanded its compatibility beyond NES and Famicom to a huge array of 8-bit consoles.
The Nt Mini is sadly no longer in production and suffers from a massive eBay markup attached now, but it's become an irreplaceable element of my video production process. The past 30 or so NES Works episodes (including this week's video) have all been captured from Nt Mini:
Equally excellent have been the company's more recent efforts, the Super Nt (a Super NES clone) and the Mega Sg (a Genesis/Mega Drive clone capable of playing games from a host of other Sega retro consoles).
And all of that is well and good, but my true love over the past 20 years has actually been handheld gaming, not consoles. While the Nt Mini and Mega Sg are capable of playing games from handheld systems, the devices themselves are hardly portable. So the question for a while has been: When will Analogue give handhelds their due? The answer, it turns out, is "next year."
The company's next device, the Analogue Pocket, ships sometime in 2020. Analogue makes some steep claims about the device's features and compatibility, but based on their previous work, there's no reason to think they won't live up to those promises.
Early product shots and renders present the Analogue Pocket as a system designed very much in the vein of the Game Boy Pocket, albeit with a larger, brighter, more colorful screen. The Pocket basically turns the glassed-over screen bevel space surrounding the screen on classic Game Boy models and turns that dead zone into actual live screen real estate—so while the Analogue Pocket looks to be roughly the size of its Game Boy namesake, its screen will be 3.5" diagonal instead of 2.6".
More importantly, Analogue has paid careful attention to screen resolution. That's always been the biggest stumbling block for retro portable system efforts. Classic handhelds had very specific pixel resolutions, none of which scale evenly into the standard resolutions tiny LCD screens tend to be sold at. This inevitably results in classic games that end up looking stretched, smeared, or shimmery due to being upscaled at a non-integer ratio. The Analogue Pocket neatly solves this issue by incorporating an ultra-high-density screen (615 pixel per inch), which works out to be 1600x1440 pixels total: Exactly 10 times the Game Boy and Game Boy Color's native resolution.
This also means the screen resolution is dense enough that the system should be able to support other classic handhelds with graphical output solutions that won't degrade their visuals as well. That's an encouraging thought, since Analogue has promised support for several additional systems by way of cartridges adapters (some to be released alongside the Pocket, with others due down the line).
Initially, the Pocket will support six different platforms: Nintendo's Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance; Atari's Lynx; Sega's Game Gear; and SNK's Neo Geo Pocket Color. The one major notable cart-based retro handheld not to be included in this lineup is Bandai's WonderSwan, which presumably had to be culled due to that system's broad support for in-game screen rotation. The Pocket features four face buttons and two shoulder triggers, whereas the WonderSwan had two sets of D-Pad buttons built into its case to allow both vertical and horizontal play.
That said, Analogue president Christopher Taber hasn't ruled out WonderSwan support. "Would love to bring support for WonderSwan," he tells me. "We have plans to support more systems in the future, for sure—but not ready to announce more just yet." Those other systems would likely include the esoteric portables supported on the Nt Mini's "jailbreak" firmware... platforms for which the company has admittedly yet to ship the cartridge adapters that were promised several years ago (though, in fairness, those were not a formal announcement from the company itself).
Working in the Pocket's favor is the fact that its extended hardware feature set won't rely entirely upon Analogue's internal team (which, by all accounts, is quite small). Unlike the company's previous devices, the Pocket will contain not one but two FPGA cores. The second, which Taber refers to as an "open" core, will be available for tinkerers to develop their own console-simulation cores for. Taber cites the MiSTer open-source FPGA project as an inspiration, suggesting the Analogue Pocket could potentially serve as an off-the-shelf equivalent to the MiSTer. Given the complex setup and bevy of options involved in building and running a MiSTer, this has the potential to greatly open up that entire world of retro system simulation to a more casual audience—assuming, of course, that open-source programmers feel comfortable working in a closed environment.
Even if FPGA programmers decline to take the bait and nothing ever comes of the Pocket's secondary core (which seems unlikely), the system has enormous potential all the same. The simple benefit of supporting as many devices as it will right out of the box makes for a considerably more straightforward value proposition than previous Analogue systems have offered. At $200, the Pocket isn't cheap—but as anyone who has tinkered with getting the most out of classic handhelds knows, refurbishing a Game Boy or Lynx with an upgrade to biverted backlighting or a new, reduced-blurring screen can potentially cost $200 on its own... and that's per system. Given Analogue's history of high-quality console simulation, excellent construction, and generally favorable customer support, the Pocket seems like it will be an easy pick-up for serious handheld gaming aficionados.
To top it off, Analogue will also be taking advantage of Game Boy's other life as a music instrument. Where the company's previous FPGA devices have included sound players capable of playing direct audio rips of game soundtracks (e.g. through NSF files), the Pocket will actually be able to create music. Built-in support for nanoloop means the Pocket will double as a compact, portable chiptune performance tool—a fantastic extra for the chiptune audience.
That said, the Pocket does come with caveats. Some of its cartridge adapters will be offered separately, with no firm release date. The same holds true for the system's optional dock, which will connect the Pocket to HDMI output and support bluetooth controllers. The dock will link up with Analogue's DAC (digital/analog converter), which is expected to ship soon and will allow consumers to use the Pocket, the Super Nt, and the Mega Sg on analog-based CRT televisions. However, Analogue indicates the Pocket dock will be released at an indeterminate time at an undisclosed price. Combined with the add-on cartridge adapters and the company's reputation for charging high shipping prices, the full Pocket experience will definitely require owners to weather a bit of sticker shock that isn't accounted for by the $200 base price.
Nevertheless, I do feel optimistic about the Analogue Pocket all the same. It certainly sounds like a perfect solution for my (admittedly specific) needs. My handheld game capture setup is a mess of patchwork cabling and expensive esoteric hardware. I record Game Boy from a Super Game Boy via Analogue Super Nt, Lynx through a costly VGA-modded Lynx 2 handheld, Game Gear from an Analogue Nt Mini, Game Boy Color from a Wide Boy 64 development cartridge plugged into an RGB-modded Nintendo 64, and Game Boy Advance from an official capture kit that, like the Wide Boy 64, was never offered at the consumer level. Being able to consolidate all of these functions into a single device which can also record Neo Geo Pocket Color games (currently something that is effectively impossible) will be a godsend for anyone who wants to capture high-quality footage of classic handheld games.
I have a hunch the Pocket with also appeal to people who aren't quite as maniacal about portable history as I am. Handheld gaming enthusiasts have been given short shrift time and again by classic console efforts—witness the utter lack of a Game Boy Classic to accompany the NES and Super NES Classic systems. With this single release, Analogue seems likely to resolve that ongoing disservice to an essential corner of gaming history.