Traveling on a road trip was always made better with a Game Boy. Whether it was playing Tetris on a Game Boy Pocket or Pokémon on a Game Boy Advanced SP, the world was a better place with a couple of batteries and a cartridge. That of course is the nostalgia side of my brain talking. Personally, I’m a video game collector. I have hundreds of game consoles and cartridges, and let me tell you, when you boot up an OG Game Boy and pop in a copy of Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins, you are often met with a screen that has not aged well. It is rare to find a Game Boy in perfect condition or one that doesn’t have blurry pixels due to a degrading screen. What is the solution for somebody that wants to pick up some old cartridges and play them on a decent screen?
When it comes to playing old video games, there are really three ways to play: Original hardware, emulation, and something in between. Purists will only use original hardware. If you have held onto your game consoles since childhood, it’s possible that those still work. However, many consoles were not built to last 20+ years, and are filled with parts that actively destroy those consoles. While writing this article, I found out that about 25 percent of my handheld consoles no longer work. If you are buying a used console online, there aren’t guarantees that they are going to work, and you might be met with a headache.
Emulation is a software solution that reproduces the functions of an old console. Legally this takes the form of virtual consoles, collections you can buy, or subscription services like Nintendo Online. Illegally, the use of ROMs (a digital copy of a cartridge) and emulators is seen by some as a form of digital preservation, and others as theft. When people are given the opportunity to purchase these games legally, they often do. Think about Spotify or Netflix, it’s far more convenient to pay 10 bucks a month than it is to find ways of illegally downloading content, the same thought process generally applies to gaming. The problem is that the only way to legally play some of these games is to have access to old cartridges and original hardware.
What exists in-between is modifying original hardware. Right now within the modding community, there are many options for taking original hardware and upgrading it to modern standards, whether it’s swapping out the screen, adding USB-C batteries, or reshelling a console entirely. This is a great solution for hobbyists but for your average consumer that doesn’t feel comfortable opening up a Game Boy and soldering there is another option in the form of FPGAs.
What is an FPGA? It’s a chip that has the ability to be reprogrammed to work the same way original hardware worked. At the chip level, FPGAs can also be modified to operate even better than original hardware. Because of this FPGAs based projects are new consoles that mirror old hardware and have nearly unlimited potential. Notable examples also include the MiSTer, which is commonly used with arcade projects.
The Analogue Pocket is a handheld created by Analogue, a company that is well known for their best in class FPGA consoles. Without getting too in the weeds, this means they create video game consoles that faithfully run old games and cartridges. Their consoles have a wide variety of settings to get the games to look as crispy or nostalgic as you’d like. This is a handheld that can play your original Game Boy cartridges, as well as games from many other consoles with the right adapters. Believe it or not, there is a huge scene of musicians that love making music using the authentic sounds of older gaming consoles. The Analogue Pocket has a built-in workstation called Nanoloop that has a synthesizer and sequencers for musicians. Here’s my hands-on experience with the Analogue Pocket.