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The 7 Best Handheld Emulators for Retro Gaming in 2023

Handheld gaming emulators have exploded in popularity over the last few years. These pocket-sized devices allow you to play classic games from consoles like NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, Game Boy, PlayStation 1 and more. With so many options now available, we‘ve researched the top handheld emulators across various budgets and use cases to help you decide which is best for your retro gaming needs.

What Are Handheld Emulators and How Do They Work?

A handheld emulator is a portable gaming device powered by a mobile processor that can mimic other gaming hardware through software emulation. For example, a handheld emulator can use SNES emulation software to play Super Nintendo games on the go.

Emulation leverages the computing power of modern mobile chipsets to replicate the functionality of legacy game platforms in software. This allows you to conveniently play thousands of retro titles from different consoles all on one compact gadget.

Handheld emulators run built-in operating systems like Android or Linux. Many come pre-loaded with emulators and classic games, while also giving you flexibility to download more software and game ROMs from the web.

The most popular handheld emulators offer controls similar to traditional handhelds, with a directional pad, face buttons and shoulder triggers. This provides a much more authentic, tactile way to revisit retro games compared to just using an emulator app on your phone.

Horizontal vs Vertical: What‘s the Better Form Factor?

Handheld emulators come in both horizontal and vertical orientations. Which style you prefer comes down to a matter of personal taste.

Horizontal handheld emulators mimic the gamepad design of devices like the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation Portable and Sega Game Gear. The controls sit on both sides of the screen. This is a natural fit for gameplay involving dual analog sticks.

Vertical handheld emulators take inspiration from the original Nintendo Game Boy and give you physical buttons below the display. Vertical emulators tend to be more pocketable and better suited for simple, 2D games that just require a directional pad or buttons.

Neither layout is necessarily superior. Horizontal handhelds offer wider displays with more processing power for 3D games, while vertical ones provide a classic, nostalgic feel. Make sure to consider the types of games and portability needs you have to choose your perfect fit.

The 7 Best Handheld Emulators You Can Buy Today

Here are 7 great handheld emulators that cover different budgets and feature sets for all sorts of retro gaming fans.

1. Retroid Pocket 3 Plus – Best Overall

The Retroid Pocket 3 Plus is arguably the most popular and powerful Android handheld emulator available today. It can handle up to PlayStation 1 and Nintendo 64 emulation with its fast Unisoc T618 processor and 4GB of RAM.

It has a compact 4.7" HD display that looks fantastic thanks to 450 nits of brightness and 16:9 aspect ratio. Build quality feels very premium, it includes modern niceties like USB-C charging and WiFi 5 support, plus the large 4500 mAh battery provides great longevity when gaming on the go.

While it doesn‘t come preloaded with any ROMs, you can easily load up games via the integrated Google Play Store. There is also an enthusiastic modding community that provides custom firmware and software tweaks to improve performance.

For its balance of performance, features and sleek profile, the Retroid Pocket 3 Plus is the best overall choice for retro handheld emulation.

  • 4.7” 720p display
  • Unisoc T618 CPU
  • 4GB RAM
  • Supports PS1, N64 and below
  • Slim, sturdy build
  • Large battery
  • Active modding community

2. Anbernic RG353P – Best Budget Vertical Emulator

If you‘re looking for an affordable vertical handheld emulator, the Anbernic RG353P is a fantastic option. It delivers a nostalgic, Game Boy-esque form factor that fits nicely in any pocket.

Emulation capabilities are solid too thanks to its 1.0 GHz processor and dual booting Linux firmware, offering compatibility from 8-bit classics up through PlayStation 1. The 3.5” touchscreen display is crisp, though fairly small.

The RG353P sports great build quality with its metal shell and quality buttons and d-pad. WiFi and HDMI output offer nice connectivity, while the 2500 mAh battery lasts around 3-5 hours during gaming.

For just $99, you get outstanding performance and polish. This is hands-down the best budget vertical handheld emulator.

  • Small 3.5” touchscreen
  • Metal chassis
  • 2500 mAh battery
  • Great value at $99
  • Emulates up to PS1 nicely
  • HDMI video output

3. Powkiddy X18S – Best Clamshell Emulator

Those yearning for a modern take on the Game Boy Advance form factor will love the Powkiddy X18S. This unique clamshell handheld emulator offers a fantastic balance of portability, ergonomics and power.

It can handle emulators like MAME, PS1 and N64 thanks to its speedy new RK3399 processor. The 3.5” and 640×480 pixel screen looks superb, aided by the 270 degree hinge design. Build quality and button tactility are also great for a sub-$150 device.

Integrated WiFi and Bluetooth allow wireless controller connectivity too. It even offers modern niceties like rumble/vibration feedback and quick charging over its USB-C port.

If you want an emulator that stands out from typical brick-shaped handhelds, grabs the Powkiddy X18S. Its novel design doesn‘t compromise on performance or controls either.

  • Unique clamshell form
  • New powerful chipset
  • Lovely 3.5” display
  • Great ergonomics
  • Rumble feedback
  • Fully-featured

4. Retro Game 350 – Best Built-In Game Library

This aptly-named handheld packs thousands of retro games right out of the box. It comes with a staggering collection of over 4000 titles pre-installed, spanning classic systems like NES, SNES, Genesis, Game Boy, arcade machines and more.

Beyond the massive game library, the Retro Game 350 offers good hardware specs like a zippy 1.5Ghz processor, 3.5” touchscreen, WiFi and HDMI output. Build quality is also better than average with its slick black metal shell.

It may not reach the pinnacle of emulation for PS1 or N64 that more powerful options do. But if you want an instant stash of classic 8 and 16-bit games from past console, the Retro Game 350 is extremely tough to beat.

  • Loaded with 4000+ games pre-installed
  • Classy metal design
  • HDMI output included
  • Handles most emulators well
  • 3.5” touchscreen display
  • Great value bundle

5. Anbernic RG552 – Best PS2 and Dreamcast Emulation

Serious retro enthusiasts who want to emulate more modern systems should consider the Anbernic RG552. It’s currently the cheapest handheld with enough horsepower to handle select PS2, Dreamcast and PSP games.

This is thanks to its MediaTek Helio G80 Arm processor and 5.36” 1080p screen. While not every title for those demanding 3D consoles will run full speed, this hardware offers the best shot for playable experiences.

Besides opening up 6th generation consoles, the RG552 works great for PS1, N64 and arcade gaming too. Add in its aluminum metal body, WiFi 5 connectivity, and flexibility to install Windows or Linux and you have an extremely powerful pocket gaming rig.

If you want to explore more ambitious emulation and Dreamcast or PSP games interest you, grab the advanced Anbernic RG552.

  • Helio G80 CPU
  • Capable of select PS2 emulation
  • Lovely 5.36” FHD display
  • Quality metal construction
  • Many OS options
  • WiFi and Bluetooth 5.0

6. Pixel 6 Pro – Best High-End Smartphone Emulator

Today‘s premium smartphones have enough processing muscle for excellent emulation too. And the Google Pixel 6 Pro is the best high-end Android phone suited for mobile retro gaming.

It delivers elite power from Google‘s custom Tensor G2 chip, 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. This hardware breeze through emulator apps. The silky smooth 120Hz 6.7” QHD screen is stunning for classic games too.

The Pixel 6 Pro‘s mostly-clean software build of Android 13 also offers perks over other phones when using emulators. And the massive 5000 mAh battery ensures long gaming sessions.

Of course, touch controls aren‘t ideal for fast-paced or complex retro games. But pairing a controller over Bluetooth helps. If you want to consolidate devices and leverage your phone for emulation, get the superb Google Pixel 6 Pro.

  • Blazing fast Google Tensor G2 chip
  • 12GB RAM and 128GB storage
  • Beautiful 6.7” 120Hz QHD display
  • Clean software with Android 13
  • Huge 5000 mAh battery
  • Premium flagship quality

7. Miyoo Mini V2 – Most Portable Pick

If size is your top consideration, check out the Miyoo Mini V2. This pint-sized emulator measures just 3.5 x 1.65 x 0.6 inches and weighs 1.5 ounces…yet still packs decent performance.

The tiny 1.5” screen looks shockingly nice and allows for 30+ hour battery life. The V2 model also brings a faster processor with SNES and Genesis emulation, though still maxes out at 16-bit. Build quality, controls and d-pad feel are excellent despite its diminutive shell.

You’ll be sacrificing processing power and screen real estate found on larger devices. But if big screens and 3D games don‘t matter much, the Miyoo Mini V2 is a delightful compact emulator that plays simple 2D games wonderfully.

  • Absolute smallest form factor
  • Surprisingly nice 1.5” screen
  • 30+ hour battery life
  • Great controls and d-pad
  • Emulates up to 16-bit well
  • Build quality beats expectations

What to Consider When Buying a Handheld Emulator

With many options on the market, keep these factors in mind when choosing a handheld emulator:

Display – Bigger screens allow you to see more details and subtleties in classic games, while smaller displays improve portability. Think about the ideal screen size for the games you plan to play.

Performance – See how powerful of a processor (CPU) the handheld emulator uses. More horsepower enables support for more demanding platforms like PS1, N64 or PSP.

Build Quality – Prefer metal devices over plastic shells for better durability. Make sure buttons, d-pads and analog sticks also have a tactile, responsive feel.

Battery Life – Batteries over 4000 mAh will last 5+ hours during gaming. Quick charging capabilities are also nice for frequent top-ups.

Included Games – Some handhelds load thousands of retro titles out of the box. This adds major value if you don‘t want to manually source ROMs.

Form Factor – Choose between horizontal and vertical orientations based on your hand size/comfort along with the visual styles of games you‘ll play most.

Ecosystem – Consider accessories, available OS builds and modding communities when investing in a handheld emulator. More support brings greater customization.

Setting Up Emulators: How to Get Games and Configure Controls

Once you get your new device, here are some tips for getting set up:

  • Install emulator apps from the respective app store if not preloaded
  • Transfer game ROM files to the device storage via USB or wirelessly
  • Ensure your games match regional formats (USA vs EUR vs JPN)
  • Map touch or physical controls to match the original platforms
  • Tweak graphics settings for optimal visibility/performance
  • Try out various save state slots for easier progression

Also be mindful of only obtaining game ROMs that you legally own. While emulators themselves fall into legal grey areas in the US, pirating full commercial games is clearly prohibited.

If the default controls don’t feel right, most emulators allow you to remap buttons to better match the original console schemes. Take time to customize controls for the best experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are emulators and ROMs legal to use?

This varies by region, but in the United States, emulators themselves fall into murky legal territory but are broadly considered legal. However, downloading commercial ROMs you don’t already own is clearly illegal. Users bear all responsibility.

Can I play Nintendo Switch games on a handheld emulator?

Unfortunately Switch emulation, even on PC, is still in its early stages. No current handheld emulator can properly emulate the Nintendo Switch. Top options like the Steam Deck offer some very experimental Switch emulation, but it is not in a polished state.

Do I need a memory card for extra storage space?

Not necessarily. Many premium handheld emulators like the Retroid Pocket 3 Plus and Anbernic RG552 come equipped with 128GB or 256GB of built-in storage. But cheaper options may only have 32GB internally, so grabbing a microSD card for ROMs and BIOS files is recommended.

What‘s the best controller to use with a handheld emulator?

For horizontal handhelds, the 8BitDo Pro 2 is an excellent Bluetooth controller with proper dual analog sticks for 3D games, rumble support and good ergonomics. For vertical handhelds, 8BitDo‘s Zero 2 controller provides a responsive d-pad in a tiny form factor that fits nicely in pockets.

Experience Your Favorite Classics Anywhere with Handheld Emulators

Handheld emulators grant a convenient way to access decades of gaming history on compact, portable devices. Their low cost, instant access to thousands of games and improved support for titles across bygone systems make them a retro gamer‘s dream machine.

Hopefully this overview gives you a better understanding of the range of excellent handheld console emulators available today. We covered top options fitting various budgets and priorities across performance, build quality, display size, form factor and included games library.

Whether you want a premium powerhouse to emulate PS1 and N64 flawlessly, or just seek a basic handheld to play old Game Boy and NES games, there’s a perfect emulator available to suit your needs.