The greatest handheld games consoles
During lockdowns, handhelds have come into their own: here’s our Top 20, from Gizmondo to Nintendo
OK, it’s here more for the amazing backstory than the qualities of the handheld itself, but Gizmondo did momentarily look like a contender back in 2004, offering text messaging, web browsing and video playback as well as mobile gaming. But then the founders burned through millions of investor funds on Regent Street stores and extravagant launch parties, and the whole thing collapsed in spectacular fashion, symbolised by one exec’s (non-fatal) 200mph Ferrari crash on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Sega Dreamcast VMU (1998)
Admittedly, there was not a huge amount of developer support for Dreamcast’s amazingly idiosyncratic memory card/handheld console hybrid, but the fact that it even exists warrants it a place on the list. Despite its teeny 48 × 32 dot LCD screen, the VMU did support a range of mini games including a Chao pet sim in Sonic Adventure and Zombie Revenge’s surreal Zombie Fishing.
Tapwave Zodiac (2003)
With a name that sounded like a character from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Tapwave Zodiac was another ambitious attempt to combine a games console with a mobile multimedia platform. Founded by ex-Palm executives and using the Palm OS, the device attracted critical acclaim, but was crushed by the arrival of the Sony PSP.
Nokia N-Gage (2003)
Nokia’s attempt to build a phone with true gaming credentials was a brave step back in 2003, when the mobile market was still terribly fragmented and 3G was in its infancy. The device was also expensive and poorly designed with its taco-shaped chassis and a gaming slot hidden beneath the battery compartment. But there were good games such as Ashen, Pathway to Glory and Sonic Advance and it also ran an impressive array of retro games emulators. A follow-up, the N-Gage QD, arrived in 2004 but the world had moved on.
Game Park GP32 (2001)
Officially released only in South Korea, the Game Park GP32 is the most obscure handheld here – but with its 32bit CPU, open source OS and PC connection cable, it became a cult machine for homebrew coders and retro game fans looking to run emulators. Although it was considered a commercial failure, it inspired a whole sub-culture of programmable handhelds including hits such as Bittboy, Pandora and the modern day Anbernic RG351P.
MB Microvision (1979)
The first handheld system with interchangeable game cartridges, the Milton Bradley Co’s Microvision was a revelation at a time when single-game devices, such as Mattel’s Auto Race and Football were still a novelty. Designed by Jay Smith, who later created the Vectrex console, it featured a 16×16 monochrome LCD display and a paddle controller. Games were scarce though and the device itself was prone to faults such as LCD leakage – a phenomenon delightfully known as “screen rot”.
Bandai Wonderswan (1999)
Created by Game Boy inventor Gunpei Yokoi, the Wonderswan was a powerful rival to the Game Boy series, with its 16-bit NEC V20 chip, excellent monochrome screen and 40-hour battery life. Players could also rotate the device and play it vertically to get the best out of scrolling shooters. There was decent software support from Namco, Capcom and Squaresoft, and a colour version arrived a year later, but Bandai never garnered international interest in the console and the Game Boy Advance demolished it.
Atari Lynx (1989)
The world’s first full-colour handheld console – a joint venture between Atari and veteran game developer Epyx – thrilled gamers with its 3.5-inch LCD display, twin 16bit processors and eight-player connectivity via the dedicated Comlynx cable. Titles such as STUN Runner and Blue Lightning showed off all that graphical power beautifully. As with the later Game Gear and TurboExpress, however, the big problem was battery life – or lack of it. Releasing in the same year as the mighty Game Boy didn’t help either.
NEC TurboExpress (1990)
The portable version of the cult Turbo Grafx-16 home console (known as the PC Engine in Japan) was – like its big brother – an expensive but extremely slick, high-spec device. It could play the same game carts as the home machine on a screen identical in size to the Game Boy’s – but with a 512 colour palette and incredible sprite-handling capabilities. There was even a TV tuner add-on named the TurboVision. Playing cutting-edge Turbo Grafx titles such as Raiden and Super Star Soldier on the bus felt like science fiction – until your six AA batteries ran out in less than an hour.
Neo Geo Pocket Color (1998)
One of the most beautifully designed handhelds of its era, the Neo Geo Pocket Color featured a lush TFT colour screen, 40-hour battery life, and an arcade-style microswitched thumb controller, which felt very pleasing to use. Its game carts also had gorgeous packaging, with kawaii-influenced illustrations, which have made the system and its software line-up incredibly collectible. Titles such as SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters Clash and Gals’ Fighters perfectly ported the fighting game experience beloved of SNK fans to the handheld form factor (they now exchange hands for hundreds of pounds). Sadly though, SNK was in financial trouble and the Game Boy Color was just too dominant for this characterful little system to survive.
Sega Game Gear (1990)
Sega’s rival to the Game Boy added a large, back-lit colour screen and made the most of the company’s most beloved franchises with wonderful Sonic, Streets of Rage and Shinobi translations. But software support was limited compared to Nintendo’s machines, and it ate batteries with an unquenchable appetite.
Game Boy Color (1998)
With a 256×256 pixel TFT display capable of displaying 56 colours and a processor twice as powerful as the original Game Boy, the GBC was a significant upgrade for the series, while still retaining the slim, light form factor and long battery life – and compatibility with original Game Boy titles. It’ll perhaps be best known for bringing colour to the booming Pokémon series via the critically acclaimed Gold/Silver instalment which sold 23m units, singlehandedly lifting GBC into the higher echelons of the handheld market.
PlayStation Portable (2004)
For its handheld gaming debut, Sony went for consumer electronics cool over Game Boy’s chunky styling, with a large 4.3-inch colour display, powerful graphics processor and glossy black chassis. Boasting internet connectivity, video playback and its own proprietary disc format, it was a formidable machine, and games such as Gran Turismo and God of War: Chains of Olympus provided console-style experiences unimaginable on Nintendo’s contemporary devices. Hardware hacks also turned it into a hugely popular platform for the homebrew community.
PlayStation Vita (2011)
Continuing the design philosophy of the PSP, the Vita was another sleek, grownup device with wide functionality. Sporting a quad-core processor, 5-inch AMOLED touchscreen and two analogue sticks for intricate controls, it was effectively a PlayStation 3 in handheld form, and its best games – WipEout, Persona 4: Golden, Tearaway – felt like perfectly miniaturised console experiences. But Sony’s support for the console wavered very quickly and despite strong support from the indie development community, it faded faster than it should have.
Game Boy (1989)
The original and, some would argue, greatest Nintendo handheld, designed by the company’s hardware genius Gunpei Yokoi and accompanied by the best version of Tetris, the greatest puzzle game ever made. The greeny-yellow monochrome display and dated 8bit CPU made it look old-fashioned, even in 1989, but it was cheap, the batteries lasted ages and the games were beautifully designed to take advantage of the limited display. Technologically superior rivals followed, but they all failed to make a dent. As Yokoi put it: “After we released the Game Boy, one of my staff came to me with a grim expression on his face: ‘There’s a new handheld on the market similar to ours …’ The first thing I asked was, ‘Is it a colour screen, or monochrome?’ He told me it was colour, and I reassured him, ‘Then we’re fine.’”
Game Boy Advance/SP (2001)
Boasting an advanced 32bit Arm processor, 2.9-inch display, and 15-hour battery life, the GBA was a huge leap forward for the series, selling 80m units across its lifetime. The strong tech specs and addition of shoulder buttons allowed more varied and intricate games, reducing the gap between handheld and console experiences. Advance Wars is one of the greatest turn-based strategy sims of all time regardless of platform, and there were excellent Zelda, Super Metroid, Castlevania and Super Mario adventures. The later SP model, with its lit screen and clamshell design, made the GBA a truly indispensable travel companion.
Nintendo 3DS/2DS (2011)
Updating the Nintendo DS with a stereoscopic 3D display and a gyroscope for motion controls seemed like a gimmick at the time, but then games such as Super Mario 3D Land, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D and Outrun 3D began to show the delightful possibilities of the hardware, while the onboard cameras allowed a range of interesting augmented reality experiences. Street Pass, which automatically connected nearby 3DS owners, letting them swap items and messages, was another lovely feature bringing a sense of community to the machine in a way only Nintendo could envisage.
Nintendo DS (2004)
Combining the form factor of the old dual-screen Game & Watch titles with the wireless connectivity and touchscreen technology of a modern smartphone, the DS promised new ways for players to interact with favourite games, characters and friends. While there was plenty for hardcore fans (Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass, Phoenix Wright, GTA: Chinatown Wars, Elite Beat Agents) Nintendo brought in whole new audiences, both through clever celebrity-filled advertising, and titles that pushed the device as a health and lifestyle accessory – most famously, Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training. Asked about the console in 2007, Shigeru Miyamoto stated, “With Nintendo DS, I try to create games that are simple, with a new theme – something that can be played by five-year-olds to 95-year-olds.” In this, he certainly succeeded.
Nintendo Switch (2017)
The Switch is essentially the culmination of everything Nintendo has tried to do with gaming since 1989. It is convenient, intuitive and beautifully designed as a handheld device, but it also plugs into your TV and becomes a proper home console – in this way it combines the Game Boy, DS and Wii lineages into one wonderful product. At first it was Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild that astonished and delighted players, as well as the ability to take it out anywhere and indulge in two- and four-player Mario Kart and Splatoon sessions. But last year, the ability to curl up on the sofa, or park bench, and play Animal Crossing New Horizons, surrendering to its graceful and fulfilling simulation of social contact, was genuinely therapeutic for millions. The Switch is more than a piece of technology – at times it has felt like a friend.