What’s the best retro handheld? These pocket-friendly vintage consoles all offer a gaming experience like no other. And if you want to pick up a retro gaming handheld in 2023, we’re here to show you where to start.
The best portable gaming consoles available today are amazing, advanced, and expensive. In contrast, the best retro handhelds like the Game Boy Color can be picked up for a reasonable price on sites like eBay. There’s something magical about playing classic and nostalgic titles, and the consoles in this list have been able to stand the test of time, giving us the retro games that modern fans are keen to see made available on the best Nintendo Switch consoles.
These are the best retro handhelds:
- Nintendo DS – best overall
- Game Boy Advance SP – most portable
- Nintendo 3DS – most recent option
- The Legend of Zelda: Game & Watch – best throw-back
- Game Boy Pocket – most iconic
- Donkey Kong Jr. Game & Watch – most vintage
- Game Boy Color – best of the ’90s
1. Nintendo DS Lite
The best retro handheld console.
- Huge library of exclusive games
- Can play GBA games
- Early touch-screen innovator
- Online play is no longer possible
- Certain games are very expensive
- Stylus easy to lose
The Nintendo DS Lite was one of Nintendo’s most popular creations, and for good reason. Not only was it a big driver in touch-based gameplay becoming as popular as it is today (many of the best mobile games have a lot to owe it), but it also had tons of games built around good old-fashioned button-pressing, and compatibility with the Game Boy Advance’s huge back-catalog. With all the GBA and DS games to choose from, this is an excellent place to start.
So what games has it got? Well, practically everything, including some Nintendo classics. One of its launch titles was Super Mario 64 DS and at the time, the idea that that huge Nintendo 64 game could be played on the go was amazing (it even had new characters and levels). That on its own is a slice of history, but then there’s also Animal Crossing: Wild World (which put the series on the map), The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (I don’t care what people say, Link has a train, it’s great), WarioWare: Touched! (truly one of the most fun touch-based games), Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon (the game’s first official English release), Mario Kart DS (it has so many great tracks – also ROB), and many others.
Though Nintendo hasn’t always been popular with third-party developers, the DS was one console that had a very wide variety of games on it. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was an exclusive (briefly) handheld GTA experience, Final Fantasy III gave a fresh coat of paint to a classic game and brought it to the West, it has a trio of superb Castlevania games, the enticing drama of Phoenix Wright, and still, I’ve barely scratched the surface. Read our list of the best DS games to learn more.
You may wonder why I’m recommending the Nintendo DS Lite, specifically, rather than just the Nintendo DS. Well, as someone who bought the original, then saved up and got the DS Lite as soon as it came out, I think the Lite is the superior model. Aesthetically it’s much more pleasing, it fits more easily in your pocket, and it feels more resistant to damage than the original DS (I say this as someone who damaged my original DS, but not my DS Lite).
Unfortunately, you may find that a few of the popular DS games are fairly expensive nowadays – especially if you’re after Mario or Pokemon games. Having said that, there’s still a sizeable selection of games that are pretty darn cheap. Starting your collection shouldn’t be too hard, but be prepared to accept that some of your favorites won’t be easy to find.
One last thing to note is that the DS stylus is quite easy to lose. It fits in quite easily, but it often starts to become loose over time. If you’re buying second-hand, make sure that you’re getting a version that has the stylus included, and keep in mind that replacing it might be bothersome.
2. Game Boy Advance SP
The best truly portable retro handheld.
- Compatible with all Game Boy games
- Back-lit screen
- Truly portable clamshell design
- No audio jack
- Might be small for big hands
We mentioned that the DS was compatible with all GBA games, and like people holding hands between generations, the GBA was compatible with all the games released on both the Game Boy Color and the original Game Boy. That’s a truly enormous selection of games that you can play on this device, and a great place to start if you want to get into retro handhelds.
So what was on the Game Boy Advance? One of the big things of the time was to show off its capabilities by porting over classic SNES games. This means that most of the SNES smash-hits got GBA versions, including the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Mario World, Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts, and lots of the other smaller games too.
But it wasn’t just a console of remakes. The GBA saw the origin of the Mario & Luigi series, had the two first Fire Emblem games to release in the west, was home to one of the best, and most over-looked 2D Zeldas (Minish Cap), started off the WarioWare series, gave an excellent Wario Land game, and even had a unique Banjo-Kazooie game that’s never been re-released (Grunty’s Revenge). Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention It’s Mr. Pants! (look it up).
You may be wondering why we’re listing the Game Boy Advance SP, rather than the original. It’s better than its predecessor in many ways, including the back-lit screen. If you have never played on an old console that doesn’t have back-lighting, this is something that takes a huge amount of time to get used to.
Admittedly, the lack of an audio jack can be quite frustrating. If you ever want to play in a context where the noise will be distracting, you’ll just have to play in silence instead. It’s weird that they never thought of this, but, oh well. It was new territory at the time.
Like the DS, some of the classic GBA games carry a fairly high price tag, especially if you’re after Fire Emblem or Pokémon games. Still, if you’re a collector, this console is a must-have. With access to the whole Game Boy library, you have a treasure trove to explore.
3. Nintendo 3DS
The best retro(ish) handheld console.
- Fantastic library of games
- Compatible with classic DS
- Still easy to find
- Digital games no longer accessible
- Lack of online play spoils games
We’re sure that some people are going to take issue with the Nintendo 3DS being on a list of the best retro handheld consoles. After all, it isn’t that retro since it was only succeeded by the Nintendo Switch in 2017, was still getting new physical games until at least 2018, and still getting new digital games until 2022(!). The main lifespan of the console ended over half a decade ago, however. That’s pretty retro if you ask me.
Just as Super Mario 64 DS felt like a huge achievement in 2004, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D seemed incredible in 2011. Not only could this thing play Nintendo 64 games, but it could update and enhance them so that they looked and played much more smoothly than the original platform. What an incredible device! What followed was a string of fantastic releases.
Later, we got Donkey Kong Country Returns on it too – one of the best Wii games, and with extra levels! They somehow even managed to get the Wii U game Hyrule Warriors to play on 3DS. On top of that, there were some games that had never been on Nintendo platforms before on the console – most notably, the PS2 classic, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. My first time playing it was on the 3DS and it was amazing. It felt like a huge step up after the 3DS.
As for exclusive games, there’s Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS (which I think is superior to its later Wii U predecessor – I love Smash Run), Fire Emblem Awakening (the game that saved and revolutionized the series – a classic), Kid Icarus Uprising (an incredible reboot for a classic IP), Animal Crossing: New Leaf (a fantastic game that outdoes New Horizons in some ways), The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (the last ‘classic’ Zelda before the Breath of the Wild revolution), and Tomodachi Life (a delightfully quirky Mii-based life sim) to name just a few.
At its peak, the 3DS had a much larger library. Thanks to the 3DS eShop, you could download retro Nintendo games and modern indie classics. Since Nintendo brought this service to a close, many of these games are now lost altogether or otherwise can no longer be bought in any official capacity. This is really sad and highlights one of the huge downsides of consoles released in the digital era.
The 3DS is compatible with all games on the DS but with one caveat. Some DS games gave you bonuses for having certain GBA games in the original DS’s GBA slot, and since the 3DS doesn’t have one, you’ll never be able to access that content. Meanwhile, some of them (e.g. Guitar Hero games) required you to put a peripheral into the GBA slot, and so while the 3DS would load them up, they’d be unplayable.
4. Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda
The best retro throw-back.
- Beautiful, authentic design
- Unique version of Vermin
- No Zelda Game & Watch, oddly
- No save states
Unlike other retro handhelds on this list, the Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda is a modern recreation of one. Game & Watch are essentially like calculators, but that’s a lot more fun than it sounds. They feature a static, painted background (in this case, a jungle scene) and when switched on, graphics appear that fit around the background.
As someone who owns some genuine Game & Watch devices, I was absolutely delighted with the attention to detail with this Zelda offering – it looks and feels just like the real deal. This is much more powerful than a historic Game & Watch. Instead of a single LCD game, the device includes ROMs of three classic Zelda games, along with a new version of the vintage game, Vermin.
This last one is particularly exciting (or, at least it is for people like me) because instead of just remaking Vermin, they’ve remade it with Link in the place of the game’s original, anonymous protagonist.
However, what seems absolutely bizarre to me is that they didn’t include the actual Game & Watch version of Zelda. I get that it used a dual-screen display, but how difficult would it have been to just give this thing two screens?
You get three classic Zelda games here: The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. I do think it would have benefitted from save states though. I know purists will just say ‘Get good,’ but for the two NES Zelda games in particular, save states enhance the experience significantly (I couldn’t beat Zelda II without them) and I think that would have made them more enjoyable to modern gamers.
You can use this as an actual clock! You’ll get a Zelda-themed display based on the games in the collection and you can even move Link around on the clock screen, fighting enemies and so on. You’d need to keep it plugged in, but it could be a cool addition to your gaming room.
5. Game Boy Pocket
The most iconic retro handheld.
- Beautiful, iconic console
- Big game library
- Batteries required
- Save batteries dying
How could I not include the first handheld gaming console I ever owned? The original Game Boy was huge and is arguably the console that put handheld gaming on the map. Seven years later, they released the much more streamlined Game Boy Pocket, which was much smaller and, well, pocket-friendly (and nicer to hold), and to me, and I’m sure many gamers, that’s the definitive version of the console.
This list of games available for the original Game Boy is huge, and that’s partly because Nintendo was still releasing new games for it ten years after its initial release, with other developers lasting even longer. A lot of these are quite expensive now, but if you do want to sink your teeth into this library, there’s a lot for you to try.
The Game Boy saw the origins of both the Mario and Wario Land series, gave an approximation of the incredible Donkey Kong Country games in the Donkey Kong Land trilogy, offered what is often regarded as one of the best Zelda games in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, gave us an atmospheric sequel to Metroid in Metroid II, kicked off the legendary Pokemon series with the Green, Blue, Red, and Yellow versions of the original game, introduced the world to Kirby in Kirby’s Dream Land, and had more than its fair share of addictive puzzle games like Tetris and Dr. Mario.
Many of these games will look simple to modern gamers, but there’s still a lot to be admired here. Even with bleeps and bloops for sound effects and black-and-white pixel graphics, the original Game Boy was still able to create exciting and immersive gameplay experiences, sometimes with a bit of emotion in the mix. The artistic talent of the developers who managed to get so much out of so little is truly remarkable.
Unfortunately, due to the way that Game Boy games were designed, many of them are no longer able to record and save data. This essentially makes RPGs like Pokémon and Final Fantasy Legend unplayable – or at least, unplayable to completion.
Fortunately, a lot of original Game Boy games were designed without any save functionality. You’ve got games like Battletoads or Castlevania: The Adventures where they’re very difficult, but can be completed in just two to four hours once you’ve mastered them. You get a lot of hours out of them because each playthrough is essentially a practice run as you hone your skills.
6. Donkey Kong Jr. Game & Watch
The most vintage retro handheld.
- Amazing classic Donkey Kong game
- Beautiful little device
- Works as a clock
- Battery operated
This is the oldest retro handheld on the list – a genuine slice of history. I have a few Game & Watch devices in my collection, but this is my favorite one. It’s a recreation of the arcade classic, Donkey Kong Jr. with all the action confined to one screen. Though Nintendo released one based on Donkey Kong itself a few months earlier, something about the Donkey Kong Jr. game is much more enjoyable by modern standards (and usually I prefer Donkey Kong over Donkey Kong Jr.)
In this case, you can move Donkey Kong Jr. around and make him jump, but the screen is really just switching between static images of the character in different positions around the screen.
When Nintendo has created Game & Watch compilations over the years, it’s tended to display the game with a clear outline of all the places your character can go, and all the other graphics that can appear on-screen too. However, all of the actual Game & Watch systems that I’ve played on have not had these outlines and have looked much better for them. For that reason, if you’re a fan, I strongly recommend trying the original hardware.
As for the game itself, Donkey Kong Jr. has to navigate the jungle floor, avoiding crocodilian Snapjaws and the evil birds, Nitpickers, on the way. Then you climb up onto the canopy of trees (where there are more Snapjaws and Nitpickers to avoid) and have to jump at just the right moment to grab a swinging key, which DK Jr. then plunges into the keyhole of his father’s cage while Mario looks on menacingly.
It’s a simple process, but something that’s endlessly fun to play as you try and beat your high scores (better than the arcade version of the game, I’d say). From a modern perspective, it’s nice to see a game starring (the now mostly forgotten) Donkey Kong Jr. and it’s also interesting to see Mario as the villain. I bet we’ll never see that again.
7. Game Boy Color
The best 90s retro handheld.
- Classic, iconic design
- Compatible with all original Game Boy games
- No backlight
- Surpassed by GBA in most ways
The Game Boy Color, like the Game Boy Pocket, is an iconic console. It was the first Nintendo handheld to have colorful graphics, and funnily enough, was only really made because the Game Boy Advance was taking longer to develop than hoped. Still, even if it was a stop-gap, for many gamers, it was the best console of the 90s.
This was the main handheld around the time when the Pokemon craze was at its peak, everyone was playing Pokemon Green, Blue, Red, Yellow, Gold, Silver, or Crystal. Though modern gamers might find certain clunkier aspects of the game a bit too frustrating (you walk so slowly in the original games), for those who had a chance to play them at the time, it was truly magical.
The Game Boy Color could play all of them, and thanks to the classic Link Cable, all of the games could connect too. Even though a portion of the Pokemon games were made for the original Game Boy, the GBC still filled them with some rudimentary color.
Of course, its library encompasses much more than just Pokemon. This platform was home to Super Mario Bros. Deluxe, the first handheld version of the original Super Mario Bros. with a bunch of new features added. If that seemed impressive, somehow the people at Rare Ltd. also managed to get Donkey Kong Country running on the GBC (though admittedly, it is the worst way to play the game).
Lots of original Game Boy games received a spruced-up version for the Game Boy Color, like Wario Land 2 or The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX. These were almost always the better version of the game, but somehow Tetris DX isn’t as good as the original (it’s missing the iconic music). As for originals, there’s Wario Land 3, Conker’s Pocket Tales, Shantae, Mario Golf, The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages, and The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons.
To be fair, there’s not a lot that the GBC can do that the GBA can’t, so a lot of people will be tempted to buy one of those instead. However, if you like the feel and design of the original Game Boy, and want something that will enable you to play all the original Game Boy games, plus the Color exclusives, then this is going to be the one for you to get.
Modern gamers may feel the lack of an audio jack (and it is unfortunate), and not having backlighting makes it hard to see what’s happening a lot of the time too. Though I know for a fact that there are some people who crave that authenticity and feel like back-lighting gives too much exposure to graphics that were never meant to be seen with such clarity, so even that aspect has its defenders.
How we chose the best retro handhelds
I am a gamer who has used a broad range of handheld consoles over the last thirty years. Every console on this list is based on my personal experiences with them, and several other factors, including:
- Timelessness: Older consoles have a higher level of timelessness than newer ones. For example, many classic Game Boy games can be enjoyed in much the same way that they were when they were first released (save battery issues aside, since that can be fixed), whereas if you play DS or 3DS games, you may find online features are games have been left behind after Nintendo stopped supporting them, meaning the original experience can never truly be recaptured.
- Vintage factor: Everyone perceives time differently. If you’re a ten-year-old kid looking to get into retro games, the 3DS is going to feel like an old console. If you’re in your forties, that’s not going to feel old at all. Nothing on this list came out less than ten years ago, but we wanted to make sure we’ve got some really old stuff in there too for anyone who wants some deep slices of gaming history.
- Modern appeal: In history, many things are created and forgotten. We’re sure that there are handheld devices that some readers will remember fondly, but which didn’t make it onto this list – for some of them, you could probably make a strong argument for their inclusion. However, we wanted to make sure we were sticking to things that had an impact on the industry and are still relevant and enjoyable for modern gamers.
- Games libraries: If you want to buy vintage consoles, the chances are that you want to play some retro games. When deciding what deserved a spot on this list, a big point of consideration was the size of the library of games that could be played on each platform.
For more on how we put lists like this together, read our how we test page. If you have any other questions, read the FAQs below:
What Nintendo handheld console was popular in the 90s?
In the 1990s, the Game Boy was Nintendo’s popular handheld console, remaining one of the best-selling consoles of all time to this day. In 1998, they also released an enhanced version called the Game Boy Color, which could play all the OG Game Boy games, plus a selection of Color exclusives. The Virtual Boy was also released in this era (1995), but never became much of a success.
What was the first game made on Game Boy?
When the Game Boy was released in 1989, it had the following launch titles: Super Mario Land, Tetris, Tennis, Alleyway, and Yakuman.
Why are retro games so expensive?
There are lots of reasons that retro games because expensive. Some of them only ever had a limited run and so there are only so many copies floating around, with a lot of people wanting to get their hands on them. Some of them were made available very broadly, but have never been made available on other platforms (like the Nintendo Switch Online Game Boy games), or were simply very popular, and now there is a high demand for a product that is no longer being manufactured.
Of course, we love recent releases just as much as the classics, so read our guides on the best new Nintendo Switch games, or the best Nintendo Switch games overall for some contemporary recommendations.