Published On: Fri, Jan 14th, 2022

Analogue Pocket Does Game Boy Games Justice: Review


Warioland 4 is really weird. Not only is getting hit by enemies encouraged, it’s actually sometimes the only way to proceed through the level. Bad guys will poke Wario and cause him to swell up and float away like a balloon. Or smush him down so thinly that he can squeeze under anything. And for some reason, there’s an old man with bug-eye glasses whose bald head you’re constantly using as a platform to leap-frog over obstacles. Poor little dude.

These are things you probably never noticed about your Game Boy games. Because, chances are, you haven’t touched them since you were 12 years old. I know I haven’t. Retro handheld games are having something of a moment right now; RetroDodo.com, hardware modders, Youtubers like WULFF DEN, and podcasts like Into the Aether have been breathing new life into ancient portable consoles. But I hadn’t yet felt the need to stop playing Red Dead Online and dig up my old cartridges. That is, until my Analogue Pocket showed up in the mail.

What’s the Analogue Pocket? It’s like if the Game Boy was made in 2021. A ginormous, smartphone-quality LCD screen. Super-powered FPGA specs. Sleek, premium casing that would make Jony Ive proud. And the ability to play every handheld game ever. Well, not exactly. But close enough.

A lot of writers have already sung the Pocket’s praises. Here at Esquire, we awarded it Console of the Year. So I’m not going to waste any more space in the ethereal web cloud rambling about how smooth the Pocket is on my palms, how fun and clicky the triggers are, or how the Analogue’s nifty operating system is both aware of the early ‘90s, but also forward-thinking enough to feel right at home next to an iPhone. What I want to tell you about is the experience of playing the Analogue Pocket. And, well, how it’s made me fall in love with my Game Boy games all over again.

You get the first hit of satisfaction when the cartridge hits the console. Cluck! It’s that clicky-clacky sound again. Remember? If it’s the first time you’ve seen your old Batman: Return of the Joker cartridge (with your last name written on the back in Sharpie, so the other kids at school know), the game may not load up right away. But before you can even think, muscle memory takes over, and you’re blowing off the cartridge, specs of black dust and god knows what else shooting out onto your upper lip.

Ta-da! The G A M E B O Y logo floats onto the screen, and you’re in 4th grade again. There’s that ugly green background—why did Nintendo choose green of all colors?—and the familiar 8-bit synth music chirping from the speakers. We’re back, baby!

I’ve spent the past few weeks obsessing over this weird satisfaction, tearing through boxes of old student IDs and letters from ex-girlfriends at my parents’ house in search of old cartridges. The hunt for that retro high led me all over Brooklyn, through thrift stores and GameStops and vintage gaming boutiques, where I eventually traded in a handful of my Wii games for more Game Boy carts to add to my Analogue Pocket collection. It’s an expensive hobby, one that’s made an impact on my already-holiday-strained bank account! Did you know an authentic copy of Pokémon Crystal can run you close to $500?!

It was all for the love of gaming. Whereas for the past several years, big TV consoles like the PS5 and Xbox Series S have dominated my nightly sessions before bed, the Analogue experience has been so fulfilling that right now I much prefer hiding under the covers in the tiny world of Wario Inc. to navigating the vast multiverse of Fortnite.

You didn’t recognize this as a kid, but, unlike the endlessly expansive console games of the current generation, there’s a certain joy that comes from the small, focused adventures you get on handheld titles. That’s not to say these Game Boy games I’ve been hardlining are flimsy—in many cases, they’re marvels of game design, cramming so much style and ingenuity into 32 kilobytes that it’s a wonder the cartridge doesn’t explode in the palm of your hand. That’s how I’ve begun to think about titles like the oddly difficult (and downright bizarre) platformer Super Mario Land, which until now I’ve always regarded as just a junior version of the original Super Mario Bros. titles for NES. Handheld games, especially the ones for the Game Boy Advance, are so much more than the younger sibling of their console counterparts. The best ones are new experiences all to themselves.

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I’ve found an unexpected appreciation for what on the surface appears as yet another cash-grab movie adaptation of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. But the GBA title is side-scrolling action at its best. With such pared down and distilled combat, controls, and an upgrade system that cuts all the filler, it’s easily one of my favorite games of the Star Wars catalog. Not something you really noticed enough to appreciate when you were a kid.

And then there are the RPGs, like Pokémon, the quality of which is pretty much self-explanatory at this point (hey, I still want to catch them all!), and Final Fantasy VI, which somehow fits a deep, strikingly adult narrative into a box smaller than an Almond Joy. Gamers will sue me for not having given the title a chance before, but like I said, I was 12 years old! You can’t expect a pre-teen to appreciate subtext!

I’ve adored the silly writing of Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga (at the recommendation of the hosts of Into the Aether); the novel, interconnected storytelling of Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons; and, of course, Tetris—real Tetris, not some mobile app with friend requests or Battle Royale bullshit, just a d-pad and that “Korobeiniki soundtrack,” as the Lord intended. I’ve played enough gimmicky remakes at this point to understand the value of the original.

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It sounds hyperbolic, but the Analogue Pocket really is a perfect embodiment of what it’s like to grow old. You enjoy things when you’re a kid, but you never think about why you love them. Then you get older, and your taste becomes more refined, but also more sophisticated. You decide everything you loved as a kid was nonsense. But then you find yourself in a process of rediscovery, and, with your new lens—your new screen, your fancy rechargeable lithium ion 4300mAh battery, your FPGA hardware chip—you understand why these things were so meaningful to you in the first place.

The Pocket gives you a reason to rediscover your childhood self again. Just, like, with fewer pimples and hormones. Thank god.

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