Emulation is a great way to play your favorite old games, with certain caveats. It remains a legally gray area at best, and simply downloading ROMs from the web is out of the question, whether that’s said with a wink and a nod or not. If you can back up your own classic game collection to ROM and ISO form, though, you can put everything on a single, easy-to-use device. We saw this with the Polymega retro gaming console, an easy recommendation for disc-based games up to the fifth generation of game consoles.
The handheld emulator market is a different story, and is saturated with Chinese-made gaming devices that use Linux or Android to emulate systems. The Retroid Pocket 2 is the first of its kind we’ve formally looked at: an Android-powered handheld with physical game controls and a design that harkens back to the Game Boy Advance. It can emulate games for systems up to the Sega Dreamcast and PlayStation Portable, and it’s available for a very reasonable $84.99. It looks good, feels good, and mostly plays very well, but it isn’t for the technologically faint of heart.
The Retroid Pocket 2 looks better than most Chinese gaming handhelds. It’s available in a wide variety of retro-inspired color schemes, including Game Boy Advance indigo; gray with various SNES, Super Famicom, PlayStation, and even Game Boy-colored buttons; black with black, red, or PlayStation-colored buttons; yellow; blue; and pink. The color schemes are spot-on, evoking various classic game systems with their palettes.
The system feels rock-solid, too, evoking Nintendo handhelds of the past with its excellent build quality. The chassis is very strong, and the different controls are springy and well-balanced. There are no wobbly buttons or loose sticks, and no flex in the system itself. It simply feels good to hold.
The control layout is very similar to the Nintendo Switch in portable mode with Joy-Cons attached. The 3.5-inch IPS LCD is flanked by an analog stick and direction pad on the left, and four face buttons with a shorter, flatter analog pad on the right. The left analog stick’s height makes the system a bit harder to pocket than if both controls were flat, 3DS-style analog pads, but they both feel smooth and responsive. Home, Start, and Select buttons sit below the lower-left corner of the screen. Dual pairs of triggers rest on the top edge of the Retroid Pocket 2, surrounding a micro HDMI port for video output, a USB-C port, a volume rocker, a power button, and a power LED. A 3.5mm headphone jack and a rubber door covering a microSD card slot can be found on the bottom edge of the system.
Hardware and Software
Inside the Retroid Pocket 2 runs a quad-core, 1.5GHz Cortex-A7 CPU, a 500MHz ARM Mali400-MP2 GPU, and 1GB of LPDDR3 RAM. It’s no flagship phone in terms of specs, but it’s also an $85 device. The handheld also has 8GB of onboard storage, 5GB of which is available for use. For connectivity, the device features 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, and the USB-C port provides both power and data.
There’s enough power in the Retroid Pocket 2 to emulate the NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, TurboGrafx-16, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo 64, Sony PlayStation, PlayStation Portable, and Sega Dreamcast. The system comes preinstalled with emulators for all of these systems, including two versions of RetroArch with the appropriate hardware cores.
The Retroid Pocket 2 runs Android 6.0, with a planned update to Android 8.2 this month. You shouldn’t expect it to get the most up-to-date version of Android, nor should it; this is a retro gaming handheld and shouldn’t be treated like the average Android device. Android functions are also awkward to use without a touch screen, but the direction pad snaps to different icons and menu selections fairly well, and you can control a mouse pointer with the left analog stick by holding down the Home button for a few seconds. It’s enough to dig into menus, make any changes you need to, and open apps.
Front End Options
The basic Android shell lets you open individual emulators and play games on the Retroid Pocket 2, but it isn’t the device’s ideal interface. The stock interface is clunky and awkward. Fortunately, there are several options for loading the handheld with other, more game-control-friendly front ends. Unfortunately, it can get complicated.
To start, the Retroid Pocket 2 comes with a separate partition containing RetroidOS, an interface designed by Retroid that arranges all games in an easy-to-browse list, automatically loading them into the appropriate emulator. It also loads more than 2,000 games onto the system through a dubious legal loophole that lets Chinese handhelds ship with otherwise illegal-to-distribute game ROMs (since there’s no uploading or downloading and they aren’t accessible from bootup). Also, most of the included games are in Chinese.
Thankfully, RetroidOS and all of its strangeness can be safely ignored, and is only accessible if you manually install it from the partition. Outside of RetroidOS, you can put whatever game ROMs you want on the Retroid Pocket 2. Of course, you are responsible for legitimately obtaining them yourself (we won’t ask questions, or give you any ideas; for legal reasons, PCMag does not condone piracy in any form, you probably know the drill). The emulators are still installed on the system without RetroidOS and are accessible through the standard Android interface.
You can also load front ends that perform similar functions as RetroidOS, but without the thousands of dubious Chinese ROMs. The Dig front end comes preinstalled on the Retroid Pocket 2 and is fairly capable at bringing all of your games and emulators together into a single menu system for easy browsing away from Android icons. Dig is also slow and closed-source. Also, its development has been abandoned, so keep that in mind.
I’ve found great success using Pegasus on the Retroid Pocket 2. Pegasus is another front end similar to Dig, but it’s open-source and actively under development. It’s also a huge pain to set up, especially if you want to use “scraping” to add supplemental media, such as screenshots and box art, to your games list. I followed this very helpful guide to configuring Pegasus on a Retroid Pocket 2, and even then, it took two days of poking at it and a lot of tedious file management to get the interface to work just how I want it. Now that I have, though, every game system and game has its own neat little icon and screenshot, complete with blurbs for each game, all in an attractive Nintendo Switch-inspired menu system. I strongly recommend Pegasus for the Retroid Pocket 2, but you will have to do some legwork to get it to where you want it to be.
However you set up the front end of the system, the Retroid Pocket 2 uses the same emulators to run games (unless you dive deeper and change the emulators, which isn’t recommended). For 8- and 16-bit systems like the NES, Game Boy, and Super NES, games run smoothly and feel responsive, with no issues. The Nintendo 64 and PlayStation also run quite well on the system, as do Game Boy Advance games. For all of these systems, you can count on a generally consistent experience.
The Retroid Pocket 2 only really starts to stutter with PlayStation Portable and Sega Dreamcast games, particularly PSP games with complex 3D graphics. For the Dreamcast, I found that Crazy Taxi played extremely well, but Sonic Adventure was filled with rendering glitches and felt sluggish. On the PSP, Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles and Lumines 2 played without a hitch, but God of War: Chains of Olympus flickered and ran at half-speed at best. In addition, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories ran very slowly, with choppy, unpleasant sound. As a general rule, the handheld excels at sprite-based games, but 3D games can be a hit-or-miss affair, especially once you move past the N64 and PlayStation generation. Emulation can be very processor-intensive and $85 only buys so much power.
Retroid Pocket 2’s battery life isn’t particularly impressive. Depending on the types of games you run, you can expect to eke out between three and five hours of juice between charges.
Fun, With Effort
The Retroid Pocket 2 is a retro handheld that will reward you if you put the work into it. Out of the box, it offers either a clunky Android interface or a very questionable front end filled with even more questionable games. Putting some effort into getting Dig or Pegasus to work while you load the system with games is worth the time and effort, since it makes the system feel like a proper game system and not a kludged-together Android device wrestled into a gaming role. I’m thrilled to keep my retro game collection on the system, especially after taking the extra steps to give it a nice Pegasus front end.
This is of course all couched in finding games legitimately (backing up games you own yourself using a CD drive or Retro Freak for cartridges), of course. We won’t tell you how to get games on the Retroid Pocket 2 otherwise. For the simple joy of playing many classic games on one system, though, this is a winner. It just really makes you work for it.