Over the years, we’ve been gaming on the go on some truly amazing handheld consoles. From Nintendo systems like the 3DS to true retro classics that were ahead of the times like the Atari Lynx, our pick of the best handheld consoles takes a look back at some impressive innovations. With some dating back to the late ’80s, this list also demonstrates just how much handheld hardware has continued to develop and advance over the years. The continued success of the Nintendo Switch also goes to show there’s still a big appetite for handheld gaming, and with Valve recently announcing the upcoming launch of its portable Steam Deck console, now’s a great time to reflect back on the best handheld consoles we’ve seen in recent decades and appreciate just what makes each one so notable.
10. Atari Lynx
The Atari Lynx was most notable for being the first handheld console to feature a color display that also had backlighting, which really made its screen pop in comparison to the original Game Boy’s monochrome screen. Initially designed by the now-defunct developer Epyx, Atari bought the rights to the Lynx system and the rest is history. Along with very thin cartridges and a multiplayer ComLyx cable system that enabled up to 16 players to connect, the machine was definitely ahead of its time. Launching in 1989, the Atari Lynx wasn’t as successful as the original Game Boy in terms of sales, but it boasted a lot of impressive, innovative features… and you can even see a young Tobey Maguire using it in this classic early ’90s commercial (opens in new tab).
9. Sega Game Gear
Releasing in close competition with the Atari Lynx and the Game Boy in 1990 was Sega’s Game Gear, a handheld machine that was based on the hardware of Sega’s Master System home console. With a fantastic library of iconic games such as classics like Sonic the Hedgehog and Space Harrier, you could even use an adapter to play Master system titles, which expanded the library of games you could play. Some of its downsides included its requirement for six AA batteries that delivered a relatively short battery life depending on what you’re playing, and it was still outshined in sales by the dominating success of the Game Boy. Still, the 8-bit console, which also boasted a color screen and backlighting, had a lot of stellar games on offer.
8. Neo Geo Pocket Color
As the successor to the Neo Geo Pocket with a color display, the Neo Geo Pocket Color arrived in 1999 and was the second handheld from SNK. The 16-bit handheld was comfortable to hold and quickly became the true dream machine for fans of fighting games thanks to its excellent arcade-like analog stick, which was perfectly suited to games like SNK vs. Capcom: The Match of the Millennium and the King of Fighters series. While it was slightly let down by its lack of backlighting, the display of the Color console looked fantastic, and its other big selling point was its notably long battery life. The 16-bit handheld was smaller in size than its competitors, but it certainly packed a punch.
7. Game Boy Advance
The Game Boy Advance followed in the footsteps of the Game Boy to continue on what made the handheld so great with a host of other improvements. As a more powerful 32-bit handheld, the GBA introduced the now-classic L and R shoulder buttons that would go on to feature on all of Nintendo’s succeeding handhelds. Not long after the GBA’s launch in 2001, the Game Boy Advance SP arrived in 2003 with a compact, foldable style that made the Advance family even more portable. The best GBA games to come to the console include many memorable titles that made the most of the more powerful hardware and functionalities of the console. With the likes of Kirby and the Amazing Mirror, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire, and Metroid Fusion, it also had the added bonus of backwards compatibility for Game Boy games and a cable link up to the GameCube.
6. Nintendo 3DS
The Nintendo 3DS arrived in 2011 and, while it looked visually similar to the DS, it introduced the ability to display stereoscopic 3D effects without the use of any additional accessories. The handheld also introduced a number of new features to build on the stellar design of its predecessor. With a 3D camera, augmented reality functions, a new circular thumb pad for better movement controls, and a convenient home button, there’s also a great Virtual Console feature which enables you to purchase and play classic games from Nintendo’s lineup. The 3DS is one of Nintendo’s most successful handheld consoles, becoming so ubiquitous in popular culture that it even found its way into the Louvre in Paris to be used as a museum guide.
The PSP was the most powerful handheld on the market when it arrived in 2004, with subsequent slimmer models releasing in the years that followed. Launching around the same time as the Nintendo DS, the PSP’s LCD screen really showed the graphical power of the handheld. While its proprietary Universal Medias (UMD) Discs were susceptible to scratches and were far more bulky to store in comparison to the Nintendo DS’s small cartridges, the PSP had so many fantastic features and functions which make it a truly stellar handheld. With everything you need when you’re on the go, from watching movies to browsing the web, it’s line-up of PSP games – such as Persona 3 Portable, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories – really showed off the power and versatility of the console.
- Our pick of the best PSP games
4. Nintendo DS
First released in late 2004, the Nintendo DS was a truly innovative design that felt like a breath of fresh air in Nintendo’s long line-up of handhelds. Ushering in a new era with its dual screens and stylus controls, the DS allowed for some very inventive and interactive games, and the touch screen functionality really was ahead of its time. The fantastic line-up of titles to come to the console included the likes of bestsellers like New Super Mario Bros, Brain Age, Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, Animal Crossing: Wild World, and many more. By today’s standards, it was definitely quite bulky, but its foldable design definitely had its appeal and it was the first of Nintendo’s consoles to have Wi-Fi compatibility.
- The best DS games
3. Game Boy
It really cannot be understated just how influential the original Game Boy was. The system landed in 1989, kickstarting what would become a growing market for handheld machines. The Game Boy demonstrated the appeal of being able to play games on the go, going on to inspire an entire industry of portable machines from rival manufacturers. Sure, it didn’t have a color display and it was on the bulkier side in comparison to those that succeed it, but it made such a notable impact on gaming and impressively sold in the millions. Its tremendous success is bolstered by a line-up of games from iconic Nintendo franchises like Super Mario, Kirby’s Dreamland, and The Legend of Zelda, and conversions of industry classics like Tetris, the Game Boy is one of the best and most important consoles of all time.
2. PS Vita
As the successor to the PSP, the PS Vita was truly a beautiful handheld not only in terms of its design but in the many features and functionalities it supports. With a gorgeous OLED display, the slick console could also make use of PlayStation TV with a variety of Vita games, so you could enjoy them on a larger screen. Not only that, but it also supported Remote Link, meaning that you could play PS4 games on the go for the first time. The 2011 console features an in-built camera and mic, and back touchpads, while the library of games also allows you to access classic PlayStation games, including some PS One Classics and PSP titles. While it’s no longer getting much online support or store updates, it’s still one very stellar handheld. PS Vita 2 when?
- Here are the best PS Vita games
1. Nintendo Switch
As Nintendo’s latest console, the Nintendo Switch is a truly innovative and fantastic hybrid machine that can act as both a handheld and a home console thanks to its nifty dock. You can settle in lengthy play sessions on your TV, and then easily pick up where you left off on the go by simply taking it out of the dock. It’s both inventive and versatile, and it really does stand out from the crowd of handheld consoles. With some excellent features too boot, it’s no surprise that it has sold incredibly well since it first launched in 2017. It’s also become a haven for indie games with an expansive library that keeps us more than busy in and around Nintendo’s biggest franchise releases. With great multiplayer support and ingenious JoyCon controllers that can be used in a number of different ways, the Switch is Nintendo creativity and design at its very best.
Now that we’ve looked back on some of the most influential and impressive handhelds, why not check out our list of the best retro consoles?