The 7 Best Portable Handheld Gaming Consoles of 2023
Handhelds are dead! Long live the handheld! In the past decade, the video game scene has all but abandoned portable gaming. Blame it on the rise of smartphones, blame it on the Nintendo 3DS's $300 price tag, or blame it on the fact that PlayStation never quite cracked the code, but the era of the handheld is very much over. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo all have given up, unless you count the Switch Lite. The Switch, I suppose, bills itself as a portable machine too, but I don’t really see the console serving a handheld’s duty to help distract you from a family vacation, unless you have pockets the size of a shoebox. Let’s be honest. Nobody uses the Switch the way we did a Game Boy SP. RIP.
That’s not to say you can’t play games on the go anymore. We carry in our pockets some of the most advanced and capable portable consoles—our phones—the market has ever seen. There’s the weird and colorful world of Game Boy modding, retro all-in-ones like the upcoming Analogue Pocket (expect an update on that release soon), and the fact that many, if not all, of your favorite games can be emulated (legally) on all sorts of modern devices with clarity like you’ve never seen.
The world of handhelds is changing. It’s headed into a new era full of indie-friendly curation like Apple Arcade, streaming services like Google Stadia and Xbox Cloud Gaming, with a huge helping of throwback charm. You can still get your hands around it today, it’s just a matter of finding your perfect device. Here are seven to consider.
The Switch is the obvious place to start here. Now almost five years old, and with 2021's release of the OLED version, Nintendo’s combination portable/home console has thoroughly stamped out any suspicions of being yet another Nintendo gimmick (sorry, Wii U). We’ve had Mario Odyssey, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe—but not just first-party games. Fans of Nintendo adore the Switch for its always-expanding catalog of Nindies, a fantastic cross section of indie gaming that separates itself from other catalogs because you can take it anywhere. Well, almost. As I said earlier, the Switch doesn’t exactly feel like a portable. It’s hefty. Maybe it’s just my anxiety, but I always feel a little bit scared carrying it outside, away from the safety of its dock. And not all games run too well in handheld mode.
The Switch’s younger brother, the Switch Lite, is a bit more like what we expect from a handheld. But with its $200 price tag, this one is tough to justify. Sure, it’s much better on-the-go and always gets the job done in a pinch (especially for younger gamers!), but the Lite kind of defeats the purpose of the console—it loses the feature that gives the Switch its dang name. Still, there’s a certain thrill that comes from playing hugely expansive titles like Breath of the Wild on a machine the size of a flatbread. I’d tell you to go pick up a Switch instead, but you probably already have one.
New 2DS XL
Nintendo may no longer really support the damn thing, but the 3DS—or New Nintendo 2DS XL, the all-time best version of the portable—still rocks the boat. Between the huge, and I mean huge, library of games, the battery life, the gigantic screens, and that great clicky sound it makes when you snap it closed, these are very much the ones to beat, even ten whole years later. The only issue is the price. At $299, this guy clocks in right around the Switch. Sure, you can get a great deal on a used one, and there are some sweet offers sitting on eBay right now, but now that the product is no longer in circulation, it’s hard to grab one for any less than $200. What can I say? Maybe I’m just a Nintendo diehard, but if you’re anything like me, a few hundred dollars doesn’t feel all that much for Majora’s Mask 3D.
Pocket 3 Retro Emulator
Since the modern console market is barely interested in portables anymore, gamers have taken to retro gaming to enjoy handhelds in a new—but old—way. Game preservation is an important part of gaming culture today, especially as companies like Nintendo continually fail to deliver any consistent or serious form of archival, year after year. So, if you’re looking for a device that can store (and play!) your entire collection, you’re not alone.
This guy, the Retroid Pocket 3, is one of the best options. Running on Android 11, so a it's a bit old, the Retroid can play so many games, from 8-bit all the way to some of the less complex PS2 and GameCube games. And it has WiFi! HDMI output! You could (and should) buy one of these for all of your closest friends for a third of the price of a PS5.
Galaxy Tab S7+ Wi-Fi
I wanted to list a tablet on this roundup because, when it comes to portable gaming, I think a lot of gamers ignore the crazy potential of modern tablets. With an HDMI dongle and a trusty Bluetooth controller (hell, you can even just use your Xbox controller), these things become all-in-one powerhouses. Why pick an Android tablet, though? Why not go with the ubiquitous iPad? Well, I’ve already told you how capable Android is for emulator gaming. This tablet from Samsung—which is a beautiful, shiny device, by the way, featuring a keyboard screen cover and pen that functions like something between a mouse stylus and full-on magic wand—can get so many retro consoles running that I’d need a whole separate article to list them all. That’s not even the main attraction, though. Fans of Xbox know that the Xbox One, Series S, and X can all be streamed directly onto smart devices via the Xbox app. Together with services like Google Stadia and Amazon Luna, this Galaxy Tab feels like the equivalent of an entire garage full of gaming paraphernalia. Mine’s sitting right here in front of me, and to be completely honest, there’s so many games to be played on it, I’m not even sure where to start.
Kishi Mobile Game Controller
By now you should understand how the devices we have around us—our phones, our tablets, even our web browsers—can already function as totally capable gaming consoles. If you have an iPhone handy, you can set yourself up with Apple’s subscription-based gaming service, Apple Arcade, which boasts a meticulously curated library of some of gaming’s brightest new developers (not to mention the fact that you can get Xbox games running on your Apple device pretty easily too). But who wants to play touchscreen games? With your sweaty fingers smudging everything up? That’s not the handheld experience I crave. Pick yourself up a handy mobile controller setup. You can clip your phone to a controller for pretty cheap, or you can go for something like the Razer Kishi for iOS or Android, which basically takes your disgusting, dust-and-grime-ridden mobile device, and turns it into a Nintendo Not-Switch. I’ll never touch my screen again!
Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros.
There’s a corner of the handheld market that’s been quietly emerging for some time now. I’m not sure people see it as much more than a novelty, but devices like Nintendo’s 35th Anniversary Super Mario Game & Watch, which is a tribute to its very-early handhelds from way back in the '80s, are here to stay. This little gizmo can be a desk clock, a retro emulator, and just a very nice-looking piece of furniture for your bookshelf. It runs a variety of early Mario titles, playing like a trip down memory lane for Nintendo (and gaming overall) history. After the NES Classic, SNES Classic, SEGA Genesis Mini, PlayStation Mini, and so many others, fans have been calling for Nintendo to release a retro Game Boy mini. It has not. When it does, it will be on this list. Until then, you can enjoy a few of Nintendo's greatest titles on this snazzy portable from late 2020.
From: Esquire US