Handheld gaming consoles hold a long and important legacy in the landscape of video games. Though their small stature might not impress next to the modern intimidating monoliths of the static consoles like the PS5 or Series X, old and new games available on these platforms can easily measure up.
With that in mind, let's look at 12 of the best handheld gaming console systems ever released. From the retro to the new, here's a taste of what the best handheld gaming console market has had to offer.
Where better to start in a list of the best handheld game console systems than the granddaddy of them all? Nintendo's Game Boy was a revelation in mobile entertainment when it launched. The modern handheld gaming market owes everything to the Game Boy and its little monochrome green-and-black screen. With a vertical layout and two action buttons, the Game Boy was a simple system, and it didn’t need to be anything else.
Sony’s first entry into the handheld game console market came fresh off the success of the PlayStation 2 system. At the time, the PSP was a more powerful system than its Nintendo competitors, offering many 3D games whereas the GBA and DS more heavily embraced 2D. Perhaps the only classic handheld to really challenge Nintendo, the PSP was a much-loved system.
When it was first announced, nobody was sure what to make of the DS's eponymous dual screen and touchscreen features. Opening like a book, the DS turned out to be a fantastic handheld game console. The DS continued the Game Boy legacy with continuations of handheld Tetris, Mario, Metroid, Castlevania, etc.
Valve's Steam Deck isn't the first handheld to enable desktop games on the go, but it is among the best handheld game console systems. It’s one of the larger and heavier systems here, but in terms of flexibility, nothing beats the PC backing on which the Steam Deck operates. Almost any games download can be placed on the Steam Deck.
The My Arcade line of systems strikes a curious balance between official devices and custom hardware. Some systems focus on miniaturized arcade cabinets which host hundreds of games. Others, like the Pac-Man system, focus entirely on one game. These niche machines are fantastic for hardcore fans of specific games.
This one might be hard to consider among the best handheld game console systems because it's not a dedicated gaming device, but hear us out. While smartphones offering games is optional, they've also done a huge amount in bringing gaming to the masses. The truth is that many of the best handheld game console releases wouldn't exist without smartphone contributions to the market.
Sega’s Game Gear was one of the first big names to challenge the Game Boy, and it did push the handheld industry forward. At a time when Sega made consoles and gave Nintendo a challenge, the Game Gear offered a range of great games, had a fantastic screen, and was notoriously battery-hungry. A forgotten gem, for sure.
The Retroid Pocket 3 finds a place as what might be the best retro handheld game console for diversity. This system is built on the emulation of older handheld and static consoles, so it is perfect for retro fans.
The Game Boy Color updated the classic Game Boy formula, but the GBA raised the bar substantially. Essentially offering the power of a SNES on a handheld game console for the first time, the GBA pushed handheld graphics to new heights. Allowing for hot new releases in Pokémon, Metroid, and Mario, the GBA is remembered fondly in the handheld game console market.
The Steam Deck might have kickstarted the new handheld gaming PC race, but the ROG Ally lit a fire under its, well, decks. More powerful than the Steam Deck, the Ally is a more expensive option that explores what a premium handheld game console can do.
This update stretches the definition of a handheld game console, as it straddles the line between notebook and handheld systems. We included it on this list thanks to its full QWERTY keyboard support. This is a little cramped, but it’s also an important experiment in investigating where this arm of the market might go next.
As a dual handheld/console, the Switch consolidated Nintendo's handheld/console library into one amazing whole. With some of the best titles of this generation, it's no surprise many consider the Switch the best handheld game console of all time.
There are two main PS handheld game consoles from Sony, the PSP and the later PS Vita. Sony is also looking to release a new handheld to stream PS5 games too, but we don’t yet know many details about how this new system will shake out.
That would be the Nintendo DS. Note that these are separated into different lines, like the original DS and the DS Lite. Each is counted as the same overall platform regarding sales.
There's no one easy answer to this question, for a few reasons. Different people have different-sized hands for one thing, so there's no such thing as a standardized one-size-fits-all approach. Even if a device fits in your hands as the name suggests it should, the rest of the unit can vary in size greatly. While something like the DS and Gameboy could fit in a pocket, the same isn't true of a Steam Deck or Ally. Ultimately, the right size depends on your wants and needs.
The cheapest systems will tend to be low-powered emulation handhelds like a My Arcade device or a Retroid Pocket. These don't require cutting-edge tech, so the costs can be well under $100. As long as they offer what you want and don't cut corners in construction quality, these cheap devices can still offer hundreds or thousands of hours of entertainment.