Next-generation hardware and high-end gaming PCs are great and all, but there’s something that comes from a great handheld game console. Whether it sparks nostalgia of playing Pokemon by moonlight on car rides home or invigorates you with stunning experiences in bite-sized form, handheld consoles provide a special gaming experience that can’t be replicated. Starting over 40 years ago with the release of the Milton Bradley Microvision, portable game systems have come a long way, now offering high-definition graphics with crisp and fantastic gameplay. Aging handheld consoles have also found renewed life in the after-market hardware modding scene, where creative designers push these platforms to newfound heights. To pay homage to this incredibly versatile, on-the-go gaming format, we’ve created a definitive list of our favorite portable game consoles. From the retro classics to the latest and (potentially) greatest, these are our picks for the top 12 handheld game consoles of all time.
12. Atari Lynx
Released in September of 1989, the Atari Lynx was a handheld game console that, despite being somewhat lost to time, provided some revolutionary steps for the portable gaming market. Originally developed as the “Epyx” system before the creators went bankrupt and Atari took over the reins, the Atari Lynx was a handheld with some impressive features. Releasing around the same time as the Nintendo Game Boy, the Lynx was the first handheld game console to have color graphics, displayed on a clear but tiny LCD screen. Thanks to a strong offering of launch games, the Lynx was generally well-received in its early years, but was ultimately eclipsed by its competitors. While we don’t hear much about the Atari Lynx nowadays, we still have to give it props for being somewhat ahead of its time.
The WonderSwan was a delightful little handheld that was released in March of 1999 in Japan, with two additional versions, the WonderSwan Color and SwanCrystal arriving later in 2000 and 2002 respectively. Developed by the legendary Gunpei Yokoi and his team at Koto Laboratory, along with some help from Bandai, the WonderSwan was an alternative to the Game Boy Color and Neo Geo Pocket Color, boasting a better battery life and a more attractive cost. With the ability to play games in both vertical and horizontal format, the WonderSwan was both innovative and quirky, with a surprising library of smash games. Remakes of seminal titles like Final Fantasy and Tetris helped the system gain ground, while exclusive titles based on popular anime properties set it apart from the pack. Despite selling over 3 million units, the WonderSwan wasn’t able to withstand the fierce competition in the market and was discontinued in 2003.
Existing as an unconventional competitor to the Game Boy and Atari Lynx, the TurboExpress was created by NEC Home Electronics and was released in late 1990. With a sleek black design that cribbed the Game Boy look but with added features, the TurboExpress allowed players to enjoy all available HuCard games for the previously released TurboGrafx-16 home game console. In addition to its vivid LCD screen, the TurboExpress also had a handy TV tuner, allowing you to watch live television on the go. Unfortunately, despite these advancements, the TurboExpress was a critical failure, with many citing the poor battery life, small screen, and high price-point as major contributors to its downfall. We still fondly remember the TurboExpress and have to give it credit for pushing the industry forward.
9. Neo Geo Pocket/Neo Geo Pocket Color
The Neo Geo Pocket and Neo Geo Pocket Color were developed by SNK and were released in 1998 and 1999 respectively, with the monochrome Neo Geo Pocket serving as a sort of test-run for the overall concept. Competing with the Game Boy Color as well as the WonderSwan in Japan, the Neo Geo Pocket Color held its own, thanks to a great library of games and solid hardware design. With exceptionally good battery life and simple controls, the Neo Geo Pocket Color was a perfect way for SNK to bring some of their most popular arcade brands to the portable market. Popular franchises like King of Fighters, Metal Slug, and Puyo Puyo made their way to the Neo Geo Pocket Color, resulting in an impressive library of mostly first-party games. Although this SNK-created handheld wasn’t able to take down the mammoth success of Nintendo, it’s still regarded as one of the more influential systems of its time.
8. Sega Game Gear
Released in October of 1990 in Japan and a year later in other regions, the Sega Game Gear was the eccentric company’s direct competition with Nintendo’s Game Boy. Boasting a brightly back-lit screen with vivid color and a horizontal design, the Game Gear had a leg up on its peers, but was unable to succeed due to a limited game library and poor support from Sega. For those who grew up as Sega kids, there was a lot to love about the Game Gear, as it featured iconic brands like Sonic the Hedgehog, Mortal Kombat, and Streets of Rage. Playing these games on the go was tons of fun, but ultimately, the Game Gear lacked legs. Rushed to the market in an effort to compete with the Game Boy, the Game Gear lagged behind with a slow trickle of game releases and waning interest from the public. Although it sold over 10 million units, the Sega Game Gear was discontinued in 1997.
7. PlayStation Portable
The PlayStation Portable was released in late-2004 in Japan, eventually going global in 2005. Seen as a stunning move from Sony, a company that mostly stuck to home game consoles, the PSP tried to take down the titan Nintendo with a more mature approach. With its sleek black design, advanced multi-media features, and internet connectivity, the PlayStation Portable was generally regarded as the handheld game console for hardcore gamers. When compared to the mostly family-friendly game library of its competitor, the Nintendo DS, the PSP offered hit franchises like Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid, God of War, and more. The graphics were also exceptional, providing visuals that looked on par with home consoles of the time. Overall, the PSP was a success, selling over 80 million units during its healthy lifetime. It’s no surprise then, that when looking back on the best handheld game consoles of all time, the PlayStation Portable shines as a technological leap forward that provided immersive gameplay anywhere you wanted.
6. Nintendo DS
With its innovative dual-screen technology that ushered in touch-screen gameplay mechanics perfect for new players, the Nintendo DS was launched in 2004 in Japan and North America and arrived a year later in Australia and Europe. As a successor to the widely popular Game Boy Advance, the Nintendo DS offered better graphics, an impressive library of games, and some of the most intuitive features ever seen in a handheld game console. From fantastic remakes like Super Mario 64 DS to exclusives like WarioWare: Touched!, the Nintendo DS had a great list of launch games, offering a variety of genres and experiences for both longtime gamers and newbies. Thanks to its attractive price, varied color schemes, and wholly unique hardware, the Nintendo DS went on to sell over 150 million units, giving it the prestigious honor of being the best-selling handheld game console of all time.
5. PlayStation Vita
Released in late 2011 in Japan and a year later in the rest of the world, the PlayStation Vita was Sony’s follow-up to the PlayStation Portable, offering more advanced hardware, better visual fidelity, and some seriously impressive games. Like the PlayStation Portable, the Vita was seen as the adult handheld console of its time, offering big-budget experiences from landmark franchises like Uncharted, Call of Duty, and Final Fantasy. The Vita also had a control layout comparable to modern console controllers, with two analog joysticks, as well as touch-screen features to rival the Nintendo DS. Although the PlayStation Vita found a dedicated fan base in both Japan and Western markets, it was unable to break through the competition, selling approximately 14 million units before it was discontinued in 2019.
4. Nintendo 3DS
As if the Nintendo DS wasn’t unique enough in the first place, Nintendo amped up its originality for the successor, the aptly titled Nintendo 3DS. Featuring glasses-free 3D technology, a unique feature that is still rarely replicated, the Nintendo 3DS continued Nintendo’s dominance of the handheld market when it was released in 2011. While additional features like augmented reality and the Miiverse social networking service were ultimately duds, the 3DS picked up steam with later hardware iterations, such as the Nintendo 3DS XL. Backwards compatibility allowed owners to play both original DS and 3DS games, offering a huge library of games including popular franchises as well as exclusive titles Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7. The online virtual storefront dubbed the “Virtual Console” also allowed players to download retro games spanning Nintendo’s illustrious history, providing even more titles to enjoy. Although the system was discontinued in 2020, it had a healthy lifespan, with over 70 million units shipped across all versions.
3. Nintendo Switch
The Nintendo Switch is unlike any other portable device on our list, as it doubles as both a handheld and home gaming console, with the ability to play on the go or dock the system for traditional television use. Released in 2017 as the next home console from Nintendo, a successor to the critical failure that was the Wii U, the Nintendo Switch has truly carried the handheld gaming industry into the next-generation. With its detachable controllers, gyroscopic sensors, and touch-screen technology, the Switch combines all the elements of previously successful Nintendo products and distills it down into an impeccably refined form. While the console suffered initially due to limited game releases, indie games have found a new home on the online storefront, making the Nintendo Switch an extremely versatile system with loads of unique experiences. Boasting crisp, high-definition graphics and gameplay that feels on-par with most modern home consoles, the Nintendo Switch has quickly taken the gaming public by storm, becoming one of the most successful platforms in its still-ongoing life-span.
2. Game Boy Advance
The Game Boy Advance was released in 2001, switching up the market with its landscape hardware design, fantastic library of games, and simplistic control scheme. As a successor to the incredibly influential Game Boy, the Game Boy Advance provided equally accessible gaming experiences on a smaller scale, with vibrant 32-bit visuals and some unforgettable software. Par for the course of a Nintendo product, the Game Boy Advance had widespread appeal, with best-selling first-party franchises like Super Mario, Pokemon, and Kirby. Later hardware iterations like the Game Boy Advance SP and Game Boy Advance Micro kept the system feeling modern, while backwards compatibility with older Game Boy titles ensured an expansive game library. Over its 7-year lifespan, the Game Boy Advance sold over 40 million units, making it a worthy successor to its larger-than-life predecessor.
1. Game Boy DMG
Speaking of the iconic product that popularized handheld gaming for the masses, the Nintendo Game Boy DMG (short for dot-matrix-game) was released in 1989, igniting the market with fervor and starting an illustrious line of consoles. Hitting store shelves four years after the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Game Boy was an immediate hit with gamers, thanks to its approachable design and addictive games. Often bundled with the ever-enjoyable Tetris or Super Mario Land, the Game Boy made up for its slightly lackluster technical performance with undeniably enjoyable gameplay experiences. The long battery life and low price-point also made it an attractive purchase for consumers interested in handheld gaming, but who didn’t want to splurge on its more expensive competitors. After grabbing the attention of the gaming public, the Game Boy would be refined and redesigned in subsequent releases, but the original hardware design still holds an immense amount of nostalgia for gamers around the world. Even today, with modern games that offer lifelike visuals and explosive gameplay, all it takes is a few seconds of playing Tetris on the Game Boy to get sucked right back in.