As a retro game fan, we all enjoy taking time from our day to enjoy classics of yesteryear. However, many of us also have families and full time jobs, and much of the time this means we are always on the go and don’t always have the convenience of using our original systems. Open sourced handhelds usually run a couple hundred dollars and have older hardware inside. Building your own such as Adafruits PiGrrl is a fun project, but not all of us have access to a 3-D printer or have the skills required to assemble a unit. Even if you have both, the cost for all the parts involved are still more expensive than a pre-made open source handheld like the GCW Zero. Thankfully, there is another option.
Cell Phone emulators in the Google Play market are getting better and better all the time. As of right now, the free option is RetroArch, a capable front end system that uses multiple emulator cores in order to support multiple different systems. Using this in conjunction with the Gamesome front end on Android creates the core operating environment for our handheld.
As far as the phone goes, the best budget choice is the Blu R1 HD. It runs Android 6, with a guarenteed upgrade to 7 in the future. Sporting a quad core CPU, Micro SD expansion for more storage, and 2 GB of RAM, this is a front runner since the cost is only $59.99 for Amazon Prime members. Be sure to choose the 16 GB storage, 2 GB RAM version for 59.99, as there is a 8 GB storage, 1 GB RAM for 49.99 that is simply not worth it when for just ten dollars more you double your storage and RAM.
A handheld is only as good as its controls. For the controller we are running the 8BitDo NES30 Pro controller. Visually it looks like an NES controller with thumbsticks, shoulder buttons, and extra face buttons added on, but its design is closer to the SNES controller or the Wii Classic controller. The expanded thumbsticks and shoulder buttons allow us to play up to PS1 and N64 games on our unit with no problem whatsoever. The controller can be purchased in a bundle with the “Xtander” phone clamp, which is recommended. Of course, both can be purchased seperately, so if you already have an NES30 Pro, the Xtander will only set you back ten bucks. The controller has a great classic feel, with solid construction. Some may be tempted to go with a Moga Hero Power instead, but the Moga controller lacks the quality construction the 8BitDo offering contains. Spend the extra money for a better gaming experience.
Once you have all the parts, simply install Gamesome and RetroArch, and download the cores for Retroarch for the platforms you wish to play. The Gamesome frontend will detect your game ROMS after you select the proper folder they are in on the phone, and will even download artwork for them. If you wish to expand on this idea, you can purchase a 64 GB Micro SD card for storage, or the case for the R1 HD to give it some more protection. The best part is that this setup is upgradeable. In a few years, if there’s a more powerful phone you wish to add to the setup, it’s a quick swap-out. If you have a current powerhouse of a phone, all you have to do is install Gamesome, Retroarch, and pick up an NES30 Pro with Xtander to get in on the action.
As you can tell from the above screenshots, the frontend makes the setup look quite smooth. The entire interface can be driven either by controller or touchscreen, so you can choose which suits your needs best. Below is a video showing the setup in motion (albeit with a different phone).
While this setup is a tad clunkier than an open sourced handheld or Adafruits GameGrrl, it also is able to be made by someone with no soldering or construction skills, is upgradeable, has a lower price, and features a more powerful CPU/GPU combo allowing it to emulate more powerful systems at faster speeds.