The Bittboy PocketGo proves that first impressions are not everything!
I recently got back into classic handheld gaming after seeing a few new retro inspired handheld devices enter the market. There is no shortage of options from an endless list of Chinese wholesalers, ready to drop ship you your new handheld retro fix at anytime. After looking at a lot of reviews, watching YouTube videos and diving into various sub reddits filled with incoherent testimonies, I decided to disregard everything I was being told and order the one that made my inner child the most excited. Despite the iffy reviews and angry Facebook comments from people who I was pretty sure had never laid hands on the device they were tearing apart, I decided I needed a Bittboy PocketGo.
Ordering a PocketGo was a good lesson in patience. You do not get one delivered in two days with free shipping like you are accustomed to with modern online shopping. This is more of your “AliExpress” experience, taking about 2 to 3 weeks for your new bundle of all things old to arrive. I went into this process with that in mind, and was not annoyed waiting for my PocketGo to arrive. I knew it was on a slow boat from China, and I was okay with that. Once it hit state side though I did get fairly antsy, checking the tracking info religiously and posting about it on the “Emulate This” Discord non stop. I had seen the reviews and knew what to expect when I unboxed it. Slick packaging, extra buttons if you wanted a Super Famicom look, and a few odds and ends to make it all work (8gb Micro SD card, USB adapter and Micro USB cable).
My first impression was that this was a solidly built device. It did not have that cheap electronic device flex when I applied a hint of torque to the frame of the PocketGo and was happy with the first click of each button and pleasantly surprised by how satisfying the D pad felt the first time I explored it. The PocketGo is one of those devices that impresses you before you even power it on. The PocketGo is not a large device. Its slightly larger than the GBA Micro that I think is the form factor that Bittboy was shooting for here. It feels great in my giant meat hooks so I think for the average adult it would be comfortable for fairly long play sessions.
I have to say that as impressed as I was when I opened it, the pendulum shifted when I powered on the device for the first time. The stock software leaves a few things to be desired, and if I was the kind of guy to leave things alone, I would probably have a less than favorable opinion of the PocketGo. I don't want to spend a ton of time harping on what I disliked about the stock software, but the low lights included clunky menus and basic controls that had me scratching my head. The left shoulder button shifted the menu to the right, and the right to the left. The A button went back, and the B went forward in each menu, all of it was infuriating at times. Once you got a game loaded ( a respectable/curious amount come preloaded), the most common knock on this little guy reared its ugly head. Screen tearing. It's something that presented itself in nearly every game across multiple platforms that I tested on the stock firmware. So out of the box, it will do its job. It will play Pokemon, Mario, Sonic, and a long list of arcade games, but you will not have a flawless experience with any of them.
I should take this time to point out how gorgeous the Pocket Go screen is. The colors pop, the blacks are deep and overall it looks like the best possible version of these old games. They never looked this good on my 20” CRT. Think of playing Super Mario World on an HD TV via HDMI, but on something smaller than your cell phone.
So the stock software was awful, but luckily for me, there are some really smart people who have taken a liking to the Pocket Go and have produced multiple versions of their “Custom Firmware”. Once I got that loaded on the device it completely changed the device. The screen tearing was greatly reduced to the point where when it happens now it surprises me. The menu navigation make sense, and everything just seems more dialed in. I had been holding off putting a lot of ROMs on my Pocket Go until I had the most up to date custom firmware installed so after some basic testing to make sure everything installed correctly the first time, I moved over most of my ROM’s to the Pocket go. This is done in a more logical way than say a Raspberry Pi 3b+. There is no wifi transferring here or complicated local network setups. You just plug in a micro usb card to your PC and plop the ROMs in the appropriate folder. To me the process is simpler than loading new ROMs on a RetroPie based system.
There are no video previews or fancy attract modes here. There is box art available, but it's a smaller resolution than the Raspberry Pi uses so I just skipped setting up box art for the PocketGo. This could be seen as a missed opportunity by some, but to me it was almost freeing. I did not have to worry about scraping the perfect image for an obscure Japanese PC Engine game that to be brutally honest I would probably never play. I could just dump my ROMs on it and get to playing the games vs refining my Rom collection to make it slick and impressive. This makes sense because i’m the only one who would see all that pretty box art, because to quote Rory “I don't have any friends”. So as long as you can read, embrace the list of ROMs and leave the box art shrine to your more sophisticated emulation devices.
I knew I was going to have 2 very demanding young play testers for this setup who’s reading skills are suspect at best, so I did take the time to create custom folders in the PockectGo to store the games I knew they would like, and recognize the names. So my build has a “Pokemon”, “Mario”, “Kids Games” and a “Sonic” folder. Creating subfolders for games in each Rom folder is super simple, and I have since went back and make some “playlist” folders for myself, even though I got this reading thing locked down...Well at least for the English games. My PC Engine folder is mix of English and Japense chaos.
Once I had what I considered to be a stable build of the PocketGo, I went to work testing various systems and games. I was surprised how well some games played (Sonic 3) and disappointed in others (Super Mario Kart). As a general rule with the PocketGo, if there is a GBA version of a SNES game, go with the GBA version. For some reason, SNES emulation seems to push the device more than other systems. This is where I would levy my biggest complaint against the Pocket Go. It is not like a Raspberry Pi where if it supports the emulator, it will at least attempt to play the game. There are games that I try to play that just dump back to the menu screen. To me this is what the angry YouTubers should be talking about, more than the occasion “that looks weird and I need to complain about it” moment of screen tearing. I think they would have to load their own Roms to figure this out though, and I saw a lot of pre loaded games being tested.
The vast majority of games that I tried worked fine, just some random MAME games were a no go. I can live with this as I have other ways to play these games, if I really wanted to. I did not ever experience a moment that felt like going to Blockbuster to rent the latest must play game only to discover it was already rented. It was more like the weird kid from school said I should check out Super Battle Tank 2 for SNES and it was rented out already. There are also a good amount of stand alone games that come pre loaded, and they are carried over to the custom firmware. Games like Doom, and Quake 2 are very playable and a nice little test for what is under the hood. The most fun I had testing games came from the excellent “Streets of Rage Remake” that comes loaded with the custom firmware and is a blast. I love the “SOR” games, and playing as a badass kangaroo “Roo” was awesome! It does “play” PS1 games, and while no logical person would complain about the quality of PS1 emulation on something so obviously not built for it, some games do actually play ok. “Marvel vs Capcom” plays great, but the audio is rough. Other more simple games like “Harvest Moon” and “Final Fantasy Tactics” do ok as well. That being said, do not buy this for PS1 emulation. I would grab a PSP or PSP Go for anything past SNES. That or check out my previous article about mobile phone emulation.
Overall I think that this is a great device for anyone who is into retro gaming, especially handheld gaming. I have used this thing more than I thought I ever would, throwing it in the front pocket of my bag and pulling it out when I have a spare moment. It is not a perfect device, but it goes for about $40…To me it's like a $5 Long Island iced tea, or a cheap light beer. Are there better versions available? Of course there are. Will you have a blast for the money spent on this? You better believe it. It is a shame that most of the reviews that you will read/watch, will mention screen tearing, bad controls, and maybe a buzzing noise from the mono speaker. All of these issues are taken care of with the new update and I hope some of them do a follow up video or article highlighting the changes. If you have any more questions about the Pocket Go, I am always up to chat on the Emulate This Discord.