We’re not all grizzled retro gaming veterans — some of us are new to the hobby. So our Getting Into Retro Gaming guides are here to help you get up and running as soon as possible! If there’s any topic that you’d like to learn more about, be sure to let us know and we’ll cover it in a future column!
Retro gaming handhelds have exploded in popularity over the course of the last few years, and while there are still certain moral questions over some of them — many ship with a memory card full of ROMs that you can bet your ass weren’t officially licensed from the original rights holders — it’s fair to say that these days the market is in a pretty good place if this is the sort of device you’re after.
It’s also fair to say that retro gaming handhelds and consoles were also a bit of a joke for a while — particularly during the heyday of the “NES on a chip” phenomenon, which saw vast quantities of cheap knockoff consoles promising thousands of preloaded games but actually only delivering a few (unlicensed) titles repeated over and over and over, along with various ROM hacks and bootleg titles.
In the last few years, though, a few names have established themselves comfortably as leading the market when it comes to products that are good quality, reliable and actually rather desirable to have in your collection. One of those names is Anbernic, and one of their finest products is the RG351V retro gaming handheld. So let’s take a closer look!
What’s in the box
The Anbernic RG351V retro gaming handheld comes in a relatively understated but good quality box that holds the handheld itself, a short USB-C cable, a 64GB microSD card in a case (plus another 16GB microSD card already inserted into the system), a Quick Start guide, a (very) rudimentary manual, a screen protector and a couple of screen wipes.
The system is actually ready to go right out of the box if you insert the 64GB microSD card into the second microSD card slot (marked TF2/EXT.) since it already has some games of questionable origin on it.
The 16GB microSD card, meanwhile, contains the system software, so under most circumstances you won’t need to fiddle around with this. The TF2/EXT. slot is used as the primary source for game files if a card is present in it, so if you have a particularly large collection of ROMs and disc images you want to load onto the device and have easy access to, you can easily replace the bundled card with one of your own.
Many users actually recommend doing this, as the bundled card is a no-name brand that some have had reliability issues with; your mileage may vary on this.
Getting started with the Anbernic RG351V retro gaming handheld
Assuming you want to load your own stuff onto the Anbernic RG351V retro gaming handheld — which you probably will, as you doubtless have your own lineup of games you want to have easy access to on the go — it’s a pretty easy process, though you will need some means of reading microSD cards on your computer.
The bundled 64GB microSD card already has the correct directory structure set up, so in this case all you need to do is drop ROM files or disc images into the appropriate locations according to the system they are for, pop the card back into the RG351V and you’re away.
The SD cards are quite difficult to insert and remove due to their slots being very flush with the side of the unit — this does mean that it’s unlikely you will accidentally eject them during gameplay, which is probably for the best, but be prepared to break a fingernail or two if you’re inserting or removing cards regularly!
If you’re using your own microSD card, note that the RG351V retro gaming handheld insists that the microSD card is formatted in FAT32 format; Windows won’t format larger microSD cards in this format by default, so you’ll need to use a third-party tool to do so. guiformat.exe is a simple, no-nonsense means of doing this.
The Anbernic RG351V retro gaming handheld runs a software setup called EmuELEC by default; you can check this page for the supported systems along with the names of the folders you’ll need to use for your games to be recognised. It’s also possible to load your own firmware onto the device, but for casual users there’s not a lot of need to do this.
The one issue I ran into with loading files onto the device is that at some point after loading it up with an initial batch of files and using it in the RG351V, the microSD card I was using started refusing to accept new “write” commands from Windows 10, meaning that it became impossible to add new files, delete existing files or even reformat the card. The RG351V was able to write things to it no problem — save games worked just fine, for example — but Windows 10 was having some difficulty for some reason.
This may have simply been a corrupted or damaged microSD card — trying another one worked just fine — but be aware that this may happen. Replace your microSD card with a new one for the most reliable means of fixing this issue.
Navigating the Anbernic RG351V retro gaming handheld UI
The Anbernic RG351V retro gaming handheld is built on a front-end called EmulationStation. This is a popular, highly customisable menu system that is often used on hacked mini-consoles, and is a simple means of navigating and exploring the files on your device. It includes the ability to browse files by platform, jump straight to particular letters in the file list and even make random selections. You can also apply various options to the games and systems in order to get them working the exact way you want.
It can be a little daunting to find your way around the menus if you’re a newcomer — particularly since there are several completely different menu screens accessible by pressing the RG351V’s Start or Select buttons at various points — but when you’re just getting up and running with the system, you probably won’t need to go into them at all. Game lists can be navigated by using up and down on the D-pad, starting a game is a simple matter of pressing the A button, and systems can be switched between by pressing left and right on the D-pad.
There is a frightening-looking terminal-style file browser on the RG351V that you can accidentally access from the “All Games” menu, and it’s seemingly impossible to get out of this without knowing the proper key combination. Thankfully, you can also just press the Reset button on the side of the unit if you get into a mess; the system will then quickly reboot and you can pretend nothing ever happened.
Playing a game on the Anbernic RG351V retro gaming handheld
Once you’re into a game, most (though not all) emulation is handled through RetroArch. This means that you can get up and running with a game with minimal fuss, though there are plenty of customisation options there if you want them, including control remapping, speed control, rewind options, save states and shaders to customise the way the image looks.
The screen is excellent; its 640×480 resolution might not sound much on paper, but it’s beautifully sharp, brightly lit and provides excellent colour. Plus bear in mind that a lot of these games didn’t run at anything higher than 480p in the first place anyway — often considerably less!
By default, the Anbernic RG351V retro gaming handheld is set up with some default image filters on certain platforms. Game Boy games, for example, feature a simulated dot-matrix display that looks very authentic to the original Game Boy screens (albeit with a backlight) while PC Engine games have an LCD screen-style filter that makes the games look akin to how they would have appeared on the handheld PC Engine GT/TurboExpress handheld from back in the day.
Purists can turn the effects off if they please — and they’re switched off by default for most standard TV-connected consoles such as the Mega Drive and SNES — but even as someone who does not normally like fake scanlines on retro games, I found these “virtual screen” effects to be very pleasing on the eye in the handheld form factor. The Game Boy dot matrix effect in particular is extremely effective and authentic-looking — particularly when bearing in mind that the form factor of the RG351V retro gaming handheld is deliberately designed to resemble the classic Game Boy.
The unit has a decent D-pad that is similar to that found on, you guessed it, the classic Game Boy, and the action buttons are a reasonable size, being similar to those found on a Nintendo Switch Joy-Con. There’s also a single analogue stick which can be clicked in, and a “Function” button, which is generally used in combination with other buttons for various functions.
Getting to the RetroArch menu, for example, involves clicking the analogue stick, holding it, then pressing the Function button — though this hotkey combination can be changed if you prefer, say, Start and Select.
The RG351V retro gaming handheld also has four shoulder buttons in a curious arrangement; rather than the L2 and R2 buttons being behind their L1 and R1 counterparts, they’re almost part of the same bumper button, albeit with a raised profile to make them easily distinguishable by touch. If you have muscle memory from a PlayStation controller, this will take a bit of getting used to, but it means the unit doesn’t have to be deeper than it already is.
Supported systems on the Anbernic RG351V retro gaming handheld
You can get away with pretty much anything up to the PlayStation 1 on the RG351V retro gaming handheld. N64 games struggle significantly, so are best avoided — though some claim that using custom firmware improves performance on these quite a bit.
Your best results will be on the systems you’d expect good performance from — Atari 2600, Atari 7800, Mega Drive, Master System, NES, Super NES and PC Engine all perform very well. It’s nice to see support for some more obscure systems right out of the box, too — Atari Lynx, Neo Geo Pocket Color and Wonderswan Color all work fine, a variety of Game & Watch games work on it and you can even get Vectrex games playing on it, though these have a few sound issues and lose a certain amount of their impact from not being on their original hardware.
Some systems — particularly home computers and some later consoles — will require a BIOS file to get up and running in the first place, and you’ll need to track this down yourself, which isn’t always easy. For the most common systems, though, it’s a simple case of loading up your SD card with the games you want to play and just enjoying them; the default setups for the emulators included with the RG351V’s EmuELEC software provide an authentic-feeling experience with minimal fuss — which is what a lot of more casual retro gamers will want.
The big question
Is it okay to own one of these and make use of it to play classic ROMs? It’s a question that has plagued the emulation community ever since computers got powerful enough to pretend to be other computers, and the answer isn’t an easy one at all.
Many of the classic handheld, console and computer games that a lot of people use on emulators have not had modern rereleases in any form — often due to licensing issues — and thus from a preservation perspective, emulating these games is one of the only means of accessing them these days, particularly when original copies end up expensive and/or in the hands of hoarding collectors who have no intention of actually playing their precious “graded” games.
In these cases, you can often actually find sets of ROMs for more obscure systems on the Internet Archive, which is about as close to “official” as you’re going to get in terms of archival and preservation — plus a hell of a lot safer than browsing potentially dodgy ROM sites filled with questionable ads.
On the other hand, there are a bunch of these retro titles which have had modern rereleases and which you can still pay money for. In these cases, the right thing to do is to buy a copy of the game on a supported platform — even if you intend to primarily play it on the Anbernic RG351V retro gaming handheld.
That way you have the freedom to play the game on a device you like, but you’re also supporting today’s officially licensed preservation efforts — which in turn will help us to see more modern rereleases of classic games. Ultimately a good thing for those who don’t want to put in the little extra effort required by emulation devices like this one.
The Anbernic RG351V retro gaming handheld is an excellent choice for retro gaming, with a few caveats. Firstly, you will need a small degree of technical knowhow to customise the device to your liking with a suitable game library — though if you know how to use USB memory cards, you’re pretty much sorted.
Secondly, there’s the ever-present moral question — although despite constant hand-wringing over this matter, I feel like most people have come to their own personal answer for this long ago. You know whether or not you’re comfortable with emulating stuff and with acquiring software via potentially questionable means. If you are, this is a good choice. If you’re not, may I direct you towards the Evercade, which is as guilt-free retro gaming as it gets.
And if you’re somewhere in between — say, like me, you’re keen to support official preservation efforts, but also wish to explore the “unofficially preserved” history of the medium — get both!
Either way, this is a great device that is a worthwhile part of your collection — and a valuable means of taking a library of retro classics with you wherever you go.