Now that there are devices like the Steam Deck and ROG Ally freely on the market, the appeal of buying a dedicated emulation console has dropped a little. Why buy one of those when you can just use the more powerful handheld PC, emulate more games and then also play your entire Steam library when you’re in the mood for something newer?
I present to you the Anbernic RG Nano.
I bought this tiny little device on a total whim. I had no reason to want one, really, but my good buddy, Matt from Shindig, was buying one and he has impeccable taste, so I said to myself “Why the heck not? It’s cheap, and Anbernic does make nice devices overall, so let’s throw them a little support for the latest crazy idea.”
It did take too long for my device to arrive (I was watching it routed all over Australia because apparently the couriers at 4PX enjoy a spot of sightseeing while they deliver). Nonetheless, it eventually arrived and…
Well, I just don’t need to take another gaming device out with me, do I? I can preserve the screens and buttons of all my game consoles from scratches, bumps and accidental douses in coffee (true story, don’t ask), because the RG Nano is going to be all I need for out-and-about gaming for as long as it lasts… which, judging from its build, should be a while.
The Nano is tiny. I know it looks small in photos, but it’s somehow even tinier to actually hold. One thumb can easily cover all of its face buttons. It’s smaller than a credit card. Significantly wider, of course, but smaller. I’d post a side-by-side of the console with my credit card for proof but… well, I’m not that drunk as I write this. The point is that the console actually has a keychain accessory that comes in the box and, yeah, it’s about the bulk of a keychain charm. I’d never use it that way because the little screen would get scratched up fast, but that’s a good indicator of how cumbersome this is to carry around (not all).
As tiny as it is, though, it feels very robust and solid, and that’s because the console is metal. Solid-as-rock metal. Weight is distributed beautifully across the device, and the only real problem with the metal casing approach is that the console goes from ice cold to touch (we’re in the depths of winter here in Australia), to really quite warm within a few minutes of gaming. It never becomes painful, but whoo boy am I glad its emulation capabilities are limited. Were anything to actually push the chipset, fingers might be burned.
Realistically, you’re going to be playing the following consoles on this device: Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Gear, SNES (though expect some slight screen distortion), Lynx, Master System, Megadrive, and NES. There is an emulator for the GBA here, but the screen is all wrong for that console and if you play it without stretching and distorting the screen to unplayable dimensions, the exact ratio is too tiny on the screen to see. There is a PlayStation 1 emulator on there too, but with no analogue sticks you’re limited in what you can play, and the PS1 was never designed to be played on a screen the size of a postage stamp.
With that said the eight consoles that the RG Nano does excel at are more than enough. It means you’re going to be able to play Pokémon, Final Fantasy, Zelda, Defender of Oasis, and weird (great) stuff like Faxandu or the Game Boy Color port of Heroes of Might & Magic 2. If you can’t pull up a list of 100 games from those consoles that you’d enjoy playing again, then you’re just not invested enough in retro gaming, and yeah, this little toy is probably not for you.
For the games that the RG Nano does excel at, you can enjoy them on a nice, bright screen that even manages to make the text clear despite its tiny size. This was a console that is designed to be played out and about, so it works as well on the couch as it does on the train or by the pool. Just be aware that some people might find the sight of you crouched over a tiny console amusing. Cool, when they realise you’re indulging in the grand history of video games on a device smaller than your palm, but funny at first.
I was surprised by just how comfortable it was to actually play. Now, I should say this with the disclaimer that 99 per cent of the retro games I play are slow-paced RPGs where I don’t run the risk of a “game over” by accidentally pressing two buttons at the same time. Obviously, with a device this tiny the buttons are located very close to one another and this is a possibility.
However, they feel great to press. They’re soft, responsive, and tactile, with good travel and spring. The two shoulder buttons are going to be very infrequently used for the consoles that run best on this, but they’re nicely clicky and responsive. And the hands just wrap nicely around the console. For something this small the ergonomics are vastly better than what I was expecting.
There are only two meaningful criticisms I have of the RG Nano, and both of them are totally understandable given the console’s size: The battery on this thing sucks. You’ll get about two hours out of it before needing to recharge. It does recharge quickly thanks to USB 3.0 (a nice, premium touch, that), but don’t go assuming this will get you through a long-haul flight.
Secondly, there’s no Bluetooth, and indeed you need a USB 3.0 adapter to even plug wired headphones in. Again, totally understandable given the tiny form factor, but as someone who likes playing games with sound on, it’s a clear weakness in the hardware.
Those tiny gripes aside, the RG Nano is yet more proof that Anbernic is finding niches for itself. I do certainly hope that Nintendo, SEGA et al get the vast bulk of their games onto modern platforms like the Nintendo Online service. If there was any respect for art in this industry, emulation consoles would be redundant. However, because capitalism is the name of the game, respect for art is not high on the priority list for these companies, and so we need companies like Anbernic to make a whole lot of classic art accessible and playable. The RG Nano is the perfect travel companion for just that purpose.