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10 classic handheld gaming devices that changed the world

Key Takeaways

  • Handheld gaming has seen significant developments in recent years and is thriving like never before, with a range of interesting and vibrant devices available.
  • The Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP revolutionized portable gaming with its design and backlight, making it highly desirable and easily portable.
  • The Nintendo Game Boy, with its global success and addictive gameplay, is the most important handheld gaming device ever, changing the gaming landscape forever.

Handheld gaming has come a long way – and thanks to some major developments in recent years, it’s thriving in a way that some people thought was never going to happen again. If you’re curious about what devices made handheld gaming the interesting and vibrant space that it is today, though, you’ll want to check out this round-up of the 10 most important handheld gaming devices in history. For the best handheld consoles that you can buy right now, meanwhile, check out our rolling up-to-date buyer’s guide.

10 Game Boy Advance SP

Game Boy Advance SP

Nintendo’s revamped version of the Game Boy Advance might not have brought with it any graphical improvements (which is why you’ll find the first Advance further down this list), but it brought a design that became unbelievably ubiquitous and desirable. Adding a crucial backlight to make playing in different lighting a doddle, this was the best bit of portable hardware Nintendo had ever made at that point, and it fits so easily into a pocket.

Plus, it had a roster of unbelievable games to explore, including some of the most beloved entries in the Pok?mon series (Ruby and Sapphire, plus the perfect remakes Fire Red and Leaf Green) and cult RPGs like the first two Golden Sun games.

9 Nintendo Game & Watch

Game & Watch
Toni Zaat on Unsplash

Rolling back the years a bunch, the Game & Watch is a great showcase of how ideas and designs can often percolate at Nintendo for decades – these handhelds were created for nearly a decade, each featuring a single game, and that idea of a screen with controls either side would resurface way later with the Game Boy Advance, below.

Some of Nintendo’s most famous games were playable on Game & Watch versions, and it clearly played a major part in how the company thought about portable gaming. The multiscreen version, meanwhile, meant that experts were much less surprised by the Nintendo DS decades later.

Game & Watch’s roster of game included Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong II, Zelda and many more, making it a bit of a classic for collectors.

8 Game Boy Advance

Game Boy Advance

The original Game Boy Advance might not have the same lustre as the SP nowadays, thanks to its harder-to-use design and some heavily-aged plastic in the case of my original, but it was a huge step forward for gaming handhelds.

It brought 32-bit handheld gaming to the masses and crucially changed the display layout from a square format to the wider-screen system that is now ubiquitous. As mentioned above, it has some crazy classics, from Metroid Fusion and The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap to Final Fantasy Tactics Advance anbd Mario Kart: Super Circuit, many of which were blockbuster hits.

7 Sega Game Gear

Sega Game Gear
Ben Griffiths on Unsplash

It’s not all Nintendo, though – for all the Japanese giant has dominated the market, others contributed to its development. The Game Gear is a classic example of a great bit of tech with an Achilles heel. It was a 32-bit machine at a time when Nintendo was locked to 8-bit games, but awful battery life made it a pain to use.

That turned out to be crucial, with the Game Boy Color’s far-superior convenience factor seeing it win out in the long run. Still, there’s no other handheld that played host to quite so many iconic Sonic games specifically, and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the Game Gear is still a particularly delectable joy.

6 Sony PSP


Sony makes its only placement on this list thanks to the PSP, a handheld accomplished enough that it looked like Sony and Nintendo might really compete going forward, only for the PS Vita to see an end to the former’s handheld ambitions (until Project Q, that is).

The PSP had a lovely screen, solid battery life, great connectivity and plenty of interesting games, including portable entries in major franchises like God of War (Ghost of Sparta) and Grand Theft Auto (Vice City Stories and Liberty City Stories), making it a real powerhouse at the time.

5 Nintendo Game Boy Color

Game Boy Color

The Game Boy might have already been a smash hit, but the Game Boy Color was an amazing little upgrade, bringing full colour to proceedings and making for a way more vibrant gaming experience.

For many people, it’s the default version of the Game Boy in their head – since you wouldn’t ever really want to go back to the original if you had this in your locker, and that earns it a high spot on our list. Playing Pok?mon Silver or Gold for the first time and seeing their colours splashed on the screen was a life-changing moment, as was the joy of exploring The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages (or Seasons!).

4 Steam Deck

Valve Steam Deck review photo 9

The Steam Deck is our most recent entrant, and in just a year or so since it launched, it’s done a huge amount to invigorate the handheld market by ushering in a new era of handheld PC gaming, previously impossible due to power demands.

That means it has to compromise on battery life, but this is still a magical bit of hardware that lets you take unbelievably high-fidelity games on the move with you, something that was a dream for ages. The likes of Baldur’s Gate 3 and Elden Ring run like a dream, making it a seriously impressive bit of kit. It’s already spawned imitators like the ASUS ROG Ally, too.

3 Nintendo DS Lite

Nintendo DS Lite

While the Nintendo DS was already a modest success, its first hardware revision was a total revelation, shrinking down the dual-screen handheld massively and making it sleek and demure.

With a massive life span that saw countless excellent games released, it played a key part in cementing the DS generation as a seismic success for Nintendo and demonstrated that hardware revisions didn’t have to mean a totally new generation of console. New Super Mario Bros. and Mario Kart DS may have powered the generation, but it was the weirder titles we loved – like Elite Beat Agents and Hotel Dusk: Room 215.

2 Nintendo Switch

Zelda breath of the wild on a Nintendo Switch with red and blue joy cons

The Switch was a bit of a lightbulb moment – Nintendo demonstrating that handheld and TV gaming can both be achieved with one device, and doing so with aplomb. It’s a hardware legend already, variable and adaptable, and has some truly astonishing games.

Even seven years on from its launch, titles like Tears of the Kingdom show that it still has life left in it, while the Switch OLED showed what a massive difference a screen upgrade could make.

Right from the start of its life cycle, though, true modern classics like Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey immediately made it clear that Nintendo meant business with the Switch.

1 Nintendo Game Boy

Nintendo Game Boy
Lander Denys on Unsplash

There can only be one winner when you’re trying to nail down the most important handheld ever, though – the Game Boy became a global sensation at a time when there wasn’t really a market for this kind of product, and changed the landscape of gaming forever.

Packaged with Tetris, it immediately demonstrated to millions of gamers how moreish and addictive it could be to have games in your pocket, and had a form factor and design that has stood the test of time easily.

It saw the birth of a mega-franchise in the form of Pok?mon Blue, Red and Yellow, and had versions of classic Donkey Kong and Mario games for people to enjoy – as they very much did.


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