Spacewar to Go: Analogue Pocket adds support for archiving gaming hardware

A tiny ship sheds glowing trails as it pitches and is slowly drawn toward a star in the center of the screen. A torpedo is approaching on the other side of the screen. I shoot tiny glittering beams and the torpedo disappears in a beam of light. The little game I play on this modern handheld Analog bag playground equipment is space war, which is believed to be the first video game of all time, from 1962. The version I’m playing uses the handheld’s hardware to replicate the original computer. The $220 Pocket went on sale last fall and remains backordered until 2023but its latest beta software adds overdue game save and developer-focused features that were promised from the start.

Just as the Analogue Pocket already plays classic Game Boy, Sega Game Gear, and Atari Lynx games, the handheld’s new update strives to open the platform to other archive games by incorporating Field Programmable Gate Array, or FPGA, technology used. Do I have in my hands the beginnings of a true handheld gaming museum?

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The Pocket’s FPGA technology promises that developers could recreate classic gaming hardware by reprogramming the unique chips within it, much like the Pocket can already transform into a Game Boy or Game Gear.

There are already handhelds like Evercade who tried to bring back classic games, but the Analogue Pocket is specifically a player for the original games themselves. The hardware recreates original hardware experiences but on a new screen and with redesigned controls. A beta software update I’ve sideloaded on the Pocket promises to open up this support to others using a second chip on the handheld that’s designed to emulate other types of classic gaming hardware.

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Analog pocket game handheld with screen showing software core for Spacewar

The software for Spacewar runs as a core on the Pocket and emulates the hardware on the chip.

Scott Stein/CNET

The Spacewar build I play was provided with the beta software and runs by playing a “core” that effectively replicates the computer hardware that originally played Spacewar. It’s hard to tell the difference between this and emulation as a casual gamer, but the promise is that these games made this way will be the actual original versions, playing in perfect reference quality. Emulated and remastered classic games often have subtle (or not-so-subtle) differences in timing and feel.

Christopher Taber, CEO and founder of Analogue, says more third-party efforts like this are to come.

“An FPGA is capable of the ultimate way of exploring, analyzing and most importantly playing. It’s like listening to the master recording of a great album. You know you are experiencing it the way it was meant to be experienced. Since analogue products can be played on HDTVs and CRTs (with our DAC), you can rightly experience it exactly as it was originally intended, or on a modern TV.

“I see playing a CRT with an FPGA system as similar to listening to vinyl with a tube amp. It can’t get any better for the absolute purist. When you want to play on an HDTV, it’s like listening to a hi-res lossless 24-bit recording,” Taber says via email of this potential in Pocket and Analogue’s TV dock.

The Analogue Pocket doesn’t have a game store or game ROMs: it’s a system designed to play original cartridges or, in this case, certain Pocket-compatible software files sideloaded onto a microSD card.

Analog pocket screen with game information for Super Mario World

Information about the Super Mario Advance 2 cartridge that I inserted is displayed.

Scott Stein/CNET

The Pocket also tries to be both a wiki-like system for classic game information and a library for saved games. The software update now displays an info card when I insert the Game Boy Advance cartridge for Super Mario Advance 2: Super Mario World that more accurately identifies it as being made by Nintendo R&D2 for the Australia and US regions. A new Memories feature also adds game saves: I can flash to the microSD card and save my state in old games that never had game saves before, which is fantastic.

Analog pocket screen with saved game files

Memories are saved to Pocket as quick saves, offering new ways to save games to cartridges that never had a save state.

Scott Stein/CNET

Will the Pocket become an even bigger stepping stone toward the dreams of analogue, classic games, and hardware? It’s hard to say how far this effort will go, but in the meantime the Pocket is becoming even more of a perfect system for playing classic handheld games. The Analogue Pocket is already a great Game Boy, but it has room for improvement.

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