It’s a Gameboy Color! Wait, no it’s not, I don’t remember my childhood GBC having quite this many buttons. Well, at least this time around it’s not so weird when your grandmother calls it your “Nintendo” because it does look a lot like the famed 1998 handheld, especially in this faux-Atomic Purple.
First previews began coming out for this retro lookalike back in mid-September with a stated date to begin shipping to customers on October 10th. This is their third handheld to sport the RK3566 SOC, and it seems to be that the third time really is the charm as this is certainly the most charming of the trio.
It is worth mentioning that there is a cheaper budget model, the 353VS, being released in parallel with this device. While the 353V is currently $120.99 for the basic 16Gb capacity, the 353VS is $97.99 coming in $23 cheaper. You can find and purchase either device from Aliexpress or direct from Anbernic by clicking these links. I do not possess this budget-oriented model for review, but I will reference when certain specifications differ for clarification. All review statements hereafter shall refer to the 353V unless otherwise stated.
With that being said, let’s take a look under the hood of this modern Gameboy, and see how it stacks up against the crowded competition.
So let’s start at the top with that processor chip. The Rockchip 3566 is a quad-core Cortex-A55, with clock speeds reaching a maximum of 1.8GHz. This has been paired up with 2GB of LPDDR4 RAM, though the lower-end VS model will only feature 1GB of RAM.
In terms of storage features, Anbernic certainly threw everything but the kitchen sink into this. It has a primary SD card slot for the Linux firmware, as well as the possibility of primary storage. However, there is also a secondary SD card slot for storage. This is a beneficial feature that they have included on prior models, as in the event of corruption to the firmware during an update, or simply when you’d like to reflash to a different firmware entirely, it does not require you to migrate your entire ROM library if they are on the secondary card instead.
In this device, since it has dual-boot with Android, this secondary slot also acts as secondary storage while within the Android side of the 353V as well. This allows you to seamlessly access your ROM library regardless of which operating system you boot into. Lastly in terms of storage, speaking of the Android half of things, there is an onboard eMMC 5.1 module with 32GB of storage for that operating system.
Powering the device is a 3200 mAh battery, which Anbernic has stated will last up to 6 hours of usage. Of course, your mileage will vary depending on how much horsepower your gaming demands. You’ll be likely to have much more battery time out of easy tasks like NES or Genesis emulation than you would out of the more challenging N64 or Dreamcast.
The rest of the hardware capabilities are great for a device in this category. It features dual-band AC wifi as well as Bluetooth 4.2 for connectivity. For ports it’s reasonably standard, with two USB-C ports, a mini-HDMI port, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. One of the USB-C ports is for OTG functionality, to use with any USB accessories, and the other is for charging as well as data transfer in Android mode. I would say that having the headphone jack on top of the device is a slightly curious decision for a vertical handheld, but not one that will affect those of you intending to use bluetooth headphones instead.
Let’s finish up by talking about the screen, and it is a lovely screen indeed. It is a 3.5-inch IPS display, with OCA lamination and 640×480 resolution. In addition to this, it has full multipoint capacitive touch capabilities, and it is very responsive, allowing for great Android navigation. You’ll recognize the overall quality as being fairly similar to recent Anbernic handhelds like the RG351MP and 351V, as well as the recent 353P, which all have very gorgeous vibrance and color.
In fact, speaking of the 353P, if any of this hardware section sounded familiar, well, it should. After all, the 353V, just like with former V-branded Anbernic units, is simply a 353P in a new shell (and with a slightly smaller battery.) Therefore, you should generally expect to see identical performance to that handheld. If you are a current or former 353P owner, none of this has been new, so let’s get to the new shall we?
Inputs and Comfort
Let’s have a look at this beautiful device. As I already stated, it does certainly seem to be the Gameboy Color to match the 351V’s DMG-alike look. Smaller, sleeker, sexier, and with more power under the hood, this is a welcome refinement of the vertical Anbernic design. Measuring 12.6cmx8.3cmx2.1cm (5inx3.3inx0.8in) it’s slightly smaller and thinner than the Gameboy Color it draws inspiration from, and also quite a bit smaller than its immediate predecessor the 353P. It’s small and thin enough to fit into an average-sized pocket, but being larger than some of the mini handhelds out there keeps it comfortable for longer durations even in my giant chunky paws.
Let’s start with the meat and potatoes of any retro gaming inputs, the face buttons and the dpad. A large majority of your library prior to the 5th generation consoles (N64, PSX, Saturn) will use these as their primary inputs, so it’s important that they get done right, and this is where Anbernic traditionally shines. This device will carry on this tradition, with a large responsive dpad, and decently large (for a handheld) face buttons with just the right amount of travel and resistance, all utilizing a rubber membrane interface that Anbernic has clearly mastered at this point.
Below these are the analog sticks that have been a matter of some small debate in the community. They look kind of odd, and not very comfortable to use, and you’d be correct for assuming so. Being so close to the bottom lip of the device makes it a bit tricky for ergonomics, and most of the systems that this device can run won’t utilize both of them, so why have them? Well, for Ape Escape of course, why else?
Ok, ok, it’ll probably be useful if you’re using this for game streaming, or perhaps for certain Android titles. They’re necessary for the overall capabilities of the machine, and it’s hard to say how Anbernic could have made them more comfortable, so they’ll get a somewhat qualified pass as being more utility than comfort. They’re standard Switch-style joysticks, and they’re sunken into the device to make it more pocket-friendly, but this does come at the expense of a little bit of their range.
Before we wrap up with the front, it’s worth mentioning quickly that the start and select are well-placed and have the same comfortable feel as the face buttons. Meanwhile, the function button is a very helpful addition, particularly for hotkeys and is always a welcome additional input on these types of devices. Lastly on the face of the device is the mono speaker nestled between the thumbsticks. The positioning has looked a bit odd to some, but it helpfully keeps the speaker out of the way of your hands during operation, and it’s an excellent-sounding speaker for how small it is. Still, if you want stereo sound, you’re going to need to plug in or pair up a set of headphones.
On the rear of the device, we don’t find much except the L1/L2 R1/R2 triggers. They’re clicky, they’re responsive, that’s good. However, they’re the same height and length and therefore end up feeling identical during gameplay. Not to mention that at least for myself I was forced to crook my index fingers in an odd manner to specifically click on the L2/R2 without bothering the L1/R1. This is not helped by the fact that they are extremely sensitive and will often be heard being triggered when pressed up against the inside of a bag or pocket. This is definitely a factor of the design where I feel they got it “almost but not quite” right.
Software and OS
Some of these handhelds now have their chips in on Linux, while Android is starting to make a solid foothold in the game, but Anbernic decided to pull a taco shell commercial on us and ask: “why not both?” This allows them to leverage the strength of both approaches. After all, the Linux interface you’ll be faced with is certainly the friendlier, more accessible side. Whilst Mr. Hyde – I mean Android – is the more flexible and adaptive system. Do remember that if you buy the RG353VS version of this system, it will lack any of the Android experience altogether. Let’s take a look at how they compare.
The Linux side offers the oft-used pairing of Emulation Station for a front end, with various emulators serving the place of the back end of the system, predominantly Retroarch in most cases. You can install various CFW, or custom firmware, which will often provide a similar experience but with tweaks and changes meant to provide better performance or quality of use. In fact, I would recommend that most users install Jelos or ArkOS on this device, two CFW currently available that are from passionate developers within the community.
However, the scope of this review will focus on the default image provided by Anbernic. This will be the experience you’ll get out of the box, and when you perhaps give this system as a Christmas gift for a child, it needs to work well out of the box. Thankfully it seems Anbernic have accomplished that task, providing a default image that gives us all the basics we need, as well as pre-configuring much of the system to suit the usual recommendations for settings. You’ll find systems running at the generally recommended aspect ratios, and some even with video filters chosen to better mimic the system they’re emulating. It means that you’re not going to be saddled with the chore of tweaking and fiddling with little Timmy’s new Gameboy imposter while the rest of the family is enjoying the eggnog and… figgy pudding? Actually Timmy why don’t we just play it together, I’m sure there will be eggnog left later.
Anyway, when you do need to dive into the options to tweak a setting here or there, the Linux experience keeps a lot of the major stuff in the frontend. You get to avoid the kerfuffle of learning the ins and outs of, say, Retroarch, and instead set major global and per-game options in a user-friendly list. It also provides easy access to all of your UI customization, media scraping tools, and updates.
Meanwhile, the Android side presents you a less curated experience, but one that gives you more freedom to make it your own. It also presents options for emulators and games that simply aren’t present on the Linux side. The bonus if you already own an Android phone is that the experience will be largely familiar, if a bit limited. A lot of this limitation comes down to the fact that the default Android installation does not come with Google Play Store or Services installed, and while they can be installed through other means it will add extra strain to the system which is already operating fairly close to capacity.
As a result of this limitation, you will be forced to sideload many apps, though the default image comes with most of the emulators you’ll need; many of them even preconfigured a bit. Also, some of them will provide better alternatives outside of the Google Play framework, Retroarch comes to mind as one of the emulators in which downloading the apk directly from their site results in a Retroarch install with more options available due to size constraints imposed upon in the Google Play Store.
Anbernic does a decent job at providing a few tools to make the Android side of things more friendly than just a collection of standalone emulators and apps. It comes with a built-in touch controls remapper, allowing you to map buttons on the controller to specific touches on the screen for games without controller support. It also comes with a launcher front end that can be toggled from the notification shade labeled “Game Mode.” This mode attempts to replicate some of the feel of an Emulation Station front end, with the list views and scraped media, condensing the disparate emulators into a single unified experience. It does this job adequately for a new user, playing friendly with the pre-installed emulators, but if you’re more seasoned at Android emulation you may already have a favored frontend that has a more robust feature set.
It seems that Anbernic is getting familiar with Android as they have moved into these dual-boot systems, and I’m hoping to see further improvement especially with regard to their upcoming Android-focused handhelds. The lack of Google Play services makes it difficult to recommend the Android side for general usage, along with a chipset that feels like it struggles under the weight of the more demanding OS. I’ll explore this a bit more in the following sections because there are good use cases for the Android side, so long as you’re prepared to work around a few drawbacks.
So What Can It Play?
|Atari 2600, Atari 5600, Atari 7800|
|Nintendo Entertainment System|
|Super Nintendo Entertainment System|
|Nintendo Game Boy|
|Nintendo Game Boy Color|
|Nintendo Game Boy Advance|
|Nintendo Virtual Boy|
|Sega Master System|
|Sega Genesis / Mega Drive|
|Neo Geo Pocket|
|Neo Geo Pocket Color|
|Sony PlayStation Portable|
|Out of Reach|
|Sony PlayStation 2|
A good chunk? A solid slice? A moderate piece? It’s an incremental upgrade from Anbernic’s popular 351 line, taking a step up rather than a leap, but in doing so it opens up a fair few system libraries that were almost entirely shut out from that set of handhelds. It’ll still play the usual tunes with ease, from Atari and NES all the way up to GBA and PS1, and now it will provide a playable experience with some notoriously trickier systems. I would suggest the Linux side of the device for most of your emulation, as I generally experienced better performance in those tricky systems. This is further recommended if you intend to install CFW, as the current offerings provide updates that allow for even better performance. However, there will be a notable exception for Android.
The N64 is a perplexing addition to a list of “tricky to emulate” because of the era it falls into, but it’s always just been a cut above the PS1 in terms of challenges and power requirements in getting it running well. Thankfully, the RG353V plays it beautifully, and even a relatively challenging title like Goldeneye 007 runs very well. On the Linux side, you’ll be using the Retroarch core for Mupen64Plus-Next, or various plugin options for Mupen64Plus standalone, which the system will by default attempt to choose the best performer automatically. In Android, you’re free to choose one of numerous N64 emulators, but the default installation and my own recommendation would be standalone Mupen64Plus.
Another tricky system from the same era as the PS1 and N64, but this one has a story behind it. I won’t go into much detail here, but let’s just say Sega made a huge mistake throwing in extra hardware at the last minute and made this system way more difficult to both develop for and emulate. As such, the experience with Saturn on the 353V is still going to be a bit dodgy. You’ll get good performance out of a fair portion of the library, but more challenging titles like Panzer Dragoon here will be sluggish and not very playable, at least on the default software. The Anbernic Linux image offers a couple of Yabasanshiro Retroarch cores, and in Android I would recommend the Yabasanshiro 2 standalone emulator.
The Dreamcast may have been the unfortunate death knell of “The House That Sonic Built,” but it was chock full of exciting classics, many of which have experienced numerous re-releases on more modern gaming systems. This system runs well on the 353V, and for the more challenging games it provides an auto frameskip that does well at mitigating stutters without impacting your frame-pacing experience too severely. On Linux, you’ll receive multiple Flycast options, whilst on Android I suggest the Redream emulator.
So, remember when I said there was a notable exception for Android in my suggestion? This is it. While the Nintendo DS runs fine on Linux, using its own build of the Drastic emulator, it does not feature touchscreen functionality. For some games this may not be a deal-breaker, but for most of the library you’ll find yourself needing the touchscreen at least occasionally. On Android, where I still recommend Drastic, you’ll have the full touch capability accessible to you. While all the games run fine, it may be a challenge to run certain games that lean more into the dual-screen experience of the original hardware. While a game like Castlevania Dawn of Sorrows can easily be played through using a hotkey to switch between screens, you probably wouldn’t get very far in Metroid Prime Hunters. You can set the layout to have the screens side by side or top and bottom, but the resulting screens will be tiny on this device.
Last up we have Playstation Portable, or PSP, a popular Sony handheld that dared to dream of a world where Nintendo didn’t rule the handheld industry. Numerous classics released on this device that should definitely live a second life through emulation. The RG353V handles a decent portion of the PSP library well and as with Dreamcast it provides an auto frameskip to make up the difference for certain titles. Even with a few tweaks and options checked for maximum speed, however, you won’t be playing God of War on here at all. However, I had a lovely and smooth experience with Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep. Linux offers PPSSPP, and I recommend the same for Android.
Native Android Games
When we look at this device for the purposes of native Android gaming, we run into the prior restriction of operating without Google Play. It means that when I installed a game like Mario Kart Tour, it refused to load up due to the lack of Google Play services. This also restricted me from being able to load up any of my apps that must be paid for, such as Dead Cells or Knights of the Old Republic, though from my general testing of those games on other devices I could make the educated guess of “Yes Knights” and “No Dead Cells.” I did get Horizon Chase running, a very Outrun feeling Android game that ran beautifully on this device. This also gave me an opportunity to test the bluetooth on the 353V, which worked well enough that I didn’t detect enough input lag to affect my gameplay.
The other major gaming boon that this device offers is game streaming services. While there is support within the Linux side of the device for Moonlight, the Android side also allows various other services like Geforce Now, Steam Link, and Xbox Game Pass. Thanks to the built-in 5GHz wifi on the 353V, you’re able to take advantage of the higher available bandwidth to get a solid game streaming experience. This can open up the device for the possibility of streaming emulated Gamecube or PS2 from a home desktop or even streaming modern games from Microsoft’s Xbox cloud. In the pictures here I tested out streaming both an older Gamecube title, and a modern PC title, and both ran without issue for the duration of my testing. While they may have presented some ergonomic struggles due to their more “sticks and triggers” heavy control schemes, there are plenty of modern games like Ori and the Blind Forest or Hollow Knight just begging to be played on this handheld due to the 353V’s excellent dpad/face buttons and gorgeous screen.
With all that being said about this device, where does that leave it? It’s a flawed device, as many of these handhelds are, but many of those flaws inherently stem from the ambitious nature of the 353V. Could they have avoided some of these troubles by omitting the analog sticks, or restricting the device to purely the Linux mode as they have for the VS model? Perhaps, but growth can sometimes require difficult phases before getting things just right.
I see this device as a positive step for Anbernic’s vertical line of handhelds, smartly evolving from the 351V and becoming a better product as a result. The flaws are handily outweighed by a device that provides an excellent Linux mode, a Nintendo-grade build quality, and a form factor and look that is nostalgic and dare I say cute? I dare say. I loved my time with this device during the course of reviewing it and I intend to make it one of my daily drivers, particularly for the 8-bit and 16-bit games that make the most of the iconic appearance it mimics.
- A power step up from previous generations of Anbernic handhelds, adding libraries like the N64 and Dreamcast makes for a compelling value upgrade for those that have been loving their 351V but wanted a bit more.
- Anbernic’s signature build quality is predictably on offer here, with high quality plastics and responsive controls.
- A dual-boot system and plenty of built-in tools to make this a very flexible and customizable experience for numerous tastes.
- Some ergonomic compromises can limit what types of games will be comfortable to play on this device.
- Android experience feels unpolished and lacking in robust features, and does not perform as well as the Linux OS in many cases.
- Mono audio and a questionably placed headphone jack can make the audio experience of the device less than stellar.
- It looks like a Gameboy Color, it walks like a Gameboy Color, but it doesn’t quite quack like a Gameboy Color. If you’re looking for a modern spiritual successor of the Gameboy Color, the 353V is a good candidate for the position.