Where Should I Begin As A Retro Collector?

Portable gaming devices might be a great start.

Game boys in various colors


When it comes to retro gaming, all too often handhelds are overshadowed by their console brothers. With it becoming more and more expensive to begin a collection of gaming classics, a retro novice might be better off to aim their sights at the cheaper, but just as interesting world of portable gaming. With most attention in the retro scene leveled at console releases, it can be hard to tell just where to begin your obsession with antique gaming on the go. Never fear! We’ll be showing you some of our favorite potent portables ranging from well-known classics to obscure and overlooked but still impressive machines.

Nintendo Game Boy

Released: 1989

Number of Games: 1,200+

Designed by Gunpei Yokoi and released by video game giant Nintendo, the illustrious Game Boy requires no introduction. Through various handhelds were released before the Game Boy, some of which we’ll cover later on, the device was the first to truly infiltrate the video game market in earnest. The massive sales of 120 million lifetime units cemented Nintendo as the undisputed king of handheld gaming, a crown it still wears to this day.

Best to collect if: The Game Boy offers a chance to collect on the cheap. With so many units floating around you can scoop up an original Game Boy on the cheap. Most Game Boy games are also cheap, though those starring fan-favorite characters can still be pricey. Unfortunately for completionists, Nintendo packed Game Boy games the same way they did their console games up until the Gamecube. The cardboard boxes containing the game cartridges and manual typically vanished into the abyss quickly after purchase, so finding complete in-box versions of Game Boy games can be difficult.

Sega Game Gear

Released: 1990

Number of Games: 300+ (600+ with Master System converter)

Even before the famous “Sega does what Nintendon’t” ad, that emphasized the rivalry between the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo, Sega had faced down Nintendo on another battleground. Nintendo’s dominance in the handheld market didn’t come without a fight. Within a year of the debut of Nintendo’s iconic Game Boy, Sega answered with the Game Gear. The Sega Game Gear was technically more advanced than the Game Boy. Featuring a backlit full-color screen and internal equivalent to a Sega Master System, the Game Gear blew the Game Boy out of the water, as far as raw specifications go.

However, the Game Gear’s power came at a price. Not only was the Game Gear twice as expensive as the Game Boy at launch, its battery life of a paltry 6-8 hours on 6 AA batteries vs. the Game Boy’s 10+ hours on 4 AAs meant gamers who chose Sega’s device would have to spend almost twice as much on batteries.

Stacked against the Game Boy, the Game Gear still moved a respectable amount of units. When production ceased in 1996, 30 million units had been sold. Although this would be Sega’s only true foray into the handheld market, the Game Gear came the closest to matching the success of the Nintendo Game Boy than any other handheld until the PSP.

Best to collect if: The Sega Game Gear shows the flip side of the early-mid 1990s handheld market. While the Game Boy has left a healthy legacy in the form of titles like Pokemon, Link’s Awakening, and Tetris, many Game Gear games have been forgotten. For those Sega diehards or those who have never owned a Sega product, but are curious to see what they have to offer, the Game Gear is an excellent start to a new collection. Although it’s bit rarer than the Game Boy, you should have no problem finding a Game Gear handheld fairly cheap. Of special interest is the Master System converter that allows you to play Sega Master System games and effectively doubles the range of titles for your handheld.

Tiger Game.com

Released: 1997

Number of Games: 20

Tiger Electronics was famous in the early 1990s for those terrible cheap LCD games that made young gamers wish Granny would have instead got them a Game Boy for Christmas. In 1997, seeing a gap to fill in the handheld market, Tiger leveraged their LCD handheld experience to produce a full-fledged handheld: the Game.com.

Named to take advantage of the booming interest in the burgeoning World Wide Web, the Game.com was a peculiar machine that was ahead of its time in many ways. It featured a stylus and touch screen, 7 years before the Nintendo DS, and sound and internals that vastly outmatched the rival Nintendo Game Boy.

Unfortunately, the Game.com suffered from three terrible decisions. The screen, while having high fidelity with non-moving elements, had a horrible refresh rate that made the action on-screen look like a blurry mess. Retailers, used to marketing Tiger’s smaller standalone LDC games, merchandised the Game.com the same way. The Game.com was often located among toys instead of other video game consoles, and accessories and cartridges were often ordered in smaller numbers than demand called for.

Tiger’s decision to develop all Game.com software in-house was also a catastrophe. Although Tiger was able to license hit IPs, the lack of games, specifically good games, lost Tiger the word-of-mouth and enthusiast press coverage that would have helped more units. Game development for the Game.com ended in 1999, and new handheld production stopped in 2000.

Best to collect if: If you’re looking for a handheld you can collect dirt cheap, the Game.com is for you. Boxed systems, the original Game.com, and the improved Pocket Pro, and sealed games are notoriously cheap. Accessories such as the Internet Cart and the Web Search are a bit rarer, but none are in high demand.


Released: 1991

Number of Games: 60-71 (exact number unknown)

The Gamate might at first look to be a Hong Kong clone of a Game Boy, but it stands alone as an independent if obscure, handheld system. Taiwanese video game company BitCorp had produced games for the Famicom and clones of the Atari 2600, Colecovision, and Sega Master System in the late 1980s, and with the release of the Game Boy by Nintendo they decided to tackle the handheld market with their own budget system, the Gamate.

Although the Gamate found its way into almost every major market (except Japan) surprisingly little is known about the system. Although the RAM control configuration and visual and audio capabilities are similar to the Nintendo Game Boy, the Gamate has a custom and undocumented CPU. The games for the Gamate come on cards very similar to the cards used by NEC’s Turbografx 16 but are of an original design.

The Gamate is not a bastion for great games, and its very blurry video makes some games unplayable. Bit Corp developed all the games either in-house or through contracts to smaller companies so third-party support is non-existent. However, for a cash-stand small Taiwanese company, 60-71 games that, while generic, are very playable, is a huge amount of releases. In fact, oddly enough for such an obscure device, the Gamate library contains more games that the N-Gage, Game.com, or Gizmondo. While details are scarce, it seems Bit Corp went under in 1992, and UMC, which supplied the chips to the Gamate, took over manufacturing of the handheld, closing production in 1993.

Best to collect if: You have money and want a challenge. The Gamate is one of the most mysterious video game machines that has seen wide release. Because of poor record keeping and the fact that the handheld had a different distributor in every territory, it’s almost impossible to track down the exact number of games released, or even exactly which territories the handheld released in.

Collectors of the Gamate should look forward to hours of research, as much documentation on the system remains speculative or incomplete. Also, unlike the Nintendo Game Boy, these handhelds weren’t common even when they were still being manufactured, so they fetch high prices today if you can even find one for sale.

Milton Bradley Microvision

Released: 1979

Number of Games: 12

The Milton Bradley Microvision is the grandfather of all removable media based handhelds. While not a video game system by definition, the Microvision pioneered the concept of a handheld device that could play multiple games through the purchase and exchanging of “cassettes.” However, unlike the later Game Boy, each cartridge contained the microcontroller and game ROM, with the base only containing the LCD screen, on/off switch, and contrast knob.

Though the Microvision only really gave the illusion of game swapping, since each cartridge was pretty much a self-contained game system minus the screen, it showed that the concept was interesting to parents and children alike. Unfortunately, many of these early LCD screens suffer from a sensitivity to the elements that caused this component to separate, rendering the units useless.

Best to collect if: The Milton Bradley Microvision is more of a historical artifact than a fun handheld console. The graphics and gameplay are crude even for Nintendo Game Boy standards. Those that collect the Microvision should do so because they want to own rare pieces of video game history as opposed to having a collection to actually play.

Although the cassettes themselves aren’t too hard to find, the boxes are. Like most electronics aimed at children, the packaging for Microvision cassettes was typically thrown away soon after purchase. Coupling this with the LCD issues of the base units, you’ll find that completing an in-box Microvision collection can be quite a costly endeavor.


We’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the world of retro handhelds.