It’s hard to break the under-$20 barrier when it comes to finding a miniature game console that doesn’t suck, and the more you play and collect, the more the sameness starts to sink in. Sure, there’ll always be at least one version of Super Mario Bros. which runs less-than-optimally, and for some reason, 30 versions of Contra that start you at different levels. Every console will have Bird Week, and it will be miserable every time. At a certain point, you’re really collecting more for form than function. All of the goofball handhelds are going to basically be the same trash… but it’s the goofball exterior that really makes it all worthwhile. Will it try to emulate some classic aesthetics of Nintendo consoles? Maybe it’ll just go berserk and throw all conventions out the window and be absolutely unusable.

I’m not sure what the M3 Game Box is trying to do. While it’s an attractive little round-edged console (available in multiple colors), it doesn’t really look like anything that came before it. I didn’t really know anything about it aside from the fact that it looked soft and strange, but it may be the best $20-ish mini-console out there.

Generally, these things can be expected to emulate a bunch of really terrible 8-bit games, but unexpectedly, the M3 is a full-on multi-system emulator, running everything from NES to Gameboy Advance to Sega to MAME – and it does it pretty well. Also surprising is a removable MicroSD card and slot, which ostensibly allows you to add even more games to the system, if you have the technical expertise. Add a rechargeable battery port, and a port to feed this out to a big screen (and the ability to use both of these things at once), and it kinda feels like the perfect little Swiss army knife of mini-consoles.

But there are drawbacks; the six buttons are not laid out in an intuitive manner, or in a way where you can use them in a familiar way for most games, and they’re not reprogrammable. For as much as this does, loading an operating system, running ZIP files, and allowing for a bit of customization, it’s one thing that would have been pretty easy to include.

Tragically, the D-pad isn’t a pad at all, but one of those terrible little thumb-knobs that spins in place, so double-tapping to run is not an option. The screen is also pretty dim, but play it in a darkened environment and you’ll be fine. It’s not like kids of the ’90s didn’t have to struggle with trying to get the light to hit their Gameboy at the perfect angle, so it’s a small concession. But the worst sin of all, of course, is that The Simpsons isn’t included among the MAME games, nor is Time Killers. Still, there are a few unusual (and really excellent) beat-’em-ups like Cadillacs and Dinosaurs and The Punisher in here, so that’s also a really unexpected treat. They play excellently, even with the bizarre controls – mostly because they’re just 2-button mashers. I played Cadillacs and Dinosaurs from start to finish, just to be sure that this was as good as it seemed, and it’s the most fun I’ve had on a handheld since ever.

Still, this is a bootleg console, and as such, even though it has a better selection of games, there’s still a lot of really crappy mis-named things and shovelware in here : unplayable foreign language RPGs, and cheap reskins like Red Pig aka Porco Rosso aka Talespin, and multiple copies of the same game with different names. Goonies and Goonies II are the same thing, and even though Quattro Adventure offers you four choices of games, all you can play is Dizzy’s Treasure Island, no matter what you select, so sorry, bud.

It’s a weird little freakshow of a handheld console, but it’s actually pretty incredible for the price and convenience. But things get weirder.

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I like playing my Game Boy, but my stupid face gets way too hot”? Well, the unpronounceable Szdiier has a terrible answer for you.

As far as handhelds go, it’s the standard awful with very few surprises : bad games, bad controls, and an even worse time. But this one has the added benefit of drying out your eyes as you play. So if you have really, really wet eyes… here ya go. This too is available in multiple colors, but I chose the most basic white to emphasize just how ridiculous it is to graft a fan onto a jagoff version of a Game Boy. The console has fewer features than most. There’s no volume dial, but a terrible button that allows you to choose from four levels of volume, from silent to uncomfortable to deafening. There’s no video out port, so everything you play is stuck on the screen. The on button has to be held for about 4 seconds before this will turn on or off, and it seems to run out of batteries just by sitting there, completely turned off. It’s a bewildering mess, including a painful Pokemon platforming game that has to be a re-skin of something, a game called Minions which is just a re-themed Adventure Island, and a version of Super Mario Bros. that plays way too fast. Many of the games are just repeats of the first batch, with the number 2 added to the end, as though these identical games are a sequel. Adding to the absolute chaos is the fact that the A and B buttons are reversed, so all of the familiar, intuitive button presses are gone. But heck, at least your eyes will hurt.

The fan has three speeds, and it will work even if the game portion of the device is turned off, so you probably have a good few minutes of fan in an unimaginable emergency of some sort where you want a lot of unnecessary whirring noise and a gentle breeze. But with classics like Mop Floor, Herosold, Little Red Hoo, Cloud Up, Shoot Ballon, Clown, Fruit Donkey, Honey Donkey, Deformed Fight, Hamburger, Burger, Seaport Guarl, Sea Girl, Star Luster, Dringle, Greedy, Danger Mension, Get Eggs, Rescue Kuck, Violent, Little Hag, Aimless, Bitha, Benthal, Grot Kid, Road Worker, Road Fighter, and Sasa, you can’t go wrong. Except you already have. It’s too late, so just embrace it. At least you have something to dry your tears at that whole ten spot you just wasted on this thing.

So, what does it all mean? The more you poke around at these cheap cash-grabs at retro-cool stuff, you realize just how difficult controller design is. You may see one of these handhelds around on eBay for a few years, and then never again. Because they all exist in a greyish legal area, the overseas manufacturers of these may be shut down and cut off at any time, or their supply might run out and there’s no reason to not just move on to the next model. The M3 proves that not all of these are created equal, and you’ll definitely find a few versions of these that sell for a hundreds or so bucks, but I’m not that bold or rich just yet.

As I build a small museum of weird-ass bootleg consoles, these are a perfect fit. I’ll probably never touch most of them again… but this M3 and its wealth of arcade games really won me over. I think that this one is my go-to. On a much grander scale, these are just more examples of cheapo garbage being pushed out into the world, and most people will be absolutely disappointed if they’re trying to play vintage games. There are better options if you just want to play. But for me, the magic is in the design, or lack thereof.

Bootleg video game handhelds

C. David is a writer and artist living in the Hudson Valley, NY. He loves pinball, Wazmo Nariz, Rem Lezar, MODOK, pogs, Ultra Monsters, 80s horror, and is secretly very enthusiastic about everything else not listed here.