First of all it bears mention that it is quite possible to emulate a Famicom with several different non Famiclone handheld options. These are not true Famiclones since even though they can run Famicom and NES ROMs they do not use the original cartridges. All the options that can run Famicom ROMS can also run NES ROMs, as the only differences between Famicom and NES games are the size of the carts and the pin layouts. They include PDAs such as the gaming optimized Tapwave Zodiac, I Phone, some cell phones, GP32, hacked PSP, or my personal favorite, the open source GP2X. All the listed options should, in general, be capable of emulating the NES/Famicom without too much trouble and software is available for all the above options. A key disadvantage (or advantage if cartridges are not your thing) of these options is that the games are not played off of original cartridges. Quality will vary by available emulators, screen quality, and control schemes. The issue of control schemes is perhaps the biggest consideration when looking at these options for use as Famicom/NES emulators. Since a consumer is not likely to purchase any of the above options primarily as a Famicom/NES emulator the primary use will likely dictate which product is obtained. Few of the multi use options are going to have great control schemes. If you want to use your cell phone you’ll need one with at least 246k RAM, a decent processor, and probably some way to attach it to your computer. The high profile cell phone that is getting a lot of independent developer support and development right now is the I-Phone. If you are a gadget nerd this is the obvious choice since it has the functionality of a PDA, internet browser, and MP3/video player. If you are looking for a dedicated classic gaming platform you can largely avoid the poor control scheme issue by purchasing a more dedicated device. Again I am going to recommend the GP2X. Though GP2X has not been featured here there is plenty of information available online.
The only recommendable “emulation free” option that does not require original Famicom carts is the Onestation. The Onestation is a Chinese cartridge based system that runs real Famicom/NES games on their own proprietary cartridge based system. It has great controls and a truly fantastic screen. The only disadvantage of the Onestation is a smaller available library of games though the available library includes both Japanese and US releases.
As far as availability goes the rarest Famiclone portables are in the category of NES Mods. An NES Mod of the portable variety is a hand made portable NES that is generally made with a NOAC (NES on a chip) and some sort of portable LCD packed into some form of custom case. These are some of the best and worst Famiclones since, depending on components used and craftsmanship, they can be far better and far worse than any commercially available Famiclone. The king of hardware mods is Benjamin J. Heckendorn who has made many different portable game systems from scratch. NES Mods are generally one of a kind creations and are therefore very rare. The advantage of the systems is that there are many options to obtain the needed NOAC, screen, controls and cases to make your own. Another positive is that it can be built to accept NES games without an adapter. The negative is of course that you have to actually build said machine. Unless you have time, patience, and skill you should probably simply buy a portable Famiclone.
The first portable Famiclone was the Top Guy. It allegedly ran off of six D batteries and lasted about an hour. Top Guys are apparently about as rare as the yeti. I don’t really need to write much about this unit because neither you nor I will likely ever see one and most information is from blurry pictures and hearsay.
Slightly less rare is the Game Axe. This unit takes 6 AA batteries and was considered the best portable Famicom available for quite a while. The likelihood of you seeing one of these is about as likely as seeing a Zetland (half Zebra half Shetland Pony) in the wild. I am seeking both a Top Guy and Game Axe for my collection however they do not seem to become available very often. If by some chance you have one of either unit you are willing to part with or know how to get one please contact me.
This narrows the field to systems that are actually somewhat more likely for you or me to actually see.
There are a couple true Famiclone options that are add-ons for other established Nintendo systems. These include the Cyber Famulator which is an add on for the Nintendo DS as well as the Handy Famieight which attaches to the GBA or may be used with external controllers and attached to a television. Neither of these options is ideal as they add considerable bulk to already full sized handheld systems and, at least in the case of the Handy Famieight, have cheap enough feeling construction to hamper the experience. An advantage of the Handy Famieight is that, with some care, it is possible to use a NES to Famicom adapter with included external controllers and play NES games on your Tee Vee.
This leaves a few viable options which include the FC Mobile, Pocketfami, and Game Theory Admiral. The negative of all these systems is that none of them a quality screen. They do otherwise rate fairly well in availability, quality, and genuineness of experience. The lesser of the 3 options is the Game Theory Admiral. The GTA has a lower quality screen and stiffer, less responsive feeling controls than the other two options but the biggest negative is the way that the cartridge attaches to the unit. The slot on the top of the GTA fits no known game cartridges but instead fits a type of “game spatula” that attaches to the core unit and has the standard Famicom attachment on the end of it. This means that unless the Famicom cart fits very firmly it is pretty easy to unseat the carts during play. The unit is very funny, quirky, and last I checked, still available new from a seller on Amazon. Though the GTA does not appear to be being manufactured anymore it is quite inexpensive new, though as it becomes harder to find it will likely increase in price. The FC Mobile and Pocketfami are very comparable with a few differences that will make them more or less desirable depending on what an end user desires from the system.
The FC Mobile is a slightly better choice as a handheld. The screen quality is just a tad better and the controls, particularly the + pad feel much better. The design of the unit is understated with all black except for a couple of chrome accents around the speakers. The button layout is top notch except for the fact that the reset button sits just bellow and to the left of the A and B buttons. I did not find the reset button’s location problematic but there is a higher chance of an accidental press than with the Pocketfami. There is both a headphone jack as well as an A/V out jack that allows you to play on your Tee-Vee or with headphones. I have not found any incompatibility issues with any carts though I am sure some must exist.
The Pocketfami has a slightly lower quality screen and a + pad that does not feel quite as good but has some other features that make it otherwise desirable. Firstly the reset button is up above the + pad where it will not be accidentally pressed and in addition to the A and B buttons Pocketfami has AA and BB buttons that act as turbo buttons. The color scheme of the Pocketfami stays true to the original Famicom with a crème and deep red casing which in the unlikely event that you grew up with a Famicom will undoubtedly increase the nostalgia value. The worthwhile additions to the Pocketfami are the inclusion of TV out, AC/DC in, and 2 controller ports. This makes playing NES games on a Tee-Vee with controllers and the use of a Famicom to NES adaptor possible. I got my copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 to run pretty well with a minimum of graphical strangeness. I am not sure about the availability of controllers for the system as they do not have same pin lay out as any Nintendo controllers. I happened to have a couple compatible controllers that are used with the Handy Famieight.
In the final analysis the top three recommended options are:
1. FC Mobile, with fewer options than some other Famiclones, it offers a pure experience and has controls and a design that just feels nice. The screen is not of the best quality but is the best of the units that play Famicom games. It is only really practical for use with Famicom carts as a NES cart with an adaptor will stick very far out of the game slot.
2. Onestation, very small, quite inexpensive, with great controls and an excellent screen. System lacks access to the full library of games which is the biggest negative.
3. GP2X, can be a bit expensive, has excellent controls, a quality screen, and can run SNES, Scumm, MAME, Genesis, and other types of games in addition to NES and Famicom games thru emulation. It is not the best system to just pick up and play as it takes around 20 seconds just to boot up.