Anbernic RG ARC
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

The Sega Saturn may have sold less than ten million units worldwide compared to the PlayStation's 102.49 million, but if you were a fan of 2D gaming – especially one-on-one fighters – then it was the platform of choice back in the '90s.

This was partly due to the fact that Saturn handled 2D games a lot better than PlayStation due to its larger memory and the ability to augment that with RAM cartridges, but another key reason was its controller, which is arguably one of the best pads ever to be bundled with a home console.

Fast forward to 2023, and Chinese manufacturer Anbernic is exploiting the love of Saturn with its latest emulation-based handheld, the RG ARC. With a design which is clearly inspired by the Saturn controller, it is pitched as the ultimate portable for Sega fans – but is the reality quite as positive? That's what we're here to find out...

Anbernic RG ARC Review: What's In The Box

Anbernic RG ARC
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

The Anbernic RG ARC comes with a MicroSD card, screen protector and a USB-A to USB-C charging cable. The unit we were kindly sent for review by Anbernic also came with a second MicroSD card loaded with games.

It's worth noting that the system is available in two versions: the RG ARC-S and the RG ARC-D. The 'S' runs a Linux-based OS while the 'D' has both Linux and Android – it also has 2GB of RAM compared to the single 1GB found in the 'S' variant. It also has a touch screen, whereas the 'S' model does not.

The 'S' model is available in transparent black and blue, while the 'D' comes in black (Western colour) and Grey (Japanese colour, with green, yellow and blue action buttons).

Anbernic RG ARC Review: Design & Display

Anbernic RG ARC
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

As we've already mentioned, the RG ARC is clearly inspired by the Sega Saturn controller – more specifically, the joypad which launched alongside the console in its native Japan (the West got a redesigned and less comfortable pad before Sega wisely reverted back to the Japanese design later). Everything from the general design to the button placement is a close match, although, as you'd assume, the RG ARC is a lot larger in overall size.

The reason the Saturn pad is so beloved by fighting game fans is because it has a brilliant rolling D-pad which is perfect for the kind of motion-based inputs required in games such as Street Fighter and King of Fighters. The second reason is that the pad has a six-button layout on its face, rather than the more traditional four-button 'diamond' configuration pioneered by the SNES and used by pretty much every major home console since. While the four-button setup makes sense for the vast majority of games, the six-button layout is perfect for Capcom's dazzling range of fighting game series – which is perhaps why the company was such a staunch supporter of the Saturn back in the day.

The good news is that Anbernic has absolutely nailed the controls on the RG ARC. Both the D-pad and the buttons are brilliant; within seconds of firing up X-Men vs Street Fighter, we were happily throwing fireballs and pulling off Dragon Punches without a single hitch – which is something that cannot always be said for modern-day control interfaces. Even the mighty Analogue Pocket, which has support for Capcom's CPS-based arcade titles via its OpenFPGA system, cannot hold a candle to the RG ARC when it comes to controls, as it lacks the all-important six-button layout on its face.

Accompanying the Saturn-style controls, you also benefit from two additional shoulder buttons (the Saturn pad only had one on each shoulder originally) and various buttons and ports. A handy 'Function' button can be used to drop out of emulators, for example. There are two MicroSD card slots, as well as HDMI-out on the top edge of the device. There are also two USB-C ports – one for charging and the other for accessories.

The screen is a 4:3 aspect ratio 4.0-inch IPS panel with a 640x480 pixel resolution, which makes it ideal for retro gaming. The screen has great colour, brightness and contrast, but we noticed a very small area in the bottom-left corner of the screen which, on a black image, appears lighter than the rest of the panel. This is usually when part of the case is applying pressure to the display. It might be an issue that's unique to the review unit we were sent, but we thought it best to mention it regardless.

Anbernic RG ARC Review: Software & Battery Life

Anbernic RG ARC
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

The Anbernic RG ARC is running a Rockchip RK3566 chipset, which isn't all that powerful when you look at rival machines in the same kind of cost ballpark. This might sound like a disaster, but in actual fact, it's not as much of an issue as you might assume at first, largely because you shouldn't be looking at the RG ARC if you're keen to emulate systems like the N64, Dreamcast and PSP.

First things first, it's worth discussing the differences between the Linux ('S') and dual-boot ('D') versions of the system. With the cheaper model, you're stuck with Linux – which isn't actually as bad as it sounds, as the vast majority of emulators seem to run better in Linux than they do on Android. The Linux version has its own selection of emulators but also comes with RetroArch loaded, so you'll find yourself swapping between the two when it comes to securing the smoothest possible performance.

Anbernic RG ARC
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Booting the 'D' model into Android (hold down the Function button and Power button at the same time) presents you with the typical Google experience, with a catch – there's no Google Play Store support on the RG ARC, so you'll need to side-load apps. That isn't the end of the world, but it's not as 'clean' an experience as some Android users might be accustomed to.

The Android OS does offer some benefits, such as touchscreen support for Nintendo DS emulation, but we were shocked at how poorly some games ran when compared to Linux – and, beyond a quick mess around for review purposes, stuck with Linux for the majority of our time with the RG ARC. This is worth keeping in mind if you're looking at the price difference between the S and D models of the device.

Both the S and D models of the RG ARC have the same 3500 mAh battery, which is quoted as offering around six hours of use on a single charge. That figure naturally depends on what kind of emulation you're doing, but we found it to be a reasonably accurate total during our review period.

Anbernic RG ARC Review: Emulation

Given that the RG ARC is shaped like a Saturn controller, you'd imagine that Saturn emulation is 100% rock solid – but sadly, that isn't the case. While a great many games are perfectly playable with frame skip enabled, you're not getting a full-speed experience here, which could be off-putting for some purists. For casual users, however, the RG ARC is an agreeable (and portable) way to become familiar with the console's library of amazing titles.

What really saves the RG ARC's bacon is the fact that many of Saturn's best 2D titles came from the arcades, and the performance of coin-op emulation is, in most cases, perfect. Capcom's CPS1, CPS2 and CPS3 arcade standards are all emulated to the highest possible level on the RG ARC, which means you can play titles like Street Fighter II, Marvel Super Heroes vs Street Fighter, Vampire Savior and Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike at full speed with the best fighting game controls you'll find on any portable device.

Saturn was also blessed with some excellent ports of SNK's fighting games franchises, including King of Fighters, Real Bout Fatal Fury and Samurai Shodown. Again, these run as smooth as butter on the RK3566 chipset, and are a joy to play with the RG ARC's brilliant control setup.

Anbernic RG ARC
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Systems like the Mega Drive and SNES also benefit from those lovely controls – Sega's 16-bit console actually had a six-button layout before the Saturn arrived, so you'll find many games are perfectly suited to the RG ARC. Any console prior to that will also play like a dream, thanks mainly to that fantastic rolling D-pad.

It's only when you look beyond the 32-bit era that things begin to get a little sticky. Because the RG ARC lacks an analogue stick, N64 games are often unplayable as the system's D-pad is mapped to the N64's digital pad – which was often meant to be used in tandem with its analogue wand. Even when there are cases where control is possible with the D-pad, you have to make to with digital control rather than proportional analogue, which many N64 games were built around.

Likewise, with Dreamcast, there are too many instances where the lack of an analogue stick renders things unplayable (although it should be noted that Capcom's arcade ports, such as Marvel vs Capcom, are still enjoyable – assuming you can stomach the slightly sluggish frame rate). Honestly, the key thing with the RG ARC is to focus on a particular era of gaming rather than expecting it to do everything.

Anbernic RG ARC Review: Conclusion

It would be foolish to call the Anbernic RG ARC the 'ultimate' emulation platform because, in a lot of respects, it's inferior to many of the other options on the market due to the weak chipset and lack of even a single analogue stick.

However, this is a case where focusing on a particular niche has paid off handsomely; if, like us, you adore 2D fighting games, then it's hard to think of a more perfect way to play them on the move than this.

Anbernic RG ARC
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

While mobile devices have been perfectly capable of emulating CPS1, CPS2 and CPS3 games in the past, none of them have married that power with a control interface that's suited for such games. By taking the Saturn's rolling D-pad and six-button layout and fusing it with an emulation-based system, Anbernic has created the perfect way to play one-on-one brawlers when you're out and about.

If you're not interested in this genre, then the RG ARC becomes a harder device to recommend – but again, this is aimed at a niche, and in that regard, it does practically everything right. This is a fantastic fusion of amazing controls and capable emulation which strikes the balance better than most devices of this kind, and we don't mind admitting we're totally in love.

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