Modern video games and consoles offer a narrative experience that rivals Hollywood blockbusters, but also require a hefty commitment of your time to play through. Sometimes you just want to dive into the action, and your favourite 8 and 16-bit games of yesteryear are perfect for that. Retro gaming is more popular than ever, and finding the perfect retro gaming gear can be overwhelming, so we’ve done the hard work for you.
Whether you’re a child of the ‘80s who’s been playing classic titles for decades and has a mountain of old cartridges (and a hard drive full of ROMs) or a teenager curious why so many people still love the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis, this guide will help point you to the best way to dive into retro gaming.
Buying forecast for spring 2020: The unfortunate events of 2020 have contributed to manufacturing and shipping delays for some of the most anticipated retro gaming hardware, including Analogue’s Pocket which was originally slated for release in 2020, but has been pushed to May of 2021. However, there’s still a lot of great hardware currently available, while other retro gaming companies continue to release newer and more capable handheld emulators almost on a weekly basis. The holidays are also approaching, and you can expect online retailers to introduce sales in an attempt to make up for lost revenue throughout 2020. Don’t drag your feet on buying up old cartridges though. With so many people still stuck at home desperate for entertainment, popular retro games are getting harder to find at a decent price.
The best portable console for experienced retro gamers
Who are you?
You’re a child of the ‘80s who cut their video game teeth on consoles like the Atari, the NES, the Super Nintendo, the Sega Master System, and the Genesis. You still have your original consoles and game carts, and over the years have amassed a sizeable collection of ROMs for your favourite games, and would love to be able to play them wherever you go, but you find the challenges of running emulators on a smartphone outweigh the convenience, and would rather have a dedicated portable with excellent physical controls built right in.
Our pick: Anbernic RG350P ($125)
Just a few years ago, the handheld emulators created by Chinese retro gaming enthusiasts were good, but not great, and lacked the quality you’d find with hardware from large companies. That’s no longer the case. The Anbernic RG350P feels as solid as the Nintendo Switch, but instead of cartridges it plays games using ROM files stored on microSD cards, for consoles including the various Game Boys, the NES and SNES, the Sega Master System and the Genesis, the original Sony PlayStation, and even retro computers like the Commodore 64. At around $125, it’s also well priced for its capabilities, but just be prepared for some forum and tutorial searches when it comes to installing new emulators or performing software updates, as the RG350P is tailored towards those who are more technologically proficient.
The RK2020 is similarly priced to the RG350P, includes a screen with a noticeable bump in resolution, offers decent controls and a faster processor allowing it to play a large number of games from more powerful 3D retro consoles including the N64 and the Sega Dreamcast. A single analogue stick it makes playing PS1 games challenging (but not impossible), although the level of technical proficiency needed to just copy ROM files to its memory card which is formatted for the Linux OS makes the RK2020 more of a challenge to get working.
The best portable console for casual retro gamers
Who are you?
Even though you grew up playing retro consoles like the SNES and Genesis, you left them all behind to collect dust in your parents’ basement and replaced them with the latest and greatest console of the day. Now that you’re all grown up you’re interested in reliving your favourite childhood games, but don’t know the first thing about emulators, ROMs, or dabbling in Linux. You want a pocket-friendly plug and play solution that’s as easy to use as the Game Boy, but not limited to simple monochromatic games.
Our pick: Evercade ($110+)
Unlike the RG350P and the RK2020, the Evercade doesn’t require users to supply their own games. Its creators have worked to licence official games from the original publishers to create a collection of themed cartridges that each contain multiple games. There are over 120 games available for the Evercade right now, with more en route, and for $140 you can snag the portable console itself and three game-filled carts to get you started. The approach means the Evercade doesn’t rely on software emulators, so every game plays as well as it did on the original system, without slowdowns or issues with sound being out of sync.
Until the Analogue Pocket officially arrives in May of 2021, there aren’t many portable console options that can run original game carts if you’ve still got your original collection on hand. But the $110 My Arcade Retro Champ can play original 8-bit NES and Famicom game cartridges if you’re ok with a portable console that’s too large for any pocket. My Arcade also revealed a follow-up, the Super Retro Champ at CES 2020 that can play both original Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis cartridges, but it’s currently another victim of pandemic-related manufacturing delays.
If size is a concern, Super Impulse’s Micro Arcade line puts classic games like Pac-Man, Tetris, Dig Dug, Galaga, Oregon Trail, and Qbert into credit card-sized handhelds that range in price from $28 to $35 depending on how many games are included on each. They were designed by the same engineer who created the open source Arduboy: a credit card-sized Game Boy that allows anyone to program and create their own games. With a black and white OLED display Arduboy games are about as simple as retro games can get and while you won’t find any A-list titles available for the credit card-sized handheld (aside from Tetris or Space Invaders clones) all the games currently available for it are completely free. You can snag a version of the Arduboy that lets you load one game at a time for $40, or wait until the spring of 2020 for the new $70 Arduboy FX which includes extra memory that can hold around 200 games at once.
Many retro handheld gamers think the genre was perfected with the original Game Boy, the Game Boy Colour, and the various iterations of the Game Boy Advance. If you’d rather stick with what you know, companies like Retro Modding can build you a custom version of Nintendo’s popular portables using a mix of the old hardware (original motherboards) and newer parts that include rechargeable batteries, backlit LCD screens, louder speakers, colourful buttons, and housings that match the originals or feature more elaborate designs. Custom builds can cost you well over $700 if you choose to upgrade every last component and they often take a few weeks to build, but if you’re heartbroken your original Game Boys no longer work, a rebuilt replacement is the next best thing.
Alternatively, with over 55 million consoles sold so far, there’s a good chance you have a Nintendo Switch or Switch Lite at home. Its cartridge slot won’t accept old Game Boy games — a feature that Nintendo included in newer handhelds for a while — but if you pay for the Nintendo Switch Online service ($6 per month) you might not realise there are two free apps you can download that give you access to a library of over 60 classic NES and SNES games, with Nintendo adding to the library every few months. It makes playing classic 8 and 16-bit Nintendo games incredibly easy and the emulation is perfect, but access is only granted for as long as you’re paying for the Switch’s online service.
The best console for retro gamers
Who are you?
You’ve lovingly stored and protected your original stack of Nintendo and Sega game cartridges as well as the consoles themselves, and want to enjoy them again on as large a screen as you can find. But technology has moved on and connecting your old hardware to a modern TV is more challenging than you anticipated. When you do get it working, your favourite games look kind of ugly, and nothing like they did on your parents’ giant CRT TV.
Our pick: Analogue Super Nt ($250)
In just a few years, Analogue has made a name for itself as the best possible solution for playing original retro game cartridges on modern TVs. Instead of relying on software emulators that can be buggy with performance that varies from game to game, Analogue’s 16-bit Super Nt uses a custom FPGA chip that perfectly emulates the Super Nintendo’s original hardware. Every game works flawlessly, and the console includes HDMI connectivity and endless options for customising how games look on a giant screen so you can get as close as possible to recreating your childhood gaming experience. At $250 the Super Nt isn’t cheap, but the bigger issue is that Analogue only produces its hardware in small batches, so you might have to wait a while before the Super Nt is back in stock.
Our other pick: Analogue Mega Sg ($265)
Everything we said about Analogue’s Super Nt applies to the Mega Sg, except that instead of playing original Super Nintendo cartridges, the Mega Sg plays 16-bit Sega Genesis games, 8-bit Sega Master System games, Game Gear (with the proper cartridge adaptor), and even Sega CD games flawlessly, with zero lag, no frame drops, and, more importantly, no audio sync issues which have plagued Sega software emulators for years. Analogue currently has the Mega Sg in stock for $265, but don’t drag your feet because the company’s hardware often sells out quickly and takes a while to restock.
The Analogue Mega Sg can play original cartridges from over a decade’s worth of Sega consoles, but the Analogue Super Nt is SNES only. If you’ve got a collection of NES cartridges too, you’ll need to hunt down the $697 Analogue Nt or the newer $697 Analogue Nt mini which are currently both out of stock from Analogue itself but occasionally surface on eBay. If you’re after a cheaper solution and don’t necessarily care about being able to play your old cartridges, Nintendo fans should definitely consider the $110+ Super Nintendo Classic Edition which comes bundled with 20 classic 16-bit SNES games and two matching controllers, or the $85 NES Classic Edition which includes 30 8-bit games and a pair of retro gamepads, but finding either could be a challenge now as Nintendo no longer produces the Classic Editions. Sega fans should have an easier time tracking down the $110 Sega Genesis Mini, however, which includes an impressive roster of 42 built-in 16-bit games running off of a polished Genesis emulator, while original PS1 fans can also grab the miniature all-in-one PlayStation Classic which, for $140 or less, includes 20 games and a pair of controllers — although you don’t get the upgraded DualShock option with the side by side analogue joysticks.
It’s not hard to find an online tutorial for turning a Raspberry Pi into a solid retro gaming emulation box too. We did one using the Raspberry Pi 3, and the newer Raspberry Pi 4 is an even more powerful solution, and a bargain starting at just $50. If the DIY approach sounds too daunting, there are pre-built Raspberry Pi-based retro consoles as well. The clever Allcade Itty Bitty Collection all look like classic NES, SNES, and N64 cartridges, but are self-contained consoles with USB power and HDMI connections hidden inside. The $210 Allcade 8-Bit, $240 Allcade 16-bit, and $278 for the Allcade 64-bit, each come with a matching retro controller and the ability to easily load ROMs using a USB flash drive.
The best retro gaming controller
Who are you?
You get your retro gaming fixes on a variety of different platforms, including desktop computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and even modern consoles like the Nintendo Switch, but you want to game with a real controller — not a touchscreen, not a keyboard, and definitely not a pair of tiny Joy-Cons.
Our pick: 8BitDo SN30 Pro+ ($80)
If you’re on the hunt for a third-party wireless controller, you’ll be hard pressed to find a solution that offers more compatibility, more customizability, and a better in-hand experience than 8BitDo’s $80 SN30 Pro+. The control layout is closest to the PlayStation’s DualShock controller with analogue joysticks sitting side-by-side, but the SN30 Pro+ can play with any device that supports controllers connected over Bluetooth. It offers excellent vibration feedback, analogue shoulder triggers, motion controls, and a rechargeable battery that can be swapped with a pair of AA batteries in an emergency. But its best feature is 8BitDo’s Ultimate Software which allows all the controls and features of the SN30 Pro+ to be completely remapped and customised to a gamer’s specific tastes, with the ability to save specific profiles for various games and easily switch between them.
With the extended grips, 8BitDo’s SN30 Pro+ is a bit large and as a result, isn’t the best option for gaming on the go. 8Bitdo’s $65 SN30 Pro features a similar control scheme layout but in a gamepad style that’s easier to stash in a pocket or a backpack, but lacks the customizability and its vibrating feedback feels underwhelming. If you’re going to exclusively be retro gaming using emulators on an Android device, 8BitDo’s $65 SN30 Pro for Xbox is an even better alternative as not only is it more portable than the SN30 Pro+, it also supports the company’s Ultimate Software allowing you to customise the functionality of the gamepad and remap the controls to your preferences, although it doesn’t feature any vibrating feedback. For ultimate portability, however, nothing can touch the tiny $30 8BitDo Zero 2 controller which is roughly the size of a Tic-Tac container but pairs four action buttons, a directional pad, and a pair of shoulder buttons with a rechargeable battery good for about eight hours of gaming.
As excellent as 8BitDo’s controllers are, they currently do not support any iOS devices. Apple has long made its tablets and smartphones very restrictive when it comes to which wireless gamepads they can play nice with, but last year, when Apple Arcade was introduced, the company updated iOS 13, iPadOS 13, tvOS 13, and macOS Catalina with support for the $85 Xbox One Wireless Controller with Bluetooth and the $85 PlayStation DualShock 4 Wireless Controller. Both come from companies with major investments in gaming, and while these modern controllers might be a little overkill for playing retro-esque games (Apple’s mobile platforms are not emulator friendly) they’re solid options with excellent support services backing up each one.
The best retro arcade machine
Who are you?
You’re someone who spent time hanging around the local arcade, feeding quarters into cabinets with cutting edge graphics and wonderfully responsive joysticks and buttons. That’s the experience you’re trying to recreate — minus the stained carpets, dim lighting, and clouds of cigarette smoke.
Our pick: Arcade1Up Video Game Cabinets ($500)
If you’re willing to spend thousands of dollars, there’s no shortage of retro arcade machines out there to buy, powered by PCs running emulators that give instant access to thousands of classic games. Arcade1Up takes an entirely different approach. Instead of one machine that plays everything, Arcade1Up offers IKEA-style build-it-yourself arcade cabinets that focus on a specific series of games. (Such as the various iterations of Golden Tee released over the years.) The company’s arcades look exactly like the ones you’d find in a classic arcade, with matching graphics, light-up marquees, and even the original controls, but they stand just four feet tall if you’re not using an optional riser. The scaled down approach means you can even squeeze them into a tiny apartment, and they start at $500.
If you’re not quite ready to turn a room in your home into a private arcade, Arcade1Up also sells even smaller replicas it calls Counter-cades that can look and play exactly like their larger counterparts, but can easily be perched on a desk. Starting at $200 the Counter-cades are also a lot cheaper than Arcade1Up’s self-standing cabinets, letting you grow your collection faster.