Getting Into Retro Gaming: what retro gaming hardware should you buy to get started?

We’re not all grizzled retro gaming veterans — some of us are new to the hobby. So our Getting Into Retro Gaming guides are here to help you get up and running as soon as possible! If there’s any topic that you’d like to learn more about, be sure to let us know and we’ll cover it in a future column!


Retro gaming is an incredible hobby with a massively diverse array of things to explore. But if you’re new to the hobby — or perhaps just now developing an interest in rediscovering some of the games from your earlier years — it can be tricky to know where to start. So that’s what our new Getting Into Retro Gaming guides are all about: getting you up and running with classic gaming as soon as possible. And we begin with a fundamental question: what retro gaming hardware should you invest in, if any, to start exploring?

There are a lot of different options out there depending on how “authentic” an experience you want, and there are pros and cons to all of them. Today we’ll be looking at a selection of the most popular options, along with their specific strengths and drawbacks. By the end of today you’ll have a good idea of what your options are — and perhaps which direction you’d like to go in to start with.

Original hardware for TVs

Retro gaming hardware: Atari 2600 advert

This is, theoretically, one of the simplest means of getting involved with retro gaming: simply buy an original console and the games for it, plug them into your TV and you’re away. However, there are a few considerations to bear in mind, particularly if you’re interested in exploring consoles from prior to high-definition televisions becoming standard.

Older consoles have immensely variable picture quality that is heavily dependent on the way in which you connect them to your television, the cables that you use to make that connection, and even what kind of television you’re using.

The oldest retro gaming hardware like the Atari 2600, Intellivision and Philips G7000 can only connect to a TV through the port that the TV aerial usually plugs into; this is also known as an RF connection. This has pretty poor picture quality and requires you to manually tune your television until the picture from the console is visible on screen. Generally speaking, these consoles tend to look better on a CRT television — the big, chunky ones from years past rather than today’s flat models.

Retro gaming hardware: NES advert

The most popular retro gaming hardware such as the Super NES, Mega Drive, PlayStation and Nintendo 64 can be connected to a television through component cables (the yellow, red and white ones) or SCART (the weird-shaped plug with lots of prongs in it). SCART typically provides a better picture, and if you’re willing to invest the money required for a high quality RGB SCART cable you’ll get the best picture possible for the hardware, with minimal interference — though note that some consoles (notably the Nintendo 64) do not support this option without hardware modifications.

If you really want your RGB SCART consoles to look great on a modern TV, you can invest in an “upscaler”, which takes a SCART input, works some magic on it to turn it into a proper HD picture, then allows you to connect to your TV via HDMI, which is a more common type of connection on today’s TVs.

If you want minimal fuss, invest in an original console and a CRT TV that is in good working order; then you can pretty much just plug and play without having to worry.

Pros: The most authentic retro gaming hardware experience you can get. Lots of different options. Inherent cool factor.

Cons: Can be expensive, particularly when you add the cost of collecting original media. CRT TVs take up a lot of space. Can be a pain to get pre-HD consoles up and running on today’s televisions.

Original handheld hardware

Retro gaming hardware: Game Boy ad

It’s theoretically even simpler to get up and running with old handheld retro gaming hardware such as Nintendo’s Game Boy, Atari’s Lynx or Sega’s Game Gear. But these all have their own considerations, too.

You’re generally pretty safe with a Game Boy, since those things could survive a nuclear war, particularly in their original incarnation — and since they just run on AA batteries (or AAA for the later “Pocket” models) you don’t need to worry about the thing not holding a charge any more.

Do bear in mind, though, that the Game Boy’s screen didn’t get a backlight until the Game Boy Advance SP; prior to that, in order to enjoy the Game Boy, you’d need to be sitting somewhere with good lighting and minimal reflection! The upside of this is that a single set of batteries in the Game Boy has been known to last for years.

Retro gaming hardware: Atari Lynx ad

Handhelds with a backlit screen like the Lynx and Game Gear can be troublesome, because their screens tend to fail over time. If you’re considering investing in one, make sure you get a good look at whether or not it is in working order before you spend your money. It is possible to either fix them or modify them with a more reliable, modern screen — some vendors will even sell pre-modified or refurbished models — but make sure you bear this in mind before splashing the cash.

Also note that the early backlit LCD screens found in these systems are massive battery hogs — six AA batteries will get you a couple of hours’ play at most.

More recent handhelds such as the PSP and Vita tend not to have problems with their screens, but in those cases their rechargeable batteries will prove to be more troublesome as time goes on. Both can be played from mains power if worst comes to worst, though!

Pros: Portable retro gaming hardware means you can enjoy your games anywhere. Enormously varied libraries — Game Boy in particular has thousands of fascinating games.

Cons: Can be pricey, particularly if you get into hardware modifications or refurbishment — and you also need to buy the media. Near-impossible to capture good quality video and screenshots from. Battery issues.

Mini-consoles

Retro gaming hardware: NES mini

Today’s mini-consoles are a good way to explore a curated selection of retro gaming classics. To date, quite a few of the classic systems of yore have been covered by these: the Atari Flashback consoles cover the 2600 (occasionally also the 5200, 7800 and Atari arcade games); the Nintendo Classic Mini contains a great selection of Nintendo games; the Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Nintendo Entertainment System does the same for the SNES; the Mega Drive Mini does the same for Sega’s Mega Drive; and, as you might expect, the PC Engine Mini does the same for the underappreciated PC Engine/Turbografx-16.

While these consoles are essentially little mini-computers that are preloaded with emulators and ROMs for classic games rather than true recreations of vintage retro gaming hardware, they’re designed to feel as authentic as possible, with controllers modelled after the original systems and a form factor that, while miniaturised, is still true to the original design.

They also tend to come loaded with convenient modern features such as the ability to save your progress at any time during a game rather than just when the game allows you to (if at all) — this is typically called a “save state”, since it essentially takes a snapshot of the state that the console and game are in at the exact moment you hit “save”.

Retro gaming hardware: PC Engine Mini

The downside of mini-consoles is that you’re stuck with the included lineup of games unless you’re willing to get into “hacking” them. That’s a little beyond the scope of what we’re talking about here but know that it is an option — less popular mini-console units such as the PlayStation Classic are particularly popular for this, since they can be very affordable.

Mini-consoles have also typically been released as limited editions, so you may find yourself paying over the odds if you want to grab one after the initial release window. Be sure to shop around for the best price.

Pros: Plug and play on modern televisions. Includes a selection of great games to get you started. Authentic feel, but convenient modern features.

Cons: Can be pricey or hard to find if you didn’t catch them on release. No ability to play original media. No expandability without doing unofficial “hacks”.

Clone consoles

Retro gaming hardware: RetroN 5

Clone consoles are essentially pieces of modern retro gaming hardware that have the ability to play original media from old-school systems. Some clone consoles are actually compatible with multiple systems, allowing you to use a single piece of retro gaming hardware to enjoy games from multiple platforms. This means they can be a great option if you still have a pile of old cartridges but the actual retro gaming hardware you used to play them on has failed.

Hyperkin’s RetroN series are some of the most well-known options, but their performance can vary a little on some games. Other options include Analogue’s beautifully classy products, but these are generally an absolute nightmare to preorder when they become available — and are impossible to find after the fact.

Retro gaming hardware: Polymega

One of the most interesting developments in this scene is the modular Polymega system, which supports a wide variety of different platforms with new, custom-made hardware designed to support original media. This is a very new platform that is still yet to prove itself for many people — but it’s worth keeping an eye on, particularly as it claims that future modules will support classic platforms that have long been languishing on obscurity like the Sega Saturn.

Pros: Plug and play on today’s televisions. Includes modern convenience features. Designed to maintain the legacy of the games with new, modernised hardware.

Cons: Pricey, hard to find and difficult to even preorder in the case of Analogue. Polymega is yet to prove itself. Requires original media, which can add to the expense.

ROM players

Retro gaming hardware: Anbernic

There are a number of ways out there to get yourself a device which you can load ROMs or CD images into, but collectively we can consider these all to be “ROM players”.

Generally speaking, a ROM player will come in one of several forms: a handheld device such as the popular Anbernic range; a mini-computer such as a Raspberry Pi set up with the software required to emulate various retro gaming hardware (typically known as a “RetroPie” after the software used to get this up and running); or a hacked mini-console using software such as that found on the ModMyClassic site. (If you’re considering the latter option, please read all the instructions very carefully before starting, as you can do irreversible damage to a mini-console if you’re not careful.)

The idea behind a ROM player is simple — it’s similar to the principle an MP3 player works on. You load up your device (or the storage media it takes — typically an SD card of some description) with games, and then simply pick from a big list of all the stuff you have on there to play at your leisure. The obvious benefit of this is that you can carry a single device with you that is full to the brim with classic retro games.

Retro gaming hardware: RetroPie

However, the major consideration with ROM players is a moral one; for games that are still covered by copyright, it is technically illegal to download a ROM of a game you haven’t bought, even if the game is not readily available for purchase anywhere. Some companies are very strict about this — Nintendo in particular does fairly frequent crackdowns on ROM distribution sites — while others are seemingly happy to let people have their fun if they’re not actively making money from selling those games anyway.

For more obscure platforms, or those where the original company has long since vanished, you can often find sets of ROMs on the Internet Archive as part of their collection of digital historical artifacts. For others, you’ll have to go hunting yourself — we won’t be telling you specific places to look — or rip your own ROMs from the media you own, which typically requires additional hardware.

Pros: One of the most flexible modern retro gaming hardware options. Ability to carry a huge library of games with you wherever you go. Usually either portable or plug and play on modern televisions.

Cons: Moral and legal implications on ROM distribution and acquisition. Performance and compatibility can be variable according to hardware. Can sometimes require technical knowledge and the ability to parse exceedingly unclear documentation.

Evercade

Retro gaming hardware: Evercade

Blaze’s Evercade platform is kind of a unique situation because it’s a modern device that features official rereleases of classic games on cartridges specifically designed to fit the unit. At heart, it’s an emulation device — the difference between the Evercade and a ROM player is that there are no moral or legal questions to worry about; everything released on Evercade has been officially licensed from the current rights holders.

Evercade is a great piece of retro gaming hardware for collectors on a budget, since its packaged, numbered physical releases look lovely on a shelf and include not only the cartridge, but also a full-colour manual plus often extras such as posters and stickers, too. At $20/£15 per cart — and with each cart containing anywhere between two and 20 games — it’s excellent value, and a lot cheaper than tracking down original media in many cases, particularly for rare games or those which have escalated in price over time.

Retro gaming hardware: Evercade VS

One of the nice things about Evercade is that its licensed rereleases haven’t just focused on the same games you always see in retro gaming collections; the library celebrates everything from modern “homebrew” titles developed by enthusiasts to more obscure and rare games. The upcoming Renovation collection cartridge is a particular highlight in this regard; the games in that bundle would cost you several hundred quid to collect in their original format!

Evercade offers a handheld option, allowing you to play its full library solo on the go, and the TV-connected 1080p VS console, which features four controller ports for multiplayer games. You can either use official Evercade controllers, or most USB game controllers that are available today — even wireless ones. At the time of writing, the VS isn’t quite with us, but the first review units are starting to find their way into the hands of various online commentators. Watch out for our thoughts soon!

Pros: Official physical rereleases of classic games. Enormously varied library. Excellent value for money. Handheld and console options. Brilliant centralised community and top-notch customer support.

Cons: An upper limit to what systems it will be able to support — don’t expect anything past PS1. Future library is dependent on licensing.

Nintendo Switch

Retro gaming hardware: Nintendo Switch

A current console might not be the first place you’d think to look for retro gaming, but honestly, a Nintendo Switch is an excellent investment for both modern and retro titles.

The platform plays host to a huge variety of official rereleases of retro games, both in physical and digital-only form. Physically, you can get official rereleases of everything from the original Shantae — one of the most notoriously hard to find Game Boy Colour games of all time — to classic Saturn shooters like Cotton and Psikyo’s titles.

Digitally, meanwhile, Hamster’s Arcade Archives and ACA Neo Geo series cover a wealth of retro gaming classics, including many which don’t get talked about all that much. And Sega’s excellent Sega Ages series — which has now come to an end, sadly — modernises a variety of the company’s most beloved arcade, Master System and Mega Drive games without compromising the aspects that made them so appealing in the first place.

Retro gaming hardware: Nintendo Switch

Sign up to Nintendo’s Nintendo Switch Online service and you get access to the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Nintendo Entertainment System apps, each of which contain a library of interesting games with full online play capability plus the ability to save states and “rewind”; add the recently announced “Expansion Pack” and you can add Sega Mega Drive and Nintendo 64 games to that list, too. The only downside of this is that you need to keep paying your subscription to access these games.

Then on top of that you can enjoy some of the best games of today, too. Even if your Nintendo Switch doesn’t become your primary piece of retro gaming hardware, it’s simply a solid investment generally.

Pros: Official rereleases of classic games, both physically and digitally — including stuff that has historically been rare or expensive. Huge, varied library. Good value for money. Hybrid hardware means you can play on the go or on the TV. Ability to play modern games as well as retro classics.

Cons: Subscription required to play online and to access Nintendo’s retro gaming releases — quite pricy with the Expansion Pack. Nintendo sometimes makes baffling decisions, seemingly to create artificial scarcity of both physical and digital games.

PC

Retro gaming hardware: PC

For the ultimate in retro gaming hardware flexibility, it’s hard to beat a PC — though this comes with the caveat that you have to do a lot more of the hard work yourself in terms of installing software, tweaking its performance and getting everything set up to your liking.

On PC, you have a wide range of emulators that can at the very least attempt to recreate the experience of pretty much any platform you’d care to think of — even weird ones that you think no-one has ever heard of. It’s also much more practical to emulate home computers as well as consoles due to the fact that keyboard and mouse control is standard — this opens you up to even wider libraries than console-centric retro gaming hardware.

Since PC hardware is so varied, though, it can sometimes be tricky to get things performing optimally — particularly when emulating complex hardware such as arcade machines. And there are still some platforms for which emulation isn’t really practical; Sega Saturn has been notoriously difficult to get running well, for example.

Retro gaming hardware: PC

PC also plays host to a variety of official rereleases of retro games. Digital storefront GOG.com was originally set up as “Good Old Games”, for example, hosting the first official rereleases of MS-DOS PC games, which had previously proven near-impossible to get up and running on modern machines without extensive tinkering.

Pros: Official rereleases of classic PC games and some console games. Immense flexibility from huge range of available emulators. More practical option for emulating home computers as well as consoles.

Cons: You’re on your own; nothing is set up for you. Moral and legal questions on ROM distribution and acquisition. Performance can vary according to hardware and software.


So those are your options! There’s no one option that is really “best” as such — it all depends on what you’re looking for from the hobby. Hopefully, though, the above has given you an idea of what to expect from each possible option, and what might be right for you.

If you have any questions, feel free to leave ’em down in the comments — and likewise, if there’s a particular topic you’d like us to cover in more detail in this series in the future, please do let us know!

For now, happy gaming!

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