Tapping into nostalgia for gamers of all eras is possible with the influx of retro game consoles. If your formative years were in the late ‘80s to late ‘90s, the mere mention of “Friday nights'' inspires unmatched levels of nostalgia. ABC’s TGIF lineup was pretty solid, Pizza Hut’s Bigfoot pie could feed a family for a weekend, and visiting Blockbuster Video was a rush of excitement. But none of these Friday night experiences were half as good as picking up a controller and sitting in front of a CRT television with friends to play the latest hit video game. Tapping into this time warp is now possible, with some of the best retro game consoles available on the market.
How We Picked the Best Retro Game Consoles
Good news: There are plenty of retro game consoles out there that will provide solid, near-perfect experiences. Bad news: There are perhaps even more that are, simply put, godawful. Here are a few things we took into consideration before picking these retro game consoles.
Game Libraries: All of the consoles featured here will contain many games, all curated to mimic the best of what a system from the past offers. However, even great albums need a few B-sides to deliver the best experience. The best curation combines blockbuster titles and cult classics alike.
Controllers: Like riding a bike, it’s difficult not to remember how to hold a SNES controller properly. New controllers should be exactly like the ones from your childhood, albeit, hopefully with some new quality of life-improvements like wireless connection.
Portability: Considering many of these machines are little more than glorified Raspberry Pi machines, there’s absolutely no reason for them to be big chonkers. The best retro consoles all have one thing in common: portability. If the device in question doesn’t fit in a backpack, it better have a good reason.
Build Quality: Any random search for “retro game console” will bring up shoddy, plastic boxes that look so cheaply made that they’ll crumble into pieces if you look at them too hard. There’s a reason people are scooping up old consoles right now: they withstood the test of time. Surely, a retro game console paying tribute to the tech of the past should be equally resilient.
Best Retro Game Consoles: Reviews and Recommendations
Best Overall: NEOGEO Arcade Stick Pro
Why It Made The Cut: NEOGEO Arcade Stick Pro practically captures the magic of the arcade, while doubling as a fairly good console controller.
— Dimensions: 8.43 inches L x 16.89 inches W x 4.88 inches H
— Weight: 5.56 pounds
— Games Included: 20 on the device, 20 more available via free download
— 40 NEOGEO arcade hits
— Plug and play onto any HDMI ready screen
— Compatible with PC and some consoles
— Lacks portability
— Two players require additional controllers
The tragedy of most retro game consoles is that they’re more or less, one-trick ponies unless we’re talking about the NEOGEO Arcade Stick Pro.
On the surface, the device looks just like a console arcade stick, albeit a gorgeous one. The controller is the console and plugs into any screen with an HDMI output in 720p. From there, arcade fans can delight in some of the best NEOGEO arcade titles ever released, including six “King of Fighters'' games, six “Metal Slug” games, and even deep cuts like “Garou: Mark of the Wolves” and “League Bowling.” The NEOGEO Arcade Stick Pro comes with 20 games on the console, but you can download another 20 from the website and add them to your device. It’s a massive controller, but the great part about it is that you can plug it into a PC and use it to play Steam games. Using a secondary device, you can even plug it into a PS4 or Nintendo Switch. Talk about versatility. Sadly, these are arcade games, which are best enjoyed by two or more people. Couch co-op will require you or a friend to invest in another NEO GEO Mini Pad if you plan on a quick “Fatal Fury Special'' bout or a run-through of “Metal Slug.”
Best Portable: SNES Classic Edition
Why It Made The Cut: Nobody mines gaming nostalgia like Nintendo and the SNES Classic Edition is proof positive.
— Dimensions: 5.2 inches L x 4.3 inches W x 1.6 inches H
— Weight: 1.76 pounds
— Games Included: 21
— 21 classic and cult hits
— Incredibly portable
— Beautiful UI
— Collector's item = expensive
— Wired controllers
If you ask anyone over the age of 30 what their favorite gaming console is, there’s a good chance many to most of them will choose SNES, depending on which side of the console wars they sided with. The SNES Classic Edition is a picture-perfect 16-bit experience, and portable enough to the next family reunion or summer party.
Many of these consoles live and die by how good or bad the curated games available on the system are. SNES spanned the better part of the ‘90s, and the library here covers games big and small, like the legendary launch title “Super Mario World,” and the kooky cult classic “Earthbound.” Platformers, JRPGs, and even the unlockable “Star Fox 2,” which never saw release…until now. The UI is as smooth and sleek as you want it to be and even comes with a few customization options. To drag these titles into the 21st century, all games come with a rewind function and save states, so you never have to lose your place or your life. Plus, it’s a bit smaller than a Nintendo Switch, so it’s incredibly portable. Unfortunately, if you didn’t grab one of these when it was released in 2017, you can expect to pay a pretty penny for it now.
Best for Families: Sega Genesis Mini
Why It Made The Cut: While it doesn’t have “blast-processing,” the Sega Genesis Mini is chocked full of great games for the entire family.
— Dimensions: 7 inches L x 10.6 inches W x 2.9 inches H
— Weight: 1.65 pounds
— Games Included: 40
— Almost twice as many titles as SNES Classic
— Wide array of genres for all ages
— Three-button gamepads
It’s only natural that the Sega Genesis Mini shares a lot in common with its natural rival, the SNES Classic Edition. Both are fantastic, and which one you prefer boils down to which games tickle the pleasure receptors in your brain.
This console does sport almost twice as many titles as the SNES Classic Edition, with platformers, puzzlers, and even a couple of RPGs. And while “Sonic 3” and “Sonic and Knuckles” are tragically missing, rare inclusions like “Mega Man: The Wily Wars,” “Monster World IV,” and “Castlevania: Bloodlines” more than make up for it. The backend is smooth, with plenty of customization when it comes to aspect ratios and even a filter that makes it look like you’re playing on a CRT television. It’s small enough to be considered portable, with a cartridge slot that actually opens. No, you can’t insert a cartridge but it does mimic the look and feel of a real console. This console uses the original three-button gamepad instead of the revision with six, which makes fighting games like “Street Fighter 2: Special Championship Edition” relatively unplayable. Like many retro game consoles, this baby is rare, and you’ll be paying plenty of money for one. Start saving up those gold rings.
Best for Older Adults: Sony PlayStation Classic
Why It Made The Cut: Many decisions made with the Sony PlayStation Classic left fans scratching their heads, but hardcore fans will find plenty to love.
— Dimensions: 4.1 inches L x 5.9 inches W x 1.3 inches H
— Weight: 0.37 pounds
— Games Included: 20
— Functional design
— 20 games, many of them good
— Great controllers
— No AC adapter
— Games run slower than usual
People forget that Sony came out with its own classic console, and it may be because it sort of landed like a thud. With almost four years' perspective, the Sony PlayStation Classic isn’t too bad.
The selection of games is incredibly confusing. For every “Final Fantasy VII” and “Jumping Flash,” there’s a “Mr. Driller” and “Syphon Filter.” Many classics simply aren’t here, to make way for some seriously baffling choices. Unlike other retro game consoles, this one has some functional design. Controllers are plugged into the front via USB, and you can even buy a converter to use other non-PlayStation controllers. You may not want to, as the PlayStation controllers feel just as good as the real ones did back in the mid-'90s. Unfortunately, the experience may feel a little less optimized than before. Games on the console are PAL versions, so they run a tad slower than the original NTSC versions you’re used to. Also, you’ll need to bring your own power supply, which is fairly cynical considering the device’s cost.
Best Hardware: Taito EGRET II Mini
Why It Made The Cut: A scaled-down version of one of the most inspired arcade cabinets comes at a premium, but is seriously inspired.
— Dimensions: 7.87 inches L x 5.9 inches W x 8.22 inches H
— Weight: 2 pounds
— Games Included: 40
— 40 games spanning three decades
— Multiple control methods
— Rotating monitor
— Incredibly expensive
— Requires extra investment for full experience
Taito EGRET II machines premiered in 1996, and still inspire love among Japanese arcade cabinet fans. Now, gaijin otakus can experience a scaled-down version with the Taito EGRET II Mini.
Within this small tabletop arcade cabinet are 40 games, including the one that started it all, “Space Invaders.” You can play on this device on a small screen, or plug it into a larger screen via HDMI. But considering how versatile it is, you’ll never want to. The screen pops out to rotate, to play classic games like “Puzzle Bobble 2X” and “Elevator Action” the way they were meant to be played. Even the arcade stick panel can be switched out with another that contains a paddle and trackball, along with games to take advantage of this control method like “Arkanoid” and “Strike Bowling.” Unfortunately, tapping into these peripherals will cost a little more, on top of an already premium price point. The device ships soon, and it’s likely that it will become a collector's item, so nab one while you still can.
Things to Consider Before Buying a Retro Game Console
Necessity of a Console
There’s a good chance you already own the makings of a retro game console in your current gaggle of media devices. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, and even some streaming devices will emulate classic titles with varying degrees of success depending on their tech specs. And this doesn’t even include consoles like Nintendo Switch or PS4, which have dedicated ways to buy classic games or access them via a subscription service.
A quick note on emulation. It’s becoming more and more common, but it's still a murky legal situation. Downloading ROMs from the internet may also be potentially dangerous, as some sites that harbor these games occasionally also harbor wares of the “mal” and “spy” variety. On the whole, the rule of thumb to follow is not to download a game that you don’t own a physical copy of.
Other Ways to Play Retro Games
Retro game consoles flew off shelves ever since the NES Classic Edition was introduced, but much of the hype has cooled down. For gamers who haven’t bought a console this century, these devices were perfect for reliving the classics from the golden age of gaming. But if you own any of the big three consoles (Xbox Series, PS5, Nintendo Switch), there are plenty of ways to play classic titles, without having to buy new hardware. Here are a few suggestions.
— How to Play Classic Nintendo Games: To nobody’s surprise, you can play plenty of classic games (including the ones on the NES and SNES Classic Edition) on the Nintendo Switch family of systems. They will require a subscription to Nintendo Switch online, with different tiers unlocking more systems. The basic level will grant access to NES and SNES games, with the Expansion Pack granting access to both Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis games.
— How to Play Classic Sega Games: Nintendo Switch offers a few classic Sega games via the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion. However, “Sega Genesis Classics” compiles over 50 games from the console and is available on Switch, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.
— How to Play Classic Atari Games: The first generation of gaming hasn’t aged well. It’s probably one of those “you had to be there” situations. “Atari Flashback Classics” compiles 150 games from this bygone era, across the Atari 2600, 5200, and arcade cabinets spanning all the way back to Pong. It’s available on Nintendo Switch.
Q: How much do retro gaming consoles cost?
The best retro gaming consoles run a little more expensive than when they first released because of their scarcity like the SNES Classic Edition. However, newer retro game consoles are still relatively inexpensive, with the NEOGEO Arcade Stick Pro costing about $120.
Q: What is considered a retro game console?
Q: Do retro game consoles typically come with built-in games?
All retro game consoles featured in the roundup come with built-in games and plug-and-play functionality.
Q: How much data can a retro game console store?
This varies from device to device, but getting into the data of a retro game console can’t be done without some light hacking.
Final Thoughts on Retro Game Consoles
Nothing sells quite like the idea of recapturing your childhood. For those that spent Saturdays pumping quarters into “Samurai Showdown” cabinets, NEOGEO Arcade Stick Pro packs up to 40 titles on a console that doubles as a controller on other systems. The SNES Classic Edition
and the Sega Genesis Mini are recommended, pleasing both poles of the 16-bit generation. For a device that wows before it even boots up, the Taito EGRET II Mini is a fitting tribute to the classic arcade cabinet.
This post was created by a non-news editorial team at Recurrent Media, Futurism’s owner. Futurism may receive a portion of sales on products linked within this post.