Modern video games and consoles offer a narrative experience that rivals Hollywood blockbusters, but today’s games also require a lengthy amount of time to play through. Sometimes you just want to dive into the action, and your favorite 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 you figure out the best way to enjoy the classics from the past.
Buying forecast for 2022: As we are in year three of the global pandemic, manufacturing and supply chain delays continue to plague consumer electronics. Panic’s Playdate portable, which features a monochromatic display and retro-inspired games that can be played by turning a crank, was delayed in 2021, but has now finally arrived.
With 2021 came the start of a new generation of handheld emulators, many originating from China, with faster processors that provide better performance when playing more complex 3D games from consoles like the N64 and Sega Dreamcast, and a switch from Linux to Android operating systems that brought a host of new emulator options with it. Companies like Anbernic are finally moving on from the long-in-the-tooth RKK3326 chip, too, with more capable and powerful handheld emulators en route like the highly anticipated RG552.
Though the Nintendo Switch Pro has still not arrived, Nintendo continues to expand its offering of retro titles through its Nintendo Switch Online Services, where you can enjoy classic games from the NES and Super NES, but also has an expansion pack that adds classic games from the Nintendo 64 as well as the Sega Genesis. They should all look especially lovely on the Nintendo Switch OLED.
You were a child of the ‘80s or ‘90s who couldn’t have possibly fathomed leaving the house without a portable console squeezed into your pocket to keep you entertained. You bought every handheld (or asked your parents to) the day they were released, from the original Nintendo Game Boy, to the Game Boy Color, to the battery-hungry Sega Game Gear, to the Game Boy Advance—even though its unlit color screen was impossible to see. You’ve still got all your original game cartridges, but your original hardware is starting to show its age, and you want a better way to enjoy your favorite retro titles without turning to emulation or jumping through the awkward hoops of retro gaming on a smartphone.
Our Pick: Analogue Pocket ($219)
Although delayed for almost a year as a result of the global pandemic, the Analogue Pocket is finally here and delivers a near-unrivaled retro gaming experience for titles released on classic handheld consoles. Its 3.5-inch, 1600 x 1440 pixel LCD display (protected with Gorilla Glass) is a sight to behold, and is able to perfectly emulate the look of classic handhelds without introducing any gameplay performance issues. That screen is paired with a custom-designed FPGA chip that plays games from the Nintendo Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, Sega Game Gear, and other portable consoles flawlessly, with advanced features coming soon that will allow players to save their progress mid-game and even share game saves with others. There’s a dock that allows games to be played through a TV, but keep in mind you’ll need to bring your own original cartridges and pay for slightly clunky cartridge adapters for non-Nintendo titles.
Like the Analogue Pocket, the $90 Evercade is a portable console reliant on game cartridges, but not your Nintendo and Sega ones collecting dust in a shoebox in your parents’ home.
The Evercade’s creators licensed official games from their original publishers to create a collection of themed cartridges that each contain multiple titles. There are almost 250 games available for the Evercade right now, and that list continues to grow. For $70 you can snag the portable console itself, while the proprietary multi-game carts are $20 each. The approach means that, like the Analogue Pocket, the Evercade doesn’t rely on software emulators, so every game plays as well as it did on its original system, without slowdowns, graphical hiccups, or issues with sound effects being out of sync with the action on screen.
Last year, Nintendo genuinely surprised us with a revival of its old-school Game & Watch handhelds to help celebrate Mario’s 35th anniversary. The $50 Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. paired the original NES version of Super Mario Bros. with its sequel and a classic G&W game called Ball to create a charming throwback handheld that wasn’t necessarily a must-have. This year Nintendo surprised us again with a follow-up, the $50 Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda, which swapped Mario for three classic Zelda games: the original NES The Legend of Zelda from 1986, the 1988 sequel Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, which introduced side-scrolling levels, and the 1993 The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening from the Nintendo Game Boy. The game selection is limited, but with a playable clock added, the Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda is without a doubt the better buy of the two.
Many retro handheld gamers think the genre was perfected with the original Game Boy, the Game Boy Color, 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 upgraded parts that include rechargeable batteries, backlit LCD screens, louder speakers, colorful buttons, and housings that match the originals or feature more elaborate designs. Custom builds can cost you well over $500 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.
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 $20 to $25, depending on how many games are included on each. They were designed by the same engineer who created the open-source Arduboy, a tiny 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 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 $29, or preorder the new $54 Arduboy FX (it’s been hard to come by during the pandemic), which includes extra on-board memory and more than 200 built-in games.
Alternatively, with more than 91 million consoles sold so far, there’s a good chance you have a Nintendo Switch, Switch Lite, or the recently launched Switch OLED 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 ($4 per month or $20 per year) you can download two included apps that provide access to an ever-growing library of classic NES and SNES games, with Nintendo adding to the 100+ collection 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.
In September, the company announced the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack, which adds classic retro games from the Nintendo 64 and the Sega Genesis to the collection, but boosts the annual fee of the service from $20 to $50, or $80 for a family plan that gives access to up to seven other Nintendo accounts of your choosing.
You grew up playing classic consoles like the Atari, the NES, the Super Nintendo, the Sega Master System, and the Genesis, and while you still have all your original hardware and game carts, you recognize that times have changed and carrying around a case full of plastic cartridges mostly defeats the portability of handheld consoles. You’ve embraced software emulation and playing the favorite games of your youth through ROM files, and would love to be able to enjoy them wherever you go, but on a dedicated device featuring excellent physical controls like a joystick and a D-pad built right in.
Our Pick: Anbernic RG350P ($86)
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 $86, 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.
Anbernic has since released updated versions of this handheld like the RG351MP with premium aluminum housings and additional features, but at a price point closer to $140. Given they feature nearly identical specs on the inside, the RG350P remains an excellent all-around choice given its price, although new Anbernic options with improved specs are enroute for 2022.
The RK2020 is similarly priced to the RG350P, includes a screen with a noticeable bump in resolution, and offers decent controls and a faster processor that allow it to play a large number of games from more powerful 3D retro consoles including the N64 and the Sega Dreamcast. A single analog stick makes playing PS1 games challenging (but not impossible), but 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.
A more compact alternative is the Anbernic Retro Game 280V. It stuffs the RG350P’s electronics into a smaller handheld that’s easier to slip into a pocket. The RG350P’s dual analog joysticks are sacrificed in the process, however, meaning the RG280V is better suited for playing games from the 16-bit era and older. At around $66 it’s not as cheap as Nintendo’s Game & Watch revivals, but it can also play thousands of retro games—instead of a just a handful of them.
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 favorite games look kind of ugly—nothing like they did on your parents’ giant CRT TV.
Our Pick: Analogue Super Nt ($190)
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 customizing how games look on a giant screen so you can get as close as possible to recreating your childhood gaming experience. At $180, 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 ($190)
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 adapter), and even Sega CD games flawlessly, with zero lag, no frame drops, and, more importantly, none of the audio sync issues that have plagued Sega software emulators for years. Analogue currently has the Mega Sg in stock for $190, 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 more than 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 $500 Analogue Nt or the newer $500 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 $80 Super Nintendo Classic Edition, which comes bundled with 20 classic 16-bit SNES games and two matching controllers, or the $60 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 $80 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 $100 includes 20 games and a pair of controllers—although you don’t get the upgraded DualShock option with the side-by-side analog 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 $35. If the DIY approach sounds too daunting, there are pre-built Raspberry Pi-based retro consoles as well.
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 Pro 2 ($50)
With the 8BitDo Pro 2, the company addressed our biggest complaint with its SN30 Pro+ controller: You could remap and customize its controls using the 8BitDo Ultimate Software app, but only on a Windows or macOS computer. The 8BitDo Pro 2 carries over everything great about its predecessor—including a PlayStation DualShock-inspired layout with side-by-side analog joysticks, excellent vibration feedback, analog shoulder triggers, motion controls, and a rechargeable battery that can be swapped with a pair of AA batteries, but it can now be customized with a mobile version of the 8BitDo Ultimate Software app now available for iOS and Android devices. The controller itself can also store three custom profiles which can be switched at the press of a newly added button.
With its extended grips, 8BitDo’s Pro 2 controller is a bit large and not the best option for gaming on the go. 8Bitdo’s $45 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 be retro gaming exclusively using emulators on an Android device, 8BitDo’s $45 SN30 Pro for Xbox is an even better alternative. Not only is it more portable than the SN30 Pro+, it also supports the company’s Ultimate Software, which allows you to customize 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 $20 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.
In early 2021, 8Bitdo also released its $90 8BitDo Arcade Stick targeted at retro enthusiasts who focus on fighting games and classic beat-’em-ups. The beefy controller’s joystick and buttons all feel like they were torn straight off an old-school arcade cabinet—a definite good thing—and the Arcade Stick is compatible with 8BitDo’s Ultimate Software for customization, but since the joystick is digital-only, it’s not a great fit for other modern games that take advantage of analog sticks.
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 when Apple Arcade was introduced, the company updated iOS 13, iPadOS 13, tvOS 13, and macOS Catalina with support for the $60 Xbox One Wireless Controller with Bluetooth and the $60 PlayStation DualShock 4 Wireless Controller. That support was expanded under iOS 14.5, iPadOS 14.5, tvOS 14.5, and macOS Big Sur, with compatibility for the $75 Xbox Wireless Controller (for the Microsoft Xbox Series X consoles) and the $70 Sony PS5 DualSense 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.
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 ($300+)
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 just $300.
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 $140, the Counter-cades are also a lot cheaper than Arcade1Up’s self-standing cabinets, letting you grow your collection faster.
In August, Arcade1Up finally launched its $650-$850 Infinity Game Table which is reminiscent of the tabletop arcade machines you’d find in restaurants in the ‘80s but with a larger, upgraded touchscreen. In addition to a small assortment of retro-inspired games featuring modern facelifts, the Infinity Game Table includes digital versions of classic board games like Monopoly, Scrabble, Battleship, Operation, and Clue (and an ever-growing collection) all customized for being played on a large touchscreen interface with multiple players crowded around it.
This list is updated regularly with new recommendations and product forecasts. It was last updated on Dec. 13.