Modern video games and consoles offer a narrative experience that rivals Hollywood blockbusters, but today’s games also require a hefty commitment of your 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 dive into retro gaming.
Buying forecast for the rest of 2021: Pandemic-related manufacturing and shipping delays continue to plague consumer electronics, but the long-awaited Analogue Pocket is expected to finally arrive sometime this fall, as is Panic’s Playdate portable, which has been promised to ship by late 2021. The next generation of handheld emulators, many originating from China, are also expected later this year, with more powerful processors that will deliver better performance for Sega Dreamcast and N64 games. Rumors continue to swirl about a Nintendo Switch Pro, but it’s looking less and less likely that it will actually arrive in 2021. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be new Nintendo hardware available this Christmas. At E3 the company revealed a follow-up to its Super Mario Bros. Game & Watch revival with a new Legend of Zelda version featuring four games in total, including the magnificent Game Boy game, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.
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 sizable collection of ROMs for your favorite 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 ($80)
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 $88, 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, 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.
Instead of giving gamers a Classic Edition version of the Game Boy, Nintendo celebrated Mario’s 35th birthday this year with a revival of its old-school Game & Watch handhelds that defined portable gaming in the ‘80s. The new Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. includes the original NES version of Super Mario Bros. and its sequel, as well as a classic G&W game called Ball that puts Mario and Luigi’s juggling skills to the test. It’s only available in limited quantities, however, and $50 is kind of expensive for just three retro games. As an alternative, consider Anbernic’s new 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 $85, it’s pricier than Nintendo’s new Game & Watch, but it can also play thousands of retro games—not just three.
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 favorite 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.
Unlike the RG350P and the RK2020, the Evercade doesn’t require users to supply their own games. Its creators have worked to license official games from the original publishers to create a collection of themed cartridges that each contain multiple games. There are more than 280 games available for the Evercade right now, and that list that continues to grow. For $100 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 sometime this fall, 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 $80 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.
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 will ship again in September 2021) which includes extra on-board memory and more than 200 built-in games.
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 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.
Alternatively, with more than 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 ($4 per month or $20 per year) you might not realize there are two free apps you can download that give you access to an ever-growing library of 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.
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.
6/22/21: Updated the The Best Retro Gaming Controller to the 8BitDo Pro 2, added the 8BitDo Arcade stick to the Also Consider section, and also noted Apple adding support for the latest Xbox and PlayStation controllers. Also updated the Buying Forecast to reflect new hardware en route for late 2021.
11/20/20: Added the Retro Game 280v and Nintendo Game & Watch to the Also Consider section of the Best Consoles for Experienced Retro Gamers.
8/13/20: This is a new list. :)