The best retro consoles to buy in 2017

How to pick the best retro consoles – from customizable console emulators to high-end recreations of original hardware – to play classic games on

So you want to play retro games - but where do you start? You look in your closet and there’s that moldering cardboard box of old games. Look! I still have Double Dragon 2 and The Legend of Zelda carts. My little brother’s copy of Aladdin for Genesis! How, though, am I actually going to play any of these treasures? Even if your NES, Genesis, or Atari is still working, vintage consoles built for old televisions don’t work properly on HD TVs; the images are warped and stretched, input lag creates a gulf between pressing X on your Super Nintendo controller and seeing Mario bounce around on screen. What you need is a proper retro console, something new that plays old games correctly on new screens. Here's our guide to the best retro consoles on sale today.

Know this, though: no retro console is perfect. Even real consoles built with retrogaming in mind have never gotten it just right. 8-bit game technology emulation is near perfect – though still not 100% in most cases – but there’s no such thing as a retro console that does it all. Picking your machine is all about deciding what’s most important. Are you trying to capture complete authenticity – a machine that plays old games on a CRT television just right? Or are you looking for convenience – something that plays the widest variety of retro games on a modern television with minimum fuss? There are myriad options for both and these are the best retro consoles currently on the market.

1. Retron 5

Plays nearly all of Nintendo and Sega’s greatest hits, but...

Plays: NES/Famicom, SNES/Super Famicom, Genesis/Mega Drive, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance

Affordable
Decent range of console support
Supports classic controllers
Terrible included controller
Cheap build quality
Dubiously sourced technology

For the budding cartridge collector--the ’80s and ‘90s collecting market are at an all time peak right now, so get in there before everything vanishes--the Retron 5 offers a lot of bang for the buck. At just $150, there is no better mix of low price, broad functionality, and emulation quality. The Retron 5 is an Android-based machine with its own operating system that dumps the game on your Sega Genesis or NES cartridge (the ROM if you prefer) and plays it through an emulator. Output in up to 1080p on an HDTV, the result is a game that looks and plays close to how it would on original hardware while also supporting common tweaks provided by emulators like save states (so you can stop that game of Super Mario Bros 3 anywhere) or even cheat codes (for the person who thinks Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is indeed stupid hard). It doesn’t match the quality of an actual Super Nintendo running on a high quality old CRT television or pumped through a video processor like the XRGB, but it’s a significant improvement over emulated Virtual Console releases on Nintendo Wii and Wii U. Plus: you can use your old controllers! Though you really have to as the Retron 5’s included controller is arguably the most uncomfortable game controller ever made.

There are two other significant drawbacks to the Retron 5. First is the quality of the machine itself: the plastic is light, flimsy and picks up blemishes easily whether it’s the grey or black model. More problematic is the legality of the emulation technology running in the machine. That it emulates old machines isn’t the issue. It’s that the Retron 5 uses emulators developed outside of the company Hyperkin, namely SNES9x Next and Genesis Plus GX, that are explicitly not for commercial use. As Hyperkin sells the Retron 5 for cash monies but uses software filed under a non-commercial license, it exists in troublesome legal and ethical grey area.

Best for... Playing a wide range of vintage game cartridges on a budget.

2. Retro Freak

Highly customizable, a little complicated, excellent pan-retro goodness.

Plays: PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16/SuperGrafx, NES/Famicom, SNES/Super Famicom, Genesis/Mega Drive, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance

Nearly every great 8- and 16-bit console supported
Modular structure lets you choose the extras you want
Affordable...
... if you don’t want all the bells and whistles
Need to purchase classic controller adapter separately
NES games require an extra adapter

More expensive and more complicated to set up than the Retron 5, the Retro Freak is ultimately worth the extra effort: this is a superior machine that offers the same functionality and then some without the same drawbacks. It’s even got a very nice controller, which may not be wireless but is far more comfortable and solidly built. (USB controllers are also supported if you don’t want to spring for the separate adapter that will use your vintage controllers.) In fact that whole package is of a much higher quality than the Retron, with solid plastic that doesn’t feel like it’s going to break the moment you use it. The actual console itself is a small brick that stores games on a MicroSD card. This plugs into a larger adapter that reads classic cartridges and stores the game ROMs on the SD card. Then if you want a clean entertainment center, you can store the cartridge adapter after ripping your games and tuck the base unit away out of sight beneath your TV. Unfortunately for those in the US and Europe with a plethora of NES games, yet another adapter is needed to plug those cartridges in. 

The sheer range of other consoles supported elevates Retro Freak. All of the cartridges for NEC’s cultishly adored PC Engine, whether Japanese releases or American TurboGrafx-16 versions, run on the machine. It even supports games for SuperGrafx, PC Engine’s obscure successor, of which only five even exist. Retro Freak is an especial treat for Sega fans. While there are myriad quality options for NES and SNES retro console fans, there are fewer quality options for Sega fans. Options like At Games’ Genesis, which includes a selection of pre-installed games as well as supporting cartridges, is terrible; bad emulation, bad UI, just bad all around. Retro Freak runs Genesis and Mega Drive games incredibly well and an extra adapter ups the Sega love to include the Master System, SG1000 console, and even Sega My Card, the rewritable Sega game cartridge that was only officially in use from 1985 to 1987. That is robust, if inconvenient for the player who wants something they can just plug in and start using. 

Best for... The 8- and 16-bit console completist that's comfortable with an emulation machine. And the rare TurboGrafx-16 nerd who doesn't actually have a Turbo-Grafx-16.

3. NES Classic Mini

A simple, clean, imperfect NES experience.

Plays: NES

High quality NES emulation in one slick, convenient package
Very nice replica controllers
Includes 30 games…
... of varying quality, some of which are real stinkers
Can’t be expanded (officially)
Scarce

The NES Classic Mini seemed like a perfect product for Nintendo nostalgists when it was first announced. The box, the controller, the games from Mega Man 2 to Super Mario Bros. 3 an on-point tour of the ‘80s staple’s essential games. All of those great things are great in practice too! The NES Classic is a lovely machine… if you can find it. Nintendo has produced them in such small quantities worldwide that it’s still hard to purchase for less than double its retail price of $60. They pop up at Amazon, Walmart, Target and Gamestop, but only sporadically. Especially predatory retailers like GameStop will also resort to only selling it as part of an expensive bundle, forcing you to drop more than $100 on an NES Classic and a pile of useless junk alongside it. Still, it’s probably the best and easiest way to get Super Mario Bros or The Legend of Zelda running legally in your living room.

Legally running games is a sticking point with the NES Classic Mini. One of the major drawbacks of the machine is that it only has the 30 included games preloaded in. That’s nice for someone who only wants Punch-Out and Metroid, but it still stinks to be stuck with relics like Ice Climbers. That game’s interesting but it’s not good or fun. Not being able to purchase and download additional games from Nintendo’s eShop stings, doubly so since fans have since discovered how easy it is to load the console with hundreds of NES games with just a simple USB stick. Yes, if you have the ability to rip ROMs from your old NES carts, there are ways--which we won’t share--to very easily get them running on an NES Classic Mini. Of course that means the illegally pirates ROMs run just as well. 

Best for... Hardcore Nintendo collectors, casual Nintendo tourists, and intrepid hackers.

4. Atari Flashback 7 Deluxe

The biggest Atari bang for your buck.

Plays: Atari 2600

Comprehensive pre-installed classic game selection
Includes two wireless controllers and even has paddle controllers
No classic licensed games like Halloween or Empire Strikes Back
No third party essentials like Pitfall

While AtGames’ Sega Genesis console is an abomination, its Atari Flashback line of machines are well made and offer an exhaustively detailed option for revisiting the game console grandpappy’s library. 101 games total come pre-installed in the Flashback 7, including most of the Atari-published essentials like Adventure, Yar’s Revenge and  Swordquest. While they are emulated, they do run properly. Pricey at over $80, the Flashback 7 makes up for its relatively high cost by also including great controller options, including two wireless joysticks and two paddles for paddle-specific games like Warlords. While the hardware and software options are welcome, they’re not perfect. The Flashback 7 is lacking a big swath of games people would consider definitive to the Atari experience, especially the Activision-published Pitfall. Luckily there’s an alternative option to the Flashback 7 that has fewer games but offers a more authentic experience.

Best for... The Atari 2600 nostalgist.

5. Atari Flashback 2

Peerless Atari quality, hand-crafted by the creator.

Plays: Atari 2600

Solid pre-installed classic game selection including third-party games like Activision’s Pitfall
Includes two controllers and supports original 2600 controllers
Can be modified to use Atari 2600 cartridges
Smaller selection of games than subsequent models
No wireless controllers

Why include the Atari Flashback 2 alongside the Atari Flashback 7? While the Atari Flashback 7 has quantity and quality, the Flashback 2 is the real deal, a retro console that is functionally the exact same hardware as the original from 1977. Designer Curt Vendel returned to his baby in 2005 and made a brand new version of the Atari 2600, lovingly naming the revision after his wife Michelle (you can even see that name written on the motherboard of the console.) Though it doesn’t have over a hundred titles, the 40 included make up a near definitive list of Atari games including those third-party titles absent from later AtGames-produced versions of the Flashback. It’s got Pitfall, River Raid and more. What’s more, actual Atari cartridges can run on the machine. Also printed on the motherboard are actual instructions on where to solder on a cartridge port. The Atari Flashback 2 is no longer in production, but it can be purchased on the cheap from Amazon, eBay, and other outlets.

Best for... The true Atari 2600 lover.

6. AVS

Everything the NES would be if it were made today.

Plays: NES/Famicom

Excellent build quality.
Gorgeous, lag-free HDMI output
Cheat code database for classic cheat devices like Game Genie
Expensive compared to alternatives like Retron 5 and Retro Freak

RetroUSB has technically been in the retro console market for years, making modified USB NES controllers and customized cartridges of homebrewed NES games. It was only in 2016 that it started making its very own retro console in the AVS. It’s markedly more expensive than emulation boxes like the Retron 5 and offers far less functionality since it only supports the NES. If you want a nearly perfect actual console experience on an HD television using actual cartridges, though, AVS blows the Retron and its peers out of the water. 

Famicom and NES games load directly into the console and output in 720p via an HDMI cable, and feel just like the real thing. Pop in a cartridge, press power, there’s the game; no boot screen through firmware like on the Retron. It’s absolutely region-free too. PAL carts from Europe will work just as well as NTSC carts from North America. The reason it works so nicely is that it’s not relying on software emulators like the SNESx9 insides the Retron. It’s new hardware the emulates the old machine; a new processor that behaves like the original. The design of the AVS is also nice if you like the original NES: solid plastics that recall the old machine but don’t precisely mimic it. If you don’t like the drab trappings of 1980s tech design, though, it’s pretty ugly. Retro in style, feel, and execution.

Best for... The avid NES collector looking for the best HD TV version of their favorite console.

Buy now: Pick up the AVS from RetroUSB for $170

7. Analogue NT Mini

The pinnacle of retro console luxury, mixing the best of old and new.

Plays: NES/Famicom

RGB support
Includes a wireless controller
Gorgeous metal body
Insanely expensive

The original Analogue NT was the Rolls Royce of retro consoles, a $600 custom built NES that had real Nintendo hardware ripped out of the original machines and adapted to output via HDMI with near pixel-perfect play. It was produced in extremely limited quantities and represented the ideal vision of pure NES play on a HD display. The Analogue NT Mini is slightly less ambitious, slightly less expensive, and still as impressive as its prohibitively costly.

At a hardware level, the Analogue NT Mini functions much like the AVS--it also uses new hardware rather than repurposed original NES parts--but is much prettier thanks to its aluminum shell. If the original Analogue NT was the Rolls Royce to the NES, this is more like a BMW; a luxury machine but maybe not something you’d put on display as art all on its own. What really distinguishes Analogue NT Mini is that it can output using RGB cables as well as HDMI. This means that you can run the games not just on an HD television but on an old style CRT television or using a video process like the XRGB Mini for pixel-perfect, 4:3 aspect ratio playback. If you don’t understand the technological jargon, put it this way: you can actually still play light gun games like Duck Hunt on an old TV using the Analogue NT Mini. It is, in effect, the best version of the NES for all types of televisions that you can buy brand new today. The problem is that it’s also $449, making it far more expensive than all brand new game consoles.

Best for.... NES afficionados with no budget limitations

8. PlayStation TV

The best, most compact option for playing legendary PS1 games.

Plays: PS One/PSP/PS VIta

Support for a wide variety of PS1 and PSP games.
Incredibly cheap console
Compact
Insanely expensive proprietary memory cards
Only supports the Dualshock 3 controller

The PlayStation 4 sadly ended the great dream of PlayStation creator Ken Kutaragi: he wanted every PlayStation console to be backwards compatible with previous generations at a hardware level. In making a more streamlined, modern console, Sony sacrificed backwards compatibility across the board on PS4. Beyond a handful of digital PS2 games on PSN, that’s it; it can’t even play PS1 games. For the Sony historian, though, there is a great option beyond tracking down a crazy valuable launch PS3. Sony’s most public failure of a console is secretly one of the best retro consoles on the market. At $50 for the base machine, the PlayStation TV is a spectacular little machine. Yes, it plays a selection of PS Vita games, which is nice but not the main attraction. The real showcase is the enormous PlayStation Network library of PS1 and PSP games supported on the PlayStation TV. The original Resident Evil trilogy, Final Fantasy 7 through Final Fantasy 9, Metal Gear Solid, Castlevania Symphony of the Night; nearly every one of the best PS1 games of all time are supported by PS TV and play better than the originals thanks to the boosted load time option in the PS TV operating system. That’s in addition to a solid library of PSP games like Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories.

There are two drawbacks. While the console itself is cheap, the base unit doesn’t include a controller and it only supports the Dualshock 3, arguably the worst PlayStation controller of all time. The other issue is that unlike the Retro Freak or Retron 5 which support SD cards, the PS TV only supports Sony’s expensive proprietary PS Vita memory cards. And they are expensive. If you want the best PS1 library on PS TV, you’ll need to spring for the 64GB memory card which can run between $80 and $110. Pricey? Yes. But the benefits of having the best retro console for PS1 games in your entertainment center make the extra cost worth it.

Best for... Sony fans craving PS One on the big screen

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

I've been playing games since I turned four in 1986, been writing about them since 1987, and writing about them professionally since 2008. My wife and I live in New York City. Chrono Trigger is my favorite game ever made, Hum's Downward is Heavenward is my favorite album, and I regularly find myself singing "You Won't See Me" by The Beatles in awkward situations.
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