The best retro consoles to buy (September 2018)

best retro consoles

Looking for the best retro console for you? You're in luck - it's an incredible time to be a fan of old school video games. While all-in-one retro game consoles have always quietly pottered along in the corners of retail stores, it's only recently that we've started getting major platform holders pouring real effort into the retro market. The wild success of the NES and SNES Classics have ushered in a huge number of similar projects around older consoles (including the recent announcement of the PlayStation Classic) and, at the same time, smaller, passionate manufacturers are making playing your old library of cartridges easier than ever.

If  you've got boxes of older games stashed somewhere in an attic or tucked into a dark corner of the basement at your parents house, find yourself scouring eBay for little plastic rectangles of nostalgia, or just generally want to relive (or educate yourself) on the infancy of gaming, we've got a list of the best consoles to scratch your throwback itch. 

1. Super Nintendo Mini Classic

Possibly the best Nintendo Retro console you can buy

Plays: SNES

Beautiful design and solid craftsmanship
Fantastic library of SNES essentials
Design of menus and software features is classic Nintendo
Controller cords are still inexplicably short
No way on the controller to get back to the main menu

With the success of and overwhelming demand for the NES Mini Classic, a 16-bit follow up was virtually guaranteed. Once again, Nintendo knocked it out of the park, providing a fantastic library of essential games inside a faithful, adorable miniature replica of the original SNES. Unfortunately, they didn’t necessarily iron out all the issues that the original mini was saddled with, however, and they certainly didn’t adjust for scarcity at launch, though once again another production run has mitigated some of the headaches of finding a SNES Mini Classic of your own.

The games library, while slimmer than its predecessors at only 21 games, represents an amazing array of the best of their era, games that changed gaming in fundamental ways or established tropes and design principles that continue to echo in game development today. And these aren’t museum pieces; games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Punch-Out!, and Super Mario World are still as playable and engaging today as they were in the heyday of the SNES, and you could easily lose tens or hundreds of hours thoroughly putting the entire library through its paces. Matched with a suite of display options ranging from fuzzy CRT emulation to crisp HD output, rewind and suspend options, and a bucketful of fun Nintendo Easter eggs, and the SNES Mini Classic is an incredibly easy sell. Though the cord length issue persists - it’s longer, but still nowhere near long enough for living room setups - and some convenience issues with the hardware haven’t been addressed, it’s hard to imagine a more slickly packaged, densely concentrated dose of sweet nostalgia. 

Best for... Anyone with even a passing interest in Nintendo classics

2. Atari Flashback 8 Gold 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

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. 120 games total come pre-installed in the Flashback 8, including most of the Atari-published essentials like Adventure, Yar’s Revenge and  Swordquest. While they are emulated, they do run properly. While it’s MSRP is a bit pricey, the Flashback 8 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. It also offers proper 720p HDMI output and pause, save, and rewind functionality. 

The Flashback 8 takes the solid foundation that previous iterations had established, and builds on it with some really nice quality of life features and a better library of games. Perhaps most importantly, they corrected the critical oversight of omitting Atari classics like Pitfall, one of the original killer apps. 

Best for... The Atari 2600 nostalgist.

3. Sega Genesis / Mega Drive Classics console

The best option for Sega fans from the '90s

Plays: Sega Genesis / Mega Drive

A decent selection of games
Nice, compact design
Compatible with Genesis carts
Wireless pads aren't as good as the originals
Some big Sega games missing

If you're a Sega fan, then the range of options simply aren't as extensive as the Nintendo ones. Still, this Genesis (Mega Drive if you're in the UK) console is a lovely piece of kit, so not all is lost. There are 80 games built into the console as standard, including the best Sonic titles, Mortal Kombats 1-3 and Altered Beast, and you can plug in an SD card to expand your collection even more. Just, um, make sure you do that via legal means. What's best about this console, though, is that you can actually put your old Genesis carts in it and play the games on them. So, potentially, it'll play ANY classic Sega game you can get your hands on.

The controllers you get with the console are later-era Genesis pads, with 6 buttons, so they work with the more complex games. The only slight issue here is the fact that the wireless range is limited, and some games highlight a lag in the wireless system. It's not a huge issue, as long as you don't want to sit too far away from your TV. However, with 80 games and the ability to play more at such a reasonable price, it's tough to grumble too much.

Best for... Any Sega fan wanting to relive the glory days.

4. 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

Very affordable
Decent range of console support
Supports classic controllers
Terrible included controller
Cheap build quality

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 moderately priced 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 emulator functions like save states or cheat codes. It doesn’t match the quality of an actual Super Nintendo running on a high quality 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 profit but uses software filed under a non-commercial license, it exists in a troublesome legal and ethical grey area.

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

5. 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
Can’t be expanded (officially)

The NES Classic Mini seemed like a perfect product for Nintendo nostalgists when it was first announced. The slick presentation of the hardware, an adorable little NES even non-game fans could love, combined with a list of games that was a whirlwind tour of 80s essentials. All of those great things are great in practice too! The NES Classic is a lovely machine, if extremely challenging to find around launch, but a new manufacturing run has made them much easier to find  for eager collectors and casual fans alike.

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’s a shame that the limited selection of titles includes questionable choices like Ice Climbers. 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 which of course means illegally pirated ROMs run just as well. 

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

6. 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
... if you don’t want all the bells and whistles
Need to purchase classic controller adapter separately

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 also a special 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.

7. Retro-Bit Super Retro-cade

An emulator for all those arcade classics you loved

Plays: Arcade classics

Fantastic library of classics
Strong selection of excellent, lesser known titles
Solid output options and controllers
Software display options are limited
Not as aesthetically slick as some first-party consoles

Retro-Bit stumbled off the blocks a bit with 2016’s Generations, a much (and deservedly so) maligned attempt to create a foothold in the retro emulation market. Their follow-up seems to have taken the criticism aimed at Generations fully onboard, however, with marked improvements in the quality of emulation and a much improved library. 

The console itself is a combination of slick and bright and boxy and functional, a vivid white shell slashed with bright red that’s shaped like a brick and lacks contours or much other visual flair. The feature set is a similar mesh of design philosophies; 720p video output as well RCA for connecting to older CRTs, two sturdy, no frills controller with nice ten foot cables, and other solid features matched with a deep, flashy library of 90 games that represent a huge, eclectic swath of 8 and 16 bit classic, including some games that have never been available domestically. Alongside classics like Mega Man and Ghosts N’ Goblins are some lesser known but excellent coin-op titles like Side Arms and Wizard Fire. The Retro-cade is a great addition to any retro collection and a convincing argument for Retro-bit staking out a permanent position in the retro console market.

Best for... anyone looking to relive fond arcade memories.

C64 Mini

A flawed but delightful dive into early PC gaming

Plays: 64 games from the original Commodore 64 library

Extremely cute
A lot of these games are still fun to play
Save states and retro display options
Stiff stick
Missing some C64 classics

If you were a huge fan of the Commodore 64 or feel waves of nostalgia sweeping through your body after a glimpse of that bright red joystick and beige keyboard, the C64 Mini was made specifically for you. While it's a console that comes with some caveats, like a joystick that's extremely stiff and limited and a couple of high profile titles missing from it's otherwise generous catalog (you won't find Wasteland, Skate or Die, or Elite here), it's delightful little shell is packed with retro fun that will transport you back to the era of stained-washed jeans and hair metal.

A surprising number of the 64 included games are still a huge amount of fun to play, especially if you're looking to jump around in a frenetic platformer, or immerse yourself in the deadly, futuristic racing league of Alleykat. While there are a lot of games that fall into similar niches (platformers and scrolling shooters are available in abundance), there are enough distinctive standouts to remind you why the original C64 was the best selling home computer of all time. Check out our full review for more details, and get your hands on the Mini on October 9th.

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