Nostalgia and retro gaming, are two things that go hand in hand. But, why do we keep going back to the old classics? Is it purely nostalgia, or perhaps modern games are sometimes too complex, and you would rather kick back and play a game of Tetris to help you wind down at the end of a long day?
Fortunately, accessing retro games is now easier than ever and everybody from emulation enthusiasts to modern console owners, can enjoy many of the old classics games looking better than ever before!
We’re going to take a deep dive, checking out the best way to play retro games, from buying original hardware to emulation, and everything in between!
For long-time retro enthusiasts, emulation has been a crucial part of reliving those old treasured gaming memories.
Emulators are applications designed to replicate consoles and computer systems at a software level, enabling users to play retro games of their system of choice. My first experience with an emulator was a ZX Spectrum emulator on the Commodore Amiga which was included on an Amiga Computing cover disk in 1994, admittedly it struggled to run at full speed on my A600, but still, it was a thrill to be emulating Spectrum games on my Amiga!
These days, emulators don’t require hugely powerful systems to run games at full speed, you can emulate pretty much everything from the earliest Pong arcade game, through to the PS3, and you don’t even need a powerful system to play most systems. Simply owning a PC, Mac or even Raspberry Pi unlocks the potential to access tens of thousands of classic retro games.
Emulators are often packed with useful features to make things easier for you such as a simple controller configuration, but one of the best reasons to use emulators these days is not just for convenience, but the ability to upscale and improve the visual fidelity of classic games. Many emulators include excellent retro shaders, upscaling tools, and other ways to enhance textures with consoles such as the PS1, N64, and Sega Saturn, enabling you to upscale things to 4K and in some cases, even further.
A useful feature of emulators is the use of save states. These are invaluable, especially when playing older games that had no save game functionality, meaning back in the day, you either had to start the game again the next day, or leave your console switched on overnight.
Some of the most popular emulators in use today include PCSX2 for PlayStation 2 emulation, Dolphin for GameCube/Wii, Project64 for N64, Redream for Dreamcast and MGBA for Game Boy Advance, each of which is recommended in our best emulators for PC guide.
One of the best emulator packages available is RetroArch, an all-in-one emulator frontend that has loads of emulation cores ranging from the ColecoVision and Atari 2600 through to more recent systems such as the Nintendo GameCube and Wii. While RetroArch is the most versatile emulator package, it may be a bit daunting for beginners, so check out our RetroArch guides to help you on your way.
Technically this falls under emulation too, but the Raspberry Pi deserves its own section because it has been a game changer for retro fans.
Affordable and compact, the Raspberry Pi has become the must-have device if you are looking for an all-in-one emulation solution, which fits perfectly beneath your TV or discreetly on your office desk.
Simply by combining your Raspberry Pi with the excellent RetroPie software, your miniature computer is transformed instantly into a retro powerhouse that emulates over 50 classic systems.
So, what is RetroPie? RetroPie uses EmulationStation and RetroArch together, giving you a highly configurable and very attractive front end to access your games as well as using Libretro emulation cores which RetroArch manages, to deliver a best-in-class emulation experience.
The icing on the cake with your Raspberry Pi is to house it in a retro console Raspberry Pi case, giving it an undeniably cool appearance that will have friends asking where you got it from!
All you need to get up and running with a Raspberry Pi is:-
- A Raspberry Pi – Make sure you also purchase the appropriate power supply for your Pi as these typically are not sold with a single Pi board. The Raspberry Pi 4 is still the best option for RetroPie at the moment.
- A game controller – Check out our RetroPie controller recommendations here
- MicroSD card – You’ll need this to store RetroPie and your game ROMs. I would recommend at least a 64GB card if you are planning to play any CD-based systems as these take up a lot more storage per game.
- Raspberry Pi case – Grab a retro-inspired Pi case to add that finishing touch
- Keyboard / Mouse – Not completely necessary, but is definitely needed if you are looking to play older computer games such as the ZX Spectrum, C64, DOS, and Amiga games.
Check out our RetroPie guides for details on emulating a wide range of systems with RetroPie.
FPGA-based systems are where things start to get a little more specialist. FPGA ‘simulation’ (be careful not to refer to it as emulation as you’ll likely stand corrected!) aims to be as authentic and true to the original hardware as possible.
FPGA ‘cores’ are developed for each system with the aim to replicate the original hardware components and specifications as closely as possible, quirks and all! So instead of emulation, which emulates the system in software, FPGA implementations are simulating the original hardware on its own FPGA chip. This typically results in a more realistic simulation of the system and helps with common issues associated with software emulation such as controller lag.
There are currently two main players when it comes to retro gaming on FPGA devices:
There are numerous MiSTer add-ons available for the DE-10 Nano, including an analogue board that offers a VGA output, 3.5mm audio jack output, and input (so you can connect a cassette tape player and load old tape-based games directly to the MiSTer!).
I have personally bought from the online shop Ultimate MiSTer and have had excellent service each time. They offer possibly the widest range of MiSTer peripherals out there, so if you are looking to get up and running with a MiSTer, then I recommend you give them a look.
The MiSTer project has a fantastic and enthusiastic community that is able to offer advice and support as well as there being
Analogue FGPA Consoles
Analogue is a US-based company that specialises in the production of FPGA-based consoles that honour original classic consoles such as the NES, SNES, Genesis, and a handheld FPGA console inspired by the Game Boy.
Analogues systems don’t just play ROM files, they are unique in that they actually use real cartridges from the original systems. Being FPGA, they are able to deliver super crisp visuals with hardware-based upscaling with minimal to zero lag, something which using original hardware with HDMI upscale components is near to impossible to achieve.
Analogue’s products are in high demand with products such as the Mega Sg and the Super Nt now completely sold out, so the best place to check for these will be eBay.
As retro gamers, we all still yearn for the original experience, and what better way to do that than by picking up an original system?
This doesn’t come without its challenges though, as technology progresses, outdated methods of connectivity prevent us from simply just plugging in a console and playing as we used to.
However, there are of course solutions for retro fans who prefer to use original hardware on both modern and old-school CRT screens. For those who want to use original consoles on a modern screen, then an HDMI upscaler will be necessary to achieve the best visual fidelity.
However, be warned, do not just buy any upscaler you find on Amazon as you will find that many of these are not designed for gaming and will introduce huge amounts of lag from button press to the image on the screen responding. You will need a specialist upscaling device such as an OSSC or RetroTink to minimise lag and offer the connectivity required to game on a modern TV.
Of course, you’ll not have this kind of bother with an original handheld, but you will need to find one in good condition and plenty of batteries if you are planning on gaming on the move!
In terms of buying original consoles & computers, eBay is still the best place to go in terms of choice and availability. Just make sure you take your time and shop around, there are plenty of sellers looking to capitalise on retro gaming popularity, so be patient and you could potentially bag a bargain!
Retro Handheld Consoles
Modern retro handheld consoles have become all the rage in recent years, with Amazon being flooded with plenty of Chinese-produced handhelds. Whilst quality varies, it has to be said that the Anbernic range of handhelds generally is very decent, albeit very similar to each other in terms of power.
If you want to look beyond cheap Amazon handhelds and go for some more premium products, the below handhelds certainly offer more bang for your buck in terms of sheer processing power.
The Steam Deck has been a revelation for a lot of gamers, not least retro gamers. Combined with EmuDeck, the Steam Deck becomes an emulation behemoth and can even play emulate PS3 games with RPCS3.
Whilst not a budget product, at the time of writing you can grab a 64GB Steam Deck for around $350 / £350, so if you are planning on just using it for emulation, add a 1TB MicroSD card, and you’ve got yourself possibly the best retro gaming handheld around today.
Retroid Pocket 3+
The Retroid Pocket 3+ is an Android-based handheld with a 4.7inch 720p screen that is capable of playing stacks of systems up to GameCube / PS2, although do not expect Steam Deck performance on this handheld, there are games on these systems that do not run perfectly, but there are plenty of emulation options you can tweak to make are a large amount of them playable.
Retroid Pocket 3+ typically sells for around $150 and is a fantastic option if you are looking to emulate up to PS1 / N64 with a little bit of GameCube / PS2 gaming possible too.
The Evercade is somewhat unique and perfect for retro gamers who are into collecting.
The Evercade is a handheld console that takes physical cartridges containing licensed sets of games by different publishers for different systems. It’s a super cool way to experience loads of classic retro titles without getting caught up in the potentially tricky world of emulation.
There are plenty of game packs available now including games from the likes of Atari, Namco, Data East and even a dedicated Amiga games package.
The Evercade also has a mini HDMI out so you can hook it up to the TV.
Mini consoles have been all the rage with collectors in recent years thanks mainly to the success of the NES Classic by Nintendo.
Since then, numerous mini consoles have launched and mostly have been extremely popular with those who have not played games since they owned the original consoles, as well as hardcore retro gamers and collectors.
NES & SNES Mini
These little guys are a blast from the past! If you want to relive the good ol’ days of gaming without all the fuss of emulation or original hardware, then these are just what you need.
They’re basically mini versions of the original consoles, and they come pre-loaded with a bunch of classic games. No need to fumble with cartridges or anything – just plug and play. It’s brilliant how tiny and authentic they are compared to the originals, but they still pack the same punch. Plus, the controllers feel just like the ones from back in the day.
The NES Mini has 30 games on it, and the SNES Mini has 21, including some absolute classics. If you’re keen on a nostalgia trip or just want to see what gaming was like before 4K and virtual reality, then you should definitely check these out. They’re not only buckets of fun but also a great piece of history to have on your shelf.
The NES & SNES Mini can be a little hard to get hold of now, so eBay is where you are most likely to pick one up at a reasonable price.
Mega Drive / Genesis Mini
Remember the Sega Genesis? Well, imagine that, but shrunken down to fit right in the palm of your hand. The Genesis Mini is loaded with 42 classic games, and we’re talking the real big titles- Sonic, Streets of Rage 2, you name it. The Genesis Mini is a hassle-free ticket to Sega’s glorious 16-bit era.
Just plug it into your TV, and you’re golden. The best part? The controllers feel like they haven’t changed a bit since the ‘90s. It’s like a gaming reunion with your childhood. Whether you’re an old-school gaming wizard or a curious newbie, the Genesis Mini is your gateway to pure Sega nostalgia.
The A500 Mini & The C64 Mini
Hold on to your joysticks, the C64 Mini and the A500 Mini are perfect for those who were more into home computing rather than consoles! These beige classics are like the time capsules of the computer gaming world.
The C64 Mini is a reduced-sized replica of the legendary Commodore 64, and it comes with 64 built-in games. I mean, who doesn’t remember losing hours on Boulder Dash or California Games?
The A500 Mini, is a homage to the Amiga 500. This little beast packs in 25 classic Amiga games, and guess what? It even lets you load up your own games through a USB. Both minis hook up to your TV with an HDMI and deliver that sweet retro goodness in 720p.
The keyboards may be just for show, but the joysticks are as legit as they come. Whether you’re a retro aficionado or just keen on seeing what gaming looked like before the days of ray-tracing, the C64 and A500 mini will provide hour upon hour of pure nostalgic fun!
Retro Games On Current Gen Consoles
If you own a modern console, then you’ll be able to play loads of classic retro titles immediately, all available from the convenience of your system’s respective online stores. Check out what the big 3 consoles have to offer when it comes to retro gaming.
If you have an Xbox and have a soft spot for those classic retro games, we’ve got news that’ll make your thumbs twitch with excitement. The Xbox Store is like a treasure chest for retro game lovers! First off, let’s talk arcade classics – ‘PAC-MAN’, ‘Galaga’, ‘Street Fighter II’ – there are plenty of coin-guzzlers there to be played!
They’ve got a great collection of Sega classics too. Sonic, Golden Axe, and Altered Beast take your fancy? Heck yeah! They’ve also got some classic Rare (the developer) action going on with the excellent Rare Replay collection, with 30 games from the epic game studio Rare. That means ‘Banjo-Kazooie’, ‘Conker’s Bad Fur Day’, and ‘Perfect Dark’ – all wrapped up in one tidy package. And the cherry on top?
PlayStation owners, you’re not missing out either with PlayStation Store’s retro section. If you have a penchant for the classics, you’ll find a respectable selection waiting for you. Fancy blowing up Worms with your friends in the PS1 classic ‘Worms‘, or maybe revisiting Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, which are both available on the PlayStation Store.
Capcom has plenty of classics available including ‘Final Fight’ and ‘Ghosts’N Goblins’ in the excellent Capcom Arcade Stadium package. It’s a decent collection that gives you a taste of gaming’s past. And the good news is, these games all run really well on modern screens, no messing around with upscale devices and loads of cables for original hardware!
The Nintendo Switch has proven itself to be one of the best places to play retro games with not only a huge amount of original titles being available on the Nintendo eShop but also the fantastic Switch Online service which not only offers access to original NES & SNES games but also N64, GBA and Sega Genesis games if you sign up to Switch Online with the Expansion Pack.
One of the best ways to play Sega games on your Switch is by purchasing many of the excellent SEGA AGES conversions of original Sega classics by M2. You don’t just get straight emulated versions of the originals, M2 has lovingly packaged up each game with extra game modes, extra artwork, and loads more.
Google Play Store
Android users, if you’re looking to get your hands on some retro gaming goodness, the Google Play Store is a pretty solid starting point.
From arcade classics to classic console gems, there’s a good amount of games you can download directly from the Google Play Store before you even start getting into emulation.
Finally, Android is an excellent platform when it comes to classic system emulators, some of the best include RetroArch, the best multi-system emulator package available. Dolphin, for GameCube & Wii emulation, Redream for Sega Dreamcast, and AetherSX2 for PS2 emulation.
Google Play Store is a handy hub for reliving the golden days of gaming or exploring what made those days so special.
A lifelong avid gamer and computing enthusiast, Matt has decades of Retro Gaming experience. Now over 40 years old, Matt now even considers himself retro, but fortunately, nobody has developed a Matt emulator (not yet at least!).