We will soon be entering yet another console generation with the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 systems, but there is a large group of players who prefer to play the classics on retro consoles. Rather than worry about buying the latest games at full price, they scour flea markets and used game stores to find the best deals on classic titles from companies like Nintendo, Sega, Sony, and Atari. Of course, they need a system to play these games on, and there is still a hot debate in 2020: Just which retro game console is the best?
In fact, even the term “retro” can mean different things to different people. Do game consoles from Microsoft count, and is there a cutoff date where consoles are first considered to be retro and not just out of date? For our purposes, we went two console generations when considering the best retro console, meaning the PlayStation 2, GameCube, and original Xbox are the first eligible systems. These are the best retro game consoles.
Super Nintendo Entertainment System
The best retro gaming console
Why you should buy this: It has a brilliant library of games that are just as great now as they were at launch.
Who’s it for: Fans of Nintendo’s classic franchises, and those looking for a challenge and deep storytelling.
Why we picked the Super Nintendo Entertainment System: Nintendo’s original NES system launched in the mid-1980s and almost singlehandedly revived the dormant video game industry with heroes like Mario, Samus, and Link, but it was the follow-up machine that proved just how dominant Nintendo would be. The console features some of the best video games ever made, including Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, and Donkey Kong Country.
The Super NES also features one of the best controllers in gaming history, building on the design of the NES gamepad with two additional face buttons, two shoulder buttons, and the same pixel-perfect directional pad for playing classic platformers and fighting games. Few systems have been able to match it in the years that followed.
Because of the 16-bit processing power, most developers made use of classic pixel art graphics for their games, and because of it, they’re still gorgeous and fully enjoyable in 2020. There are a few exceptions, but the SNES’s library remains one of the best in history.
Those looking to experience the Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s library without purchasing the original console can also purchase the SNES Classic Edition, or play the free games available through the Nintendo Switch Online subscription service.
Sega Genesis Mini
The best plug-and-play retro gaming console
Why you should buy this: It comes with twice the games of the SNES Classic and the emulation is absolutely perfect across the board.
Who’s it for: Those who missed out on the original Sega Genesis, shoot-‘em-up and fighting game fans, and those looking to relive their past.
Why we picked the Sega Genesis Mini: Nintendo kicked off the craze of mini first-party video game consoles pre-loaded with classic games when it launched the NES Classic Edition back in 2016, and its SNES Classic Edition is arguably better. However, Sega absolutely surprised us with its Sega Genesis Mini. Not only does it come with 40 Genesis games plus two additional titles, but it features brilliant emulation, a slick user interface, and the classic controllers you remember.
The attention to detail on the Sega Genesis Mini is ridiculous, with the volume slider being replicated along with the cartridge slot, despite neither serving a function on the plug-and-play machine. It’s also compatible with third-party controllers because of its USB ports, meaning you can use alternative wireless controllers if the two included wired controllers aren’t doing it for you.
There is some overlap between games available on the SNES and the Sega Genesis Mini, such as a version of Street Fighter II, but many of the games were exclusive to the console. These include Contra: Hard Corps, Castlevania: Bloodlines, Sonic the Hedgehog, Phantasy Star IV, and Ecco the Dolphin.
Even better? The Sega Genesis Mini is not expensive. It launched at $80 but has gone on sale several times, occasionally for less than half its standard retail price. It’s also much easier to find than Nintendo’s systems.
Read our full Sega Genesis Mini review
Game Boy Advance SP
The best handheld retro gaming console
Why you should buy this: Despite only being Nintendo’s primary handheld gaming system from 2001 through 2004, the Game Boy Advance has some of its best portable games ever, and the SP is the best version of it.
Who’s it for: Kids looking for some classic games, and adults who want to play SNES ports on the go.
Why we picked the Game Boy Advance SP: The Game Boy Advance era saw Nintendo at its absolute creative peak, with some of its best games ever — handheld or otherwise. Now-enormous series Fire Emblem got its start in North America on the platform, and it also saw the first entries in the WarioWare series and the return of classic 2D Metroid games with Zero Mission and Fusion. It also got plenty of ports from the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, including The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and the updated version of Super Mario Bros. 2.
Series that began on the Game Boy received new iterations, as well, looking far superior with the system’s more advanced architecture. Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire are still worth playing, even with the 3DS remakes available, and you can even find surprisingly good Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games to play on Game Boy Advance SP.
But why the Game Boy Advance SP over the original Game Boy Advance system? When Nintendo first released the Game Boy Advance, it still played games just as well as the SP, but it lacked a backlit screen and was thus hard to play during the daytime. The Game Boy Advance SP solved this and switched to a clamshell design that made it more portable and better protected it from falls and screen scratches. It is still Nintendo’s best handheld design all these years later.
The best “antique” retro gaming console
Why you should buy this: It’s a piece of history with simple yet addicting games that have classic visual and sound effects.
Who it’s for: The Atari 2600 is definitely for older players who will remember with a nostalgic eye. The simplicity of the games means you can start playing them again in on time.
Why we picked the Atari 2600: It wasn’t the first available home video game console — that was the Magnavox Odyssey, designed by Ralph Baer — but the Atari 2600 is what made game consoles into the multi-billion dollar business they are today. Its controller consists of just a joystick and a button, but with this limited technology, designers were able to create memorable and enjoyable games.
The technology did certainly limit some of the visuals, with the game Adventure just using a square as the protagonist, but it was by filling in the gaps with your imagination that you were able to see the appeal of the Atari 2600. Great early Star Wars games were released for the system, with sound effects that make you feel like you’re flying through space and blasting ships.
Interestingly, Atari didn’t have the same success with home consoles after the 2600, making its later 5200 and 7800 systems much less collection-worthy and with far fewer games. But the Atari 2600 certainly didn’t have that problem, as you’ll find a game for just about everyone on the little woodgrain system that could.
The best not-too-retro gaming console
Why you should buy this: It has one of the largest game libraries of any console in history, and a large number of those games are exclusive.
Who’s it for: Fans of role-playing games, action games, sports, games, and Sony’s first-party franchises.
Why we picked the PlayStation 2: The PlayStation 2 was ludicrously popular during its heyday, and there was a very good reason for that — it had almost everything. Despite being the weakest of the three consoles during its generation, the PS2 had an absolutely massive library of games, including three Grand Theft Auto games, the Kingdom Hearts series, Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Solid 3, Killzone, and Final Fantasy X.
A huge number of those games were also exclusive to the system for years, meaning that players interested in purchasing them had to buy the console. Its DualShock 2 controller was the perfect way to experience the games, serving everything from shooters to platformers well.
The PlayStation 2 is also where you’ll see the first iterations in some of the biggest current game series. This includes Ratchet & Clank, God of War, Devil May Cry, and Kingdom Hearts. Unless it’s a game made by Nintendo or Microsoft, there is a pretty good chance you’ll find it on PlayStation 2. The games are also not too old that they’ll be difficult to find or too expensive, especially if you’ve got a friend looking to clear some space in their home.
Ensure your television or monitor is compatible
With retro game consoles, you want to make sure that the television you’re using is compatible. These systems, with the exception of the Sega Genesis Mini, were all designed to make use of something other than HDMI. This could mean an RCA cable, which may require an adapter. In the case of the Atari 2600, you will need to get an RF adapter, and possible an RCA-to-HDMI converter if your television only has HDMI inputs.
The games, particularly the older ones, may also look slightly odd when being played on a modern television because they were originally designed for 4:3 CRT displays. If you’re playing one of them, you may want to invest in an old television in order to have a more authentic experience. The Sega Genesis Mini offers a 4:3 option, and even lets you put fake scan-lines on your television to mimic the old displays.
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