The PS5 and Xbox Series X may be the newest consoles on the block, but retro gaming has made its own comeback in recent years—from reimaginings of classic Mario to replicas of the consoles themselves, games from the ’80s and ’90s are getting love from new and returning audiences alike. Even Plex, the streaming service and media center app maker, just announced a new feature where you can stream games to your TV for a monthly subscription.
But some of those old games are available on so many different platforms, it’s hard to know which is best—should you play Chrono Trigger on your PC, phone, or the Super Nintendo stashed away in your parents’ basement? Are all-in-one emulation systems like the Raspberry Pi worth the effort over an NES Classic Edition or Sega Genesis Mini? We’re here to help.
‘Virtual Consoles’: As Easy as It Gets
Many games—particularly popular ones that aren’t tied up in licensing nonsense—are easily playable on modern consoles thanks to the manufacturer’s online game stores. This became popular in the Wii era with Nintendo’s Virtual Console on the Wii, Wii U, and 3DS, which allowed you to buy and download individual classic games to play on your modern machine. If you have one of those systems, this is arguably one of the easiest ways to play those old games, and the selection is pretty decent. It even includes some Nintendo 64 games, which are not as common on other platforms or easy to emulate. While the virtual console isn’t without quirks—the Wii U Virtual Console had emulation issues, input lag, and a noticeable dark tint to many games—it’s still fairly reliable, with a sizable library. The Wii eShop is now closed, but the 3DS and Wii U digital game stores remain open in the US if you still have that older hardware.
These days, you tend to see these “virtual consoles” as subscription services, like Nintendo Switch Online (which has “80+ games” from Nintendo and Super Nintendo available for a monthly fee) or PlayStation Now (which has 700 PS2, PS3, and PS4 games available as part of a subscription). Both companies also sell backward-compatible games and remastered ports on their respective online stores, like Super Mario 3D All-Stars and the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy. Just click Buy and start playing—in some cases, you may even be able to grab retro-style controllers that match the look and feel of the originals.
Mini ‘Classic’ Systems: Modernize the Old-School
Nintendo started a trend with their first mini console. Now you can buy tiny replicas of all your childhood favorites, including the Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, PlayStation, Atari 2600, and more. Some are higher quality than others (Nintendo’s are great, Sony’s is disappointing), but all aim to be plug and play, and fully compatible with modern TVs. These tend to come with a selection of popular games built in, along with a few extra features (like save states) and customization options (like CRT filters and other goodies).
These mini machines have more limited libraries than the virtual consoles, but are similarly simple to set up. In addition, some had limited runs and are harder or more expensive to acquire, but if you like the added novelty of having a tiny console—not to mention the most authentic controller—it’s a great way to rebuild the retro collection of your youth.
Mobile and PC Ports: Spotty, but Convenient
In some cases, you may be able to find your favorite game(s) available right from the iOS App Store, Google Play Store, or on PC through a store like Steam. This can offer a similarly convenient way to play, especially if you already carry your phone with you everywhere. The quality of these ports, however, can be all over the map.
For example, Sega’s ports of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic 2, and Sonic CD are stellar remasters of their classic counterparts. They play in widescreen for modern displays, add the ability to play as other characters, and allow you to choose between the Japanese and American soundtracks. Last year’s re-release of Doom 64 has also been lauded for its quality. On the other hand, the mobile version of Mega Man X was widely panned due to its poor use of screen space and sluggish speed. Chrono Trigger‘s PC port started out as an absolute mess, but was later fixed with a series of patches. And many other terrible ports have come and gone from the App Store over the years, no longer available for download.