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10 Retro Gaming Consoles, Gifts, and Solutions

These handhelds and throwback arcade cabinets, plus a few ways to play that you didn’t know existed, will take you back to the glory days.

best retro gaming consoles
Staff, Courtesy of Retroid
About the Expert: Alex McCumbers has been exploring a wide variety of games for most of his life, always keeping legacy consoles in mind rather than moving forward as new game consoles are released. His website ForeverClassicGames.com includes content that covers games across all eras on most platforms, such as PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, and Steam. His favorite pursuits include researching classic games and speaking with developers for deeper insight.

Much like books or films, video games have a lasting value that is often underrepresented by the companies or individuals that created them. For films, director’s cuts or remastered versions often hit the market in a variety of ways, usually in the form of digital or physical releases. Games don’t always have that luxury, and we are quickly losing access to a lot of them in an official capacity. Thankfully, some have successfully been preserved by hobbyists and hackers—one user recreated the source code for the original Diablo. In a way, there is a digital struggle going on that feels like the battles of those pursuing the right to repair various machines and tech. Even Nintendo, a company that once had lots of legacy games for sale on the Wii U virtual console, offers a fraction of them for its Nintendo Switch. Fortunately, fans of retro gaming have a lot of options these days aside from just owning a particular classic console and game. In this list are 10 excellent retro gaming options, solutions, consoles, and gifts for those wanting a blast from the past.

Three Modern Solutions to Retro Gaming

Emulation

The most common and often most versatile retro-gaming option is emulation, a software type that enables games to be played on platforms they were not originally made for, such as running the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) version of The Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo Switch Online service. To put it more simply, emulation is mimicry and often comes with a bad reputation. While many larger companies may tout how emulation leads to piracy, that is usually not the case, at least when looking at the data and studies that have been done so far. Emulation is why so many games have been saved, and this tech is used by lots of major studios and platforms. It’s a handy tool that is unfortunately too often demonized. That said, there are a lot of retro consoles out there that come packed with games they probably shouldn’t have. The reality is emulation exists and the games industry has the option of embracing it and properly monetizing it. Maybe one day we’ll get an iTunes-style storefront full of classic games, even the obscure oddities, with perfected performance and additional options.

Field-Programmable Gate Array

Another retro gaming option involves the use of FPGA (field-programmable gate array), which is a mix of physical components and software that essentially acts as a new way to play an older game. An example of this is the Analogue Super NT, which uses no emulation as an attempt to make the game as accurate as possible with zero input latency and scaling to 1080p. FPGA consoles are usually a more expensive tool used by speedrunners or high-end homebrew developers.

Porting

Lastly, retro games are sometimes redesigned or recoded then ported to a new system, which was the case for the Mega Man Legacy Collection 2, among several other titles. Full porting typically takes the most time for developers, but it enables more creative options, such as new modes and levels, to make an almost-new game entirely. This is also how developers are able to add online play to games that never had that type of multiplayer, although that can also be done through emulation or streaming like we see in Steam’s Remote Play Together feature.

iiRcade System

Which One to Choose?

When shopping for a retro gaming console, look for how the games are running and what sort of games you want to play. If you’re looking for a catch-all system, emulation is the way to go. If having the game run its absolute best on a modern screen is important, look for FPGA. Otherwise, a game that’s officially ported to the platform may be the best way to enjoy certain titles.

How We Selected

While I do spend a lot of time looking for the gems of the modern game libraries, I keep a thumb on the pulse of gaming’s past. From collecting original hardware (I’m the only person in my friend group who has a Wonderswan and a NEOGEO Pocket) to constantly finding ways to play classic titles with high-level play in mind, retro gaming is just another aspect of my favorite medium. I’ve contributed to games history projects, including the SNES Omnibus books, and I love finding and talking with developers of older games about their process and perspective. I also keep in contact with professional fighting game players and speedrunners, who are my go-to people to ask about the best way to play an individual game. I recently learned, for example, that Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike is best enjoyed through the Online Edition on Xbox 360 played through a CRT (cathode-ray tube or, simply, that old bulky TV in your attic), which apparently is as close to arcade perfect as one can get without owning the actual arcade cabinet.

With these considerations, I know a great deal about modern ways to enjoy retro games. For products that I don’t have a specific history with, I consulted with peers and colleagues, resulting in a great starting point for those looking to enjoy gaming’s legendary past.

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Best All-Around Handheld for Retro Gaming
Nintendo Switch
Nintendo walmart.com
$399.40

Key Specs

  • Manufacturer: Nintendo
  • Type: Emulation/Porting 

A system that will likely be my favorite Nintendo release ever, the Nintendo Switch combines the portability of a handheld with the option of playing games on a TV (excluding the Switch Lite model) with a simple connection to a dock. It’s a well-designed system, and the platform is full of excellent games across a broad range of interests. In regards to retro games, though, there are stellar options and collections that extend into unique control inputs that are exclusive to the Switch platform. Despite a wonderful array of retro-gaming bliss, Nintendo could do much better with its own retro games.

The Switch is not the best place to play many of Nintendo’s own legacy titles. With the recent release of N64 games through Nintendo Online, many players are finding poor emulation and a lack of button-remapping to be frustrating enough to avoid playing these releases altogether. Other publishers such as Capcom, NIS America, and SNK have all added more value to their classic games through additional modes, filters, options, and more. One of the coolest retro experiences I’ve had was with the Psikyo Shooting Stars games and a FlipGrip accessory, which allows for handheld vertical play (or what’s often referred to as TATE mode), making for a super-authentic resolution for several vertical arcade shooters. Although, you could get a similar result from using a little desktop stand, like this one from Hori, or by using a rotating monitor. Regardless of how one plays these games, vertical titles on a Switch are extremely fun.

I also recommend using an arcade stick, such as this one from 8BitDo, for the plethora of beat-em-ups, fighting games, or even old-school Pac-Man for a more retro feel. Games that feel great include Metal Slug, Streets of Rage 4, and Raiden, to name a few.

  • Lots of companies offer official retro ports
  • Various collections are available
  • Great library of games outside of retro titles

  • Official Nintendo-developed retro titles are lacking library staples
  • Emulation quality through Nintendo Online is not as good as it should be
Best Android Option for Retro Gaming
Razer Kishi Mobile Game Controller - USB C
Razer amazon.com
$79.99
$44.99 (44% off)

Key Specs

  • Manufacturer: Razer
  • Type: Emulation 

Due to the abundance of retro systems and emulators that have been perfected for Android, many retro-game players have turned to their phones for enjoying legacy content, in addition to a ton of great mobile games. What’s even more impressive is that there are several streaming solutions, such as the Xbox Cloud and PS Remote Play, that allow players to stream their games to their phones. When connected to a good internet source, using the Kishi can result in a portable way to play incredible games, even some of the latest, such as Forza Horizon 5, Halo Infinite, and God of War. I played most of Persona 5 through a stream on my iPhone Pro 11 Max before bed, and it worked great on my home network.

Because this controller connects through a physical port rather than Bluetooth, there are unique models available for both Android and iPhone (there are even Xbox-branded versions of both, which is a good sign that there’s more to come with this type of mobile gaming input). Of the two platforms, however, Android is arguably the better option for mobile gaming because there are more succinct gaming solutions available for it.

While most Bluetooth controllers, even core console controllers, work fine on mobile phone gaming platforms, I find the familiar feel of the Razer Kishi, similar to the Nintendo Switch I played on for years, to be more enjoyable. Plus, a physical connection reduces latency on inputs, which makes the Razer Kishi a fantastic option for most games with controller support.

  • Perfect for game streaming, mobile games, and many apps
  • Pass-through charging

  • Must have the phone physically in the unit
  • Triggers could be improved
Best Entry Point for Third-Party Emulation
Retroid Pocket 2
Retroid amazon.com
$119.99

Key Specs

  • Manufacturer: Retroid
  • Type: Emulation 

Showing up more and more on popular YouTube reviews and games media outlets are emulation-based systems that allow for an extreme level of customization in regards to software options. The most common type of system these days are handhelds, and several models also can connect through HDMI to a monitor for more play options. While most would think these consoles are cheap distractions, there are many companies taking community feedback to heart and iterating on their tech. This has resulted in several high-quality handhelds. One of the most recommendable units I’ve come across is the Retroid Pocket 2, which surprised me in how well it works.

Finding which settings are best for certain apps takes some getting used to, and the UI can be lacking from app to app. It can be an exercise in patience to properly configure and move game backups onto, but once it’s up and running this unit is so much fun. Online guides are useful when it comes to getting the most out of this handheld.

There are lots of homebrew games to explore throughout the internet, and everything I’ve thrown at this handheld just works. Not everything runs well through the Retroid OS app that comes preinstalled, such as PSP or N64 games, but there are enough Android apps out there such as PPSSPP (PSP) to get certain things running properly. It’s small enough to fit into a pocket, and I had loads of enjoyment with it while traveling. The screen looks great with excellent viewing angles and a clear image, and it even came with a glass screen protector. The company recently released a motherboard upgrade, for those who are more hardware savvy, that expands the system’s capabilities for playing systems like Gamecube. Be warned, though, getting these systems can lead to an obsession with the craft, and there are loads of other, more expensive handhelds out there to blow your paycheck on.

For even more insight into these types of consoles, I highly recommend the works of Retro Dodo both on their YouTube channel and their website. They’ve really been the gold standard when it comes to covering emulation consoles, and their content is what led to me picking up a Retroid Pocket 2 in the first place.

  • Once properly configured, plays backups beautifully
  • Buttons and build quality make for a familiar feel
  • Android-based, lots of tinkering potential

  • Might be tough to configure for non-enthusiasts
  • Some game types work better out-of-the-box than others
Best Retro Nintendo Gift
Nintendo Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda
Nintendo target.com
$49.99

Key Specs

  • Manufacturer: Nintendo
  • Type: Emulation 

Leaning on the progenesis of its portable console design, Nintendo brings that legacy to the modern era in a fun way with its new Game & Watch items. While there have been far better ways to play classic Legend of Zelda games, using this easy-to-pocket throwback system has the potential to put a huge smile on a Nintendo fan’s face. I was blown away by how nice the unit felt, and there are little touches like a light-up Tri Force on the back that make this feel like a premium product rather than a novelty item.

Perfect for a commute or just keeping on a desk for occasional short bursts of play, the Zelda Game & Watch offers three games and a few fun applications to occupy one’s mind. Games on the unit include The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, which was originally a Game Boy game. The small screen captures the colors of these iconic adventures extremely well, but it is strange that Nintendo opted for the base version of Link’s Awakening as opposed to the updated content found in the DX version of the game that was released for the Game Boy Color. It is nice, however, that this unit features the black and green Game Boy visuals as well as a color option. In addition to the three Zelda classics, a new Game & Watch game has been created for this release, which adds Link to the LED-style game, Vermin. There’s also a playable watch and timer where players can endlessly battle monsters.

As far as tinker toys are concerned, it doesn’t get much better than the Zelda Game & Watch. Nintendo also made a Mario version, but this release feels more exciting and better executed.

  • Novelty in design but expertly crafted
  • Quirky Zelda flairs
  • Super nice D-Pad

  • Buttons are pretty squishy
  • Should’ve had the DX version of Link’s Awakening
Best Affordable SNK Arcade Experience
SNK NEOGEO Arcade Stick Pro
SNK amazon.com
$129.99

Key Specs

  • Manufacturer: SNK
  • Type: Emulation 

While many of these systems are great on their own, the NEOGEO Arcade Stick Pro is one of the few that also doubles as a controller out of the box. With 20 built-in SNK games and a few extra added through firmware updates, this is a solid way to get a taste of SNK history without breaking the bank. There are also additional accessories such as extra controllers and silicone covers. Those looking for a two-player experience can also connect another Arcade Stick Pro.

Anyone looking for an even more affordable way to show off their NEOGEO/SNK fandom should look into the NEOGEO Mini, which shrinks the idea of playing SNK games while keeping an arcade design. However, those who enjoy the feel of an arcade controller will probably enjoy the Arcade Stick Pro more. SNK fans who want something that emulates the arcade feel even further will want to check out our recommendation later in this list, the MVSX arcade machine.

All things considered, there has been a bit of a modern resurgence when it comes to supporting the NEOGEO fan base. It was a console that was exorbitantly expensive for the time, but now there are so many options to play these games, which are some of the most visually stunning examples of pixel art even today.

  • Doubles as a controller
  • Solid build quality
  • Library is expandable

  • Primarily fighting games
Best Collector’s Piece
Capcom Home Arcade
Capcom amazon.com
$369.99

Key Specs

  • Manufacturer: Capcom
  • Type: Emulation 

This is probably one of the weirdest retro gaming systems on this list, but there are a few notable reasons why this is a great way to experience some of the more interesting facets of Capcom’s arcade history. The system did have some issues at launch, such as having to reset the unit to start a new game, but a firmware update has made playing on the system a much smoother experience. The game list includes classics like Street Fighter II Hyper Fighting and Ghouls n’ Ghosts, but the most notable title is the Alien vs. Predator beat-em-up, which has never seen a home port outside of being on this quirky unit. This game alone may be enough to push players into picking up a system.

It’s a pretty awkward setup for an arcade stick, but it does celebrate Capcom rather well. An updated version would be lovely, as this version uses Micro USB, but there are lots of visual filters, scoreboards that can be updated via WiFi, difficulty options, and solid emulation that makes it worthwhile. It would have been amazing to see more of Capcom’s most celebrated arcade titles, but many of those are available elsewhere.

More as an anniversary item than something practical, the Capcom Arcade is a great collector’s piece. If Capcom ever did revisit an item similar to this, with more games and the ability to use the stick as a controller for its latest games, it would probably be a huge hit.

  • The only official way to play Alien vs. Predator
  • Perfect for Capcom fans

  • Games list missing some hits
  • Awkward design for a two-player arcade stick
Best Arcade Cabinet Entry Point
iiRcade System
iiRcade amazon.com
$249.99

Key Specs

  • Manufacturer: iiRcade
  • Type: Porting 

The iiRcade family of arcade cabinets takes the space-saving style of the current era of bringing retro games into homes and adds a whole library of officially licensed games that can be added to the unit through an online storefront, much like one would on Steam or the Nintendo eShop. There are specialized designs available featuring the likes of Double Dragon or Space Ace, but there’s also a solid offering of indie designs like the one featuring Retromania or the upcoming Sydney Hunter unit. However, the iiRcade platform as a whole is the main appeal, as the amount of available games is ever-expanding, making it a perfect starter unit for those wanting to add some arcade flair to their life.

Probably one of the most fascinating aspects of the platform is the inclusion of modern indie games. Dandara, Skellboy, and Wonderboy: The Dragon’s Trap feel different in the best way when playing on the iiRcade when compared to other platforms. I just recently started diving into what the iiRcade has to offer, but I can already see myself snagging most of the indie games as they come out. Improvements could be made to the system’s general user interface, such as a snappier interface and higher-resolution assets, but thankfully the system has already received several firmware updates that continue to improve things.

iiRcade fills the glaring gap in the modern arcade space, much like NEOGEO did in the ’90s, by offering an expandable cabinet with a wide variety of games rather than a select few. Certain titles are sorely missed, but the company did recently announce a partnership with SEGA for Space Harrier, Shadow Dancer, Alien Storm, and others, so more notable companies are getting their games on the platform. Hopefully, we will see the absolute best of the arcade era added soon. I would love to see some of the 3D fighting games like Soul Calibur II or Tekken 3 added to the library. Having some of the newer standouts sprouting up in the indie games space, such as Hollow Knight or Demon Turf, would be icing on the cake.

With a bright and promising future, the iiRcade is definitely a retro gaming system worth checking out.

  • Streamlined build, solid construction, and high-quality parts
  • A growing library of games available digitally

  • Not a lot of heavy hitters from companies like Capcom, SNK, Midway are currently available
  • Could use more settings to fine-tune controls, add turbo, among other things
Most Nostalgic Retro Gaming System
Arcade1Up Marvel vs Capcom Arcade Machine
Arcade1Up amazon.com
$641.25

Key Specs

  • Manufacturer: Arcade1Up
  • Type: Emulation 

Arcade1UP created a cornucopia of arcade units that will make any super fan jump with joy. While each unit may be limited on the number of games included, the level of flair put into the cabinet’s design and visuals is astounding. Anyone looking to give the gift of pure nostalgia should take a look at Arcade 1Up’s machines.

Many of the newer models include lots of modern features, such as light-up marquees and even WiFi play. The company also has several games that benefit from mimicking its original, unique control schemes, including its Terminator 2 machine that uses light-gun controllers and the Ridge Racer machine that has pedals and a steering wheel. The standard full-sized models can feel a little pricey, but the company has started to create similar experiences in different sizes. The new Countercade units, such as this Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles system, are cheaper and take up less space. They’ve even started making systems geared for smaller children, with the Arcade1Up Jr line of cabinets.

I’ve used several of these cabinets, and I have friends that swear by them. They may not offer all the features of a well-maintained original cabinet, but the fact that these systems exist and are readily available is amazing. Arcade gaming had its own culture, and it established many of the best parts of gaming that are still used by developers today. Arcade1Up grants an authentic, celebratory solution to those who miss that type of gaming.

  • Celebrates arcade games with nostalgic designs
  • WiFi play available for some units
  • Multiple sizes and options

  • Full size models can be expensive
  • Quality can vary from system to system
  • Small selection of games per unit
Best SNK Arcade Experience
SNK MVSX Arcade
SNK amazon.com
$799.00

Key Specs

  • Manufacturer: SNK
  • Type: Emulation 

SNK was one of the first arcade manufacturers to allow players to choose from a selection of games on its NEOGEO Multi Video System cabinets. In 1990, the company’s original home console, known as the NEOGEO AES (Advanced Entertainment System), brought near-arcade-perfect games into homes but for a much higher price than other consoles. The red cabinets are a symbol of that era, and that iconic visual style SNK games are known for is captured extremely well with the modern MVSX Arcade Machine, which also boasts 50 games.

From Fatal Fury to King of Fighters to Samurai Shodown, what’s offered on this machine is an SNK fighting game fan’s dream come true. Sure, just about every game in the SNK library can be played on modern systems, but there’s something special about playing these games on this unit compared to the mini-systems mentioned earlier in this list. That said, the UI elements are very similar when looking at the current SNK retro systems on the market. Additionally, many hardcore players may not enjoy the buttons since most arcade buttons will feel more tactile.

Nostalgia is the driving factor when choosing the perfect retro gaming system. The MVSX offers that in spades but may not be the best solution for those that appreciate variety. Most of the games will feel similar to average players, making that list of 50 titles feel much smaller.

  • Attention to detail that will delight SNK fans
  • Lots of games to explore

  • Mostly similar games
  • Weirdly high buttons
Most Impressive Treatment of Legacy Consoles
Microsoft Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S
Microsoft walmart.com
$356.95

Buy Xbox Series X 

Buy Xbox One Refurbished

Key Specs

  • Manufacturer: Microsoft
  • Type: Emulation/Porting 

While it looks like the list of new backward-compatible Xbox games may not be growing anytime soon, there is a surprising amount of Classic Xbox and Xbox 360 games that work well on the Xbox One. This also includes the Xbox Series X|S, which has similar compatibility with legacy content both physically and digitally. Thankfully, for easy tracking, Xbox keeps a running list of what games are compatible with its systems, and many retro retail stores make compatibility clear in their signage.

Unlike the backward compatibility of systems like the PlayStation 2, which exclusively used physical discs, the Xbox One (in most instances) gives you the option to buy legacy games on digital storefronts. Finding a copy of Conker: Live and Reloaded is typically tough, but for just ten bucks you can buy a digital version and play it on any Xbox One or Series model. Considering how affordable some of the Xbox models can be, this is a great way to get into Xbox retro gaming. What’s astounding is that some older games even run at their absolute best on a newer system thanks to the efforts put into making these games work. There could always be more games on this list, but Xbox really stepped up in a way that respects the brand’s past during a time when competitors were frustratingly leaving whole libraries behind.

There are also retro collections to consider such as Rare Replay or SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, but I’ve always commended Xbox for how well its platform handles older titles.

  • Most backward-compatible games play beautifully
  • Xbox controllers work well with just about any type of game
  • Legacy titles can be purchased digitally in most cases

  • Backward compatibility may not be receiving more games
  • Hard to find; sometimes used and refurbished are the only options
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