The best retro game consoles on the market have changed quite a bit over the last few years. Is it still worth going for the real hardware, or is it time to get a newer device?
Gotten into the retro-collecting business? Well, if you’re like us, you’ll realize that these things have gotten quite pricey. However, there’s always room for a Mr. Do machine in your life, sometimes you need more than a giant singular machine in your house.
While things have gotten way easier than ever before to grab old consoles, it’s also gotten much easier to emulate nearly everything. Though not everyone wants to fake it and we get that. It’s also a massive double-edged sword.
It used to be that things like Neo Geo AES and the Panasonic Q (a DVD-playing version of the Gamecube), or even some obscure device, would be the high-ticket items. Pinball, and arcade machines as well. Now it seems as though anything remotely south of 2002 can go for an extortionate amount of cash.
Despite all this, we’ve used our extensive background in this particular branch of nerdery to bring you the best options for you to get into in 2023.
Best retro game consoles: Gameboy
The Nintendo Gameboy has come in multiple forms and a vast variety of colors. It also helps that a large portion of its library is actually quite incredible. Whether you’re seeking cartridges or going for another route, grabbing yourself a Gameboy Color or Gameboy Advance might be one of the better options to latch onto.
However, don’t just settle for a Gameboy in 2023. The thing is, the Gameboy has seen this huge online revival. Maybe it’s something to do with Logan Paul’s decision to ruin yet another thing, or perhaps that now all those that grew up on the device have disposable income, we’re just after that dopamine hit.
There are multiple stores and mods available for the Gameboy, making it highly customizable once you have the core console. We highly recommend grabbing a new IPS display, maybe a new case, and some isopropyl alcohol, just to clean out the gunk that’s been built over the years.
So, why a Gameboy? Well, as with a lot of retro gaming, it does ultimately come down to the library that already exists on it. The Gameboy’s legendary backwards compatibility is not to be shunned.
While we hold a deep love for the Gameboy Micro, we can’t really recommend it without getting into the mess of flash carts that hold all your games. The Micro was the only Gameboy to not support backwards compatibility, being too small and missing the parts to operate cartridges from prior to the Advance lines’ introduction in 2001.
Alternative choice: Analogue Pocket
However, if you want to use legitimate hardware and not deal with the overall hassle of ripping apart an old Gameboy, we do recommend you look into the Analogue Pocket.
The Analogue Pocket is an FPGA device, which is different from emulation. While emulation can be used to improve older titles, FPGA aims to recreate the gaming experience to its fullest potential. This means things like slowdown and how the game operates will mirror how it was on the original hardware.
Recently Analogue released ‘OpenFPGA’, a piece of software which developers could port their ‘cores’ (the recreation of the original console) to their variety of hardware. The Pocket, after being ‘jailbroken’ and loaded up with OpenFPGA, can now play ROMs, as well as your original game cartridges.
It’s a little weird to be talking about the PlayStation 2 these days. A lot of the titles that made it such a fantastic device have since been ported over to more modern hardware. Shadow of the Colossus, Final Fantasy X, and XII, have all seen rereleases at some point. So why recommend the PS2?
Well, it’s the real niche titles that you should be looking at. The PlayStation 2 was that critical point in becoming this massive jukebox for B-tier games that only weirdos could potentially want to seek out.
Looking at the extensive library of games, including the PlayStation 1, the PS2 is one of the best pieces of hardware you can track down. It helps that the console was so widespread, still holding 155+ million units sold worldwide. With this in mind, it should be relatively cheap for you to track one down on eBay.
There’s no point in grabbing a PS2 for a retro-fuelled night in a game like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, when better ports can still be acquired elsewhere. You need to look deep.
PS2 game recommendations:
- Raw Danger: A western renaming of Disaster Report 2. Survive a natural disaster and try to make it out alive in this classic B-tier game.
- Mister Mosquito: You’re a mosquito, go drink some blood, and don’t get caught in the variety of stages that follow.
- Echo Night: Beyond: From Software weren’t always the Soulsborne and Elden Ring guys. At some point, they made horror games called Echo Night. This one holds no continuity with the others, is set in space, and features no direct combat. Discover the mysteries that lurk on the abandoned space station in this unique horror game.
- God Hand: Take the guys that would eventually become Platinum Games and give them full reign to make whatever game they want. A little weird at first, but slowly becomes one of the best games available.
If talking about the PS2 as a retro console made you feel old, let me introduce you to the fact that the 3DS and 2DS are over a decade old. So, why the 2DS XL over say, the 3DS XL? Battery life and price, mostly. While the New Nintendo 3DS is a delightful tiny package, it can be expensive. Now tack on the 3D enable screen – which you’ll never use – and you’ve got a battery hog on the go.
The 2DS XL ditches the wedge of cake shape from the original and opts to go for the clamshell you’re used to. It’s a fascinating device, essentially just a 3DS XL without the additional features – like a useless 3D screen that could melt eyes.
With an extensive, still excellent library of games and then the addition of the entirety of the DS library as well, the 2DS XL is a bargain.
A lot of 3DS and original DS games are probably going to be lost to time going forward, with emulation options never really hitting the spot. Games like Hotel Dusk, Contact, and Feel the Magic: XY/XX, with unique control schemes to the dual screens of the console would need an extraordinary amount of work to get going. Having classics available, as well as the healthy 3DS library in tow, makes the 2DS XL one of the best purchases you can make for your collection needs.
3DS/2DS and DS game recommendations:
- Contact: A strange action RPG that sees you trying to help a professor that has gotten trapped on Earth, by whacking wildlife and surviving the local area.
- Kirby: Canvas Curse: Guide Kirby through levels all with the stylus and some expert drawing skills.
- Bangai-O Spirits: Utterly absurd puzzle-platformer, as you try to navigate 150+ stages as a mech. It’s great fun, even if it is infuriating.
- Bravely Default: With the mostly unrelated Bravely Default 2 getting a PC port after its Switch release, it’s still surprising to see a lack of Bravely Default 1 get any love. It’s a fantastic JRPG, giving you a fresh take on an old genre.
- Liberation Maiden: Liberate and complete missions in a fast-paced shooter environment. It’s a cracking time, one that might go forgotten if not regularly brought up time and time again.
The MiSTer Project uses FPGA, or field programmable gate array, which aims to recreate the hardware that it is emulating. While a dirty word in the FPGA community, for the layman, it’s recreating the hardware environment as close as possible, including all imperfections and more.
Using ROMs and specific hardware, the DE10-Nano, the MiSTer Project’s preservation goal is to be accurate above all else. This means slowdown, glitches, and other issues that can’t be smoothed over like in emulation.
The unfortunate thing about the MiSTer Project and why, while we recommend it, makes it incredibly hard to get into, is the upfront cost and that it is constantly out of stock.
Reliance on one type of board, along with an electronics shortage due to ongoing worldwide issues, has made it a tough one to just jump into. Here in the UK, we’ve found that there’s a possibility that deliveries won’t happen until the end of 2023.
However, if you can get in, it’s one of the best ways to currently play older video games. There’s nothing that beats the pure accuracy of an FPGA device.
Alternative emulation option: Raspberry Pi
If you’re not really up to the task of sourcing, setting up, and finding cores to use on FPGA-based systems, we almost always recommend the Raspberry Pi 4.
The Pi 4 is a fantastic micro-PC, with up to 8GB of RAM and a more than capable set of tools to get the most out of your games. While it – much like the MiSTer – can only play up to PlayStation 1 games comfortably, it doesn’t matter when you can get as weird as a full-on WonderSwan emulator on your TV.
If you want to recreate a classic PC, like the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, or even Atari-based systems, the Pi 400, with its built-in keyboard, is one of the best decisions you can make.
The poor Dreamcast. Too early for its time, scuppered by Sega’s bizarre choices. Ultimately brought down by the PS2’s wider reach, and also that the Dreamcast had an incredibly bad piracy problem.
If you think Nintendo’s war against flash carts and large-scale piracy operations is bad, Sega couldn’t even do anything about it. The Dreamcast couldn’t tell the difference between official Dreamcast games and a regular CD-R with the game burnt onto it.
No, seriously, all you needed to load your own games onto the Dreamcast was a CD burner – which just so happened to start coming as standard across a wide range of PCs towards the end of the 90s.
However, regardless of this, the Dreamcast is still one of the most unique experiences you can take on. While again, like the PS2, the best games have all seen ports that are far superior, there’s still some fun to be had.
Games like Seaman are still hard to emulate, due to their use of a Dreamcast microphone, and there’s nothing cooler than slotting the VMU into your controller.
While a lot of it has been superseded and Sega’s console-making days died along with it, grabbing a Dreamcast is one of those things you never totally regret.
Recommended games for the Dreamcast:
- Power Stone 2: Having never seen the light of day outside of the Dreamcast and PSP, one of Capcom’s best fighting games – because everyone can play – is quintessential Dreamcast party fun.
- Phantasy Star Online: While a Gamecube and PC version exists, working your way through the broken online to set up for the original Phantasy Star Online game on a Dreamcast is something you need to just experience once. It honestly still works and there are still servers you can access. Also, the game is still pretty fun with friends too.
- Seaman: Take care of a fish-thing until it dies or evolves and grows legs. An endlessly fascinating game never surpassed in its weirdness. It is also narrated by Leonard Nimoy. Uses the Dreamcast microphone.
Retro gaming is getting so much easier to get into these days. While we’ve spoken briefly about emulation, make sure you already own the games that you seek to play.