Want to play old games? Sure, we all do.
But old game consoles were built to be played on CRT televisions, and no one makes those anymore; the move to high-definition made them obsolete, and the plunging price of LCD and LED screens made CRTs prohibitively expensive (not to mention heavy). That's had a severe impact on many classics — just try playing Punch-Out!! or UmJammer Lammy on a digital set, let alone use a light gun like the Zapper or GunCon. Changing tech standards have made the simple act of playing a game from before the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 generation increasingly tricky. You can't just plug a Sega Genesis into a flatpanel HDTV and expect awesome results; these days, you have to work for it. Here are your options.
Use old hardware
That's the simplest solution, right? Play old games on the original hardware. Unfortunately, it's no longer so simple. Unless you keep a CRT television around, the analog signal your old consoles output won't play nicely with your TV. Even with a high-end upscaler on-hand and a low-latency LED television like a Sony Bravia, you're still looking at two or three frames of lag — not terrible, but still not quite perfect.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the next trend in classic gaming looks to be equipping old consoles with adds-ons that replace their original video capabilities with a digital signal. The Analogue NT features this as an option, built around Kevtris' 1080p HDMI mod. Expect to see many, many more of these options in the near-to-middle future.
The easiest and most common answer to the question of "how do I play old games?" turns out to be "emulate them." And why not? Emulators are free. They're convenient, and their quality and accuracy improves each year. Emulators add all manner of extra options, too, from display filters, to save states, to rewinds and replays, to online play for consoles like the NES. And best of all, the Internet is loaded with free copies of just about every classic game you could ever want, even the ones that sell for hundreds of dollars.
All of this is well and good, to a point. But there's no such thing as perfect emulation; even the best emulators involve guesswork and compromises in order to make games work. While that's fine for casual use, the subtle flaws and inconsistencies of emulated games add up and keep the emulation experience from being completely faithful to the original software and hardware. Timing differs, audio rarely sounds perfect, colors vary, and even the distinctive flaws of a given console fail to manifest — which might suggest that emulation is better than the real thing, so to speak, but in practice simply means it's an imperfect approximation of gaming. Emulation is especially poor at reproducing effects that were designed to make use of a system's specific interaction with a display, be that tricks involving the beams of a CRT screen or subpixel rendering on LCDs.
There's also the not-so-insignificant matter of legality. While emulation in and of itself is perfectly legal, most people swipe illegally shared software files — ROMs — in order to run on their emulators. With very few exceptions, classic games are not free to use and still enjoy the protection of copyright, but it's rare to find an emulator that isn't built around the fundamental assumption that users will snag ROMs anywhere and any way they can. This is not a flaw in emulation so much as a side effect of its existence, but it definitely has undermined the concept of value for classic gaming; I can't count how many times I've seen people argue against legitimate service like Virtual Console with remarks like, "Why I should I pay $5 for an NES game when I can download it for free?"
While it won't do anything to curb the erosion of perception of value for classic games, the next frontier of emulation is cycle-accurate emulation, wherein rather than approximating the functions of a console an emulator literally recreates the functions of a circuit for each cycle of the original machine. This is extraordinarily resource-intensive; as Frank Cifaldi of Digital Eclipse put it to me, truly cycle-accurate emulation would trace the electrons running through a circuit. The NES ran at 1.79 MHz, meaning its processor cycled 1,790,000 times per second. For each frame of a game running on the American or Japanese NTSC standard, that's nearly 30,000 cycles that a computer would need to simulate — and that's on top of determining the game logic, reading inputs, producing graphics and audio, and all the other background processes involved in running the host computer's operating system beneath it all. As you'd expect, this is prohibitively expensive in terms of computing power, not to mention incredibly complex to program.
Despite the towering challenge that cycle-accurate emulation represents, though, dedicated programmers have taken up the cause and are making impressive strides. The best known of these ultimate emulators is Higan (previously BSNES), a decade-long endeavor by a programmer who goes by the alias byuu. On both this archived page and a piece for Ars Technica, byuu laid out the case for cycle-accurate emulation with dozens of clear examples.
And the idea of legal, copyright-friendly emulation isn't entirely far-fetched; in fact, that's the entire premise behind the RetroN 5, a multi-platform emulation device that requires the use of original cartridges to run. "It's a solution for a market I didn't know existed," says Cifaldi. "People who collect authentic game cartridges because they want an 'authentic experience,' but not so much that they'll invest in the hardware too.
"That said, if you happen to have some old cartridges around and want to play them on a modern TV, it seems to work well enough!" However, he adds, "The RetroN 5 to me is not authentic — it's software emulation, and not very good emulation at that. Plus, a lot of those emulators were stolen from their original authors without credit, and as a software developer myself who actually, you know, pays emulator authors, I'm not a big fan of that business practice."
For those who prefer the legal and legitimate approach to classic gaming, services like Virtual Console offer emulation directly from the companies responsible for producing the original classic hardware, and their pay-to-play model means the rights holders (though not necessarily the creators themselves) for these old games continue to see a profit from them. Official emulators that don't erode the value of classic works — sounds great, right?
Sadly, in practice, Virtual Console (which, for convenience, I'm also using to include services like PlayStation Network) is as hit-or-miss as any other means of playing old software. Besides the value proposition — $10 for a decade-old DS game that can be snagged complete-in-box on eBay for half that amount can be a tough pill to swallow — Virtual Console services also suffer from an ever-dwindling selection of new releases. PlayStation games on PSN dried up several years ago, and Nintendo's VC selections have also slowed to a trickle consisting primarily of first-party titles and games from Capcom, Natsume, Bandai Namco, and Konami.
There's also little parity between regions, with Japanese gamers having a bumper crop of Virtual Console titles roughly twice as large as what's available in the U.S. So, for example, roughly one-seventh of all games released for NES in America are available on Virtual Console; and while the majority of those titles are games no one's in a hurry to revisit anyway, many genuine greats have never reached the service due to licensing issues. Others, such as the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, have long since been delisted. Rights issues are also the reason text-heavy action RPG Tomba 2 is available only in Japanese on PSN in America, and why we'll seemingly never see the Mega Man Legends games.
Finally, the actual emulation quality of Virtual Console selections has proven disappointingly spotty. Things seemed solid on Wii; NES colors were somewhat too muted, and Nintendo prioritized playability over faithfulness with N64 tiles (uprezzing them from 320x240 to 640x480 and improving their choppy framerates). Despite those minor issues, the Wii could natively produce visual output in the true resolution of its target systems, meaning that Super NES games (for example) rendered at proper 240p resolution and looked fantastic over component cables. However, Nintendo took a disappointingly sloppy approach to subsequent consoles; NES games on 3DS, for example, are upscaled from 224 pixels high to 240 pixels, slightly blurring their graphics. Wii U's NES games have fared no better. Being an HD console, Wii U can't emit a 240p signal, resulting in soft upscaling and dull colors that mar what should by all rights be a perfect simulation of the NES experience.
Virtual Console isn't all bad, however. Every few months, a rare, expensive, or even unreleased game makes its way to VC or PSN. Over the past two years, we've seen Suikoden II, Shantae, Recca, The Misadventures of Tron Bonne, EarthBound Beginnings, and several others. And a few of the current Virtual Console platform services are beyond reproach: The emulators for both Game Gear on 3DS (seemingly now defunct) and Game Boy Advance on Wii U were produced by the retro game champions at M2 and feature not only stunningly faithful visuals and gameplay, they also offer a wealth of options that absolutely shames Nintendo's treatment of their own VC creations. Overall, both Virtual Console and PlayStation Classics offer a respectable sampler of key games, some genuine rarities, and passable though inconsistent emulation quality.
Use a system-on-a-chip or emulation system
The RetroN 5, which I mentioned above, is but one of many entries in the latest trend in classic game consoles: Systems-on-a-chip that require the use of an original cartridge to run. The RetroN stands out because of its wide compatibility with classic systems and the fact that it outputs video in full HD, but it's really cut from the same cloth as dozens of ersatz clone consoles you can pick up at mall kiosks, online, or in game shops.
What all of these systems have in common is that they essentially are hardwired emulators, designed to replicate the functions of a popular classic console (usually NES or Super NES, though Genesis isn't unheard of). Unlike the Analogue NT, these don't use original hardware. Instead, they consist of either clone hardware reverse-engineered from the original consoles and compacted to modern standards, or else a general computing device (such as the Raspberry Pi) functioning as a dedicated emulator. In the case of the Neo-Geo X, they might even be licensed from the current platform rights holder and used in conjunction with proprietary software.
These devices come with many of the caveats of emulators, such as partial accuracy and compatibility, though they do generally possess their own distinct strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, many of these devices are portable, offering a convenient way to play old console games on the go. Their reliance on original cartridges also helps minimize piracy concerns. On the other hand, they tend to be built poorly, and the portable devices as a rule never use screens that match their target systems' actual resolution. It's common to see Super NES emulators with 640x480 screens, resulting in stretched and blurry graphics... as if the substandard screens they used weren't already bad enough.
Invest in compilations and reissues
For the discerning retro game fan who doesn't want to end up buried beneath a mountain of consoles, cables, and cartridges, the optimal choice just might be to go with a carefully curated collection of classic game compilations. While these anthologies have become much less common over the past decade than they were at the peak of their proliferation in the PlayStation 2 era, they're still around — and the good news is that their relative scarcity means their creators are more likely to take care with their quality. We saw tons of compilations on PS2, but they were all over the place in terms of content and authenticity. These days, collections tend to be top-flight.
This summer, for example, will see the launch of both Rare Replay and Mega Man Legacy Collection. While the latter appears to be the more thoughtful conversation effort of the two, both are at the top of their class. MMLC takes the philosophy of less-is-more, focusing on a mere six games presented as faithfully to their NES counterparts as possible, with an exhaustive museum of art and manual scans as well as never-before-localized material from the games' PlayStation remakes. Rare Replay has a somewhat more cluttered interface and seems to be less consistent with its source material (e.g. some Nintendo 64 games appear as their Xbox Live Arcade remakes), but it still reproduces dozens of games beautifully. As well it should — Rare Replay truly is a rarity, in that it's been largely produced in-house rather than outsourced. That's almost completely unheard of.
Depending how far down the rabbit hole you'd like to descend, there are quite a few compilations worth tracking down from older generations. The original Namco Museum series for PlayStation may be clunky, but it offered an incredibly broad selection of games with excellent quality... and they all run on PlayStation 3. And if you really want to savor just how good a compilation can be (and don't mind the hassles of dealing with PS2 imports), check out the latter Sega Ages compilations that M2 developed for PlayStation 2 in Japan. They're as close to a true Criterion Collection experience in games as has ever existed — a handful of games per disc, presented with the same extraordinary care M2 has invested into its Virtual Console and 3D Classics projects.
Essential links and resources
RetroRGB: Pretty much the definitive resource on options available for playing classic games in glorious RGB, RetroRGB should be the starting point for your journey down the dangerous path of modded consoles.
XRGB-mini Framemeister Wiki: Planning to invest in an upscaler? The Framemeister is the gadget of choice, and this is by far the most comprehensive English-language resource for the device (which is manufactured and officially distributed in Japan).
AtariAge: While our feature series has focused primarily on getting NES-era games and later up and running, older systems pose just as many challenges — if not more. The most robust Atari games forum online offers a wealth of resources for those who prefer games of a more aged vintage.
MAMEWorld: For those who prefer to explore emulation, MAMEWorld is crammed with information. Note that MAMEWorld does not host or link to ROM files, nor do we endorse piracy.
Deinterlacing, Scaling, Processing: Fudoh's in-depth explanation of the tech details you need to know.
Japan Game Stock: A great online import game shop; its selection of classic Japanese games is among the best on the web, its prices beat those of eBay shops, and the site can be viewed entirely in English.
Solaris Japan: Framemeisters can be difficult to come by, since they're only sold officially in Japan. Solaris ships internationally and sells the devices and required accessories at actual retail cost, and has an excellent reputation among classic game aficionados.
Retronauts: Once you get those old platforms up and running, you'll need some pointers on which classic games to track down. Why not start with America's raddest retro games podcast? (No, we're not biased here or anything.)