The current generation of video games offer hundred-hour experiences coupled with graphics that rival feature films, but the demand for retro games that whisk us back to "the good ol' days" keeps growing. The generation that grew up 8- and- 16-bit games wants quick access to the titles they loved as youngsters, which is why they're on the hunt for the best retro consoles. Sony, Nintendo, and other game companies happily cater to nostalgia-hungry audiences with the NES Classic, SNES Classic, PSOne Classic, and the Retron 5.
Those are only a few of the retro consoles on the market. The little systems are extremely easy to hook up and use, and most of them retail for an irresistibly low price.
Best Retro Consoles in 2019
What does each console offer? What kind of experience can you expect from each system? With so many options out there, it's understandably difficult to scratch your specific retro itch by simply walking into a store. This guide will sort things out for you and highlight the best retro consoles worth your time.
Some of the retro consoles we'll look at include:
- SNES Classic
- NES Classic
- Atari Flashback 8 Gold
- Retro-Bit Super Retro-Cade
- Sega Genesis Mini (Coming September 2019)
We'll also explain how these plug-and-play retro consoles differ from consoles capable of playing retro games you already own, such as the Retron 5, Super NT, and Mega SG.
The Best Retro Consoles Ranked
Not every retro console is created equal. When making a choice, you want to consider if the console has good game selection, and whether said games are emulated well. You also want a good, sturdy controller that doesn't feel cheap (the inclusion of two controllers is a nice bonus).
Secondary considerations are appealing hardware and a good, clean user interface that makes it easy to choose games and save your progress whenever you like. With that criteria in mind, these are the best retro consoles currently on the market.
The SNES Classic is the easiest recommendation of all the retro consoles. The only reason to skip it is if you're not a fan of Nintendo's 16-bit line-up for whatever strange reason.
First and most important, the SNES Classic's lineup is excellent. There are 21 games, and most of them are stellar. From first-party classics like Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past to beloved third-party inclusions like Street Fighter 2 Turbo and Mega Man X, the SNES Classic is a great celebration of one of Nintendo's very best systems. It's also worth mentioning the console has strong selection of RPGs. The epic Final Fantasy 6 (née: Final Fantasy 3) is present, as is Secret of Mana, Earthbound, and Super Mario RPG.
The SNES Classic's game emulation is great, and its well-designed user interface offers plenty of save states for each game in its library. It comes packaged with two controllers, so you can go all-in on two-player games like Street Fighter 2 and Super Mario Kart. The only black marks against the SNES Classic are its lack of sports games (you won't find much beyond Super Punch-Out!!), and the strange omission of Chrono Trigger, arguably the best RPG of all time.
Nothing says "'80s Childhood" like the NES (barring neon shoelaces), so the instant, resounding success of the NES Classic was predictable. Said success still took Nintendo by surprise, causing the retro console to suffer supply issues for months after its 2016 release. It's since been re-stocked and finding one shouldn't be a big problem.
The NES Classic has 30 games versus the SNES Classic's 21, but the trade-off is some of those games are a bit…well, let's call them "primitive." Yes, you get the still-amazing Super Mario Bros. 3, Mega Man 2, Punch-Out!!, and the strange but wonderful Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest, but you also get a few "meh" titles like the poor NES port of Capcom's Ghosts 'N Goblins. Nevertheless, the game selection contains far more hits than misses. Check out our NES Mini guide for the full list of what's available.
Like the SNES Classic, the NES Classic has a great user interface that's easy to navigate, and each game offers four slots for save states. If there's a major downside to the NES Classic, it's the retro console's ridiculously short controller cords—30 inches for each controller. Get ready to sit close to the TV. You can also invest in cable extenders, though those are only available via third parties.
3. Atari Flashback 8 Gold
If your idea of a real retro console goes back to a time when heroes were drawn as mere squares and dragons looked more like ducks, you'll want to take a look at what the Atari Flashback 8 Gold has to offer. Note that the Atari Flashback 8 Gold is developed by AtGames, not internally by Atari: Atari is working on its own retro console, but we don't know much about it at this point.
The Atari Flashback 8 Gold isn't a bad substitute, though the Atari Flashback series is a little confusing to navigate. There are several "editions," and the game availability sometimes shifts from one console build to the other. The Flashback 8 Gold is generally a safe bet. Its hardware is solid and revels in its classic '70s aesthetic. Its game emulation is good, it comes packed with two 2.4 GHz wireless controllers, and it even offers the option to pause, save, and rewind your games. If you ever grew up playing Missile Command with a bursting bladder and crossed legs, you're sure to welcome the addition of the pause feature.
As for the Atari Flashback 8 Gold's selection, you can expect the best of what the Atari 2600 had to offer before the Console Game Crash of '83. Look for the likes of Pitfall, Keystone Capers, Frogger, Space Invaders, and one of my personal favorites, the space shooter/adventure game Solaris. You'll also find Adventure, one of the very first RPGs to hit a console—and one of the key inspirations for modern action-adventure classics like The Legend of Zelda.
4. Retro-Bit Super Retro-Cade
If your nostalgia bug tends to scurry around, and if you have a special passion for rare games, the Retro-Bit Super Retro-Cade console might sate your cravings. It's a great option for gamers who divided their time between home consoles and the delightfully greasy, smoke-filled holes that cradled the arcade scene in the '80s and early '90s.
Some of the arcade games you'll find on the Retro-Cade are 1942, 1943: The Battle of Midway, Double Dragon, Final Fight, and Gun.Smoke. Some of the console games you'll find are Mega Man 2, Mega Man 3, Bionic Commando, and Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts. For a full game listing, hit up the official site for the Retro-Cade.
The Retro-Cade's game selection should keep you busy for a long time, and what makes it really exciting is that it features some games that never saw a domestic release in North America, e.g. Irem's Holy Diver for the NES and Data East's Boogie Wings for arcades. That said, there are still some curious omissions. The Street Fighter series is nowhere to be found (minus Street Fighter 2010 for the NES, which is a [terrible] Street Fighter game in name only). The inclusion of Capcom's excellent Dungeons & Dragons beat-em-ups, Tower of Doom and Shadow over Mystara, wouldn't have been amiss either. But the Retro-Bit Super Retro-Cade's varied game selection and attention to rare titles still makes it an easy recommendation.
Which Retro Consoles You Should Avoid
Plug-and-play retro consoles were around long before the arrival of the NES Classic caught on fire, but Nintendo's runaway success with their little grey box inspired a rush of new arrivals. Unsurprisingly, some retro consoles aren't worth their asking price thanks to poor game line-ups, shoddy hardware, poor user interfaces, or all of the above.
Here are some retro game consoles you should avoid, no matter how hard the nostalgia bug bites your butt:
1. AtGames Sega Genesis Flashback
Every North American '90s kid remembers the rivalry between Nintendo and Sega, so it's only natural Sega would follow up the success of the NES Classic with an enthusiastic "Us, too! Us, too!" Sadly, the Sega Genesis Flashback (which is developed by a third party retro console maker, AtGames) doesn't come close to delivering the SNES Classic-level experience Genesis fans crave.
For starters, the console's wireless controllers require two AA batteries, and their response time is poor. The games' emulation is likewise poor, and while there are some great inclusions in the line-up (Sonic & Knuckles is on the system, which is surprisingly not as widespread on the digital market as the first two Sonic games), several bizarre original games pad out the menu. Nobody buys a retro console because they want to play discount Flash games called Mr. Balls and Yawning Triceratops.
All told, AtGames' attempt at delivering Sega Genesis nostalgia is feeble. Thankfully, there are much better options on the horizon. If you're a Sega faithful, don't stop believing.
2. The PlayStation Classic
The PlayStation Classic is a major let-down—perhaps moreso than the Sega Genesis Flashback, which at least has the excuse of being a third-party product. Though the PlayStation Classic's miniature PSOne shell is adorable, nearly everything else about it is a disappointment. Its controllers aren't equipped with analogue sticks, which is a real problem considering how many 3D games Sony decided to pack on the thing. That said, the game selection is yawn-inducing. Is anyone nostalgic for the original Grand Theft Auto? And while Final Fantasy 7 is a great RPG, it's been tidied up and re-released on nearly every modern platform, including the Nintendo Switch. I'm glad to see Sony included the oft-overlooked RPG Wild ARMs, but it missed a major opportunity by not offering more rare entries from its massive RPG catalogue. Other "where the heck are they?" titles include Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2.
There's one good thing to say about the PlayStation Classic: It's cheap. Sony is practically giving them away. If you're into tinkering with retro consoles and (ahem) "modifying" their default game selection, a PlayStation Classic might be worth picking up. If you're in the mood for accessible plug-and-play PlayStation nostalgia, however, the PlayStation Classic isn't worth your time or cash.
What is the Best Sega Retro Mini-Console?
Now that we've established AtGames' Sega Genesis Flashback is thoroughly "meh," what good options are on the market for nostalgia-hungry Genesis fans?
Well, bad news and good news. The bad news is, "Right now, there aren't many options at all." You might find a Radica Sega Genesis plug-and-play retro console (released in 2012) moldering on a shelf somewhere in Best Buy or Walmart, but its poor sound emulation and unexciting game selection (Sonic The Hedgehog, Golden Axe, Flicky, Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, Altered Beast, and Kid Chameleon) render it unworthy of a second glance.
The good news is, the Sega Genesis Mini is currently slated to be released in September 19, 2019, and its pedigree and game line-up are already very promising. The console is developed by M2, a Japanese studio that specializes in retro emulation. Many of M2's projects have received praise, including its adaptation and update of the classic Sega Master System RPG, Phantasy Star. M2 is also responsible for the emulation in The Castlevania Collection, and the excellent Sega 3D Classics Collection for the Nintendo 3DS.
In other words, the Sega Genesis Mini's hardware is in good hands—and the line-up of rare Genesis games really sweetens the deal, too. Castlevania: Bloodlines, Contra: Hard Corps, and Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse are great Genesis games that aren't easily found on other collections, and they're all destined for the Genesis Mini. Mega Man: The Wily Wars is another inclusion of note. This elusive Mega Man game collection, which features 16-bit remakes of the first three NES Mega Man titles, was exclusive to the long-defunct Sega Channel for quite some time.
At the time of this writing, there's only a partial list of the games available on the Sega Genesis Classic. We'll have a full list for you as soon as one is available.
If you're dying for a decent Sega Genesis collection and you're not able to wait until Fall, you might want to consider the Sega Genesis Collection, which has over 50 games on it for a decent price of $29.99. Just be aware it's a game and not a plug-and-play console, so you need to buy a version for your PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, or PC. The Sega Genesis Mini console promises rarer games, but if you're afflicted by a curse that drives you to play Sonic the Hedgehog right now or risk dying, the Sega Genesis Collection isn't a bad alternative. It's particularly fun on the Switch, since much of the Genesis' retro library is well-suited for handheld play.
What's the Difference Between a Plug-and-Play Console and a Retron 5?
There's understandably some confusion between retro plug-and-play consoles like the NES Classic and retro all-in-one consoles like Hyperkin's Retron 5, Analogue's Super NT, and CyberGadget's Retro Freak. Here's the gist of how they differ:
- Plug-and-play consoles have their games pre-loaded inside them, whereas all-in-one consoles let you swap cards/cartridges: If you buy an NES Classic, SNES Classic, or PlayStation Classic, you can expect to get a certain number of games exclusive to those consoles. You can't swap the old games for new ones, nor can you download new games. By contrast, all-in-one consoles are built to play retro game cartridges you already own, and some let you play game ROMs downloaded onto an SD card. Most retro all-in-one consoles also support games from multiple systems. For example, the Retro Freak plays game media built for the NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, TurboGrafx-16, and several Japan-exclusive consoles.
- Plug-and-play consoles are generally budget-priced, whereas all-in-one consoles are costlier: An SNES Classic, NES Classic, or PlayStation Classic shouldn't cost you much more than a typical game purchase, i.e. around $50 USD. An all-in-one console can cost around $250 USD, especially if you're forced to go hunting around the secondary market.
- Plug-and-play consoles can be found at many retail outlets, whereas all-in-one consoles are bought online or in specialty stores: Depending on availability, you should be able to find the NES Classic, SNES Classic, and other plug-and-play consoles in the Electronics section of Target or Walmart. They're easy impulse buys. If you want a retro all-in-one console, you need to shop around online or visit an import store. You might also find retro all-in-one consoles in independent stores that specialize in retro games.
- Plug-and-play consoles are very easy to install and use, whereas all-in-one consoles take more work to set up and use: Like their name implies, plug-and-play consoles are ready to go right out of the box. Everything you need is right there in the box: You just supply the TV and the power, and Bob's your uncle. Setting up and using a retro all-in-one console is a little more involved and may require an online connection. It's not difficult, per se, and if you run into trouble, there are lots of tutorials on message boards and on YouTube. Just expect a bit more of a set-up process compared to an SNES Classic.
Should You Buy a Retron 5 or Another All-in-One Console?
Is it worth considering a Retron 5 or another all-in-one console instead of a plug-and-play console? That depends entirely on your needs—and your budget. An NES Classic or an SNES Classic are great impulse buys; you can easily pick one up while shopping for groceries or school supplies without putting much of a dent in your budget. They're a great way to quickly and easily re-ignite your childhood memories.
However, the inability to change the game selection on a plug-and-play console (unless you hack the system and load your ROMs onto them, which takes some know-how and, er, isn't legal) limits the appeal of your purchase. It might be a matter of time before your dusty NES or SNES Classic winds up in the closet.
The cost and versatility of an all-in-one console makes it likelier to wind up as a permanent fixture in your living room. If you're quite serious about collecting and playing retro games and aren't simply looking to scratch a nostalgic itch for a month or so, an all-in-one might prove to be a very worthwhile investment.
All that said, some of the more popular all-in-one consoles can be tricky to track down. The Retron 5 10-in-1 console is currently only available on the secondary market, and it's not cheap. Hyperkin still offers all-in-one consoles that specialize in fewer systems, e.g. a system that plays NES, SNES, and Genesis cartridges. Check the Hyperkin page for their full selection.