Retro Gaming Buying Guide

Whether you are an older gamer with a serious nostalgia itch or a modern gamer who wants to know more about the ground-breaking video games from the past, there has never been a better time to be a retro or vintage video game fan. You have more ways of getting access to classic games than ever, and it has never been more affordable.

So many options are out there that it can actually be pretty overwhelming to the uninitiated. Never fear! This short buyer’s guide will quickly outline the options you are faced with when it comes to getting the classic gaming experience you want.

Just Buy the Original, Dummy

It may seem obvious, but simply buying the original game system and using the game media designed for it is the purest way to get into retro gaming. You are literally playing the game as it was meant to be played.

This is a great idea in principle, but unless you are a serious collector or want to be one, it is not an approach I would recommend and here is why. Even relatively recent gaming hardware from previous generations can be tough to find, and even when you do find it getting something in a working condition is another story altogether.

Even if you can find the hardware, controllers, and original media, you still need to connect it to a modern TV, which is much harder than it sounds. Many serious classic game collectors ALSO collect televisions from the various eras the games are from, so that the game will display as intended. Playing retro games over RF or composite connections on a modern high-definition screen can look truly ugly and doesn’t really show us what the game was like.

My advice is that going down this route is for later in the hobby. Until you are deadly serious and financially committed to it, this is not a road for the faint-hearted.

Emulated Troubles

The main decision you will have to make is whether you are happy with an emulated experience or one that is completely faithful to the original.

Without getting technical, emulation happens when a new computer is used to simulate the computer that originally ran the game. The game is unchanged, but if the emulation is not close to perfect there may be problems. The game may run at the wrong speed or act in some other way that is different than the real experience.

The alternative is to have the actual original hardware rather than emulating it. Many retro game systems actually have the original hardware built into them. Sometimes it has been miniaturized using modern electronics, but at the hardware level it is identical and will be a perfect representation of the original game.

When choosing a retro gaming system it is important to know whether the game is running on emulated hardware or directly on the real, original hardware. On top of this, it also matters whether the emulation was created by the company who made the original hardware or if they helped with the development.

Emulation is not necessarily a taboo thing, but the quality and compatibility of an emulation can vary wildly; if you can’t get a hardware-level solution you must seek the best quality emulation you can find.

All-In-One, Not-For-All

The other big decision that you may have to make is whether you want a system with built-in games or one that can accept the original game media. All-in-one systems can include all the most important games for that system inside of them, thanks to their tiny size compared to modern storage technology. For example, you can get All-In-One versions of the classic Atari 2600 that has the original hardware inside and contains many Atari 2600 games. There is, however, nowhere to put Atari cartridges. So you have to be sure that the games included are all you’ll ever want for that system.

Getting a system that can use the original game cartridges or other media means that you can sometimes find and play games that may be very rare. If you plan on hunting through thrift shops or pawn shops looking for old game cartridges this may be the only way to do it.

You should be aware however, that some retro consoles give you access to electronically downloadable versions of these games, so actually going out and finding that cartridge may be important or enticing only to a serious collector.


Thanks to the advances of electronics, many retro console products can now fit into a handheld form-factor. This is a very enticing prospect since it solves many problems in one go. The screen is built-in, the controls are built-in, and often battery life will be quite good with the refined hardware’s lower energy needs.

Many retro portables will take the original cartridges rather than electronic versions of the game ROMs. Some can also double as a full console. You can connect original controllers and a television to it so that you can play with a friend on the big screen.

Portables also have their problems. Many are made by small companies and are not built to the best quality. Batteries are a component that is guaranteed to fail, so it’s worth finding out if replacement batteries are available from the manufacturers. It’s also worth checking into what sort of screen you are getting with your portable console, since having a portable console is pointless if the built-in screen is so poor that you can’t use it.

Full Control

Many retro consoles let you use original accessories or original controls. This is preferable if you want to get an authentic-feeling experience and also because many games need special peripherals such as a light gun. Speaking of which, remember that a light gun will not work with an LCD screen. That’s your free tip of the day.

Some systems give you the option of wireless control. While that’s a great convenience and makes the system a bit more on par with modern consoles, it can introduce considerable lag, so in general I’d say go with original or cloned wired controllers for the system that you want to play.

Wide or Deep

The last thing that you have to decide is whether you want a system that only plays games from one system or one that plays many. This depends on your budget and your interest in retro games. Generally, the more systems you can play on one machine, the worse it will be at all of them or the more that can go wrong. It’s not a universal rule, but it happens often, in my experience. Even if that’s not an issue, simpler, more focused machines are usually cheaper as well. Either way, don’t get pulled into buying a system that supports many platforms just because you might play them. Rather, buy the system that support the games you definitely want to play.