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How to play classic video games, from dream to nightmare

Playing older games can be easy, but it can also be an all-consuming hobby

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SNES Classic and the cartridges you won’t have to use again Shai Ben-Dor/Vox Media

Playing classic games involves a lot more setup than catching up with your Steam or PlayStation 4 library, but you may need to work with older systems if you’re truly dedicated to clearing out your backlog.

Even if you’re playing on machines that offer some backward compatibility — like the Nintendo 3DS or early PlayStation 3 models — there’s still a point at which the games you want to play run on consoles that are no longer sold or weren’t made to run on modern televisions.

But gaming obsession, like life, finds a way. Below, we’ll run through five different ways to replay console games, arranged in order from least to most complex. There are thousands of games out there waiting for you to catch up with them ... the question is, how hard are you willing to work for them?

Difficulty level: I’m too young to die

The technique: Playing official, sanctioned, contemporary re-releases of classic games.

There’s money to be made in retro gaming, and publishers haven’t been shy about cashing in. From stand-alone arcade cabinets to mini Nintendo consoles, from Sega compilations to exhaustive collections of old Mega Man games, just about everyone can find a licensed collection of vintage favorites to suit their tastes.

This is the way to go if you want something that is easy to use, completely legal and works with your modern display.

The pros: Simplicity is the name of the game here. Go to the store, buy a collection or mini-console, plug it in, play. Most compilations and re-releases also include great features like save states, difficulty selection settings, gameplay rewind and sometimes even museum archives.

These collections will also appeal to the Lawful Good part of your soul, since they’re all properly licensed and don’t involve sketchy copyright violations. The companies that own the rights to the games will get paid for the game when you buy them this way.

The cons: Quality on these collections can be all over the place. Just look at Sega: Its M2-developed Sega Ages remakes are best-in-class material, while its AtGames mini-Genesis consoles are disgraceful garbage and don’t even come close to doing justice to beloved 16-bit classics. You’re still limited to what publishers decide to license and reproduce, even with the stronger collections. Want to play a retro favorite that hasn’t been reissued? Tough!

Combat modifiers: Nintendo’s Switch has quickly become a retro gaming monster. Despite the lack of Virtual Console, you could easily drop $1,000 or more on classic games on Switch thanks to Hamster’s weekly Arcade Archives releases, Flying Tiger’s Johnny Turbo-branded reissues and far too many others.

playing Super Mario Bros. on Nintendo Switch
And it’s portable!

The PS4 is no slouch, either — its Arcade Archives selections include a number of Konami classics that haven’t appeared on Switch. And the Xbox One is currently the only console to support backward compatibility ... which includes quite a few retro remakes for Xbox Live Arcade, and stretches all the way back to 2001 releases for the original Xbox.

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Difficulty level: Hey, not too rough

The technique: Using emulators to play classic games.

Emulation has come a long way in the past 20 years, from stuttering frame rates and shrill approximations of classic sound chips to cycle-accurate hardware impersonation. With the right hardware setup, today’s best console or arcade emulators can recreate the authentic sensation of playing classic games on the original systems quite satisfactorily.

The pros: Emulators are generally free to download, and most of them are pretty easy to set up. Emulators exist for nearly every classic video game console you can think of, as well as for most legacy microcomputer platforms. While emulator programmers tend to favor Windows, Mac OS X and Linux users have access to plenty of great emulators as well.

The cons: Not all emulators are created equal, so finding one that “feels” right will require research and experimentation.

There’s also the legality issue. Emulators themselves are perfectly legal! But unless you want to jump through a lot of hoops to dump your own game files from original cartridges or disc, you’re probably going to be using illegally downloaded ROMs.

This is a morally, and sometimes legally, gray area; you can understand why Nintendo or Sega would want to quash distribution of ROMs for games you can buy on current platforms. On the other hand, who does it hurt if you download a ROM of Air Raid for the Atari 2600, a game whose publisher vanished decades ago and for which only a handful of carts are known to exist?

Combat modifiers: Emulation will only improve in quality as technology advances. Powerful computers will make cycle-accurate emulation more common, and visual advances like 4K and HDR have opened the door for programmers to fake the look of phosphor glow and the scan lines on older tube televisions.

Meanwhile, emulator front ends like Hyperspin and archivists like Smokemonster strive to make game organization and access as painless as possible for emulation fans.

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Difficulty level: Hurt me plenty

The technique: Using clone consoles.

For the most part, clone consoles share a lot of crossover with emulation. Not all clones are emulators ... but most are. Nintendo’s mini NES is an emulator, as are the Retro Freak and RetroN 5.

These differ from PC emulation in one important respect: They’re stand-alone devices designed to plug into a television and emulate not just the games of a console but the sensation of playing it on the couch. Many clone consoles accept original game cartridges as well, so you don’t have to feel bad about stealing software.

The pros: The best clones offer some of the finest retro gaming experiences available on the market. Analogue’s Super Nt and RetroUSB’s AVS pass up emulation in favor of hardware simulation, allowing you to play Super NES and NES games (respectively) with nearly perfect fidelity on an HDTV, all with plug-and-play ease.

classic Analogue Super NT console and 8Bitdo gamepad
The Analogue Super NT console and 8Bitdo gamepad aren’t cheap, but you’ll get to play your existing cartridges on your modern display
Shai Ben-Dor/Vox Studios

Other clones favor versatility over perfection; the RetroN 5 and Retro Freak support multiple systems and do a pretty solid (though definitely not flawless) job of letting you reproduce the likes of Game Boy and TurboGrafx-16.

Decent clones begin at around $75 but can run up to $500, depending on what you’re after and how much budget you have to sink into your leisure time.

The cons: Not all clones are created equal. Those older system-on-a-chip devices you used to be able to buy at mall kiosks are still floating around in various forms, and they’re universally garbage. Each clone has its own limitations, as well. Nintendo’s mini-consoles only come with a few dozen games and output at 720p. Analogue’s devices are expensive and hard to come by. The RetroN 5’s emulation can be janky, and may be based on improperly sourced code. Proceed at your own risk.

Combat modifiers: Not happy with the existing clones? Consider making your own with the RetroPie project. RetroPie allows hobbyists to harness the inexpensive Raspberry Pi chip as the core of a highly customizable and marvelously versatile DIY kit project with support for dozens of different consoles and computers, up to and including the PSP and Wii. You’ll have to put in some work, but there’s a lot of possible reward in exchange.

As a bonus, most clone consoles that accept original cartridges also recognize high-end flash-based cartridges like the EverDrive and the SD2SNES. These allow you to cram thousands of ROMs onto an SD card and play them on original (or clone) hardware, often with support for advanced on-cart mapper chips like the SuperFX.

An Analogue Super Nt with an SD2SNES doesn’t come cheap, but it offers much greater access to the Super NES library, with far greater fidelity, than a hacked Super NES Classic Edition mini-console.

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Difficulty level: Ultra-violence

The technique: Running original hardware on an HDTV.

If you want to make use of classic consoles on modern televisions, you’re going to need a little help. Standard-definition systems — that is, any console prior to the Xbox 360 — were designed around television technology that has been abandoned.

While some HDTVs include legacy inputs that allow you to plug in your NES, that might actually be the worst possible way to play a classic game. A TV has to upscale the image to display a classic console’s video output in 720p or above. This process introduces considerable lag on top of creating a hideous, blurry mess of an image, rendering those beautiful 8-bit works nearly unplayable.

The solution? Use an external upscaler like the XRGB Framemeister or OSSC (Open Source Scan Converter). Unlike the upscalers built into your TV, these external devices are designed for speed and image quality. They can convert a standard-definition image into HD while introducing only a couple of frames of lag, and the end result looks sharper and clearer.

The pros: If you want to play classic games on original hardware on your huge honkin’ modern TV, this is the way to go. All but the most finicky players will be satisfied with the results.

Even games that depend heavily on precise input timing work well with an external upscaler — think Punch-Out!!, Parappa the Rapper or Street Fighter 2. External upscalers also tend to offer post-processing features, such as optional scan lines, which can be a huge help in making chunky pixel graphics legible on a 60-inch screen.

And while these upscalers definitely represent an investment, they’re versatile. Once you own one, you can plug in just about any classic console, from an Atari 2600 to a Nintendo GameCube.

The cons: You get what you pay for with this tech. Cheap upscalers — by which we mean anything that costs less than $200 — should be avoided, as they tend to offer poor output quality and add too much lag.

Sadly, the Framemeister is about to become a rarity, as manufacturer Micomsoft has stopped producing it. Thankfully, the OSSC (which is technically a line-doubler, not an upscaler) won’t suffer that fate; it is, after all, open source. If you’re willing to put in the time, you can always build your own.

Combat modifiers: The Framemeister supports high-quality RGB video input. RGB video cabling typically relies on one of two standards that use a common connector with different wiring: Japanese RGB-21 and European SCART.

The European SCART format is far more common, but the Framemeister hails from Japan and uses RGB-21 wiring for its RGB adapter. You’ll most likely need to buy a SCART-compatible adapter, unless you want to deal with the headache of trying to track down scarce Japanese cables for your systems.

Listen, we never said this would be easy.

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Difficulty level: Nightmare

The technique: Playing original hardware on a vintage TV.

This is it: The bonus dungeon of classic gaming. Oh, sure, the lower floors — simply connecting a classic console to any ol’ cathode-ray tube (CRT) television — don’t pose much challenge. But the more advanced levels can destroy you ... and your wallet.

Vintage game systems were meant to be played on CRTs. The problem is that no one really makes CRTs anymore, so they’re a vanishing resource. CRTs are clumsy, heavy and prone to failure over time. You’ll pay dearly for the best visual quality, too. Playing console games in this way is the most expensive and time-consuming method there is.

The pros: There is no better way to play a beloved retro game than on original hardware plugged into a high-end CRT with good cables. Together, they amount to seamless, lag-free retro joy. No fuzzy upscaling, no frame delays; this is the way you remember seeing your older games.

If you can finagle a pro-quality CRT monitor (such as a Sony PVM) and combine it with RGB cables, you’ll find it makes old games look as good as your hazy childhood memories tell you they were.

The cons: This perfection comes at a price, though! For one thing, PVMs (and their higher-end cousins, BVMs) haven’t been manufactured in more than a decade. They were always expensive, and savvy retro gamers know to watch for them now ... which means their prices are only going up. If you can find a 20-inch or larger set in good condition for less than $300, congratulations: You’ve won the lottery. A lottery where you get to pay for a prize that will be murder if you ever need to move it.

CRTs are bulky, and any screen larger than 27 inches is going to be way too huge and heavy for a single person to move on their own. They take up a ton of space, as they’re usually as deep as they are wide. They consume tons of electricity. They fail as they age. You don’t want to service a set yourself unless you know what you’re doing — poking around inside the back of one of those things is a good way to get yourself killed.

“The vacuum tube in a CRT can implode if it is broken or punctured,” reads an excerpt from a book about servicing Apple systems. “The surrounding air will rush violently into the unsealed vacuum in the CRT, spraying broken glass in every direction. [...] A charged CRT carries high voltage — about 27,000 volts in a color unit. You could electrocute yourself unless you handle the display using the appropriate safety procedures.”

Oh, and not all CRTs are created equal. Besides tube image quality (look for high-end devices like Sony’s Trinitrons), you also have to concern yourself with the available inputs on the back of the TV. Does it support RGB? Component video? S-video? VGA? Composite? RF only? How many inputs of each type are available? And what’s the best video quality option available for your old consoles? Which of your systems can be modded to output at a higher standard? Compared to the one-size-fits-all convenience of HDMI, analog systems are a headache and a half.

Combat modifiers: Welcome to the true journey into despair: setting up a high-end CRT and having all your consoles modded to output RGB. It’s a beautiful thing, but every console has different connectors that you’ll have to juggle. Even the best and most expensive broadcast monitors usually only have two RGB-in ports, which means you’ll probably need some sort of SCART switch, such as the gscartsw, in order to connect everything. It’s a money pit.

Want a life hack, though? You really don’t need to go full RGB on a Sony BVM for a satisfying retro gaming experience. If you can hook up your consoles via S-video to a decent consumer CRT, your games are going to look sharp and lovely. And you’ll save yourself a couple thousand bucks, too.

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