“Retro,” “Mini,” and “Classic” consoles are the bee’s knees this holiday season, with notable offerings from Nintendo, Sony, and (sort of) others. But which one is the best?
There’s a pretty clear standout among the current crop of officially-licensed mini-consoles, and it’s no spoiler to say that it’s the Super NES Classic. But there are a few other options you should consider, especially if you (or your gift recipient) are unimpressed with the limited and non-expandable selection of games in these devices. A premium remade “clone” that plays original cartridges, or a device that runs emulators and nigh-unlimited game ROM files, might make a better choice for some gamers.
Before we dive in, be aware of a recent development: Nintendo recently announced they will be discontinuing the NES and SNES Classic after this holiday season. If you want to pick one up (and you don’t want to pay outrageous scalper-level prices for one a few months from now), now is the time to do so.
The Best Retro Console: Nintendo Super NES Classic Edition ($80)
The NES Classic may have started off this craze, but going all the way back to the 80s might cause a bit of gaming jet lag. The older 8-bit games, with their extremely simple graphics, sounds, and two-button control schemes, haven’t aged as well in reality as they might have in your memory.
The SNES Classic is the way to go. Not only are the Super Nintendo games featured in its collection much more palatable than the older NES games, it’s an overall better group. Timeless Nintendo classics like Super Mario World, Super Metroid, Zelda: A Link to the Past, Mario Kart, and Donkey Kong Country are joined by third-party all stars like Mega Man X, Street Fighter II, and Super Castlevania IV. The SNES’s rich RPG legacy is also honored, with Earthbound, Super Mario RPG, Final Fantasy III, and Secret of Mana, but Chrono Trigger is an unfortunate no-show. Star Fox 2, an SNES sequel that was developed but never released, gets a world premiere on this new hardware. Naturally, the SNES Classic plays all of these games over HDMI, and there are some excellent accessories offered for the hardware, too.
Nintendo’s classic offering is getting the nod over the PlayStation Classic. Sony’s entry has some serious technical issues since some games run slowly due to PAL ROMs. While there are some standout titles in the PS Classic like Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, it doesn’t have the wall-to-wall greats that Nintendo’s hardware does.
But the most unfortunate fact is that the early 32-bit 3D era has simply aged poorly: the low-resolution, low-framerate, and low-polygon visuals aren’t as clear or as appealing as the 16-bit sprites on the SNES games. It wasn’t until the PS2 era that 3D graphics on consoles really started to shine, while the Super Nintendo was the pinnacle of 2D console gaming. Plus, many of the PS Classic titles are available to play on the PS3 and PS4, which isn’t true with the SNES Classic and Nintendo Switch.
As for other retro consoles on the market, like the various plug-and-play iterations of the SEGA Genesis or the Atari Flashback: don’t bother. These cheaper machines are licensed copies made by third party manufacturers and come with poor selections of games, bad ROM ports, and uncomfortable controllers. You’re better off experiencing the classic games from those consoles in digital re-releases on your modern console, PC, or even phone.
You’d better act quickly if you want to snag a SNES Classic. The initial low stock woes seem to be mostly over, but Nintendo isn’t making any more after the 2018 holiday season. After that, the hardware will become harder to find at retail and much more expensive on the secondary market.
The Best Retro Console Clone: Analogue Super NT or Mega SG ($190)
What if you’re shopping for a gamer who still has all of their classic 16-bit era games, or wants to play specific games that don’t come on the non-expanding memory of these re-released consoles? What you want is a “clone,” a remade version of the original console released with modern video outputs. These are legal copies of classic consoles, since the patents on the technology are now expired. And the best ones on the market come from a niche supplier called Analogue.
Analogue’s Super NT and Mega SG hardware revives the Super NES and SEGA Genesis, respectively. Each one comes with fantastic, freshly-designed cases that are smaller and more appealing than the originals, while still being fully compatible with original game cartridges and controllers. And yeah, you can use those 30-year-old, dusty controllers all you want…but these clones also come with brand new wireless replicas from 8BitDo, which has already cemented its reputation as an excellent retro hardware supplier. And of course, each one will output your original games in glorious 1080p over an HDMI cable.
These refreshed replicas are pricey at $190 each (in various colors, with an included wireless controller), but make a fantastic gift for someone you know still plays their classic games. Make note: the Genesis-style Mega SG is in pre-order and won’t ship until April 2019, but the Super NT is shipping now. The original design, the NES-playing NT mini, is out of stock…but it’s almost $500 due to an all-metal body, so it’s probably out of gift range for a lot of buyers anyway.
The Best DIY Classic Console: Raspberry Pi (~$90) or NVIDIA SHIELD ($200)
Looking for something a little more personal? Then go with the original. Enterprising do-it-yourselfers have been making homemade retro consoles out of the Raspberry Pi mini-computer for years. It’s a fantastic setup with enough power to play game ROMs up to around the PlayStation (one) era, and with a big enough MicroSD card, you can fit hundreds or even thousands of ROMs on there. Wireless and wired controllers are easy to work with, too, and you can even find plastic cases that mimic classic consoles.
Putting a Raspberry Pi together, loading up the emulation software, and tracking down the ROMs is tricky and time-consuming, about on the level of rooting your iPhone or running a custom Android ROM. But there are tons of guides available (may we suggest our sister site How-To Geek?), and open source developers have made fantastic interfaces for the emulator packages. It doesn’t hurt that you can put together a Raspberry Pi, a custom case, a controller, and a MicroSD card loaded with the classic game ROMs of your choosing for well under $100.
If the Raspberry Pi seems a little intimidating to you, there’s a pricier but more mainstream option: the NVIDIA SHIELD. This Android-powered set-top box is basically a beefed-up Roku, but it has the hardware oomph and the easy-to-use interface you’re looking for. The SHIELD has access to the Google Play Store, where you can find dozens of emulators for every classic console, and you can load up game ROMs directly off a USB drive and store them to the internal drive.
The “Gaming Edition” comes with a very good NVIDIA controller, though you can also use USB and Bluetooth controllers from third parties. Best of all, the SHIELD is powerful enough to run even some GameCube and Wii games. It also happens to be the best stand-alone streaming box on the market—a nice bonus.