It's a tricky dilemma: you want to revisit your some of your childhood favorites, but you don't want to lug your old consoles out of their cardboard tombs.
Even if you don't mind unknotting that awful tangle of cables you have in a box somewhere, playing old consoles on a modern flatscreen TV is an exercise in disappointment, with a grainy image and washed-out colors. And that's assuming your TV supports old gaming formats like composite and component, too.
So, what are your options? Here's a quick overview.
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1. Modern consoles can play old games, but at a steep price
For most people, the hassle and (apparent) complexity of setting up emulators doesn't seem worth it compared to simply playing their retro favorites on the modern consoles they already have set up. While that's certainly an option — with a limited number of games, that is — it just isn't a very good course of action compared to the alternatives.
Still, for those of you who are curious, each console offers a limited selection of retro games. The Xbox Series X is capable of playing a fairly large library of games from previous Xbox consoles, though you can only purchase some of them, and they aren't exactly cheap. The PlayStation 5 will offer access to a number of PS1 and PS2 games through the top tier of its revamped PlayStation Plus, though the service doesn't launch until June 2022. And, of course, Nintendo's Switch Online + Expansion Pack will let you fork over $50 a year for the privilege of playing a smattering of NES, SNES, N64, and Sega Genesis games on your Switch. This might be the worst deal of the three, but it arguably has the best games — though it certainly lacks depth.
As a whole, when it comes to emulating games on modern consoles or other devices, the following axiom applies: If it's 16-bit or earlier (i.e. SNES/Genesis generation), it'll probably run mostly fine, but it gets iffy around the 32/64-bit (PlayStation, N64, etc.) and later years.
2. RetroArch can play almost everything, here's how to set it up
If you aren't familiar with RetroArch, it's a "front-end" that seeks to provide a big tent all-in-one emulation solution. Instead of the usual mishmash of separate emulators all sitting in your "EMU" folder, RetroArch runs those programs under the hood as "cores," but gives you a unified GUI that you can use to configure controllers, visual settings, and more.
Setting up RetroArch is quite easy — almost shockingly so. Simply download the version for your preferred operating system, install it to a folder, and launch the program. After that, navigate to the "Online Updater," then "Core Downloader," and download the cores that correspond to the consoles you want to play. There's multiple cores for many of the popular consoles, so see our guide below for which ones you should generally stick with.
After that, it's pretty self-explanatory. If you have a repository of legally-obtained ROMs somewhere on your computer already, you can tell RetroArch to scan that directory, which will add all of those games to a clean, easy-to-read list. Note that you may need to dump your own BIOS in order to play more modern consoles like your PS2, which can be quite a process. (Of course, there are other ways to obtain the files you need, but I obviously can't recommend them.)
3. Cool. Where can I get ROMs, then?
Look, I'll be honest: There are some things in life I can't help you with. Suffice it to say, if you really want to dump the ROMs for games you own legally, there are easy ways to do it. For everybody else, however, you'll just have to use your imagination. To reiterate, though emulators are 100 percent in the safe zone (at least in the US), downloading ROMs online is illegal, even if you already own the game — the only legal way to use an emulator is with a game you dumped yourself.
Input doesn't condone piracy. Be sure to look up the laws on emulation wherever you live if you are unsure.
4. So I have RetroArch, but which cores are actually worth using?
As a whole, emulation has come a long way since the days of garbled audio and endless sprite flickering, but there are some cores that work better than others. If you're interested in Nintendo consoles, I recommend the following:
- Mesen for the original NES
- Higan (aka bsnes) for SNES
- mGBA for Game Boy Advance
- mGBA or SameBoy for other Game Boy models
- DeSmuMe (not DeSmuMe 2015!) for DS.
There's also Dolphin for GameCube and Wii. The N64 is a bit of an odd one; though the Mupen64Plus core seems to work fairly well, I personally recommend the old standalone Project64, as it's the most complete experience available. Just to be clear, standalone means that you have to download the program separately and run it, which can be a pain. In this case, however, it's worth it.
When it comes to Sega consoles, you only really have one choice: Genesis Plus GX. It can run every Sega box from the Master System to the Game Gear, and it works pretty well. If you're having issues with it for whatever reason, there's also the standalone Kega Fusion, but frankly Genesis Plus seems to fare better for most games these days. For Dreamcast, Flycast is pretty good too, though there are standalone alternatives that some prefer, like Redream.
Since they're some of the newest machines that people want to commonly emulate, Sony consoles are a bit more complicated. In terms of RetroArch cores, I recommend Beetle PSX for PS1 games, PCSX2 for PS2 games, and PPSSPP for PSP games. However, some PS1 games work better on the standalone PSX emulator DuckStation. There's also the amazing PS3 emulator RPCS3, but it's a separate download as well.
5. I've got everything working, but the D-pads on modern controllers aren't good. What should I do?
Unfortunately, this is a common problem with retro games, as the D-pad was assumed to be the primary form of directional input until about 2000. There are many knockoff controllers with SNES-style D-pads these days. Of those, I recommend the 8BitDo Pro 2 for an all-in-one gaming controller, or an 8BitDo SN30 for the more "authentic" retro experience.
6. RetroArch on your phone is great
RetroArch is not only available on PC and Mac, it’s also on iOS and Android, and runs really well. Again, how well old consoles are emulated depends on the cores. And if you’ve got a foldable like a Galaxy Z Fold or Z Flip or Surface Duo, I mean, see for yourself: