The 7 Best Retro and Classic Consoles to Buy in 2021

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The Rundown
“The Game & Watch Super Mario Bros. is the shot of nostalgia modern Mario fans are looking for."
With 20 classic titles and one never-before-released game, this is a nice little SNES package.
Sega’s take on the retro console re-release gives you many of their best titles, but is limited by a clunky UI.
Think of any classic Nintendo game and, chances are, it’s included with this package.
Best Playstation:
PlayStation Classic at Walmart
Though the interface and gameplay are occasionally a bit glitchy, the price is seriously right for the piece of PS nostalgia.
With a miniaturized version of the classic Commodore keyboard and a full-sized version of the joystick, the hardware here is a real delight to use.
With 120 games, many of which changed the face of gaming, the Atari Flashback 8 Gold is a true love letter to gaming history.

Rereleases of retro consoles aren’t exactly a new phenomenon. Starting in the early 2000s, Atari and other manufacturers started capitalizing on CPU tech and developing plug-and-play versions of their classic consoles. But starting in about 2016, when Nintendo offered a limited release of their NES classic system, there was an explosion of “classics” being released over the ensuing years.

Options like the Sega Genesis found right now at B&H or the supremely affordable PlayStation Classic found at GameStop are all-in-one options for people who want to relive their glory days of gaming. These systems toe the line between functionality and collectibility, and as such you’ll have to weigh how much money you want to spend on them. The cheaper consoles do tend to come with their share of glitches, but the more expensive consoles are usually higher priced because of an artificial scarcity of supply. Read on for our list of the best retro releases you can buy right now.

Best Overall: Nintendo Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros.

What We Like
  • Nostalgic attention to design

  • Bright, vibrant display

  • Very collectible

What We Don't Like
  • A little expensive for the gameplay

  • Controls are cramped and squishy

  • Console feels a little fragile

The original Game & Watch console was released in the ‘80s as Nintendo’s first handheld game system. And, naturally, when Super Mario celebrated his 35th anniversary in 2020, Nintendo wanted to celebrate in a number of ways. The Nintendo Game & Watch re-release features the full Mario Bros. original adventure, now displayed on a larger LCD that shows the game in bright, vibrant detail. The enclosure is so similar to the original that Nintendo has even included the ultra-squishy rubbery A/B buttons and the plastic-y d-pad.

And because the modernized version of the classic handheld system features more power and more storage, Nintendo has also included the second Mario Bros. game (what they’re calling “The Lost Levels”) as well as a novelty Mario Juggling game. There is a clock mode that cycles through 35 classic animations to pay homage to the classic Mario aesthetic. While the system plays well enough, the tiny console and true-to-the-original buttons don’t make for a very comfortable gaming experience. But, that’s not really the point here. This is a novelty piece of merch, meant simply as much an item for your gaming collection as it is an actually functioning device. So, while the price feels a bit high for the functionality, it might be worth it for the true Mario fans out there.

"As with the original Super Mario Bros. release, playing on the Game & Watch is a challenge, but a welcome one at that as it captures the difficulty of the original title! With single and multiplayer modes available, there’s plenty of fun to go around. Choose from Mario or Luigi as you make your way across the world, crushing Goombas and Koopa Troopas as you go. I do appreciate that it’s possible to pause the game, so you never lose progress in a pinch." — Emily Isaacs, Product Tester

Best SNES: Nintendo SNES Classic Mini

What We Like
  • 20 classic games

  • One never-before-played title

  • Two controllers included

What We Don't Like
  • Cheap build quality

  • No way to load on additional games

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System, while not the first console Nintendo released, earns its spot as one of the most successful of all-time. While the original NES broke ground, the graphics and gameplay afforded by the SNES redefined that ground. The SNES Classic Mini is a welcome introduction because it brings with it all the warm memories of that system in a much smaller format. Plus, because there are 21 classic games preloaded onto the hard drive, you can access many of your favorites without the need for digging your bulky cartridges out of our attic.

Most of the quintessential games are here — things like the original Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II (arguably the best in the series). You’ll also find first-party standbys like Super Mario World, Zelda: a Link to the Past and the first Star Fox. Technically there are only 20 original games included, because Nintendo also loaded on Star Fox 2 — an installment of the classic space flight adventure that was actually never released. The system comes with two classic wired controllers and connects to your TV via HDMI.

Best Genesis: SEGA Genesis Mini

What We Like
  • 40 titles, plus two bonus games

  • Two controllers included

  • Sega’s best IP is here

What We Don't Like
  • Cheap-feeling build

  • A bit too pricey for the limitations

Sega got in on the miniaturized classic consoles with a rerelease of arguably their most successful console of all time. The Sega Genesis was originally the only real viable competition to Nintendo’s success thanks to first-party characters like Sonic the Hedgehog and Ecco the Dolphin. Those two classic titles are, of course, pre-loaded onto the Genesis Mini. The forty included titles also feature classics like Contra, Gunstar Heroes, Earthworm Jim, and Streets of Rage 2. To support the two-player options of this library, Sega has also included two USB-connected controllers with the well-known 3-button Sega controls.

While we like what Sega has tried to do with the game-select interface, it does feel a little glitchy at times. And even though it isn’t that much different than the original console, the plastic-y build lacks a bit in the premium category — a problem when you consider that you’ll have to shell out almost $100 for the system. But, for Sega fans, this is a reasonable price for the collectibility offered.

Best NES: Nintendo NES Classic Edition

What We Like
  • 30 of Nintendo’s best titles

  • Smooth user experience

  • Nostalgic design

What We Don't Like
  • Very expensive with scarce supply

  • No way to load on more games

  • Only one controller included

When the classic consoles started coming out every few months in the mid 2010s, the classic game companies really hit on something special. Capitalizing on older generations’ nostalgia, the plug-and-play consoles flew off the shelves so quickly that they became scarce collectibles in and of themselves. One major drawback of this is that the prices are still astronomically high for these devices. As is the case with the SNES classic, the NES Classic can be had for right around $200 on sites like Amazon because it has to be special ordered from backordered stock, mostly from overseas.

If you can stomach that price point, and the original NES experience is that important to you, this classic console will give you everything you’re looking for. There are 30 preloaded titles, and all the greatest hits are here: the original Super Mario Bros, the arcade classic Donkey Kong, the first Legend of Zelda, PAC-MAN, Final Fantasy, Mega Man, and more. In other words, you won’t be wanting for anything in this department, which is good because the locked hard drive means you can’t add more ROMs without hacking the device. You can earmark up to four game saves for each title, but the system only comes with one controller.

Best Playstation: PlayStation Classic

PlayStation Classic
What We Like
  • Nice PS Mini-style Design

  • Almost two dozen classic titles

  • Two controllers included

  • Great price point

What We Don't Like
  • Clunky, glitchy interface

  • Occasionally stutter-y gameplay

With all the other game manufacturers getting in on the classic console re-releases, Sony couldn’t be left out. What’s most interesting here, actually, is that Sony seems to have made enough consoles to keep the price totally reasonable. Right now, the price hovers right around $20 at Gamestop, which is solid for what you get here. There are 20 games included on the hard drive, and even though they aren’t exactly the most popular, there are options like Final Fantasy VII (a formative installment in the series), Tekken 3, and the original top-down Grand Theft Auto.

There’s also some design language in PlayStation’s original releases that support a mini PS console. The first PlayStation Mini was a shrunken-down version of the larger classic, and so the released PlayStation Classic here feels pretty at home. PlayStation has included two classic wired controllers in the box and have given you the option to save on virtual memory cards. The UX and menu experience leaves a lot to be desired, and weirdly, some of the games don’t play quite as smoothly as other systems (most likely a product of poorly conceived emulation software). But, for the affordable price, it’s not the end of the world.

Best C64: Retrogames C64 Mini

What We Like
  • Well-designed hardware

  • Option to use the device as an actual computer

  • 64 games on deck

What We Don't Like
  • Quality of included titles is lacking

  • Only one joystick controller included

  • No top-tier, console-style titles

While most of the retro consoles out there emulate the top dogs in console history, there’s also an option for the Commodore 64 fans of the world. The recently released THEC64 package comes with an adorably miniaturized version of the keyboard PC namesake as well as a full-sized version of the original joystick. In fact, the hardware included with this pack is perhaps the most well thought out and most satisfying version of the console re-release aesthetic. The hardware capabilities are also pretty impressive here, allowing for 720p output via HDMI cable, but also allowings for plugging in an external keyboard via USB to use the system as an actual computer.

A nice nod to the 64KB of RAM, there are 64 titles included, and while that number is really nice to see, it does feel like Retrogames has stretched to include a quantity of titles, rather than focusing on quality. Obviously this will depend on your particular gaming preferences, but a few of our favorites are Impossible Mission, Speedball, and Street Sports Baseball. The whole thing will set you back around $40 most of the time on Amazon, which is a good deal if you’re an original Commodore fan.

Best Atari: Atari Flashback 8 Gold

What We Like
  • Well-executed console design

  • 120 classic Atari games

  • Two controllers included

What We Don't Like
  • Stiff joysticks on the controllers

  • Not the smallest console

  • A little pricey

If you’re a gaming fan, you almost certainly don’t need us to tell you that the Atari 2600 is a trailblazing system with a satisfying pool of game titles to draw from. The Atari Flashback 8 Gold is an impressive package for fans of this groundbreaking system. There are a whopping 120 games included on the hard drive, which is quite a bit more than other retro consoles, thanks most likely to the lower processing power required of first-gen Atari games. You’ll find truly historic titles like Missile Command, Asteroids, Centipede, and Frogger.

The smaller version of the console is outfitted with the visual and physical touches that made the console’s look so famous, including the massive faceplate buttons and the strips of wood paneling. There are two original-style Atari joysticks with the classic, clicky red button. That aspect is great for the nostalgia factor, but because the joysticks are stiff and not terribly responsive, the gaming experience doesn’t feel totally modern. The price is a little high at around $75, but for the number of titles and the attention to detail on the design, this might be okay for fans of the good old days of gaming.

Final Verdict

Perhaps the most interesting take on the modernized retro console is the Game & Watch novelty handheld that Nintendo dropped for the 35th anniversary of Mario. It doesn’t play all that comfortably (its controls are tiny), but it serves as a nice collectible. On the other end of the spectrum is the fully featured (and much pricier) SNES Classic that offers multiple controllers and a host of the best games from the generation. But as with most things gaming, this decision is entirely subjective and your choice will likely be weighed on how nostalgic you feel about one particular game manufacturer over another.

About Our Trusted Experts

Jason Schneider has a degree in music technology and communications from Northeastern University. He has been writing for tech websites for nearly 10 years and brings even more years’ of consumer electronics expertise to the table.

FAQ

What is the difference between an emulator and a retro console?

Truth be told, the way a retro console works is very similar to how an off-brand emulator works. They both run ROMs (or software builds) of classic games on modernized hardware. Retro consoles tend to have locked hard drives that can only be changed by hacking or rooting the system, while dedicated emulator devices will often allow you to load as many games and system emulators as you can fit, right out of the box.


Why are retro consoles so expensive?

When Nintendo led the charge in limited releases of classic consoles, it set a precedent that there was, well, a limited supply of consoles. This led to a difficulty in acquiring these simplistic devices and now, thanks to resale markets and backorders, many of these classic systems will run you a pretty high price tag.

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