The Best Ways to Play Vintage Games on a Modern TV
So you want to play retro video games? Perfect. Whether you’re exploring old favorite games or looking for new treasures, a huge library of titles awaits you. Some retro enthusiasts (like your dear author) will fall into the rabbit hole of era-appropriate hardware—original consoles, game packs, and CRTs—but not everyone is willing to deal with those issues (or costs). Luckily, playing retro games on your flat screen can be as beautiful and enjoyable as lugging a 70kg CRT up three flights of stairs to your apartment.
I’m going to break down your options – whether you’re using an old 720p LCD or a 4K HDR OLED – so you can start playing no matter your setup or budget. There are many options, so I’ll start with the most affordable (emulation) and move on to more expensive “enthusiast” options. Whatever you choose, the only thing that matters is that you have fun.
Click Start: How to Run a Retro Game Using Software Emulation
When it comes to playing old games on modern hardware, you have a few options.
Official subscription services
The easiest option for most people is to play older games on consoles that are already in your daily rotation. Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft offer emulation-based backward compatibility options for legacy consoles such as the NES and PlayStation 3 through their subscription-based services: Nintendo Switch Online , PlayStation Plus , and Xbox Game Pass . These services come at different prices, but they work instantly, provide adequate results, and give you access to many games across generations and platforms.
Pros: Easy, lots of games.
Cons: Separate subscriptions required for each console manufacturer, dubious emulation depending on game/console.
Over the past few years, Nintendo, Sega, and Sony have also released “mini consoles” that have been selling like hot cakes, but their popularity has begun to wane. Loaded with about 20 games, these plug-and-play consoles are limited in what you can do if you don’t want to install homemade software (but I’ll let you figure that out on your own), but offer an easy way to dabble in older games. More recently , Sega announced the Mega Drive Mini 2 for Japan , including cult classic Sega CD games such as Popful Mail and Shining in the Darkness . They are usually affordable when they are released, but can be expensive to purchase aftermarket when they are discontinued.
Pros: easy setup, nostalgic hardware, support for custom firmware and fan hacks.
Cons: Difficult to find and expensive on the secondary market, limited game libraries.
Open source emulators
While emulation has the lowest barrier to entry, it also potentially has the highest performance ceiling thanks to a brilliant fan community relentlessly improving emulators and older games to take advantage of modern technology and game design theory.
On the one hand, there are ROM hacks that offer everything from fan-made translations of missing Super NES classics to quality-of-life improvements for legendary titles and colorization of original Game Boy games . These hacks are perfectly legal to download, provided you have a legally acquired ROM to which you can apply them, and open up the world of retro gaming in many ways.
On the other hand, you have engineers using emulators to improve the graphics and sound of older games, with things like widescreen versions of Super NES games , orchestral soundtracks for Link’s Awakening , and the ability to run older games at higher frame rates and resolutions. Particularly impressive is this recent emulator plugin that adds ray tracing to Nintendo 64 games, replicating exactly what Nintendo itself has done through its Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pak service:
These fan projects can be played by downloading the emulators on their own or accessing them through front-end tools like EmulationStation , LaunchBox and Retroarch , on your computer, phone, jailbroken game console, or, well, just about anything you have is with the operating system. Some popular single console emulators include:
- NES: Nestopia UE
- Super NES: BSNES / Higan / Snes9X
- Genesis: Genesis Plus GX
- PlayStation: Duck Station
- GameCube/Wii: Dolphin
- Multiconsole: Mednafen
Emulation has introduced players to retro games and hard-to-find games for many years and is at the center of a dynamic and exciting community of retro gamers and conservationists. While legally obtaining the ROM files required for games can be a daunting task, devices such as the open source Save The Hero cartridge reader make it easy to create ROMs from your collection of game cartridges.
Pros: Powerful, covers almost every game and console ever released, highly customizable and expandable, huge open source community that keeps software up to date.
Cons: Legal acquisition of games is difficult, requires a high-end computer for advanced enhancements such as ray tracing.
If you want to use emulators on your living room TV, the easiest option is to get a small, affordable device called the Raspberry Pi . Running an OS like Linux or Android, the Raspberry Pi can do a lot of things, but one of the best uses is as a plug-and-play emulation box. Download your favorite emulator, load games into it, plug it into your TV, and off you go. Since it is basically a small computer, the Raspberry Pi supports many controllers, including Xbox and PlayStation controllers, or the retro style models sold by 8bitdo . The Raspberry Pi is affordable, but it doesn’t have as much juice as a PC, so it can’t access many of the high-end features that PC emulators provide. But it’s a flexible and handy entry-level device for people who just want to play games on their TV, and can be easily slipped into a bag to take on holiday or a friend’s house.
Pros: Cheap, easy to set up, portable.
Cons: Lacks high end features of PC emulators, cannot emulate more modern game consoles.
Level up: how to create a retro game with hardware emulation via FPGA
The hottest thing in retro gaming over the past few years has been FPGA hardware emulation. This may sound like a golf tour, but it could change the way we view retro games. FPGA stands for “Field Programmable Gate Array” and gives developers access to a chip that can be programmed to mimic the architecture of older video game consoles. Instead of emulating software like traditional game emulators, it emulates the hardware itself. If done correctly, the game will not be able to distinguish the FPGA chip from the original hardware. This results in the most accurate playback of older games on modern hardware, whether you’re using ROMs or original cartridges.
Using FPGA cores designed by an electrical engineer named Kevin “Kevtris” Horton, Analogue game consoles work with real cartridges and focus on one favorite game console at a time. Despite the premium price and supply constraints, Analogue consoles, including the NT Mini ,Super NT , Duo , Mega SG , are the perfect blend of retro gaming and modern hardware.
In this recent Lifehacker article, Brendan Hesse summed up the appeal of these FPGA consoles , the fastest, easiest way to play old cartridges on your modern TV and get them to look great . “While it’s not as ‘clean’ as playing on the old consoles in your collection,” Hesse wrote, “cloned consoles will play the game cartridges you already have, automatically upscaling the video signal to make it look good on your new TV — without converters . or special cables are needed.
Analogue’s most recent release is the Pocket , which supports all kinds of handheld consoles, including Atari’s Game Boy, Game Gear, and Lynx line. Plus, with the official dock, you can even play your game packs on your 4K. Although, in order to get it without outrageous prices in the secondary market, you have to wait until 2023 due to huge demand and supply problems around the world.
Pros: Great retro games right out of the box, high quality materials, nostalgic appeal, lots of customization/filter options.
Cons: Expensive and difficult to acquire, focused on a single console, officially requires real game cartridges.
Analogue devices are (officially) limited to specific consoles – but what if I told you there was one device that could play everything from Commodore 64 to Super NES, TurboGrafx-16 and PlayStation with hardware-accurate FPGA emulation? Say hello to MiSTer.
Whether you order the parts individually and assemble the MiSTer yourself, or buy a ready-made build from somewhere like MiSTer Addons , this highly customizable and scalable device is powered by the impressive DE10-Nano chipset with Cyclone V FPGA and supports an absurdly deep game and console library. . YouTubers My Life in Gaming have put together an extensive (we’re talking two and a half hours, for example) look at MiSTer in 2022, including instructions for building and setting up your device, recommended add-ons. , and looks at the most popular console kernels – this will tell you most of what you need to know.
Out of everything I’ve reviewed, the MiSTer has the highest crossover potential to meet the needs of enthusiasts and casual geeks alike – its combination of scalability, flexibility and breadth offers something for everyone. MiSTer boasts an active FPGA developer community that is just starting to tap into the technology’s potential, and we’ll see more consoles, more compatibility, and more customization as they expand on an already impressive feature set. You can plug it into your modern screen or CRT, output virtually any standard resolution/video signal you need, and access a host of different features such as scanline filters, black frame insertion to improve motion blur, solid controller support, and more. other. .
Pros: Infinitely customizable, highly scalable, huge hardware and software support library regularly updated with new features.
Cons: Expensive and difficult to set up, support for post-16-bit consoles is still in development.
Now you play with power: original equipment + scalers
“But Aidan, I have a collection of retro consoles and games that can rival MetalJesusRocks , but CRTs are lame. I want to play on my 70″ 4K so games don’t look like trash.” Well, you have options… as long as you’re willing to pay for them.
The NTSC broadcast standard used in many non-European regions provides 480i resolution (240 interleaved lines from top to bottom on a TV screen), but video games have cleverly cut that in half to make more efficient use of the console’s processing power, resulting in the video standard being called 240p. The problem is that most modern TVs don’t care about 240p video because it hasn’t been used much since the 90s. This results in bad scaling for retro gaming consoles, messy looking games, and terrible controller lag.
Enter: upscalers. These devices take your game console’s 240p (or 480i for later consoles) signal and upscale it as cleanly as possible to display on an HD or 4K screen with minimal input lag. They are magical, to be honest. The main disadvantage of scalers is that even older ones are expensive, and newer ones have been heavily affected by supply chain issues and rising component prices. So consider them as a higher-end option for those who are serious about long-term use of original hardware and software, not as an entry point.
Mike Chi’s RetroTINK-5X Pro is currently the market’s leading FPGA-based upscaler – it’s really impressive since Chi is controlled by one person. The 5x in the name refers to the upscaler’s ability to magnify a video signal five times (1200p) without loss of quality, producing razor-sharp pixels and various linear and retro filters. Similar devices such as the OSSC , Framemeister and RetroTINK-2X Pro offer similar functionality with fewer features at a slightly more affordable price. Chi is hard at work on RetroTINK 4K, and other upcoming upscalers like PixelFX Morph and OSSC Pro are looking to push the technology even further.
(For a more in-depth look at upscalers and FPGA consoles, refer to Brendan Hesse’s previously mentioned breakdown , which covers advanced options and optimal settings.)
Pros: So many options, wide console support, original hardware, great video quality.
Cons: Expensive, requires access to original consoles and games.
Sweep or crisp pixels?
There is an argument that retro games are best played on CRTs due to their unique look. Others need the cleanest image possible – pixels are cut right at the source without distortion. These FPGAs and scalers often have many features that allow you to emulate the look and feel of older TVs, including overscan and scale options to soften the picture, with results quite close to original CRTs. Twitter accounts like @PROPixels and @CRTPixels regularly compare crisp pixels, retro filters, and original CRTs, highlighting the different options to make your games look their best.
Whether or not you use filters is a matter of taste and may even depend on the console or game, but being able to create different types of images is one of the most compelling reasons to use MiSTer or an upscaler over options. like emulation on modern game consoles, especially if you’ve optimized your settings with a tool like 240p Test Suite .
Whether you choose to play your old games on a flat screen or a CRT, with scan lines or with raw pixels, there is no wrong answer. Experiment to find what looks best for you.
I started out with one of Nintendo’s mini consoles and moved on to some serious original hardware over time, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t enjoy playing emulated games on my phone. My top tip is to start small: grab a used mini-console, check out the ROM hacks for your favorite games, sign up for one of the Sony, Nintendo, or Microsoft subscription services—and see if retro games are right for you. Whether you’re dabbling or diving into the deep end, there’s never been a better time to dive into old games, and it’s only going to get better from now on.