This article originally appeared on Three Voices Media Articles and has been slightly modified for this post.
You may have thought to yourself, “Oh boy, I’d really like to relive the cherished gaming memories from my childhood! Maybe I’ll buy a [insert your favorite gaming system from the olden days] and some games!” Then you might have looked online and seen that the current retro gaming scene is not the most welcoming to a newcomer. Not due to the community itself – most retro folks I’ve talked to are a nice and friendly bunch and always ready to help newbies – but because there is an absolute overload of information about various aspects of this great hobby, most of which can be utterly impenetrable for those looking to just casually play a few games they liked back in the day.
This article and its followups are meant to give a few pointers to those who are just starting out, because I know extremely well how daunting it can be to get into this stuff. I’ll go over some of the more technical stuff in greater detail later on, but in this article I’ll just try to cover the basics for now.
For starters, there is obviously the matter of buying the system and the games you want. I live in Finland, but tend to avoid Finnish online auctions and resellers because you most likely will end up overpaying (everything is expensive in this country, after all). We don’t have too many brick-and-mortar retro gaming stores out here, but the ones we do have tend to overprice their stuff and that seems to be the case worldwide, and as such you might want to look online instead.
Most of my retro stuff is bought on Retrogames.co.uk and Gamesworldbodmin.co.uk in England, Konsolenkost.de in Germany, and of course from eBay sellers in various countries. eBay usually has the lowest prices, especially if you manage to win an auction rather than using Buy It Now, but you’ll obviously want to find a reputable seller. Sadly, retro games are getting more and more expensive as more people are getting into the scene, but you should still be able to buy most games you want without spending a small fortune.
You’ll also definitely want to see the ACTUAL PRODUCT THAT IS BEING SOLD. Not the cover art of a game, not a stock photo of a console, but the exact thing you’re buying. This seems like something that should be common sense, but I think it still bears reiterating as there are sadly a lot of counterfeit games going around. The counterfeiting problem is particularly widespread when it comes to Game Boy and Nintendo DS games, and I really do not recommend buying games for these systems on eBay or Amazon unless you can determine you’re getting the real thing (there are ways to do so, and we’ll get into those at some point).
I’m not getting into any of the regional difference stuff in this first article, that’ll be a discussion for a later date. Instead, I’m just going to assume that you’re looking for the simplest possible way to play your games on real hardware, because that’s what I was doing at first. Basically, you just buy a console from your region (PAL or NTSC) and some games after shopping around for a good deal. You should never pay over 100 euros or dollars for any retro console most people have heard of, unless it comes with a bunch of games you want and/or is a rare special edition or modded for improved functionality (which we’ll also get into later). Most systems you’d be looking for can be had for €50-60 plus shipping.
One of the few nice things about being a European retro gamer has been the fact we use SCART as our main analog standard definition input, allowing for easy use of high quality RGB video. While SCART inputs are being phased out nowadays as HD and Ultra HD become more and more ubiquitous, you can still easily find a TV with a SCART input. Next, look for an affordable RGB SCART cable for your system (Retrogamingcables.co.uk is your friend, although for systems like the NES and Nintendo 64 you’ll need a composite RCA cable instead since they don’t support RGB. The video quality from these cables isn’t very good, but they are plentiful and cheap on eBay and Amazon, and the N64 also comes with one in the box), hook it up to your TV, and that’s it. You’re set. The best possible quality you’re going to get without delving into enthusiast solutions.
Unfortunately, if you’re on the other side of the pond, things aren’t as simple. SCART is not used in America (or Japan, where they have their own identical-looking but differently wired JP-21 connector that DOES NOT WORK ON SCART INPUTS OR VICE VERSA), and as such no consumer TV sets have the required inputs. Luckily, component inputs are still common on American TVs, and a company called HD Retrovision actually manufactures component cables that work on systems such as the Super NES and the Sega Genesis. Many systems support S-video, but that has been obsolete for many years and it’s practically impossible to find S-video inputs on modern TVs. Composite video is an option if all else fails, but the image quality is very poor and I don’t recommend it unless the system doesn’t support anything better.
If all you want to do is just play some old games at decent quality with the minimal amount of fuss, this is all you need and you’ll be totally happy with it. Going beyond this point to extract the maximum potential out of your retro games is quite a rabbit hole and potentially a massive time and money sink, and we’re going to explore that in later articles. For now, though, I’ve hopefully managed to help you get started on your retro gaming quest. If you’ve got any questions, go ahead and hit me up on Twitter or in the comments.