While losing yourself to a vast, visually lavish modern game can bring all kinds of immersive escapism, older titles often have an elegance and immediacy that makes them rather more suited for fitting around modern life. When you’ve only got 30 minutes of gaming time, you can often get a more meaningful experience from Sonic the Hedgehog’s straightforward 2D charm than you would with the latest expansive open-world blockbuster.
Investing in both vintage games and old hardware has, however, become a rather expensive business, thanks to a vast collector community. There’s always the option of simulating older games virtually or via a platform like the amazing Raspberry Pi.
That’s the cheapest way in, but can take much technical tinkering, and might tiptoe into the legally murky. With all that in mind, a new generation of modern, convenient, plug-and-play consoles are bringing old games to modern screens. With so many to choose from, we spent time with a spread of what’s available.
Best retro gaming consoles in 2022
SEGA Mega Drive Mini
Recent years have seen a boom in ‘microconsoles’, and SEGA’s Mega Drive Mini is one of the best. At the heart of its offering is a near unbearably cute miniaturised version of SEGA’s iconic 1990 console. So small that it easily sits on one palm, the delightfully detailed reproduction exists to provide convenient access to a library of classic games.
When it comes to retro gaming, you can’t beat original hardware hooked up to a tube TV, but that takes up time, money and space. With the Mega Drive Mini, you pop in a power cord, connect it to a modern screen with an HDMI cable, fire it up, and a library of 42 built-in games immediately appears before you.
Most are hits like Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter 2, Golden Axe and Tetris, but there’s a handful of truly brilliant, lesser-known cult titles we adored, such as Gunstar Heroes and Thunder Force III. The games run with ample accuracy, the two (full-size) Mega Drive controls feel great, and the whole package thrives as a focal point for a warmly nostalgic, social evening with friends.
Amiga THEA500 Mini
Thanks to Amigas’ status as home computers, many a kid in the early 1990s tried to convince their parents that owning one was the future of homework. We all knew what we were up to, though – Amigas were sublime gaming machines.
And at the start of 2022, the most famous Amiga model – the A500 – got the microconsole treatment. As with SEGA’s scaled-down console, convenience and cuteness also define the diminutive THEA500 Mini, which contains 25 games covering all manner of genres. You also get an Amiga-inspired gamepad and an amazing working reproduction of the computer’s beloved, blocky ‘tank mouse’, which you can even use with a modern computer.
Our highlight games included Zool, Worms, Pinball Dreams, Kick Off 2 and The Chaos Engine. Alas, the diminutive keyboard isn’t functional, being merely for show. But you do get a surprisingly nostalgic packaging experience – we particularly adored the ring-bound manual as found in Amiga boxes all those years ago.
And being able to add countless extra Amiga games via USB stick (sourced legally, of course) makes THEA500 Mini a remarkable option.
While almost every other option here takes the form of a console with games built into the hardware, the Evercade VS adopts a rather different approach. It isn’t devoted to a single gaming platform or company, but instead offers an entirely modern, new cartridge-based console. That means – as it was back in the day – picking up and plugging in a cartridge to play a game.
There are eight vintage arcade games included in the pack, but what the Evercade VS really offers is a chance to continuously top up your game library with widely available, fairly affordable boxed cartridge releases that typically contain several games from different publishers that defined gaming’s past. A couple of options even include modern indie games.
The main unit and the controllers perform well – but we found this isn’t as physically lavish as some other options here. As the cart library continues to expand – and with the VS supporting up to four simultaneous players – it really is an amazing, distinct option in 2022. And with over 300 games now available across the carts, you’re bound to find some treasures from your past. We sure did.
SEGA Astro City Mini
Devotees to arcade culture – and the few remaining arcades out there still offering gaming in return for loose change – will certainly know about the original Astro City. The 1993 arcade cabinet put in years of service hosting some of SEGA’s most popular coin-operated games.
And now it’s available at 1:6 scale, and packed with games from SEGA’s arcade history. There’s some hits in the 37 included, but we found the library almost reads more like an archive of SEGA’s arcade history. Many will gravitate to the likes of Virtua Fighter, Space Harrier or Altered Beast, but you also get curios like the extremely minimal Dottori Kun; a game sold with normally empty arcade cabinets in Japan to help side step a curious tax law that targeted gambling machines.
The built-in screen means the Astro City Mini can be played without a TV, but for us it was a bit much to try and play anywhere near deftly in such a small space. Still, it can be plugged into a TV and accept USB controllers, offering a more reasonable way to play.
THEC64 essentially does to the Commodore 64 what THEA500 Mini did to the Amiga 500. Here, though, the word ‘Mini’ isn’t in the title. That’s because THEC64 is a full-size reproduction of the computer that introduced so many UK homes not just to gaming, but also computing, when it arrived in 1982.
A generous (and appropriately numbered) spread of 64 games are included, along with the option to add more via USB stick. And with the keyboard working, there’s also a chance to have a dabble with coding, game development, and even the likes of programming randomly generated music (something that kept us up into the small hours when we were supposed to be testing the games).
Nostalgia’s a key factor in taking pleasure from this, as even the best C64 games can feel a little primitive today. Still, the library is diverse, if not all top quality. We got the most pleasure from Speedball II, California Games, Paradroid, Uridium, Impossible Mission and Boulder Dash. A lesser mini version actually came first, which leaves us hopeful a ‘maxi’ A500 may arrive soon.
Capcom Home Arcade
Considering that the term ‘microconsole’ has emerged to describe this new generation of modern retro gaming hardware, the Capcom Home Arcade is a bit of an outlier. That’s mainly on account of this visually-divisive monster being absolutely massive.
What you get here is essentially an arcade-quality, arcade cabinet-scale two-player controller that contains 16 Capcom games. Most of them are superb, many of them niche, and all of them come from the arcade. Is that worth a couple of hundred quid?
There are better high-end sticks out there, certainly, but the Capcom Home Arcade offers what we found to be the most robust option on this list, with components that rival most of what you’d find out there. The games might not all be high-profile, but a chance to play the likes of legendary 2D shooter Progear or exquisitely distinct fighting game Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors? Those were options we lost hours to.
They would perform a little better on original hardware, but Progear alone would cost much more than the Capcom Home Arcade, and that’s before you bought a full-sized arcade cabinet. Still not convinced? You also get Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting.
Before the Evercade VS (above), came the original Evercade Handheld. Beyond being the cheapest option on this list, it essentially provides a very portable spin on the Evercade VS experience. That means a cartridge-based system supported by a library of boxed game compilations sold at numerous popular retailers, and at affordable prices.
This system takes most of the very same cartridges as the VS (just two are handheld exclusive to date), and can even output to a full-sized TV screen via HDMI. Again, this unit doesn’t exactly scream peak physical quality – and to our tastes the screen felt a little low performance compared to what any smartphone or Nintendo Switch owner has become used to.
But then, this is a £60 system, and we’ve already taken hours of pleasure from it, with the Evercade Handheld becoming a stalwart of the bedside table. Spend a little more and you can get starter packs containing all kinds of titles – the Premium pack goes for around £100 including the handheld, and will furnish you with 31 games.
Quarter Arcades (Bubble Bobble version)
The Quarter Arcade range is made up of 1:4 scale working replications of classic arcade cabinets from the 1970s and 1980s. There’s just one game on each diminutive unit – with a selection to choose from, including the greedy action puzzler Pac-Man, and the forthcoming release of the icon of popular culture that is Space Invaders.
We went, however, with Bubble Bobble, a seemingly simple Mario-esque platformer packed with hidden depth. Absolutely, the game itself is superb, and performs pretty authentically. But playing on such a tiny screen, with a miniscule (and good quality) arcade stick and buttons? It’s truly great fun, but not exactly the optimum way to master Bubble Bobble. What really impresses us is the glorious detail and quality of the cabinet itself.
From the artwork enveloping its wooden construction and the warm light it emits to amazing details like the light-up coin return buttons on the front and rear carry handles as seen on the real thing, everything is just right – at charming scale. The Bubble Bobble Quarter Arcade, then, is perhaps more of a gloriously detailed, nostalgic functional display piece than a perfect gaming machine. And we loved it for that.
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