What is Considered a Retro Video Game Console?

Retro gaming has exploded in popularity in recent years. Playing and collecting old school video game systems can be a nostalgic blast from the past. But what game consoles qualify as retro? In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover the evolution of home video game systems and discuss what defines a console as retro.


The term “retro gaming” evokes nostalgic memories of classic consoles and games from the early days of home video games. While definitions vary, retro gaming generally covers older video game systems and titles from the 1970s to early 2000s before the modern HD era.

Some key factors that define a retro video game console include:

  • Age – Typically at least 15-20 years old or more.
  • Discontinued – No longer in active production for many years.
  • Graphics – Limited to SD, non-HD output. More pixelated, low polygon visuals.
  • Controllers – Vintage style input devices. No motion controls.
  • Gameplay – Simpler 2D and early 3D games. More basic graphics and mechanics.
  • Media – Cartridge or disc-based games. No broadband connectivity.

In this guide, we’ll take a visual tour through each retro console generation. We’ll also discuss what collectors look for in retro systems and examine their increasing value on the secondary market. Let’s rewind through decades of classic gaming!

Key Takeaways

  • Retro gaming covers classic video game consoles and titles from the 1970s to early 2000s.
  • Defining characteristics of retro systems include age, discontinued status, SD graphics, vintage controllers, offline media, and simple gameplay.
  • Widely considered retro console eras include 2nd-5th generation systems like Atari 2600, NES, Genesis, SNES, and PlayStation.
  • More subjective retro consoles include 6th gen Dreamcast, PS2, GameCube, and original Xbox.
  • Retro systems are popular collector’s items and their value continues to grow over time, especially sealed or graded.
  • Community resources like price charts help gauge current retro console market values.

Retro Video Game Generations

Below we’ll highlight the major retro gaming eras, from the pioneers of the 1970s to the turn of the millennium.

First Generation (1972-1977)

The Magnavox Odyssey launched in 1972 as the first commercial home video game console. This primitive system featured simple graphical overlays and controllers with no buttons. It set the stage for full programmable systems to come.

Also known as the “Woodgrain Era” for the faux wood paneling on consoles.

Notable systems:

  • Magnavox Odyssey
  • Atari Pong

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Second Generation (1976-1983)

Ushered in cartridge-based game consoles with exchangeable games rather than fixed built-in titles. The Atari 2600 pioneered this format and popularized the industry.

Notable systems:

  • Atari 2600
  • Atari 5200
  • ColecoVision
  • Intellivision

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Third Generation (1983-1995)

The era that brought video gaming back to prominence after the crash of 1983. The Nintendo Entertainment System was the dominant force with iconic games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda.

Notable systems:

  • Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
  • Sega Master System
  • Atari 7800

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Fourth Generation (1987-1996)

The 16-bit era of gaming. More advanced graphics and sound capabilities enabled more immersive worlds and gameplay. The Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo battled it out here.

Notable systems:

  • Sega Genesis / Mega Drive
  • Super Nintendo (SNES)
  • TurboGrafx-16

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Fifth Generation (1993-2001)

The move to 3D graphics and optical disc storage. Sony entered the market and revolutionized it with the original PlayStation. Nintendo followed with the N64 and cartridges.

Notable systems:

  • Sony PlayStation
  • Nintendo 64
  • Sega Saturn

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Sixth Generation (1998-2004)

Some debate whether these more advanced systems qualify as retro. But their age, discontinued status, and standard definition graphics check the boxes for many collectors.

Notable systems:

  • Sega Dreamcast
  • Sony PlayStation 2
  • Nintendo GameCube
  • Microsoft Xbox

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What Makes a Console Retro?

Beyond just age, there are some key attributes that define retro video game systems:

Outdated Graphics – Retro graphics are low resolution, standard definition visuals. This includes pixel art, 2D sprites, and low polygon early 3D. No HD output.

Vintage Controllers – Simple controllers utilizing joysticks, D-pads, and buttons. No motion controls or complex input devices.

Cartridge/Disc Media – Games distributed via physical cartridges, discs, and ROM chips. No broadband connectivity or downloads.

Legacy Gameplay – More basic 2D and 3D gameplay mechanics. Shorter single player campaigns. Local multiplayer focus.

Discontinued Production – Systems no longer manufactured or supported. Production halted years or decades ago.

Nostalgic Appeal – Evokes nostalgia for the old days of gaming. Iconic and memorable games, characters, and properties.

These attributes combined define a video game system as retro in the eyes of collectors and enthusiasts. Of course, personal opinions differ on cutoffs. But these criteria cover the core elements.

Why Retro Consoles Are Popular

There are many factors driving interest and demand for retro video game consoles:

Nostalgia – Players who grew up with these systems get nostalgic reliving childhood gaming memories. Collecting recaptures the joy of these classic games.

Simple Gameplay – The straightforward 2D and early 3D gameplay of retro titles has a timeless appeal. Many find modern games bloated.

Art Styles – Pixel art, sprite artwork, and early 3D have a distinctive aesthetic. Modern attempts emulate these styles.

Community – Online communities keep retro consoles alive through collecting, modding, repair, preservation, and discussion.

Finite Supply – With production long over, the supply of sealed systems and rare games is finite, increasing value over time.

Investment Potential – Some retro consoles and games have become valuable collector’s items worth money, driving interest.

For these reasons and more, retro gaming remains wildly popular despite these systems being decades old and technically obsolete. Their appeal continues to endure.

Increasing Values on the Secondary Market

As demand has risen, prices for certain retro consoles and games have soared on the secondary market over the past decade. Rare and highly desirable sealed systems in particular have reached shocking levels.

For example, an original sealed copy of Super Mario Bros. recently broke records by selling for over $2 million. A sealed copy of Sonic the Hedgehog sold for $430,000 in 2021. And a sealed Nintendo PlayStation prototype fetched $360,000!

Even base consoles are commanding high premiums in top condition. A sealed NES Deluxe Set recently sold for $60,000. Loose but complete SNES and N64 consoles regularly sell in the $300-$500 range. Sony PlayStation systems have jumped from $20 bins to $400+ complete.

These examples demonstrate how popular retro games and consoles have become as collector’s items and investments. As supply dwindles and nostalgia grows, their resale values continue to climb.

Collector Resources for Prices and Rarity

For gaming collectors and investors, knowing the current market values for retro systems is very helpful. Some reputable resources for researching prices include:

Price Charting – Database of retro game prices culled from user collections and completed eBay listings. Charts show historic trends.

GOAT App – “Stock market of collectibles” lets you track values on sealed and graded games.

Heritage Auctions – Leading auction house hosts vintage video game auctions. Browse for prior realized prices.

WATA Games – Video game grading service provides database of watched auctions and graded game values.

These tools allow collectors to assess current market conditions and look up prices for retro consoles based on factors like condition, completeness, and grading. Use them when buying, selling, insuring, or investing in classic games.

Tips for Collecting Retro Consoles

For gamers interested in starting or expanding a retro console collection, here are some tips:

  • Focus your collecting on 1-2 consoles to keep costs down.
  • Prioritize exclusives and must-have games for each system.
  • Be extremely choosy when buying disc-based systems. Discs rot!
  • Don’t overlook controllers, manuals, boxes. Complete is ideal.
  • Research reputable vendors and check seller ratings when buying online.
  • Thoroughly inspect and test systems before purchasing.
  • Consider having valuable games professionally graded if condition merits it.
  • Utilize collector communities for education, appraisals, and authenticating rare items.
  • Enjoy gaming on original hardware when you can! Build your dream game room.
  • Budget wisely and collect responsibly within your means. It’s a passion, not an investment.

Proper care, patience, and research will build an amazing retro console collection full of gaming history and memories.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the first retro video game console?

The Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972, is considered the first home video game console. It pioneered the concept but was extremely limited, only playing built-in analog games. Full retro gaming kicked off with programmable cartridge-based systems like the Atari 2600.

Are PS2 and Xbox retro?

As sixth generation consoles, the PS2, GameCube, Dreamcast, and Xbox represent something of a transitional period. While aging, their capabilities go beyond typical retro consoles. But their discontinued status earns many collectors’ nods as retro.

How much are vintage video games worth?

Values vary enormously based on rarity, condition, completeness, and demand. Mainline first party Nintendo games tend to be most coveted. But even common cartridge games often sell for $10-$30. Rare and sealed games can command thousands to millions.

What was the best retro video game console?

Subjective, but the SNES and PlayStation often top lists as pinnacles of their respective eras. Both were home to huge diverse libraries of iconic AAA games and niche titles that still endear today.

How do you connect retro consoles to new TVs?

Older console audio/video outputs likely won’t plug directly into new TVs. Options like HDMI adapters, upscalers, or CRTs allow interfacing. Wireless HDMI solutions like the RetroTINK provide a lag-free signal chain.


Reliving classic gaming history via retro video game consoles provides an unparalleled trip down memory lane. As vintage systems age beyond 20-30 years old, they provide a window to gaming’s origins and evolution.

Popular retro eras span the 8 and 16-bit Nintendo and Sega days, along with pioneering 3D systems like PlayStation and N64. Trends toward nostalgia, simplicity, and collecting are driving retro gaming growth.

Defining attributes like dated graphics, vintage controllers, cartridge media, and basic gameplay characterize retro systems versus modern HD consoles. While definitions vary on cutoffs, these criteria encompass the essence of retro gaming.

For collectors, researching console libraries, understanding market values, focusing collections, utilizing grading, and finding reputable sellers are key to an enjoyable retro gaming journey.

At its core, retro gaming provides a way to experience gaming history firsthand. These classic consoles and games laid the groundwork of the entire industry. Revisiting retro systems offers perspective on how far gaming has come and where it all started.

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