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Iconic home video game consoles of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s are still cherished by gamers seeking nostalgia and fun classic gameplay. With so many retro systems to choose from like the NES, Genesis, PlayStation, and Nintendo 64, deciding on the best throwback console can be difficult.
This comprehensive guide will compare the capabilities, games libraries, popularity, prices, and overall legacy across retro consoles to determine which system stands above the rest. By exploring factors like game selection, visuals, controllers, and innovations, we can crown the greatest old school video game console. Whether you seek 8-bit magic, 16-bit gems, or 64-bit masterpieces, the perfect machine awaits to revisit vintage gaming greatness.
Key Takeaways on the Best Retro Console:
- The SNES balanced advanced 16-bit graphics with an unmatched game catalog.
- The NES pioneered home console gaming and features iconic first party titles.
- The PlayStation ushered 3D gaming into the mainstream with landmark franchises.
- Prices vary widely from $50 for common cartridge consoles to $300+ for rare classics.
- Factors like game library, visuals, sound, controls, and influence determine quality.
- Enthusiast communities keep retro console gaming alive decades later.
What Qualifies as a Retro Video Game Console?
For this comparison, we will define retro consoles as including:
- First generation 8-bit home systems (1985-1989)
- 16-bit fourth generation (1990-1995)
- Fifth generation 32/64-bit systems (1995-2005)
- Sixth generation 128-bit systems (1998-2013)
Essentially, any home console preceding the Xbox One/PS4 generation qualifies as retro. Our focus will be on the most popular and influential systems spanning this broad era.
Retro Console Comparison Methodology
To determine the ‘best’ retro system, we will evaluate attributes like:
- Game library – Size, quality, and influence of game catalog.
- Graphics and sound – Visual and audio capabilities given their era.
- Controls – Responsiveness and ergonomics of controllers.
- Popularity and cultural impact – Sales figures and nostalgia.
- Value – Rarity and typical pricing.
- Innovations – Notable features that pushed gaming forward.
With so many fantastic consoles to choose from, it will be a close competition across these criteria!
The Pioneers – Atari 2600
Release Year: 1977
Bit Generation: First (8-bit)
Notable games: Pac-Man, Pitfall, Combat, Space Invaders, River Raid
Historical significance: The Atari 2600 spearheaded the early home console market, introducing millions to fun, simple arcade game experiences at home. While primitive by today’s standards, its huge library and iconic joystick controller laid crucial foundations for the industry.
Graphics and sound capabilities: 160×192 resolution with 128 on-screen colors. Just kilobytes of RAM limited visuals. Only capable of simple beep sound effects.
Controllers: The standard joystick and paddle controllers set precedents still followed today. Joystick intuitive and comfortable despite just one red button.
Influence and acclaim: The Atari 2600 was a massive pop culture phenomenon, but was soon eclipsed by superior 8-bit consoles. Still fondly remembered as ‘the system that started it all’.
Pricing: $199 originally. Can find used systems around $50 today due to very high production quantities. Games typically under $15.
For pioneering home video gaming as a mainstream activity, the Atari 2600 holds a special place despite limited capabilities even by retro console standards. It expanded gaming beyond arcades and computers with an affordable system and library defining the early years of the industry.
The Juggernaut – NES
Release Year: 1985
Bit Generation: Third (8-bit)
Notable games: Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Final Fantasy, Mega Man
Historical significance: The NES single-handedly revived the gaming industry after the crash of 1983. It introduced beloved Nintendo mascots like Mario and Link while perfecting 8-bit game design. The NES remains the best-selling retro system.
Graphics and sound capabilities: 256×240 resolution, up to 64 sprites, 64 colors. Stereo sound with 6 channels. Huge leap over Atari 2600.
Controllers: The original rectangular NES gamepad set the template for A/B face buttons flanking a directional pad – still influencing controllers today.
Influence and acclaim: The NES propelled gaming back into the mainstream and many of its games still rank among the best ever. The NES library defined popular franchises.
Pricing: $199 originally. Used systems and common games easily found under $50. High demand classics like Mario 3 can sell for $20-$30.
With legendary first-party games, the NES laid the blueprint for fun yet challenging game design. Its controllers also introduced ergonomics that remain industry standards. The NES reception single-handedly rebuilt trust in video games following the 1983 crash.
The Technicolor Terror – Sega Genesis
Release Year: 1989
Bit Generation: Fourth (16-bit)
Notable games: Sonic the Hedgehog, Mortal Kombat, Streets of Rage, Gunstar Heroes, Phantasy Star
Historical significance: The Genesis challenged Nintendo’s supremacy with its 16-bit power, aggressive marketing, and games geared towards older audiences. It forced Nintendo to up their game.
Graphics and sound capabilities: 320×240 resolution, 512 color palette, 64 simultaneous colors. Powerful 16-bit audio processing.
Controllers: Responsive 6-button controller with ergonomic upgrade over boxy NES gamepad. Added X,Y,Z buttons alongside A,B,C.
Influence and acclaim: The Genesis lagged behind the Super Nintendo in sales but won devotees through edgier marketing and games. Sonic the Hedgehog served as a dynamic counterpart to Nintendo’s Mario.
Pricing: $189 original price. Can find used Genesis consoles and common games in the $50 range. Rare cartridges can exceed $200.
Sega’s Genesis won significant market share while pushing video games in a more irreverent and ‘radical’ direction. It also showed the world what powerful 16-bit graphics and gameplay could achieve.
The Superpower – Super Nintendo
Release Year: 1991
Bit Generation: Fourth (16-bit)
Notable games: Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, Final Fantasy III (VI), Donkey Kong Country
Historical significance: The Super Nintendo built upon the NES foundation with legendary 16-bit games. It set new benchmarks in graphics, sound, and gameplay depth that rival platforms struggled to match.
Graphics and sound capabilities: 256×224 to 512×448 resolutions, 32,768 colors, 128 max sprites, parallax scrolling effects. Eight channel ADPCM sound.
Controllers: Ergonomic SNES gamepad with rounded edges, four face buttons, two shoulder buttons standard. Introduced comfortable diamond button layout.
Influence and acclaim: The SNES is home to some of the most acclaimed and best selling games ever. It expanded Nintendo’s franchises into legendary 16-bit experiences.
Pricing: $199 originally. Used SNES consoles sell for $100 to $150. High condition games like Mario World fetch $50+. More common games in $15 to $30 range.
With a magical combination of advanced 16-bit graphics and sound paired with Nintendo’s masterful first-party games, the SNES establishes itself as one of the strongest contenders for best retro system. It balances power with an unmatched library of brilliantly fun classics.
The Polygon Pioneer – PlayStation
Release Year: 1995
Bit Generation: Fifth (32/64-bit)
Notable games: Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, Gran Turismo, Resident Evil, Tekken
Historical significance: The PlayStation propelled gaming into immersive 3D worlds that shaped player expectations going forward. It also grew gaming’s audience by targeting older teens and adults.
Graphics and sound capabilities: Up to 480i resolution, 16.7 million colors, 3D polygon environments, quadrangle texture mapping, CD-quality audio.
Controllers: Innovative PlayStation gamepad introduced now standard L2/R2 shoulder triggers alongside d-pad and face buttons. Analogue mode added later.
Influence and acclaim: The PlayStation matched Nintendo in sales and surpassed them in computing power. It attracted third-party support that vastly expanded game genres and design scope.
Pricing: $299 launch price. Used PlayStation consoles as low as $50, even uncommon games only $10-$20. More valuable rare titles can reach $100+.
Sony’s PlayStation brought CD-ROMs, 3D graphics, and more mature content into the console mainstream. It helped gaming compete with film and television as a premier home entertainment medium.
The Portable Powerhouse – Game Boy
Release Year: 1989
Bit Generation: Fourth (8-bit)
Notable games: Tetris, Super Mario Land, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Metroid II, Pokemon Red/Blue
Historical significance: The original Game Boy introduced gaming on the go along with Nintendo’s franchises in handheld versions. Its amazing commercial success made portable gaming a pillar of the industry.
Graphics and sound capabilities: 160×144 resolution, 4 shades of greyscale visuals, 4 sound channels. Minimal capabilities but stellar game design made the most of them.
Controllers: Simple no-frills D-pad and buttons well-suited to portable play. Reliable, durable design.
Influence and acclaim: The Game Boy’s controls, screen size, and game concepts defined handheld gaming conventions. Its huge sales enabled Nintendo’s dominance of mobile platforms that continues today.
Pricing: $89.99 original MSRP. Used Game Boys sell for $50 to $100 depending on condition. Individual cartridges typically under $20 except rare titles.
The Game Boy brought gaming on the go to the masses with familiar Nintendo franchises translated to a compact monochrome LCD portable. For an entire generation, it WAS portable video gaming.
The Mini Marvel – Super Nintendo Mini
Release Year: 2017
Console emulated: Super Nintendo
Notable games included: Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, Star Fox
Historical significance: Nintendo’s official SNES Classic Edition shrinks the Super Nintendo experience into a mini retro-styled plug-and-play unit with 21 built-in classics.
Graphics and sound capabilities: Identical Super Nintendo emulation at 720p over HDMI, making 16-bit visuals sharp on modern displays. Authentic music and sounds.
Controllers: Includes two wired SNES Classic Controllers modeled after originals. Adds shoulder buttons and d-pad.
Influence and acclaim: The SNES Mini satisfied strong nostalgia demand with an appealing, officially licensed mini console. Its strong popularity spurred releases of other retro editions.
Pricing: $79.99 MSRP. Initially hard to find at retail, but regularly in stock today. Collectors may pay over $150 for units in original packaging.
The SNES Mini distills the 16-bit Nintendo magic into an affordable, amazingly authentic retro package. While light on features beyond game emulation, it delivers an instant nostalgia trip.
The 64-Bit Trailblazer – Nintendo 64
Release Year: 1996
Bit Generation: Fifth (64-bit)
Notable games: Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Mario Kart 64, GoldenEye, Star Fox 64
Historical significance: The Nintendo 64 pioneered 3D gaming on consoles with analog thumbstick controls and genres tailored around immersive worlds and camera control.
Graphics and sound capabilities: 480i max resolution, real-time 3D rendering, 4KB texture caching to reduce pixelation. 16-bit audio with 100 channels.
Controllers: Revolutionary ergonomic design with analog thumbstick, chunky Z trigger, center prong for grip. Highly functional despite unorthodox looks.
Influence and acclaim: While cartridges limited some third-party support, the N64 hosted some of the most acclaimed franchises that influenced countless 3D titles since.
Pricing: $199 launch price. Used N64 consoles around $80, common games in $20-$30 range, rare titles up to $60-$100.
The N64 immersed players in atmospheric 3D worlds that felt truly next-generation, though its cartridges ultimately limited some technical capabilities. It inspired key innovations in 3D game controls and camera handling.
The Arcade Legend – Neo Geo AES
Release Year: 1990
Bit Generation: Fourth (24-bit)
Notable games: Metal Slug, Fatal Fury, King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, The Last Blade
Historical significance: SNK’s premium Neo Geo AES console brought flawless arcade conversions to the home with its high-powered specs. Its games retain cult appeal today.
Graphics and sound capabilities: 400×300 resolution, 4096 colors, high quality sprites, stereo audio – on par with arcade systems of the era.
Controllers: Large sturdy design with excellent responsive d-pad and buttons optimized for fighting games and action.
Influence and acclaim: Despite costing several times competing consoles, the AES built a loyal following through exact ports of SNK’s acclaimed arcade games.
Pricing: $650 system cost vastly higher than other consoles. Individual games over $200 each. Very high premiums today for AES and rare games.
Priced more akin to a luxury product, the AES allowed players to experience flawless versions of SNK’s best arcade titles at home. For serious fighting game devotees, its premium price delivered.
The Thumpin’ 32X – Sega Genesis 32X
Release Year: 1994
Bit Generation: 32-bit add-on for Genesis
Notable games: Star Wars Arcade, Virtua Fighter, Doom, Knuckles Chaotix
Historical significance: The 32X added basic 32-bit processing to the Genesis. While not a huge success, it advanced Sega’s expertise with peripherals and hardware addons.
Graphics and sound capabilities: Some enhanced visual effects and textures. Audio equivalent to stock Genesis. Very limited improvements.
Controllers: Used standard Genesis gamepads – the 32X had minimal impact.
Influence and acclaim: Largely viewed as an ill-advised stopgap add-on with limited power upgrade and few must-have games.
Pricing: $159 addon price. Used 32X units around $60 today. Games like Doom exceed $150. More common cartridges under $30.
The 32X showed Sega’s willingness to experiment with peripherals and upgrades for console longevity. But its limited capabilities and weak game library failed to justify the costs.
The CD Powerhouse – PlayStation 2
Release Year: 2000
Bit Generation: Sixth (128-bit)
Notable games: Grand Theft Auto III, God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, Metal Gear Solid 2 & 3, Final Fantasy X
Historical significance: The PS2 dominated its generation through strong third-party support across all genres and the rise of story-driven AAA blockbuster franchises.
Graphics and sound capabilities: Up to 1080i resolution, 32MB of texture buffer memory, particle effects, advanced physics – huge upgrade over PS1.
Controllers: DualShock 2 controller added dual analog sticks and precise vibration feedback advancing immersive play.
Influence and acclaim: As the best selling home console ever (over 155 million units), the PS2 expanded gaming’s userbase and introduced acclaimed cinematic franchises.
Pricing: $299 launch price. Used PS2 consoles readily available for $60-100. Very rare games like Rule of Rose exceed $1000 but most PS2 games under $20.
The PS2 cemented Sony as the market leader that generation. Its vast library appealed to all demographics and advanced graphics and controls to new heights, setting expectations for the entire industry.
The Underdog Upgrade – Sega Genesis CDX
Release Year: 1994
Bit Generation: Fourth (16-bit)
Notable games: Sonic CD, Lunar: Eternal Blue, Popful Mail, Snatcher
Historical significance: The Genesis CDX combined Genesis hardware with Sega CD functionality into a compact package. It garnered limited interest late in the Genesis life.
Graphics and sound capabilities: Improved color depth and audio thanks to the Sega CD addon. But still lagged behind standalone Sega CD units.
Controllers: Stock Genesis 3-button controller. No impact from combo unit.
Influence and acclaim: The CDX failed to sell well given its timing and compromised Sega CD implementation.
Pricing: $399 MSRP. Sold at significant discount later. Used CDX consoles typically under $100 today. With Sega CD addons rare, even mediocre games can sell for $50+.
While the CDX represented an innovative piece of hardware combing Genesis and Sega CD functionality, its reduced capabilities compared to standalone Sega CD units and end-of-lifecycle timing resulted in low sales. It stands as a collector’s piece more than a major influential retro console today.
The Ultimate Arcade – Neo Geo MVS
Release Year: 1990
Bit Generation: Fourth (24-bit)
Notable games: Metal Slug, King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, Magician Lord, Art of Fighting
Historical significance: SNK’s premium Neo Geo MVS arcade cabinets delivered flawless ports of arcade games to home gamerooms. Their faithful reproductions built a cult following.
Graphics and sound capabilities: Identical to arcade versions – 400×300 resolution, 4096 colors, robust sprites, stereo audio – vastly more than home consoles.
Controllers: Arcade-quality joysticks and buttons tailored individually to each game’s genres and needs.
Influence and acclaim: For serious fans seeking true arcade-perfect gameplay at home even at extreme prices, the Neo Geo MVS satisfied.
Pricing: $4000-$6500 per cabinet originally. Used MVS cabinets still fetch over $1000 in working condition. Game cartridges exceed $1000 each.
As an authentic alternative to arcade ownership, the Neo Geo MVS delivered for hardcore fans willing to pay premiums. Owning this taste of the arcade came at a tremendous price however.
The Rogue Handheld – Game Boy Advance SP
Release Year: 2003
Bit Generation: Sixth (32-bit)
Notable games: Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire, Metroid Fusion, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, Mario Kart: Super Circuit
Historical significance: The clamshell GBA SP with frontlit screen finally brought adequate portable gameplay visibility. It extended the Game Boy’s dominance into a new decade.
Graphics and sound capabilities: 240×160 resolution with 512 simultaneous colors. 16.8 million color palette. 32 sound channels with 512 instruments.
Controllers: Responsive 8-way directional pad flanked by A, B, L, and R buttons in an improved ergonomic layout.
Influence and acclaim: The GBA SP became ubiquitous on schoolyards and secured Nintendo’s portable gaming lead against cell phones and Sony’s PSP.
Pricing: $99.99 original MSRP. Used SPs sell for $50-$100 depending on condition. Games typically $15-$30 with rare titles like Fire Emblem nearing $100.
By evolving the Game Boy design into a more advanced but still friendly handheld, the GBA SP extended Nintendo’s portable gaming dominance into the 2000s. Its library remains beloved for 32-bit remakes of SNES classics.
The Multiplayer Master – Nintendo GameCube
Release Year: 2001
Bit Generation: Sixth (128-bit)
Notable games: Super Smash Bros Melee, Metroid Prime, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, Resident Evil 4, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
Historical significance: The GameCube excelled at local multiplayer while featuring clever controller innovations and some of Nintendo’s most artistically inspired games.
Graphics and sound capabilities: 480p max resolution, real-time lighting and shadows, detailed textures with bilinear/trilinear filtering, Dolby Pro Logic II audio.
Controllers: The WaveBird wireless and tiny thumbstick-based GameCube controllers brought innovative control features.
Influence and acclaim: Strong first-party games leveraged the GameCube’s graphical capabilities, though its smaller discs limited some third-party support.
Pricing: $199 launch price. Used GameCube consoles and controllers in $60 range. Many games under $30, but rare titles like Fire Emblem Path of Radiance over $200.
The GameCube sat behind PS2 and Xbox sales but delighted loyal Nintendo fans with successors to beloved franchises that took advantage of its comfortable, quirky controllers and power.
The Future of Retro Gaming
Decades since release, demand for vintage video game consoles remains strong among retro collectors and gaming enthusiasts. Nostalgia for the games and experiences of past eras continues driving interest.
Developments to expect which will expand accessibility and enjoyment of retro consoles:
- Continued price increases for sealed rare consoles and games. Common systems should remain affordable.
- Improved software emulation and upscaling for clearer retro graphics on modern displays.
- Availability of HDMI and wireless controllers modifying vintage systems for modern TVs.
- Inclusion of retro games in Nintendo Switch Online and PlayStation Plus library expansions.
- Potential for more licensed mini console re-releases depending on most sought after.
Thanks to their iconic place in pop culture, retro video game consoles should thrive for years as gamers share these beloved systems and libraries across generations.
Best Retro Console – Super Nintendo
Evaluating across all of our criteria – game library, graphics, sound, controls, influence, pricing – if forced to choose just one winner, the Super Nintendo emerges as the best overall retro video game console:
- It featured the quintessential 16-bit game library, outpacing the Genesis.
- The graphics and sound marked powerful leaps over 8-bit systems.
- Its controller button layout still feels perfect, improved from the NES.
- First party games mastered fun gameplay with much added depth.
- It defined multiple beloved Nintendo franchises for years to come.
- Prices remain accessible for most gamers interested in the SNES.
- The SNES Mini inexpensively recaptures its 16-bit magic.
For its balance of advanced capabilities and superb games that pushed the entire industry forward, the Super Nintendo is the retro console that set the highest standard across the board. While ranking every system proves challenging with so many strengths, the SNES consistently stands out across criteria. Filled with all-time classics, the Super Nintendo remains the vintage console that best withstands the test of time.
Our journey across retro console history, from the wood-grain Atari 2600 to the disc-drive-sporting PlayStation 2, reveals an amazing evolution of graphics, sound, and game design. Each system left a unique mark by expanding the scope of experiences interactive entertainment could deliver.
There are no definitively ‘bad’ consoles among the retro systems, only machines suited to different audiences and tastes. This diversity of gaming possibilities, many of which began in the early home console days, represents the rich culture and community that developed around video games.
While systems like the SNES stand out from the pack, appreciation exists for the advances spurred by every pioneering console. Each gave us indelible memories through groundbreaking games that continue inspiring developers today. Revisiting retro consoles allows passing these monumental experiences on to new generations.
What retro game console has the largest library?
With over 2300 games released, the PlayStation 2 features the overall largest game catalog among retro consoles spanning acclaimed titles across every genre.
Which old video game system has the best graphics?
For their eras, the 3D graphics capabilities of the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation pushed visuals to exciting new frontiers. However the Super Nintendo also impressed with stellar 16-bit 2D graphics.
What makes Super Mario Bros such an iconic game?
With perfect responsive controls and physics, imaginative varied level design, and catchy music, Super Mario Bros defined side-scrolling 2D platforming that would influence all games after.
How did the Neo Geo fail despite powerful hardware?
The Neo Geo’s extremely high $650 console and $200 per game costs doomed its mainstream appeal from the start despite essentially offering perfect arcade conversions.
Which was the most popular retro video game console?
In terms of sheer lifetime sales, Sony’s PlayStation 2 stands as the most successful and popular retro console, selling over 155 million units its 6 year run – a feat unmatched since.
Why does the Atari 2600 remain so iconic?
Despite simplicity that dates it today, the wood grain Atari 2600 pioneered bringing video games into the home with some of the earliest classics, laying essential groundwork.
What made Sega a respected underdog against Nintendo?
Sega competed with edgy marketing and games, helping push Nintendo to improve. Sonic the Hedgehog stood as Mario’s chief rival mascot in the 1990s.
Which retro console has the rarest library?
The Neo Geo AES and its enormous $200+ per game prices limited buyers, making complete collections incredibly rare and expensive. Just 1400 total AES games released.