The Best Ways To Play Retro Video Games

If you’re like me, then you really enjoyed the golden age of video games. although modern video games are incredible to look at and have sophisticated controls. There’s just nothing like a retro video game to stir up feelings of nostalgia and to get your reflexes back to what they once were. 

How Do You Play Retro Video Games?

There are a number of ways to play retro video games but you will need a couple of tools or even a couple of devices in order to get this done.  Don’t worry though, these are very simple to get set up and in a lot of cases, they are not expensive.

I’m going to introduce you to a couple of terms that you may or may not have heard about before.  The first term and likely the one that you will use the most is called an emulator.

What is an Emulator?

An emulator is like an operating system for your video games.  In fact, just like the name suggests, an emulator is trying to emulate the way one of your old game consoles worked.   There are many different emulators available today And each emulator will try and recreate the operating system for a different previous console.

Amazingly enough,  although this isn’t legal advice,  as it stands today an emulator is legal because it is not stealing code or stealing proprietary information.  It is a re-creation, with a purpose.

That’s because an emulator has the ability to take what is essentially a copy of an older video game and execute it.  It will have the ability to take a controller or multiple controllers into the system and in many cases, it will give you the ability to configure the buttons on that controller to just the way you like it.

Different controllers will work differently on each emulator and some of them won’t work depending on the emulator.  The same thing holds true for the games, as some emulators just can’t handle certain games.

The copy of the older game is called a ROM,  or that’s the name that we normally see given to the files when a copy of an older game is made.

What is a ROM?

Without getting into the literal zeros and ones, a ROM is a copy of a video game that is playable on an emulator.  A ROM can be made in a number of ways but the best guides show you how to take your old video game cartridges or compact discs (yes that’s called a CD)  and convert them to a file that would be playable on an emulator.

If you have a number of old video game cartridges then it might make sense to invest a little bit of time and a little bit of effort and a few bucks into following a tutorial like this from 2017 to create your own ROMs from many systems (Sega, Nintendo).

Once you have a ROM, it is time to find an emulator that works with it.  Let’s start with my first method which is to use an emulator on a PC.

When completed, your game library of ROMs will look like this instead of being in bulky cartridges.
Old boxes for a few different ROMs I have. Yep, I have all these games in Cartridge Form!

What is the Best Emulator For a PC?

The best emulator for a PC is definitely RetroArch.  What I find amazing about this piece of software is that it can install what it calls a number of “Cores”.  Each core is actually an emulator that was previously built and integrated into this piece of software.

So that means you can have ROMs  from a number of different systems that you had as a kid,  and you should be able to play most of them,  if not all of them, using RetroArch. 

You will find a significant settings page that allows you to configure it just the way you need it,  and you will find the ability to map many controllers that you would connect to your PC to play the games.  Since there are so many USB versions of older controllers,  you can pretty much play any game at any time with this emulator.

What’s even more exciting to me is that you can download RetroArch on their website for a number of different operating systems,  or you can download it through Steam.  Steam allows you to connect with friends and family, although in order to play this one you’re going to have to use the other feature in RetroArch which is called Netplay.

There are so many cores you can add on RetroArch, it’s almost unfair

After you have fully exhausted your list of retro video games,  you probably will want to find a few other ways to play some of your other, older games.

Where Can I Play Retro Video Games?

Today you can play retro video games on so many different systems and in so many different ways that it would be impossible to list them all.   However,  here is a  list of all of the different ways that I have found to play either retro video games on an emulator,  or retro video games  from a PC or Mac.

Here’s how you get to compatibility mode on Windows PCs
  • On an existing older PC with an operating system like Windows XP.  I find XP works the best on the types of computers that you will probably still have working.  Anything older is probably dead,  and anything newer doesn’t usually work right.
  • On your current PC using what is called Compatibility Mode.   if you go into the properties on any of your programs,  you will find a tab called compatibility and this little check box that says you can run this program in compatibility mode.   sadly the only options are Windows 8 and Windows Vista on my current system so it doesn’t work very often.
  • Using DOSBox, which is available for so many different operating systems.  DOSBox is an emulator that lets you emulate the very, very old operating system named DOS, or more appropriately, an x86 processor.  You can use DOSBox to play a lot of very old games and it also gives you the chance to slow down your system’s processor.  I find it fairly hard for most people to use this software on its own so I think a combination of LaunchBox and RetroArch is best
  • DOSBox is how a lot of the retro video games are available on GOG.com too, so you can just buy from that marketplace as well as Steam.
  • LaunchBox has a neat little feature when combined with RetroArch to let you take zip files of old games and get them working in minutes.  Check out the tutorial here for more details on that.
  • Almost every Android-based streaming stick, like Android TVs end fire TVs, has the ability to install many different emulators including RetroArch.
  • And those same emulator apps that can be installed on Android TVs,  can often be installed on Android phones and tablets which turns those into a retro gaming system when you connect a Bluetooth gaming pad.
  • Since RetroArch works with Steam, you can put it on the SteamDeck and potentially play all of your ROMs.  This is not something I have tried personally but everything checks out for that working.
  • There are many handheld consoles that are now sold today that come with emulators.  Many of these will say that they come with video games and I will tell you that it is illegal for companies to do this because they are reselling someone else’s product,  however this does happen today.  I definitely don’t condone this method but it is another way for people to play these retro games.
  • On that note, you can build your own retro game console with a Raspberry Pi.   there are many versions of this being sold again,  and that is again illegal because they often contain so many video games on them,  but this is something that you could do yourself with a tutorial like this

That’s all I can think of for now.  What did I miss?

Can I Play Retro Video Games On My TV?

You absolutely can play retro video games on your television, without having the old console.  I just finished telling you about the best emulator on PC,  which is RetroArch.  This program can be used to get your old video games on your TV easily and quickly.

Amazingly, RetroArch has a lot of different apps available. You can get RetroArch on the Google Play app store, as well as the Samsung Galaxy store, and even the Amazon app store.

To me, the Google Play Store and the Amazon app store are very interesting because you can install the RetroArch app on either a Google Chromecast with Google TV, or an Android TV,  or you can install it on a Fire TV stick.

You will have to buy a few accessories to go with your streaming device,  but this is an incredibly easy way to get those retro video games back on your big TV without having the console.

Here’s a video that shows all the different accessories you will need to get this working with a Fire TV stick, and just how well RetroArch runs on any Fire TV stick you can get today.

What is the Best Way To Play Old PC Video Games?

If you have an old PC laying around then in most cases that will be the best way to play old PC video games.  However, most of us don’t have that anymore and for myself, I have run into the problem where I actually don’t have a CD or DVD drive in any PCs.  

You can purchase an external version of a CD/DVD-RW or DVD-ROM drive, But I no longer think that this is worth the effort end investment because you will likely end up having to use an emulator or another piece of software anyways.

Instead, I think that you can look at a couple of marketplaces that sell games for relatively cheap.  GOG.com  has a lot of retro or older video games on it and I especially have enjoyed playing Warcraft 2 with my best friend.  We used to have multiplayer battles in his home on that game and it’s been great to be able to fire that up and play it remotely.

They have a lot of games that were published between 1983 and 2000,  so you are likely to find a lot of the games that you used to play on an older PC there.

However,  if you are searching for a specific game then you might want to look on Steam.  Not only is there an entire old-school video games category, as well as a retro video games category on Steam, but you can use their search tool to comb through the entire library of games very quickly.

For myself,  I found a  game for about $5 that had the entire Atari lineup of video games end it’s in Market places like this where people are repackaging old games or even remaking those old games into something you might enjoy.

A great example of this is when I tried to find X-Com: UFO Defense a number of years ago.  For those of you who don’t know, X-Com: Ufo Defense Was released in 1994 and it was the start of an entire series of X-Com video games where you battle aliens to keep them from taking over the Earth.   it had a great mix of tactical warfare in what was called turn-based combat, Alongside strategic building of your bases and your weaponry.   you also got to research and manufacture equipment as you took out the alien scum and brought back artifacts to your base.

I could go on for hours about that game but when I first looked for it online,  I could not find a way to play the game other than to get it installed on my own computer with an external CD-ROM and to do some pretty heavy testing work with a piece of software called DOSBox.

I wasn’t up for that at the time so when I searched for X-Com,  I found another game called Xenonauts.  That game wasn’t perfect,  but because so many people loved X-Com,  the makers of Xenonauts had actually created so many aspects of the original game in their game.  So much so that I didn’t feel the need to install X-Com myself.

The good news today is that you can buy X-Com: UFO Defense for about $5 on Steam, which by the way, I own now too.

X-Com showing up in Steam
I own all the retro X-COM games! And the new ones too.

How can I play old video games with friends?

One of the most enjoyable experiences with retro video games is to play them with friends who are from the same era.  one of the easiest ways to do this is to actually buy a Nintendo switch and then invite a friend over to play.   you will need the Nintendo Online subscription to do this,  but Nintendo has put a fairly substantial library of NES and SNES  games online that you can pick from and instantly play.

The nice thing about this service is you can play online if they aren’t in the same house as you or you can play when you are together on the same console.  Either way,  you are able to pick from the library of games Nintendo makes available to you.

RetroArch also has the ability for you to host games and then have people connect.  I’m not going to explain how to do it here, but you can use that and you can use systems like Steam and GOG.com  to get together with friends and to get your multiplayer dreams happening.

Systems like the Hyperkin Retron Allow you to connect a number of old cartridges directly into the Retron system itself.  They have controllers that they sell and they connect to Modern TV through an HDMI cable.  These give you immediate access to playing on a television and they are fairly easy to use,  just like the old consoles you had.  You even get to blow on the  cartridge pins just like you used to!

You can use mini Bluetooth controllers and you will find that it plays many versions of the different games which is something you can run into with emulators.   what I mean by this is that if there is a Japanese version of a game versus a US version of the game then your emulators might not be able to play it whereas the Retron should be able to do it.

The other option is to buy one of the classic editions of the Nintendos as they have multiple controllers that can directly connect and come pre-loaded with some games.  You can load on more, but these are sometimes hard to find now.  There is also a Sega Genesis Mini that you can buy today and even a TurboGraphix-16 Mini 

How Do I Play Retro Video Games?

For me, the best option is to have a computer with RetroArch installed end with a full LaunchBox library that allows me to use all of the different ROMs that I have and all of the different emulators that RetroArch has access to.   I can also combine my steam Library into LaunchBox,  and this means I have the best of all the worlds on a single PC.

RetroArch running on LaunchBox, all so I can smash some baddies on Final Fight

Happy Gaming!

B

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