When it comes to attracting gaming audiences, the big console manufacturers are looking at nostalgia as much as for online services and flashy peripherals. Only in recent years, Nintendo, Sega, Sony, SNK, among others, have launched simple circuits in a beautiful plastic to make players reminisce – and open their wallets.
As one of those individuals who yearns for the days of bits and beat-em-ups, I have an almost unhealthy fascination with the retro revival and all the products that came with it. The problem is that only a few of these devices correspond to their ancestors. Some of them, frankly, can give you the desire to let the past die. So what are the money worth?
Before entering this ranking, it is important to mention that none of these classic consoles have a comprehensive list of games. So, do not expect to throw everything you remember.
If you really want to check out a specific game, your best bet would be to see if it has a PlayStation Network, Xbox Live or Nintendo Virtual Console / eShop release. In addition, several companies, including Sega and SNK, have released compilations featuring many old titles. The Sega Genesis Classics collection (available on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch) is a great example.
One more thing, the only minis that I will address are those from my personal collection, so let's get to it.
The kings of the classics
SNES Classic (Nintendo)
Nintendo "Classics" may not have been a pioneer in the mini-console craze, but they have turned it into a complete phenomenon. When the Japanese gaming giant decided to launch miniaturized tributes on their Nintendo and Super Nintendo Entertainment Systems, the world became aware. And stayed in line with the money at the ready. Now, almost all game buffs have a classic, or are looking for one.
Both the NES and SNES Classics are incredibly similar. They feature a compact format, lovingly re-created controls, intuitive interfaces and excellent video output. The games look wonderful and play without much delay at the entrance (this varies, depending on the television). You can also apply filters to get this tube TV aesthetic – if you are interested in it. Save states for each game are also available.
But what really makes these models shine is the selection of games. And for me, that's why SNES Classic is king. Although it offers fewer titles than the older brother of the NES, the library here is incredible. Super Mario World, F-Zero, Contra III: The Alien Wars, Super Metroid, Final Fantasy III (VI), The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Street Fighter II Turbo are just a few of the highlights. As an added bonus, Nintendo moved on and included Starfox 2, which has never seen an official release until the SNES Classic hits stores.
These 16-bit experiences are better than many other old games. Just think of all the indie pixel-art titles out there. Where do you think they found inspiration?
2. NES Classic (Nintendo)
Indeed, the NES Classic deserves to be at the top as much as its SNES counterpart. While the SNES edition offers deeper gameplay and technically more impressive titles, the NES Classic is packed with iconic releases that ushered in a new dawn for games. The three original titles of Super Mario, the first two games Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, Kirby's Adventure, Ninja Gaiden, Punch-Out and Mega Man 2 are some of the favorites that made the cut here.
The NES Classic features the same quality of construction and features of the first quality as the SNES version. The big difference here is that it comes with a controller, not two. If you want to play with someone else, however, you will need to find an extra gamepad, which can be as hard to find as the console itself. This makes the core package a bit cheaper, and you can use a Classic SNES driver if you have one out there.
Fun but flawed
3. Neo Geo Mini (SNK)
When I learned that SNK was doing a mini-Neo Geo to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the hybrid arcade console, I ran to the first order page I could find. The final product itself may be the coolest device on the whole list, but it can be the most annoying.
The Neo Geo Mini has a comprehensive list of games that should satisfy most fans of the original hardware. Initially, SNK released two minis: one for Japan and one "international" version for other territories. Most games overlap between the two, but each mini has its own unique offerings. Personally, I found this frustrating, because certain games I wanted ended up only in the Japanese unit.
Regardless of that, among the 40 games of the Neo Geo Mini, you can play a huge amount of Metal Slug and King of Fighters titles, notable Garou: Mark of the Wolves, Shock Troopers, Blazing Star and the pitiful Last Blade 2 The Neo Geo library (and, as a result, the selection of the Neo Geo Mini) has a strong emphasis on fighting games. So if you do not like this genre, you probably should go for something else.
The Neo Geo Mini device is different from most of the tributes because it has its own LCD screen and arcade-style controls. This makes it a pretty impressive addition to any player's collection. While it's fun to play these games in a tiny arcade cabinet, the novelty fades quickly. And it's important to note that the stick has no gate or microswitches, so you're basically playing with analog-style controls. This is less than ideal for the precise and arcade nature of Neo Geo games. The unit is perfectly playable, and the screen quality is surprisingly good. But I'd rather connect the console to a TV, where I can have a more comfortable gaming session.
And that's where the Neo Geo Mini really crashes. The video output is disappointing. I can only tolerate playback with the "Image Quality Optimization" filter on, which gives the video an excessively smooth appearance. I do not really like the looks, but it's even worse when I turn it off.
In addition, I paid for one of SNK's gamepads launched in conjunction with the Neo Geo Mini, so I could make the most of my game on TV. These look almost identical to the Neo Geo CD blocks that emerged in the 1990s. But the new drivers do not feature the satisfactory microswitches of the D-pads of the CD system. To be frank, the Neo Geo Mini controller is a disappointment. The D-pad seems vague and is an ever-present distraction when I'm playing. And for some reason, SNK has changed the order of the buttons, which adds an unnecessary layer to my aggravation.
By having its own screen, the Neo Geo Mini is actually a bit more expensive than its classic colleagues. And you'll have to spend more money if you want one of the gamepads. Overall, the Neo Geo Mini is a great idea with an equally great lineup of titles. SNK missed the run, however, and failed to provide fans with the value they deserve.
Still, this little thing has a lot of style (just like your library), and if you've always wanted a Neo Geo, it might be worth it.
4. Super Retro-Cade (Retro-Bit)
This is the weirdest console on the list, thanks to its random but unmistakably charismatic selection of titles. Retro-Bit has released this device as a continuation of its plug-and-play Generations mini-console. Retro-Cade has a somewhat spartan design and comes with two basic but solid controllers (though I want the buttons and the D-pad to be less rigid).
As I mentioned earlier, the library of titles here is everywhere. You'll find arcade fighters like Technos' Double Dragon and the fantastic Armored Warriors from Capcom. You can jump to vertical shooters like 1942 and Varth. Or horizontal shooters like the wacky Rog Boogie Wings arcade and R-Type III for the SNES. If you want puzzle games, you can check out various Magical Drop games. Oh, and even the obscure Holy Diver from Castlevania to the NES is here.
I should also mention that Bionic Commando (arcade and NES), Strider (arcade and NES), Joe and Mac, BurgerTime (NES), and several entries in the Final Fight franchise are in this thing.
The Retro-Cade interface is simple yet easy to use. You can adjust the video settings to display a stretched or original aspect ratio, but the games themselves seem a bit too soft, with soft colors. Apparently, an updated version of the console is now available that lets you turn off the softness filter, resulting in a sharper image. Retro-Cade version 1.1 also comes with a revised game list that includes titles such as Crude Buster. But I just had the chance to try out the original device.
Also, when using Retro-Cade, I had to put my TV in game mode to get less input delay. This is the norm for most modern televisions when using gaming devices, but with some of the other consoles (like Nintendo Classics), it was not that big of a necessity.