While the PS4 Pro and Xbox One S are sure to find their way under many a Christmas tree this year, the unexpected champion of the festive shopping season is the NES Classic Mini, a $60 (£50/AU$99.95) replication of the seminal 1985 home system which changed the games industry forever.
The micro-console – which comes packed with 30 classic NES titles and boasts swanky modern features like HDMI and save states – has sold out all over the world thanks to Nintendo's perplexing inability to accurately gauge demand, leaving countless disappointed players yearning to have that retro itch scratched.
With that in mind, we've compiled a list of the best alternative options out there for those who simply have to get some old-school gaming done as soon as possible.
Atari Flashback 6
Atari was the firm that really kicked off the console revolution in the days before Nintendo or Sega turned up, and its VCS system – later known as the Atari 2600 – would dominate the market thanks to a flood of big-name coin-op ports, including Centipede, Breakout, Frogger, Space Invaders, Pong, Asteroids and many more besides.
101 classic titles are included on this plug-and-play effort, which has been designed to look like the iconic wood-panelled system from the '70s. The lack of HDMI output is a letdown, but the bundled wireless controllers are a close match to the originals, and are a little more comfortable to use when you're sitting on the couch. The visuals may be basic but the Atari Flashback 6 proves that solid gameplay never goes out of fashion.
Sega Genesis/Mega Drive Classic Console
Back in the '90s, Nintendo's biggest rival was Sega, and its 16-bit Genesis (known as the Mega Drive in Europe) managed to steal away quite a bit of market share thanks to its excellent arcade conversions, intense shoot 'em ups and – of course – Sonic the Hedgehog.
Unlike Nintendo – which has only just woken up to the potential of clone consoles – Sega has been happily licensing out its IP to third-parties for the past decade, with US firm AtGames creating a slew of plug-and-play clone systems based on the Mega Drive system.
The company has repackaged its existing console to coincide with Sonic's 25th birthday this year, loading on classic titles such as Golden Axe, Alien Storm, ESWAT, Mortal Kombat and – naturally – five different Sonic titles. The unit lacks HDMI output so picture quality isn't the best and the audio emulation is downright broken in places, but the wireless IR pads are a nice addition, as is the ability to plug in your original controllers.
While other clone systems choose to imitate the performance of famous pieces of vintage hardware, the Retro-Bit Generations takes a slightly different approach by licensing games from the likes of Capcom, Irem, Data East and Jaleco which straddle a wide range of different system standards. The unit includes NES, SNES, Game Boy and even arcade games, making it an interesting proposition for retro gaming fans who want something off the beaten track.
There are over 100 different titles included (despite the packaging saying 90) and some are markedly obscure than others. For example, you won't find Capcom's Street Fighter 2, but you will find its likeable Arthurian brawler Knights of the Round. The console outputs in HDMI and comes with two excellent USB controllers which are based on the six-button pad produced for the Sega Mega Drive. Less positive is the hardware’s ropey image quality and decidedly sketchy performance. The emulation isn't perfect, and this leads to wildly varying frame rates and audio which slows down and speeds up alarmingly.
Available for $48.50
Hyperkin is no newcomer to the realm of clone hardware, and has been producing systems which allow players to use original cartridges for a few years now. However, its most recent offering is something of a beast as it emulates the NES, Famicom, Game Boy, SNES, Mega Drive and Game Boy Advance via its Android-based OS.
Even more impressively, cartridge slots for all of these consoles are included, and you can plug in your original controllers for a truly authentic feel. HDMI output is crisp and clear, and save states allow you to pause the action at any point. The negatives are its size and price – this isn't a cheap plug-and-play option, that's for sure.
Cyber gadget Retro Freak
Following in the footsteps of the Retron-5 is the Retro Freak, a Japanese system which also runs Android and supports original cartridges. This time around the NES is absent (an adapter is on the way), but in its place is the PC Engine, an 8-bit rival of Nintendo's console which played host to amazing arcade ports such as R-Type and Gradius.
The Retro Freak is unique in that it comes in two parts; the "brain" of the console is contained on a small, pocket-sized main module while the cartridge slots are contained on a bigger section which can be detached if you wish. The idea is that you can insert your cartridges, download the game data to a microSD card on the main unit and then take that smaller unit with you to a friend's house to play on their TV.
The system has USB ports for a wide range of control options, or you can purchase an additional controller adapter to use your vintage pads.
The Retro Freak is quite expensive compared to the other options presented here, but it's arguably the best clone system on the market at present.
While it's not a console, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum is nevertheless one of the most important gaming platforms the UK has ever witnessed, and launched the careers of countless bedroom coders – some of which went on to establish studios which are still operating today. However, gaming on the Speccy wasn't without its drawbacks, the most irksome of which was the need to wait for games to load from tape.
The Spectrum Vega – which comes with over 1000 built-in titles – doesn't suffer from this issue, and even has the option to load up ROMs via its SD card slot, granting you access to potentially any Spectrum game.
The downside is no HDMI output and a rather uncomfortable controller, but these are small prices to pay for access to the entire world of Spectrum goodness. It was even created with the blessing of Sir Clive Sinclair himself, which is about as high an accolade as you can expect. A portable successor is expected this year.
Available for £79.99
- Check out our full NES Mini review.
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