Wallet-friendly or wallet-busting? Putting a price on retro gaming

The games industry can be a strange and eldritch beast, shifting its face with each coming year. If the Atari-tickling pioneers of gaming past could see us today, I honestly couldn’t say if they would stand in starry-eyed wonder or recoil in horror.

If you stand amongst the dusty old goats like me, you may even have cherished, nostalgic fondness for grey plastic bitcrushed sound chips and controllers that can survive an outright nuclear blast.

I still begin to sob when someone says “character platformer”, clutching a locket with a well-thumbed photo of Croc, legendary savior of the Gobbos.

Now that Nintendo has descended like a wrathful Divine upon many of the better-known web collections of retro emulators and digitized copies of classics, many nostalgia hounds have one option left to them - collecting the ghosts of gaming past.

Whether you want to relive your glory days, or are curious about some of the hobby’s greater masterpieces, this guide hopes to guide you as you dip a tentative toe dipped into a surprisingly deep pool of retro game systems you can keep in your home, while informing you which are (and aren’t) affordable. 

Neo Geo

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Released in 1990 by arcade game giants SNK, the Neo Geo launched with a notoriously high retail price of $650 (roughly £330 back then). Adjusting for inflation, this would be like a company leading with a console priced at over $1,000 today.

Technically stunning for the time, the Neo Geo had a dedicated graphics chip, and intended to bring arcade quality to the lucrative console market. Unfortunately there was little effort to adapt the Neo Geo cartridges from their existing arcade line, and so each game could retail for around $130 in 1990.

By the Neo Geo’s end in 2004 it had a reputation for being ludicrously expensive, and very few cartridges were ever made, meaning the games remain eye-wateringly expensive.

Platform and 5 Games: $830 (£642 or AU$1,140)

Verdict: Avoid

Not much has changed nowadays, in terms of price. In addition, your choice of games is woefully small, and many of the exclusive games have since seen success on other platforms.

Arcade cabinets 

One cannot pay lip service to retro gaming without mentioning its explosive beginning: the Age of Arcades. Whether it’s a greasy Centipede or Pac-Man cabinet in your local pizza place, or the bewildering neon delights of the Arcade, much of the hobby’s first shaky steps were fuelled by little coins, a symphony of clacking buttons and thrashing joysticks.

With no one company offering standard machinery, and wizards of the chip and electric circuit making custom cabinets for many games, the category becomes blurry and hard to define. However, two things are common to the arcade machine: a hefty cabinet, and a cost of a small car. 

Five Arcade Cabinets: $11,045 (£8,500 or AU$15,150)

Verdict: Avoid.

Unless you've got a spare room and a lot of spare cash, there are cheaper and easier ways to relive/experience for the first time the heady early days of gaming

Sony PlayStation One 

It was the flagship console that launched a multi-billion dollar franchise, and very little can be said about the first PlayStation that hasn’t already been said. At its release, it was an affordable buy, with a wide range of games that practically reads as a ‘who’s who’ in the modern giants of the game industry. 

The true joy of the PlayStation, however, lies not in its mammoth successes but in the many wonderful and truly bizarre indie titles that found a home on this platform. Many veteran developers of the era have stated that anyone with a manual, sufficient dedication and a few years to spare could understand the inner workings of the console like they had designed it. 

It offered an easier ride in making games than the PC at the time, and many developers really pushed the envelope, complementing the bestsellers with new and fresh takes on classic concepts, launching some risky prospects into stardom, and others into cult classics.

With the unstoppable march of time, the wild west of gaming moves further and further into the past. Now is a wonderful time to start collecting PlayStation games, like some kind of disc-loving dragon.

Platform and five Games: $40 (£30 or AU$55) 

Verdict: Recommended

Must-play starter games: Croc: Legend of the Gobbos, Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins, The Legend of Dragoon, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee ,Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, and Bloody Roar 2.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum

image of ZX spectrum

For those who want to wrestle a truly ancient behemoth, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum runs on tapes. This true relic of bygone years predates commercial use of CDs, and was credited by some as the first mainstream computer in British homes.

Created by Cambridge-based Sinclair Research, the Spectrum shifted five million units, and has even seen wizards of the keyboard and long-forgotten coding languages muster up new games as recently as this year.

Even the peripherals ooze old-school charm, with a pleasingly tactile joystick and a keyboard that wouldn’t look out of place in a 1980s science lab. Put this on your dining table, and dazzle guests with your worldliness and old-world tech-sorcery.

While you won’t get next-gen graphics, the 8-bit bloopy charm of the Sinclair can’t be denied, and given that fully working systems can be picked up for the price of a single modern game, the risk to your joy and bank balance is minimal.

Platform and five games: $25 (£20 or AU$35)

Verdict: Recommended

Must-see starter games: Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy, Chuckie Egg, R-Type, The Hobbit, Bubble Bobble, Renegade, and School Daze.