Five Tips for the Ultimate Retro Gaming Setup

There’s nothing quite like getting to relive your favorite classic games, feeling the nostalgia of your childhood and living like it’s 1985. And with the perfect retro gaming setup, here in modern 2019 (almost 2020!) there are plenty of ways we can enhance the experience to create one even better than when you first played these games 10, 20, 30+ years ago! As a lover of both retro and modern games, this is crucial to me. So, here’s a bunch if ideas I recommend for creating what I believe to be the perfect setup.

Note: this article contains affiliate purchase links hand-picked by me, for products I believe to be of quality and worth buying.

1) Set up your hardware right

Original consoles

A retro gaming setup with an original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) with two controllers
There’s something just so cool about playing on an original NES

If authenticity in your retro gaming setup means a lot to you, there’s nothing more authentic or nostalgic than playing on original hardware! Nowadays, many 3rd party companies make replacement parts and controllers for most retro systems, and they can be pretty cheap! However, I usually recommend going with original 1st party stuff, which can sometimes be cheap, but other times gets expensive, especially for the more-desired items.

Other drawbacks include lower-quality video signal and lack of modern hookups (more on this below!), as well as dealing with scratched discs or damaged cartridges. Still, the feeling of playing on an original console can be worth all these issues for some. If that’s you, then go for it! Keep reading for more ways to make the most of these systems.

Get retro games on modern consoles

If, on the other hand, playing retro games on modern systems is more appealing for you, there’s plenty of ways to do that! Most of you know about the countless retro games available on modern systems; on the Nintendo Switch, for example, a large amount of NES and SNES games can be downloaded and played with a Switch Online membership.

Also, many classic controllers are available for modern hardware. I’ve listed a ton of options later on in this article.

Buy a modern “classic” system

I love that these are becoming a popular thing nowadays! Tons of 3rd party companies have released systems that can play retro games (mostly legally… stay away from pirated game systems!), and even 1st-party companies like Nintendo and Sony have released their own!

Most of us know about the Nintendo NES Classic and SNES Classic, as well as the Sony Playstation classic, which all come with lots of games pre-installed and HDMI-out ports. There are some great 3rd party retro consoles too – for example, the Hyperkin Retron5 looks like a stellar system that plays games from original cartridges!

Build a custom retro gaming machine

Emulators, emulators, emulators!
RetroPi, EmulationStation, Dolphin, PCSX2, any of these words sound familiar? If not, don’t worry. They’re all names of tools used to run old games on a PC.

Here are three different approaches to building the ideal emulation machine:

1) Run emulators on a gaming PC and take advantage of hardware benefits
These benefits include running games in higher resolutions, applying widescreen display hacks, and using any USB controller you want with custom configured controls. The list goes on!

2) Find some old PC parts for cheap and build a budget retro gaming system
I’m actually in the process of doing this right now! This is ideal if you have an old computer that you’re no longer using. Why not repurpose it as a game system? If you need to find replacement parts, they’re cheap because they’re “obsolete,” but certainly powerful enough to run NES, SNES, or N64 games!

3) Get a Raspberry Pi for cheap and run RetroPi
Gotta love the $35 mini computer! And these things make great emulation consoles – so great, in fact, that you can install a custom operating system dedicated to gaming – RetroPi!

With the Pi you’ll be able to emulate everything up to and including N64/PS1-era games. I’ve heard the Raspberry Pi 4 can even run Dolphin to emulate GameCube games! It’s best suited to older games, however. And the Raspberry Pi Zero can emulate games AND fit in the palm of your hand. Technology is incredible.

Bonus: Hack your system

You don’t necessarily need a computer to use emulators. Why not use a console you already own? Many systems can be easily hacked to install and run emulators and store ROMs, including even the classic mini consoles listed above! Now, there usually are risks associated with hacking or “jailbreaking” your system; sometimes it can be easy, other times it’s a very difficult and risky process. So that’s why I include this as a “bonus” section – don’t blame me if you destroy your console!

I did this to an old Wii recently, and then I even wrote about why I think hacking a Wii for retro gaming is such a good idea!


2) Get the best-quality video signal from your game system

Whether you’re playing retro games on classic or modern hardware, video signal is crucial to the experience, and it’s more than just resolution. When it comes to retro gaming setup perfection, display is crucial.

So, what are some things that degrade the signal quality from a system to your TV?
– Cheap cords
– Low-quality video signals

So, here I’ll recommend the best signal to use based on display type as well as cords, converters, and other useful connectors worth purchasing.

For modern displays: HDMI, VGA, or DVI

This is a pretty straightforward, common fact by now. If you’re on a modern TV, HDMI is the way to go. If you’re on a monitor, DVI is best, or HDMI as well. VGA isn’t as good as the other two if you’re gaming in higher resolutions, but it still does the job with good-quality signal.

For older displays: Component (YPbPr), VGA (RGB), or SCART (RGB)

Component YPbPr cables connected to the back of a Nintendo Wii.  Component cables are crucial to a good retro gaming setup when hooked up to a CRT television.

Ah, now we’re getting into the fun stuff – the intricacies of displaying vintage signals on native hardware. First of all, as you’ll read in the next section, I’m a huge proponent of gaming on a classic CRT television, and I believe using one of these three methods is the best way to display your games on it.

For those in the NTSC North America region like me, Component and VGA are our only options, as the superior SCART was only available in PAL regions. SCART and VGA both output RGB signal, which is the most pure signal you could get from a device to your TV. If you have access to SCART displays and SCART output, go with it. Component cables will output YPbPr signal, which is just about on part with RGB, just slightly different. I don’t believe there is any degraded quality in comparison, though.

Don't use composite cables



To put it simply, for NTSC at least, a CRT monitor will generally take VGA signal, while a CRT television will generally take component or *gasp* composite signal. Don’t go with composite. Just don’t. Though composite was our norm for hooking up consoles back in the day, its quality is far inferior to that of component signal.

Component is usually the best way to output from retro consoles. For hooking up to a CRT, an adapter might be necessary (see below). If your setup requires end-to-end component cables, I recommend Monoprice cables, as they will give you a top-quality signal, and they’re quite inexpensive.

Console-Specific Cables

Lots of companies now manufacture quality cables for old consoles. As stated before, component cables are best when hooking up to a CRT, while HDMI is best for using a modern display. Now you can dust off your old Xbox, N64, PS2, etc. and easily hook it up to your flat screen TV to enjoy it again in 2020!

Video Switch Box

A switch box is useful if you have several systems hooked up to one TV. Don’t switch out cables every time you change console! This makes it way easier.

These should pass signal straight through, so signal quality should (in theory) stay intact with zero input lag.

I own the component video box shown here and it does the trick!

Adapters

This is an easy way to get things hooked up if you don’t have the right inputs.

Now one thing to be aware of: besides the custom modern cables made for consoles, usually cable “adapters” don’t actually convert the signal and will therefore not work. You’ll need an adapter box if you actually want to change the type of cord and video signal being sent.

Also, most of these only go one-way, so make sure you’re getting the right one for your use case. For me, I wanted to be able to hook up my PC to a CRT, so I needed to convert HDMI-out from my computer to component-in on my CRT


3) The ultimate vintage experience: CRT televisions

A retro gaming setup with a CRT television displaying Super Mario Bros 3

Let me tell you, I’m a big fan of those old, giant tube boxes we used to watch TV on, and which most of you reading this probably used to play games on. If you still own one, lucky you! You’ll find that I’m a huge proponent of CRTs, and that’s for a load of reasons!

Scan lines, zero latency, authenticity… This is how retro games are meant to be played! In my opinion, a CRT completes the retro gaming setup. Now, if you don’t own one, or you’re looking to upgrade to a nicer one, you’re in luck!

First of all, let me provide some tips for buying the ultimate one:
A) Make sure it has a component (YPbPr) port, VGA port, or SCART port!
B) All CRTs support 240p and 480i video signal, and that’s all you need for these old games. But, for the retro gaming perfectionist like me, see if you can locate one that supports 480p, or even 720p and widescreen! Those ones are much more rare, but they’re the ultimate classic display if you can find it.
C) Make sure there aren’t any flaws in the display itself, such as lines or image burn-in.

Unfortunately, while there are lots of items I can easily add links to for quick purchasing, these are a little more challenging. The benefit, of course, is that nowadays most people are getting rid of them for cheap or even giving them away for free! As the old saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. So go ahead and check your local Craigslist ads, thrift stores, Facebook Marketplace, etc. I will at least link an eBay search for quick browsing. There’s a plethora of CRTs!


4) Pick the right controller

When it comes to making retro games feel right, you can’t skimp out on the controller. This part of the retro gaming setup is in your hands, literally. And what a variety there is to choose from! Researching this was my favorite part of writing this blog post, because there are so many cool and interesting controllers out there that would just complete my retro gaming experience!

A) The GameCube Controller!

For retro games, especially retro Nintendo games, for me personally this is a must. GameCube fanatics will all agree that authentic Nintendo GameCube controllers feel the best. If you want that, then go with a refurbished original controller. However, another option from Nintendo would be their reproduction controllers, but they come with a heavy price tag. Note that these two options both require an adapter to convert to USB.

PowerA also makes a GameCube-shaped Switch Pro controller which can also be used on PC. While it certainly feels much cheaper and lower-quality than an authentic GameCube controller, it does come with the benefit of extra controls such as clickable joysicks, a left Z button, and a home button. I personally love mine!

Don’t forget! If you’re using an original GameCube controller on anything other than a GameCube or 1st-gen Wii, you’ll need an adapter. My first recommendation would be the Mayflash adapter, especially if you’re using it on a computer for emulators. It’s the only 3rd party wired adapter that won’t stop working on you, in my opinion. My next recommendation would be 1st-party adapters, but they can get expensive. From what I’m aware, the Wii U adapter isn’t any different than the switch adapter, except for the logo and the price tag. Finally, if you’ll be playing retro games on the Switch, 8Bitdo has a great wireless adapter for your GameCube controller which could come in handy.

B) 8bitdo Controllers

Man I love these! These look and feel like the classic controllers they’re based on (or sometimes even better!), and they work on a Nintendo Switch or PC (and they have many adapters to use them on even more systems!). Definitely on my wish list.

C) The Wii Classic Controller

This one might come as a surprise! But I personally believe it is a genuinely fantastic controller, especially for older Nintendo games. On my modified Wii for retro gaming, this is my controller of choice. It honestly surprises myself that I actually prefer using this controller over a GameCube controller when playing NES and SNES games. It has pretty much all the peripherals you’ll need, minus triggers or clickable joysticks.

Note that if you’re connecting it to anything other than a Wiimote, you’ll need an adapter AND an extension cord, because its cord is no more than a foot in length… Oh yeah! It also works on the NES and SNES Classic without an adapter. But an extension cord is still definitely necessary.

D) Other great controllers

Hyperkin Duke (say what you want, I think the Duke is awesome.)
Systems: Xbox One, PC

Retro Fighters Brawler64
System: N64

Even more controllers I’d prefer when retro gaming:
Nintendo Switch Pro Controller (OEM)
Sony Dualshock 3 controller (OEM)
Xbox 360 Controller (OEM, wired)


5) Set up External Speakers

Sound is vital to the gaming experience. It will add a new level to reliving those classic games. Most built-in television speakers are not nearly as good. You can get much higher-quality sound from dedicated speakers, and it will make even your 8-bit games sound better.

I personally like Logitech as a brand, so I’m going to recommend their speakers here. But even a cheap low-end set of PC speakers can be an improvement to your setup


Thanks for Reading!

I’d love to hear more about what people are using in their gaming setups. Feel free to comment here or email me at [email protected] with your recommendations!

And of course, be sure to follow this blog if you found this interesting.

Thanks everybody! And praise God for giving me this passion for gaming and technology. To Him be the Glory!

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