Get back to your roots with vintage video games

There’s a lot to be said for old video games. Even without the rosy tint of nostalgia, old games often inform and inspire the generations of games that come after them. But they can also just be tons of fun to play.

If you’re a retro gamer—or if you want to try out the games long-time gamers are always going on about, there’s never been a better time than now to indulge your passion for vintage video games. There are lots of good ways to do feed your jones, and even a few that don’t cost too much money.

Where to buy

Freecycle and Craigslist are two great places to get started. Freecycle is a network of thousands of members-only mailing lists, localized by geographical region. Members give stuff away for free to others who can use that stuff. The goal: Keep things out of landfills by encouraging reuse. I’ve used the service before to snag stuff like vintage Macs and a Commodore Amiga, complete with a big crate of classic Amiga games. The online classified service Craigslist is also a great place to find stuff for free or at a very low cost from people looking to make space in their family room.

Yard sales and flea markets can also be good spots for finding old gems if you’re a retro-gamer on a budget. Yard sales are an especially good place to discover low-cost games; often times you can haggle to get even better prices, especially if you’re buying in bulk. I’m not a big flea marketer but some of my friends have gotten huge scores on hard-to-find PlayStation and Super Nintendo games they’ve wanted from flea market vendors, so if there’s one near you, be sure to check it out.

If the idea of sifting through a lot of chaff to get to the wheat isn’t your thing, or you want to take the easy way out, there are quite a few retailers who advertise in the back of gaming magazines as well as websites which also cater to retro gamers. eStarland, which operates a store in Chantilly, Va., is one such place; it carries a variety of vintage video game systems and software. And if you’re nowhere near Chantilly, the retailer operates an online store, too. DKOldies is another online vendor that specializes in vintage Nintendo platforms, offering games for vintage Sega consoles as well.

You’ll pay more with some speciality retailers, especially in large cities, but sometimes the payoff is worth it, especially for difficult-to-find titles, imports and long-discontinued systems that have been reconditioned or repaired to full working status. Many of these vendors list products on eBay, as well, so that’s another route you can use to find what you’re looking for.

What to buy

As gamers have aged and made families of their own, retro gaming has come into its own as a recognized genre of computer games. You can find retro games—either ports of classic titles or homages to classic games—on just about every modern platform. There are plenty of officially branded and licensed classic games available for iOS, for example, ready for download from the App Store. NamcoBandai stepped up with Namco Arcade, conversions of classic arcade games like Pac-Man and Galaxian; Midway Arcade features games like Joust and Spy Hunter. Even Square Enix has gotten into the groove by offering updated versions of some of its Final Fantasy titles for iOS.

Old-school games like Joust have found new life on mobile devices.

Console gamers are in plenty of luck, too. You can play retro games on Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360 thanks to online stores associated with those devices—the Wii Shop Channel, PlayStation Store and Xbox Live Arcade, respectively—where you can purchase and download classic game conversions. Both the Xbox 360 and Wii systems are backward-compatible with games from their previous-generation predecessors, the Xbox and the GameCube. Some classic game collections exist on disc for all of these systems, as well.

Backward-compatibility for PlayStation 3 is more messy. The “original” bulky PlayStation 3 model is compatible with original PlayStation and most PlayStation 2 games. Later models (often referred to as PS3 “Slim”) have done away with this capability. Sony has used the opportunity to re-release older PS games as downloadable titles through its PlayStation Store—part of the PlayStation Network online service PS3 owners can access if their console is online.

The set-up

Still, nothing can match the original tactile experience of handling old cartridges and discs, game systems and game controllers. So let’s assume you’ve laid your hands on some vintage hardware that works, through one of the avenues we discussed earlier: How are you going to hook it up to your fancy new HDTV?

Depending on how the age of the system, you may just be in luck with the right cable. Systems straight back to the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo either included or had available analog AV cables, and there’s a steady supply of third-party replacement parts on the Internet for these systems. Many HDTV sets still have composite video RCA input (and audio input) that will work with these systems. Admittedly, you won’t get the sharp graphics available on HD-compatible game systems, but it works.

This Phono Plug to F Jack Adapter can hook up a vintage gaming console to your modern-day TV.

Really old vintage systems like that Atari 2600 can also be hooked up to modern TVs, assuming the TV has two things—a coaxial cable antenna input (like for cable or satellite TV input) and a tuner. (Most TVs do.) Most older systems send Radio Frequency (RF) signals to the TV using a cable with an RCA connector, terminating in an RF modulator that would plug into the back of the television where the antenna connected.

Both sound and picture ran through this wire, so contrary to appearances, you can’t just connect the RCA cable to the composite video input on newer TVs and get it to work, even though it fits the plug. Instead, you need a $3 gadget from Radio Shack called a Coaxial (F-Type) to Female RCA Adapter (also called a Phono Plug to “F” Jack Adapter). One end plugs into the console cable; the other screws into the Cable In jack on the back of your TV. Tune your TV to whatever channel the console is set to (there’s typically a switch for either channel 3 or 4), and you’ll be good to go.

There’s another alternative I’ve used for some of my old systems that I’ve wanted to keep separate from my entertainment center: Keep an older CRT-based TV around. I have a setup in my office that combines my ancient living room TV, several older systems and a $20 video switch box I picked up at K-Mart, which keeps me from having to unplug and replug devices from that TV’s single composite video input. It’s a simple setup, and it works.

Don’t let all this talk about switches and adapters turn you off from getting your fix of classic games. Retro gaming really doesn’t require a huge investment of time combing through flea markets and yard sales: You can find retro games, recreated in their original glory through emulation, on just about every platform you can lay your hands on today. All you need is a few minutes, a few bucks, and the memory of your favorite games from yesteryear.

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