Video games are almost certainly older than you think. The earliest examples, which at the time existed mainly in scientific and military labs, date back to the 1940s and 1950s.
The first commercially sold game came in 1971 – Computer Space by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell. Most regard gaming’s real genesis as the Magnavox Odyssey, however, which was released in 1972, while Pong, which was released in the same decade, is considered as the first significant commercial hit.
It was the arrival of the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1983 (or 1986 in Europe) which completely changed the market, bringing mainstream home gaming to the masses. The industry has been redefined several times since – the Game Boy (1989) established portable consoles while the PlayStation (1994) introduced CD storage and lured a more mature (and lucrative) segment into the market. More recently the Xbox 360 (2005) established online multiplayer in the living room, while the Wii (2006) introduced mainstream motion-control gaming.
It’s quite difficult to ascertain precisely how far back you have to go before you’re ‘retro’ gaming. You could argue that anything older than the current slate of machines – PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Switch – is ‘retro’. However, most will say that you need to go back to the 1990s and beyond before you’re really dabbling with retro collecting.
Where you start from will very much depend on your interests. Typically most collectors will want to focus on an individual system, as each machine will only run games that were specifically designed for it (the exception of course being the PC, which is far better at supporting older software).
A good starting point is normally a cartridge-based machine. A working Atari 2600, which was first released in 1977, can normally be found unboxed but in working order for under £50, while games start at as little as £5 or less. The prices for all of these things climb for complete, boxed examples. Alternatively, a Super Nintendo Entertainment System can be found for around £30 loose, while a Sega Mega Drive (which was known as the Genesis in North America) costs even less. A working original Game Boy typically costs around £30, and a first-generation PlayStation around half that.
Note that while working original systems are abundant in the second-hand market, sourcing accessories (such as controllers and memory cards) can be more of a challenge. And finding repair services for older machines can be tricky.
If you want to collect good condition original games, prices increase significantly. Older console titles were sold in cardboard boxes that are hard to find undamaged. For systems that sold CD games in plastic jewel cases, however, it can be tricky to find uncracked cases.
Those wishing to be more exotic could opt for something like the Sega Saturn. The machine was a not a commercial success, although it has become a bit of a cult item. It can normally be found for around £50, sometimes less, although its more sought-after games are soaring in value. Alternatively you could go for Nintendo’s most infamous commercial failure, the Virtual Boy. Expect to pay between £300-£500 for the machine, or perhaps Sega’s failed Mega Drive expansion the Sega CD, prices for which wildly vary.
Another collector favourite are consoles from the Neo Geo family. Made by SNK, the machines were never released in the West, and the games especially can sell for a small fortune. Instead, gaming curiosities such as the ill-fated Atari Jaguar (1993), Atari Lynx II (1991) or Phillips CD-I (1991) may be of more interest. There are of course a number of machines from the home computer market that have a keen gamer following, including systems such as the ZX Spectrum (1982), Atari 520ST (1985) or Commodore Amiga 500 (1987) which all have fantastic game libraries.
The other thing to consider is compatibility. Older consoles were either made for the European PAL, American NTSC or Japanese NTSC markets. Games made for one type of console will (in most cases) not play on another. The same is true for the hardware, which will require a compatible TV and power supply.
Using emulation software
There is an alternative for those who wish to play older games without the need to invest in original hardware. Emulation involves using software to make modern computers behave like older machines. However, not all emulation is equal.
PC owners are able to use emulators to play games from both the very oldest platforms all the way up to relatively recent machines like the PS3 and Wii U. The legality of emulation is another matter entirely, however. Owning emulation software is not illegal. Using it to play illegal copies of games is, however, unless you own the original software – and even then, it’s a point of contention. There’s no escaping the fact, though, that playing emulated games on a PC does not fully recreate the experience of holding an original controller and handling an original machine. It’s a poor imitation in a lot of ways.
The legal alternative to this is buying official emulators sold by either those who own the correct license or the original license holders. The recent NES and SNES Classic Mini consoles are good examples of this.
Getting the right TV
One thing to bear in mind is that older games consoles were not designed for the flatscreen and HDMI age. Machines such as the Atari 2600 or NES will by default come with an RF connector designed to plug into an aerial port. Even relatively modern machines such as the PS2 and Xbox (and even earlier Xbox 360 models) will be limited to SCART or composite RGB connections. And even if you’re able to source either an official or third party cable to connect an older system to your TV, there’s a good chance the image – which was designed for a 576-line CRT screen – will look terrible.
Certainly those looking for the best possible experience from older hardware will want to source a CRT TV which will either mean buying second hand or importing.
It’s worth bearing in mind that old games are regularly re-released for modern systems. This bypasses the above problems, although nothing can quite replace the experience of playing a game on its original platform and in the way in which it was intended.