Some of the best video games ever were made ages ago. Super Metroid, Planescape: Torment, Deus Ex, and hundreds of other amazing games were produced for platforms that don't really exist anymore. They were made for systems that used cartridges and PCs that ran Windows 95. Some have aged well and some haven't, but they've all made their mark on video game history.
Unfortunately, you can't easily play them in their original forms on current systems. Consoles stopped using cartridges many moons ago, and what worked on Pentium-era Windows 95 PCs baffle Core i7-era Windows 10 machines. Add an unsettling trend of dismissiveness in archiving classic games and you run into the very real risk that some of the best video games ever will some day be lost, or remain just out of reach.
Fortunately, you have options. Whether they're old PC games or old console games, you can probably find at least some way to play them.
PCs have been PCs for decades, but changes in Windows versions and CPU architectures mean today's PCs can't easily run games made for 80s and 90s machines. It's easy to install and run games now thanks to widespread and fairly universal graphics accelerators, extensive multimedia support, and automatic driver setup, but those benefits only apply to games that can take advantage of them. Back when mice and keyboards used PS2 and serial connectors, and sound cards and optical drives were considered high-end gaming hardware, you had to wrestle to get games running. Now, with hardware so advanced those games might as well be cavemen staring at UFOs, it's even harder to get them running. Fortunately, you have some options.
Plenty of classic PC games have been remastered or otherwise ported to modern PCs, and are readily available on Steam and other digital distribution services. These games have been overhauled to run easily on your Windows 10 PC without any processing layer or emulation. Planescape: Torment Enhanced Edition, Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition, Grim Fandango Remastered, and Resident Evil HD Remaster take 15-plus-year-old games and make them work on your modern computer, with modern monitor resolutions.
Some of these games are straight ports with higher resolution settings, but some overhaul graphics and interface elements to look and play better. Some even have iOS versions, so you can play your favorite classic RPG or adventure game on your iPad! Remastered games are usually very affordable, too, with prices typically between $10 and $20.
If the original publisher doesn't feel like remaking or remastering a classic PC game, there's a good chance GOG.com will be able to get the original to work. This digital distribution service takes DOS and early Windows games and performs all the front-end work necessary to make them work on a Windows 10 PC with DOSBOX, a DOS PC emulator. DOSBOX is incredibly powerful and flexible, but getting each game to run requires PC knowledge and a willingness to experiment with different settings and commands, often beating your head against runtime errors, audio glitches, and unresponsive controls until it works properly.
GOG.com does all that work for you. Every classic PC game that's old enough to need DOSBOX is preconfigured with all of the commands and settings needed to run properly, so all you have to do is unzip the file and double-click on the game. GOG.com also often throws in lots of extras with each game, like digital versions of its print manual, wallpapers, and even soundtracks. Not bad for $6 to $10 for most classic games, including Fallout 2, Crusader: No Remorse, and SimCity 2000.
If GOG.com doesn't have the DOS game you want, you can still probably find a way to play it. You just need to find the game yourself and set up DOSBOX to run it. I wasn't kidding when I said DOSBOX is a powerful emulator. GOG.com offers hundreds of titles that work through DOSBOX, but that's just a fraction of the thousands of DOS games confirmed to be playable through the emulator.
You still need to have the original game, though (unless you can find a digital backup of it through legally dubious sources online like abandonware sites, which we can't recommend). You also need to be able to work with command lines, because DOSBOX doesn't have much of a graphical interface. A DOS emulator requires a DOS mentality, and that requires typing things like "MOUNT D D: -t cdrom." The PC Gaming Wiki is a very useful resource for this, and it can let you know if the game you want to play is available on GOG or has any sort of patch that makes it easier to run.
Build/Refurbish an Old Computer
This one is a little extreme, and requires even more technical knowhow than DOSBOX. Just find an old computer, ideally Pentium or earlier. Pop Windows 95 or 98 on it. Wrestle with the driver conflicts, IRQ errors, serial connections, and all the little frustrations you completely forgot about in the last two decades. Wonder how you ever managed without USB peripherals. Spend hours getting everything to work, then game like it's 1998. You can play anything this way, but compared with using modern PCs it's a slog.
You can pull any old PC game off of a CD-ROM or floppy disc, but console games aren't so easy. Cartridges are their own unique media that you can't read with a computer without some specialized hardware, that accounts for the majority of console video games made before 1996. Even for consoles that use optical discs, you can't easily play them on modern systems; the Xbox One has a solid list of backward compatibility for Xbox and Xbox 360 games but it isn't complete, and while the PlayStation 4 has some PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 classics available digitally, it can't play PSX, PS2, or PS3 games on disc at all.
Depending on the game and system, you might have some pretty easy ways to play your favorite retro console games, though, whether your have the original carts or not.
Modern Remasters/Ports (Again)
Like lots of classic PC games have been rereleased and even overhauled for modern PCs, lots of classic console games have been released on modern systems. The vast majority of these games are ports, but you can find some downright breathtaking remasters that breathe new life into a game, like Shadow of the Colossus for the PlayStation 4.
Games released in the last 15 years or so might be available on modern consoles through digital distribution. The Xbox One and PS4 both have lots of games from their previous two generations ready for download, most of which render at 1080p or higher to offer sharper graphics, though user interface elements and textures generally remain untouched. If you have the original game disc and it's on the supported list, the Xbox One can even play your physical Xbox and Xbox 360 games.
The Nintendo Switch is also swimming in classic ports for such a new system. Many excellent games for the Nintendo Wii U have been ported or will be ported for the Switch, including Bayonetta 2, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Warriors. They're relatively recent last-gen games, but they're still excellent. For older arcade classics, the Switch also has a remarkably large library of Neo Geo games, ported by Hamster.
If you want to play older, non-Neo Geo games, you might have some difficulty. The Nintendo Wii U and 3DS both had extensive Virtual Console libraries of NES, SNES, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, and Nintendo 64 games available to download, but so far the Switch only has a few scattered Arcade Archives games like Mario Bros. and Vs. Super Mario Bros. You're covered for Neo Geo titles, but if you want to play classic Nintendo games, you need to reach back a generation. Fortunately, the 3DS is still readily available, and the Virtual Console on that system can still be accessed, letting you digitally buy classic console games for $6 to $10 each.
You can also find compilations of classic games, either as retail releases or digital downloads. The Mega Man Legacy Collection, Mega Man Legacy Collection 2, and The Disney Afternoon Collection highlight some of the best platforming games Capcom ever made, and all three are available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. The Switch is also getting the Mega Man Legacy Collections, along with a compilation of Mega Man X games. For non-Capcom games, there are arcade collections like Namco Museum.
You can't play the best NES and SNES games on the Nintendo Switch yet, but you can play them on tiny versions of the original systems. The NES Classic and Super NES Classic are emulation-based game systems that hold dozens of NES and SNES games in a collector-friendly mini-retro-console package. Just plug them into your TV and the low resolution sprites are rendered in crisp HD, with useful features like the ability to save your progress any time you want. It helps that they have some of the best games ever made, like Super Mario Bros. 3, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Super Metroid. The NES Classic is still incredibly hard to find at retail price, but the SNES Classic is a little more readily available, and has a stronger selection of games.
There are also third-party compilation consoles like the Retro-Bit Super Retro-Cade. This system isn't as striking as the NES or SNES Classic, and its upconversion isn't as good, but for $60 it features 90 classic arcade and console games from Capcom, Data East, Irem, and Technos. There's also the Sega Genesis Flashback HD, which we've not yet tested, if you are a fan of Sega's 16-bit system.
You can also find non-HD compilation consoles like the various Atari Flashback systems, that let you play Atari 2600 games, and the Sega Genesis Flashback, which has Sega Genesis/Mega Drive games. They're inexpensive and readily available, but they don't output over HDMI at 720p or higher resolutions. Instead, they output over composite video, which means you need to rely on your TV's composite input if it's available, and deal with your TV's own upscaling to render your games properly. This usually means very fuzzy sprites.
Retro Game Systems
There's a whole field of new game systems designed to play older games. Since Nintendo doesn't make any systems that use cartridges anymore, and Sega doesn't make game systems at all, third-party companies like Innex, Hyperkin, Analogue, and Cybergadget have made their own cartridge-playing consoles. These are systems with slots for one or more classic game cartridges, that use either software emulation or hardware-based electronics to play them.
Innex's Retro-Bit RES+ and Super Retro Trio+ are inexpensive game systems that use a system-on-a-chip to function like NES, SNES, and Sega Genesis hardware. They read game cartridges as if they were the original hardware, and output games at 720p using a separate analog-to-HDMI upconverter. The upconversion is sharp for NES games, but 16-bit games tend to look fuzzy. If you don't mind spending significantly more to play SNES games that look good on your TV, the Analogue Super Nt uses a much superior upconverter and FPGA hardware to act like an original Super Nintendo.
The Hyperkin RetroN 5 and Cybergadget Retro Freak are emulation-based systems that can play games for the NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, Game Boy, and more. Emulation enables better upscaling and more graphical options, along with useful features like save states, patches, and cheats. However, it isn't as reliable as hardware-based systems, and the code these emulators are based on is in an ethically dubious position, according to some complaints made by the original developers who released the code under the General Public License. The Libretro organization made similar complaints about Innex and the Retro-Bit Super Retro-Cade a few months ago, but since then the two groups have been working together to resolve the issue.
If they still work, there's no reason you can't play your classic NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, or other retro games on your classic NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, or other retro systems. Cartridge-based hardware is hardy if you treat it with some care and know how to clean pin connectors, and barring power surges, water damage, or just getting smashed, your old consoles should work fine. If they do, you just have to hook them up to your TV, which will require a composite video connection. And it will probably look pretty fuzzy and blotchy through that connection.
You don't need to settle for standard definition video on your old game consoles, though. An analog-to-HDMI upconverter can turn that composite video signal into HDMI at 720p or 1080p. Inexpensive upconverters can be found for $40 and up, but at that level you probably won't get much better upconversion than if you just plugged the cable straight into your TV. If you want your games to look crisp, you'll have to invest in a higher-end HDMI upscaler. The Framemeister line of upscalers isn't formally sold in the United States and costs between $300 and $400 to import, but many retro gaming enthusiasts swear by it for playing their older games on modern TVs.
Let's be honest here, there's a very big part of retro gaming that we can't directly address, because our legal department won't let us. We touched on the existence of abandonware sites for PC games, and noted that some retro game consoles use emulation to play their cartridges, but those are just the tips of a gray market software iceberg.
Even if old games aren't sold by their publishers anymore, that doesn't mean those publishers don't still legally own the rights to them. As such, downloading those games is software piracy. Even if the developer and original publisher doesn't exist anymore, abandonware is extremely dubious and more often than not some company will own the rights to it, and they'll be protective of it.
Of course, the means to play that software is much less illegal. There are open-source emulators for nearly any computer or game hardware made between 1970 and 2000. If you have a PC, it can act like a hundred other types of computers. Most of these emulators have portable versions for devices like the Raspberry Pi. In fact, you can make a Raspberry Pi into an all-in-one retro game system using the RetroPie software, which supports over 50 different consoles and handhelds. You can even 3D print your own SNES Classic-style case for it and make the ultimate classic gaming device, ready to put countless games on your TV at 1080p.
But we can't recommend that, since there are no legal ways to load such a system with games (besides software you already own). And we won't point you toward any sites or services on which pirated software can be found, obviously.
But if you wanted to build that kind of device, just to see if you can, even without any games to legitimately put on it, you could. It might even be a fun project. Might be.