When you love retro consoles so much you just need to hack them
We look at the Nintendo, Sega and PlayStation Classics and explore the modding scenes making the most of these amazing retro remakes.
I love retro video games. I enjoy the precision, the singular focus on mechanics, and the amazing experiences that developers craft with such limited resources. The way they pack so much game and ingenuity into a tiny file has always been staggeringly impressive to me.
My love of gaming started at four-years-old. From the moment I picked up a Master System pad I was hooked. When I realised I could guide a little sprite around on the screen with my controller inputs it felt like magic to me.
Now I'm older and more grizzled, and games don't quite hit me like that anymore. I’m still dedicated, and gaming is my go to when it comes time to relax. It is this reason why when I've had a particularly rough day, rather than sit down with the latest AAA title I tend to gravitate towards old favourites.
I’ve seen it referred to as comfort food gaming. When I ponder why I always seem to go back to old games over something new and potentially more exciting, I come to the conclusion that it reminds me of a simpler time. A time of two buttons and a D-Pad, a window where I can gaze back into my childhood, that era of no real responsibilities, bills or the stresses that come packaged with, well, life in 2020.
It would seem I am not the only one. There are many communities online dedicated to the modding of consoles, old and new. And, believe it or not, these modding communities are so much more than a gateway to playing pirated games.
These communities have established movements around homebrew games and console features, giving older consoles a new lease of life. The OG Xbox is often the console of choice for modders who want a robust emulation station with plenty of storage and a quick and easy way to play their old favourites on a good controller.
Outside of the modders are the creators, with its own whole scene crafting brand new experiences on cartridges for machines that were first released 30 years ago. Brazil is leading the charge in developing new games for the Sega Megadrive to this very day.
Most of these titles push the console and its various add-ons to their limit. It’s like a real-life alternate history where Sega actually defeated Nintendo. Obviously, Sega has bowed out of the console race in the modern era, and while they still produce software they do not manufacture hardware anymore, but a company called TecToy do – exclusively for the Brazilian market.
A personal regret, no doubt shared by many, is not holding onto those original past consoles. At that age I simply didn’t have the disposable income, so you would sell your old gear and move on to the next big thing. But after a while I started to long for my old consoles and the games that I spent so much time playing in my formative years.
The retro mini console era
When the wave of mini consoles started coming out one by one, I was willing to pony up a bit of cash to relive some of that sweet 8- and 16-bit action, albeit on a much larger and flatter TV.
Surprisingly, these classic mini consoles proved popular for not only old gamers clinging to their youth, but also a lot of younger gamers showed great interest in the classics that helped pave the way and set the rules for the new games we are all playing now.
While the cynics said these were just a nostalgia-fuelled cash grab – and maybe they were – that didn't dull my expectations or enthusiasm in the slightest.
When I read the list of classic games included on these new releases, some of that enthusiasm did die down a little. Sure, there were some great games on the list, but they were not my classic games. Not the games I grew to love and hate equally, banging my head against until that moment of triumph.
That’s not to say they are poor selections. Far from it. In most cases they offer variety and fun. The Playstation Classic is arguably the exception to that rule, but more on that later.
Luckily for gamers like me and true to form, once the mini consoles went on sale it took hackers and internet sleuths about 3 minutes to work out how to unlock the true potential of these cute, tiny homages to a golden age of classic gaming. Articles popped up all over the place going into great detail on how quick and easy it was to get the games you wanted onto your classic console.
Without going right into the specifics (a quick search of the web is all you need) I'll explain how you can personalise your mini consoles and relive some classic moments from your gaming history.
So let’s take a walk down memory lane with the NES Classic Edition, Super NES Classic Edition, the Sega Mega Drive Mini and the PlayStation Classic.
(You can also find the C64 Mini and the Neo Geo Mini out there, I just don't have that same nostalgia, having never owned those machines, so they’re not in my wheelhouse for analysis.
Important to note: these aren't the dismantle your console, soldering and wiring kind of modifications. This is all done via software and is quite safe. It will not damage the device or even void warranty - provided you follow the steps.
NES Classic and Super NES Classic
To be fair both of Nintendo’s classic consoles were pretty great out of the box, the choice of games is top notch and varied. The NES Classic only came with one controller with a comically short cable which was a definite oversight. They learned from their mistakes and fixed this with the Super NES Classic, packing in two controllers with longer cables.
Both consoles are presented with a lot of love and neat little menu touches. The UI shows you loads of information, while there are also some graphical options available for those who want to play around with filters and scan lines to prove to everyone watching how retro you are.
If you want to add some additional games into the system via software it integrates nicely, rather than navigating some ugly boot menu they appear in a separate folder alongside the pre-loaded games (which can't be removed), with their cover art and all!
This whole process is achieved by connecting your powered on mini console to your PC, using some software so that it is recognised. Kind of like a flash drive. From there you simply drag additional games into the available storage, of which there is about 250MB spare. You can fit about 35 extra games onto this memory, give or take a few depending on file sizes.
It is also possible to own just one of these consoles and play both Super NES and NES games, but it requires a slightly different hack and it's not a path I've followed simply because they aren't too expensive and they look cool on display amongst all the other gaming trinkets.
Nintendo confirmed that production ended for both mini consoles in 2019. While there are still a few floating around in retail land they are becoming rare and starting to fetch higher prices online, so it might be worth seeking one out before the prices skyrocket.
Both these machines are a great way to replay old favourites on well-emulated devices with controllers that are almost indecipherable from the real deal.
If you visit old friends and bust one of these out, you're in for a great time.
Sega Mega Drive Mini
I remember my big brother sold our Sega Master System with over 40 games to a shifty guy who owned a video store, then used the money to buy a Mega Drive and Sonic.
There was no discussion, I was surprised and confused but mostly furious, it was his magic beans moment and I was in tears over it.
I feel bad thinking about it now, he obviously thought I would be happy, I managed to finish Sonic that very first night, fuelled by rage and Sustagen. It was a while before we finally got some new games and I mellowed out a little.
Old grudges aside, I grew to love my brother again and the Megadrive too. I still do (both of them). The attitude in the marketing made it feel badass and introduced me to terms like blast processing. To my young mind this made it feel like a more grown up, adult console. My cousins and neighbours all had Nintendos at the time so had the best of both worlds at my fingertips.
This Sega Mega Drive Mini is actually my pick of the bunch. It has a massive 42 games preloaded on the system, 2 controllers and neat little design flourishes like the volume rocker and the moving cartridge slots are so cool. They didn't need to add these elements, but they did and I appreciate it.
My only very minor gripe is it is missing the rewind feature present on its Nintendo counterparts.
The process on the Sega Mega Drive Minis like that of the Nintendo Classic consoles. There are a couple more steps but it's a doddle even if you are a total novice. Once complete it looks great, the emulation is solid and it has 512MB of flash memory on board so you have plenty of space to load additional favourites onto the console.
As with the Nintendo Classic consoles, you can't remove the titles that are preloaded.
Ugh, Playstation. They really let the team down on this one. Where the other consoles are designed with honour and affection to their original systems, the Playstation Classic feels a bit more slapped together and rushed to market to cash in.
While aesthetically it looks ok, they opted for weird emulation, an odd list of games with some glaring omissions and a boring, low resolution interface. At least you didn't need to buy a memory card.
This one requires the most effort, in part because the included emulation is so bad that you actually need to install a new emulator. They also made the baffling decision to use the sub-standard 50Hz PAL versions of some games, when they could have used the NTSC ROMs for a smoother ride. Even if those laggy PAL versions are what we grew up playing, today they feel even more sluggish.
I was underwhelmed with what the Playstation Classic was offering up. Once I had finished with the 'improvements' I had a great time playing all the games that should have been included on the console in the first place.
To this day, I still don’t understand what made them release it in such a state. But the fact you can make it so much better without too much effort saves the Playstation Classic from the scrap heap and it retains its spot among my modern consoles.
Looking to do further research at the online communities dedicated to these consoles? Here's a few:
Mod My Classic
Dedicated to modding of classics.
Nintendo and Sega Modding site.
Brazilian site where you can purchase the many different evolutions of Sega consoles made for Brazilian market.