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Playing your classic games on modern-day consoles

Buying a new game console doesn't have to banish your old games to your shelf. Here's how to keep your classics alive.

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Michael Muller

If you're the proud owner of a new video game console, odds are you have a library of games from an old machine lining your shelf.

While Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all promise that their newest machines can run these classics in some way, it varies by console -- some are as easy as popping in an older disc; others involve repurchasing "classic" remakes.

Don't despair, though: Reliving your glory days on Halo, Zelda, Grand Theft Auto or even Ms. Pac-Man is very possible. Here's how to do it.

Sony's PlayStation 4: Think of the classics as ports

I'll get the bad news out of the way. Sony's PlayStation 4 -- the most popular current-generation game machine -- will not play discs from any of its three earlier iterations. Sony does, however, allow you to stream select PlayStation 3 titles through its PlayStation Now cloud gaming service, PlayStation Now. Think of it like streaming a Netflix or YouTube video -- but it's a fully interactive, playable game (so long as you have a rock-solid superfast broadband service).

Unfortunately that copy of Katamari Damacy for PlayStation 2 won't do a thing inside of a PlayStation 4.

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Stream classics with PlayStation Now

PlayStation Now lets players either rent access to individual titles or pay $20 per month in the US for unlimited access to the full library of over 100 titles. Internationally, the service is available in the UK for £13 per month, but it is not currently available in Australia. That all-you-can-eat option can be a great way to "binge-game" on series that you want to catch up on, as it includes several past installments of franchises such as Uncharted, Assassin's Creed and Resident Evil. Interestingly, this service recently launched on Windows PCs as well, with the DualShock 4 controller being the only required piece of Sony hardware to make it work.

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Getting PS2 games on your PS4

Sony also sells digital-only versions of PlayStation 2 titles that you can download from the PlayStation Store to your PS4's hard drive. Here you also get a few bonuses, including full support for HDTVs with up to 1,080p resolution, trophies from in-game achievements and the option of broadcasting your gameplay live over the Internet. Popular titles like Grand Theft Auto III, Max Payne and Star Wars Bounty Hunter are among those PS2 titles currently available, retailing anywhere from $10 to $35 depending on the title. (Pro tip: Wait for one of Sony's frequent "flash sales," when these PS2 titles are often discounted.)

Of course, Sony and other publishers offer "remastered" PS4 versions of many other classic and recent games, including the original Uncharted trilogy, The Last of Us, the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot and God of War III. Sony's digital store also sells classic games that did not originally appear on any PlayStation systems. These include Mega Man Legacy Collection (a collection of six Mega Man games originally released on the Nintendo Entertainment System) and Grim Fandango Remastered (originally a PC title).

While not every game will work, many Xbox 360 discs can play inside of an Xbox One. Halo 4's 360 edition (seen here) isn't able to at this time, but Halo: Reach is on the list.

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Microsoft's Xbox One: Easily plays (some of) your 360 games

The story for older games on the Xbox One is a lot brighter. Last year, Microsoft updated its console to play a growing selection of earlier Xbox 360 games either from the original disc or digital download.

For titles that you purchase digitally, the games will appear in the Ready to Download list where you can install them on your hard drive like any other Xbox One game. If you have a physical copy of a supported title, just load the disc into the system and -- after a small, free downloadable software update -- play away.

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Support doesn't extend to all Xbox 360 games, but Microsoft is adding older titles to its catalog every month on Xbox.com, with more than 200 total so far. Popular titles include Halo Reach, Fable III, Gears of War 3 and Mass Effect among others. You even can find some retro classics that ran on the Xbox 360, like Ms. Pac-Man and Sonic the Hedgehog (1-3!).

Nintendo's Wii U can play games just like its predecessor, the Wii.

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Nintendo's Wii U: It works just like the Wii

Nintendo makes playing older titles easy given that its Wii U console is fully compatible with nearly all Wii games. Feel free to blast off inside of Super Mario Galaxy, fire away in Metroid Prime Trilogy or even dig out a guitar controller to shred inside Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.

How to play Wii games on the Wii U

To play the older titles, you must set the Wii U into Wii mode by loading a disc made for the older console into the newer system, or by scrolling to the Wii Menu icon from the Wii U's menu. You also must have a Wii Remote (remember the controller wand from the Wii Sports days?) or Classic Controller gamepad synced with the system, as the newer Wii U GamePad will not be able to control any of the older titles.

Most accessories for the original Wii will work with the Wii U while in Wii Mode, but unlike the original Wii console, games from the Nintendo GameCube aren't supported. And, while none of your cartridges for even older Nintendo consoles can plug into the Wii U, some of those classic games -- from the original Nintendo Entertainment System, the Super Nintendo, the Nintendo 64 or even the Game Boy -- are offered via digital download from the Wii U's Virtual Console store, often at very affordable prices.

Nintendo's 3DS handheld console can play all the original DS games.

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Nintendo 3DS: Play lots of portable classics (for a price)

Classic gamers also will love the 3DS as it's compatible with titles dating all the way back to the company's original dual-screen portable, the Nintendo DS, which first debuted in 2004. Just insert the DS game card into the slot on the back of the console, and the title will then appear on the main menu. Launch it from there for all the retro fun you want.

How to play old games you purchased digitally

Game cards used for the original Nintendo DS work in the 3DS the same way. Pictured is Mike Sorrentino wanting to play Pokemon Black Version.

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For games that you digitally purchased on Nintendo's earlier DS-era handhelds, you can bring them over by first downloading a "Nintendo 3DS Transfer Tool" on the older handheld. Then, find the "System Transfer" feature on the 3DS by opening "System Settings" and tapping "Other Settings." Both apps will then direct you to connect each system to the Internet before guiding you through the transfer process.

Playing vintage games (like Pokemon)

You're a bit more restricted with games from vintage mobile systems like the Game Boy. The original cartridges won't work in the 3DS, but you can play digital releases that you've purchased from the Virtual Console section of Nintendo's eShop. Select titles from the Game Boy (including the original Pokemon Red, Blue and Yellow versions), Nintendo Entertainment System and even Sega's Game Gear handheld are available for purchase as digital downloads as well.

Grab the games you love

Some classics will never go out of style, even as the video game industry continues a steady flow of flashy, new titles. But even if you can't play the original disc in a new machine, revisiting a nostalgic game as a digital download is still a fast and easy way to protect your record Sonic score from middle school or introduce your own kids to the old games you loved. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to continue playing (and losing horribly at) Mega Man Legacy Collection on my PlayStation 4.

Mike Sorrentino (@MikeJSorrentino) is an associate editor at CNET who wishes he had more time to play the bigger video games of today. However, he can easily squeeze in a few rounds of the arcade version of The Simpsons game re-released onto the Xbox 360, and he loves Ms. Pac-Man.