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Holiday retro gaming gifts that go back to the future

The days of the mini consoles are gone, but there's other stuff available this year (if they stay in stock).

zelda-game-watch-link
Nintendo's Game & Watch series is this year's answer to the retro console.
Scott Stein/CNET

It was a sunny day a million years ago when I stood on an Amazon Treasure Truck line with work friends to buy a Super NES Classic. A couple of years ago little re-creations of classic game consoles were suddenly a super-hot gift. The NES Classic, the SNES Classic, then the Genesis Mini, and even off-the-road wildcards like the PlayStation Classic and Turbografx-16 Mini. Everyone was getting into it.

And then...they were gone.

Shopping for one of these little plug-and-play game systems today is a harsh reminder that they were all basically discontinued. You can still buy one, sometimes, but at some seriously jacked-up prices. The novelty days are over. And yet, retro games are still here.

The easy take is that the Nintendo Switch and its catalog of classics ate the retro consoles up. Nintendo's mini consoles were never meant to last forever. The Nintendo Switch Online service included NES and SNES libraries, and now optional separately-sold retro controllers. The company re-upped the retro dose with a new collection of Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis games in a premium subscription tier.

mini-consoles-n64-switch

The classic mini consoles are mostly gone, now, but the Switch's online game service has become a sort of substitute (N64 controller sold separately).

Scott Stein/CNET

Nintendo also shifted its collectible hardware pitch from mini consoles to handheld Game & Watch systems. The $50 repackaged collections of games on little mini players are basically an even swap from one nostalgia pool to another.

I still miss the stand-alone consoles, though. Every single one I have (Genesis, SNES, NES, Turbografx-16) is a fantastic assortment of perfectly remastered games, and the little collectibles double as shelf decorations, too. I don't use them much anymore, I have to admit. But, in a year where everything else seems impossible to buy, little retro consoles would be nice to still have around.

Besides a Nintendo Switch and its subscription service, there are other options for retro games this holiday season, although you might have to think a bit outside the box.

Arcade1Up

Arcade1Up's extensive line of home machines range in price and are definitely splurgy, but they cost a lot less than actual vintage arcade cabinets (prices vary, many of them in the $500 range, but with sales often popping up). Maybe picking up a handful of Bandai Namco games, or an Outrun machine, or NBA Jam is the way to go for a dose of retro. The smaller and less-expensive $150 Countercade models might be a more affordable splurge. (Also, Arcade1up's Infinity Game Table, which is board game focused, is also far more charming than I ever expected it to be.)

Scott Stein/CNET

Nintendo shifted its collectible push from mini consoles to special editions of the company's first gaming handhelds, which were little single-game LCD devices that predated the Game Boy by years. The new Game & Watch models put more advanced NES games on them, and have bright color screens and USB-C charging. Super Mario Bros and Super Mario Bros: Lost Levels are on the first one, along with one original Game & Watch game, Ball. The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II and Link's Awakening, plus another classic Game & Watch game, are on a new Zelda model. The case design looks and feels like a total throwback to early '80s childhood.

iiRCade

This oddly spelled competitor to Arcade1UP is little less focused on recreating retro style (although some of its cabinets, like Double Dragon, come close), and more on features like 100-watt speakers, built-in Bluetooth and premium joysticks. They have built-in storage for downloading licensed retro games from an online store. 

Wait until 2022

These are either sold out, delayed or require a preorder.

Nintendo

Nintendo's online game service for the Switch plays a bunch of classic games spanning N64, Genesis, SNES and NES. These new but retro-styled wireless controllers work with the games, adding that extra bit of realism. The $50 N64 controller is perfectly built to resemble the original and brings back tons of three-pronged memories -- just make sure you already have a Switch and the more expensive version of Nintendo's online plan, too.

Analogue

The highly anticipated high-end game handheld plays actual classic Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance cartridges if you have them, plus Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear games with an adapter. Preorders are now pushed into 2022, though, so unless you ordered early this gift might be an IOU.

Panic

Sadly, the Game Boy-meets-Tamagotchi crank-operated black and white handheld by the makers of Untitled Goose Game has also been delayed until 2022. The concept sounds like magic, though: indie games made for the system appear via Wi-Fi over time, like a little advent calendar of handheld game novelty.