Nintendo's best retro console isn't the SNES Classic, it's the 3DS

An ode to Nintendo's little time machine: The latest 2DS and 3DS portables are still the best way to play your old favorites.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR | Gaming | Metaverse technologies | Wearable tech | Tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
3 min read

Can't get SNES Classic? 3DS is your best backup.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You may or may not ever succeed in buying a Super NES Classic. But I'm not sure there will be another package of throwback Nintendo quite as good as... well, the Nintendo 3DS.

As cool and fun as the SNES Classic is -- and as amazed as I am that I was able to score one on launch day -- I keep thinking about the 3DS. I keep going back to playing it. It's simple, it's tiny, it's sturdy. I still play it, even though the Switch exists.

And it's mostly because it has a crazy-large back catalog of retro games.

I'd love if the Nintendo Switch had this type of back catalog of classic gaming . But it doesn't -- not yet. Maybe, once the promised Virtual Console arrives in 2018, it will eventually get there. 

Yet I still think it'll be a long time before any Nintendo system has the library that the 3DS does. At this point, for throwback games, it's my go-to option. The 3DS can't be beat.

Retro gaming nirvana

Before I detail my favorites, however, there are a couple of important caveats. When I say "Nintendo 3DS," know the following:

  • The 3DS platform also includes the 2DS -- effectively the same product, but without the 3D screen that quickly became superfluous to the experience.
  • Only the more recent New Nintendo 3DS, New Nintendo 3DS XL (pictured below) and New Nintendo 2DS XL are compatible with Super Nintendo titles from Nintendo's online store, many of which are also on the SNES Classic. Those games will not play on older 3DS and 2DS consoles. (2017's 2DS XL is the best choice for most newbies.)

Those same Super NES games on the 3DS play really well, and have restore points that allow a single quick-save between plays. Games cost $8-10, which is a bit expensive. But many of these addictive titles are totally worth it, and some are available as collections. I ended up buying about seven over the last two years.


Sega-hungry? Outrun and most other Sega 3D Classics are fantastic. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

With that out of the way, here's a lightning round recommendation on some of my favorites from each generation of classic games:

NES: Most of the NES Classic's games are available on the 3DS Virtual Console, and plenty more. Other options include classics like Konami's Lifeforce.

SNES: As mentioned above, any of the "New" Nintendo 3DS/2DS portables (one with a second, tiny control stick on the right side) can play up to 30 SNES games currently available. That includes a lot, but not all, of what's on the SNES Classic (Super Mario World, Super Metroid, Zelda: A Link to the Past) and a few that aren't (Pilotwings).

N64 games: There aren't many, but they're fantastic. Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, and Starfox 64 are stellar.

Sega Genesis and arcade games: Sega's collection of 3D classics on the 3DS are the best arcade and Genesis ports I've ever played, and a far better experience that you'll get on the AtGames Sega Flashback. I recommend most of them, especially the arcade-perfect Outrun, Afterburner II and Galaxy Force II. Sonic and Sonic 2, Ecco the Dolphin and Streets of Rage are fun, too.


Pilotwings, which you can't even get on SNES Classic (my old favorite).

Sarah Tew/CNET

Game Gear games: You can also get a small collection of games from this old Sega handheld. They're weird, but it's also fun to just try one again.

Game Boy games: Old black and white and color Game Boy games show their age. You won't find any Game Boy Advance games, sadly -- at least not as far as I can see.

Old Nintendo DS games: The 3DS works with nearly all DS games going back to 2004.

And also, all of the great 3DS games. Metroid: Samus Returns is one of the best 2D Metroid games ever made, and it just arrived earlier this month.