You’ve been bitten by the retro gaming bug. Emulators, re-released retro hardware that you can fit in your hand, you’ve got it all. You probably bought the retro t-shirt, too.
But there’s something wrong; the authenticity of a physical classic gaming machine, with all its faults and foibles. So, you’ve grabbed your old gaming console from the basement; perhaps you’ve bought an old 8-bit computer on eBay.
It’s a great idea, but it’s unlikely to go to plan. Old hardware cannot be guaranteed to work as it once did. Here’s what you need to do before powering up your old gaming machines.
Why Original Retro Hardware Breaks
You’ve looked after it, maintained your old consoles and home computers in plastic boxes, even wrapped in plastic. But time isn’t on your side. Short of a vacuum, light-free environment, it is unlikely that original retro hardware will still run 20-40 years after it was released. The older the gear, the less likely it is to run as intended—if at all.
Dust can cause problems booting and running the hardware. Similarly, components inside the case simply weren’t built to last more than a few years. Controllers might break, and TV modulators simply fail.
If you’re set on reviving some original retro gaming hardware, be prepared for a bit of maintenance first.
First, Clean Your Old Gaming Console
Dust gets everywhere. We’ve looked at how dust impacts modern computer systems and if you think that’s bad, consider how much worse it must have been in the past. When dust clogs up a system, heat is trapped inside, and the warmer a computer or console gets, the slower it becomes. Taking a powerful vacuum cleaner to all the vents on your old gaming hardware is a good idea.
Old hardware can get dirty, too. An old computer with a keyboard is probably full of crumbs and dirt from finger grease. A damp cloth should be enough to deal with this, but any packaged cleaning wipe can also do the job.
Plastic changes color as time passes, too. ABS plastic is particularly prone to decoloring, but you can reverse this with an application of Retr0brite.
Check the Mainboard and Components Work
Hardware failures for retro gaming systems usually occur on the motherboard. It might be due to a small creature having a home in the console, or to components passing their useful lifespan. Chips can burn out, TV modulators simply fail, and some components can leak.
Take, for example, the Commodore Amiga. Various models and expansion components feature batteries and capacitors that are prone to leakage over time. The result isn’t just that the leakage needs cleaning; the capacitors need replacing. It isn’t an easy job.
To check for these issues, you’re going to have to open the console or computer. Check the power supply is not connected to the mains outlet before you do this and take antistatic precautions before proceeding. A multimeter can help here, too, allowing you to test that components remain correctly connected.
In the case of portable consoles, leaked batteries can cause big problems. Fortunately, in most cases the blue-green corrosion can be removed, using white vinegar and an old toothbrush. Clean it up after with isopropyl rubbing alcohol, then leave to dry. If the corrosion has leaked onto the mainboard, add some gentle action with a fine-grade sandpaper into the mix.
Check and Replace the Power Supply
Power supplies are a major weakness for old computers and consoles. Fuses, bad ventilation, and circuitry that wasn’t designed to last 40 years can all cause the power supply unit (PSU) to fail.
If the PSU is an external device, this shouldn’t be much of a problem. Various suppliers provide power supplies for retro gamers, built to the original power specification. The advantage is that these units are also built to modern safety requirements and with modern components—they’re built to last.
But how do you check an old computer or console’s PSU?
Well, you might simply try powering it up with the computer plugged in, but this might blow a circuit. Alternatively, you could use a multimeter to check the PSU, but this will require opening it up, which isn’t safe—there is risk of electric shock.
The smart option, then, is to simply buy a replacement PSU. You should find one on eBay, or try one of the many retro hardware stores that have appeared online.
It’s also worth checking the power cables that connect the PSU to your console. Problems here will also necessitate a replacement.
Confirm the Controllers Work
You won’t be able to do much with your old console if the controllers don’t work. In many cases, game controllers survive the “storage years” so you might get lucky. The only way to test controllers is to connect them to your console and see if they work. Some controllers have a power LED, which is useful, but certainly not a guarantee of full functionality.
Like the console or computer, controllers accumulate dirt. Sweat and muck mix to create a gunky substance that will need to be cleaned up. It’s the same sort of thing that clogs up an old-fashioned ball mouse, requiring a toothpick, along with a Q-tip or cloth dipped in isopropyl alcohol to clean.
Again, replacements can be sourced. You might opt for original hardware from sellers on eBay or local flea markets. Alternatively, consider using modern replacements. These can often be connected to the classic hardware either directly, or with the help of an adapter.
For computers like the Apple II or Commodore 64, there is the added problem of integrated keyboards. If these don’t work, then loading games can be a problem. The answer will typically be to swap the keyboard for a working replacement from another system. If you’re lucky, however, you might find a retro enthusiast who can fabricate replacement components such as keyboards.
Repairing Broken Retro Gaming Gear
Considering making repairs to your old gaming gear?
You’ll find a wealth of information online for almost every system, as far back as 1970s gaming cabinets (Space Invaders, Defender, etc.) all the way through to the Xbox, Nintendo Gamecube, Sega Dreamcast, Sony PlayStation, and beyond.
Each of these systems has its own community of experts, so you should be able to find the help that you need.
If you want to get your old hardware up and running again, it’s going to take time. So, use that time wisely, researching problems, fixes, and making the right decision. Don’t solder parts of your soldering skills are under-par (or learn how to solder). Source new components instead of relying on old ones.
Take Care With Old Retro Gaming Hardware
Whether you’re using old consoles or computers, you must take the time to check that it works as designed. Remember to:
- Clean the console
- Check the board and components
- Replace the power supply
- Confirm the controllers work
Make repairs to your retro hardware where you can. Replace chips if necessary. Leave soldering to an expert if you lack expertise.
Not ready to fix your retro hardware but want to start retro gaming? Here’s how to start retro gaming with the Raspberry Pi.