Connect Your 8-Bit & 16-Bit Consoles to an HDTV

Missing your favorite games from childhood? Struggling with game emulators on your PC (or Raspberry Pi-powered retro gaming system)? Can’t get the controller to work? Don’t fret — there is an alternative.
Why let your old console languish in a forgotten box in your attic or basement, when you can simply find it, dust it down, and load your favorite games up? No more struggling with ROM files, your game controllers will work perfectly… it’s a win-win.
“But wait,” you say. “What about my new TV? I can’t even play the latest console games on my 4k TV. I can’t possibly connect my 8-bit or 16-bit console (or home computer) to a modern HDTV, can I?”
Well, actually, yes you can…

What Old Games Consoles and Computers Have in Common

You might have an old Nintendo Entertainment System, or an Atari console. As different as these consoles are, they each share a similar quality – how you connect them to a TV.

Two options are available:
  • RF – the old-style aerial connection. While a workable option, these tend to deteriorate over time, and so won’t deliver a reliable (or usable!) picture in most cases.
  • Composite – the red, white and yellow cable that is still in use. Red and white are the audio channels, yellow the video. These cables feature RCA connectors, and are also known as AV cables.
While some of these systems will only have one or the other, some have two, and there’s also the possibility of adapters and converters and even custom cables being made (with a little bit of soldering) to view the output from your console on your flat screen LCD or plasma TV.
Let’s look at how to connect popular retro consoles to your modern television.

Connecting Your Nintendo Games Console to a New TV

While emulation is easy on pretty much any device (there’s a very good Nintendo emulator for Windows), for devices like the Nintendo Entertainment System or Super Nintendo (aka Super NES/SNES/Super Famicom), you can rely on the RCA cable to play the original games on your HDTV.
The NES original shipped with an RF switch, and if your TV has an RF port (it probably does, in order to connect to old-style aerials), then you can use this, which connects to the port next to the power socket. The RF switch box is designed so that you can connect it to your TV, between your cable box and the TV, with both devices using the same channel on your TV.
But for a better picture, you might prefer to stick to the AV cable, which shipped with later NES consoles. Connect this to the AV output on your NES, and to the same inputs on your HDTV, making sure to connect the red port to the red port, and the yellow to the yellow. This video illustrates the point.
For the Super Nintendo (also compatible with the N64 and GameCube) a Universal S-Video cable is the best option. The checkerboard effect of the composite/RCA connectors make S-Video a more popular option.
Super Nintendo users who have good DIY skills might prefer to fit a component video output. This is the red/green/blue (RGB) connection, also known as YUV/YPbPr; most HDTVs have this cable connection (often using the same RCA ports as composite). This video shows you how.
(For the Nintendo Wii, see our dedicated guide to connecting to any TV.)

Play Sega Games on Your HDTV

If you want to hook your old Sega console to your modern TV, you’ll need to make sure you have the right cable, as every Sega console has a different video out port, which then converts into an AV cable.
The best solution here is to go to Amazon and find the right cable for your system. For instance, if you have a Sega Genesis (aka Sega Mega Drive, which unlike the Dreamcast, no longer gets new releases), then you’ll need to find the right cable for this (bearing in mind that the different Sega Genesis versions have different video connectors).
Once you’ve got the right cable, it’s a simple case of connecting to the composite/AV connectors on your HDTV.

Connect an Atari 2600

The popular Atari 2600 – which arguably kickstarted the home gaming revolution – can even be connected to a HDTV. The main way to do this is to use the packaged RCA cable (a single video and mono audio composite) and connect a female to male coax adaptor, then screw it into the RF connector on the back of your LCD or plasma HDTV.
If this connector isn’t an option, you can also plug it into any device with an RF pass-through circuit, such as a VCR or DVD recorder. From here, the signal will be sent along the device’s usual route to your HDTV, and with a bit of channel switching you should find your Atari 2600 game is ready to play.

Other Console or an Old Home Computer?

Overall, the method for connecting your old games console or home computer (such as a Commodore 64 or Atari ST) to a HDTV remains the same. Make sure you have the option to use an S-Video or AV connection rather than RF, and buy a suitable connector.
Note, however, that you may also need a converter, as some older devices don’t use standard signals (such as the Commodore 64). By buying a dedicated, well-made AV cable for the device you’re hoping to connect to your 4K or HDTV, you reduce the likelihood of issues and problems cropping up.
Also, if you’re using AV, but already have another device connected, consider a composite-to-SCART adaptor, and connect to the SCART socket on your TV instead. All you need to do is select the corresponding output on your TV, and start playing. Don’t let the TV start auto-tuning or switching channels on you because it doesn’t like, or can’t automatically pick up the signal. You may have to spend some time jumping between, and tuning channels – stay persistent!