If you've just rediscovered an old console in the back of your closet, or you've gotten into retro gaming and want the genuine experience, you've probably stood in front of your shiny new LCD or plasma TV with a console made in the age of CRTs, wondering what to do. Luckily, it's not too difficult to plug everything in and get your game on. Here's how:
Step 1: How to Connect Your Old School Video Game Consoles to a New TV
Use the Highest Quality Connector Available on the Console
The newest consoles use HDMI, but even some older consoles can connect to new HDTVs over component video or composite video. Consoles like the PlayStation 2 and the original Xbox all connect over component, and while composite is an option, you'll get better video quality by going with component if it's available on your TV.
Of course, the older the console, the less likely component is an option, but in many cases you can find both official and third party connector cables that do the job nicely. However, in some cases—especially with older consoles like the Dreamcast, the Nintendo 64, or the GameCube, composite is your best option (unless you opt for a hacked-together third party connector like the Dreamcast VGA adapter). The older you get, S-Video may be your best option, and if you have it on your TV, go for it as long as you don't have composite as an alternative. Bottom line: Use the highest quality video connector available that's also available on your TV. The only time you should worry is if your console uses a connector that's not available on your TV.
Try Composite If Your Old Console is RCA Only
This trick won't work universally (and we have
another suggestion a little later if it doesn't), but with some consoles, like the original NES and several others from around the same time period, you can get away with connecting your RCA cables to the red and yellow composite video ports on the back of your TV. Some older consoles, like the Sega Genesis, have full composite video cables, with all three red, white, and yellow connectors. If yours only has two, connect red to red (there's almost always at least that) and try the white one in either the white connector or the yellow one. As long as those cables aren't actually carrying audio, one of them is almost always audio and the other is video—if you can get video in the yellow port and audio into the red or white port, you're in business.
Go Coax For Older Consoles
If the console you want to
connect uses a connector that your TV just doesn't have, you'll need a converter or an adapter that will connect to a port your TV actually has. The easiest way to do this is to connect via coax, since most modern sets still have one, if for nothing else but old cable TV and over-the-air antenna connections.
Some of the older consoles, like the NES, Sega Genesis, and some older Atari models, use that old RF connector box that many of us remember and love. You can still use it if you want to and don't feel like buying anything new. Just connect your single RCA cable from the console to the box, then connect a coaxial cable from the box into the cable or antenna port on the back of your TV. Switch the box to "game" when you're using it, switch to the TV/Cable input manually, and don't let your TV try to auto-tune its way to a signal. Auto tuning might work, but odds are you're headed for good old channel 3 (although on some sets, the analog default channel is 36), and it's faster to use your remote. This article at Retro Games Collector goes into more detail about this, and can help if it's still not working for you.
If you still have the box, great, but if you don't, you're not out of luck, and you don't have to hunt one down on eBay. All you need is a coaxial to RCA (female) adapter. This one from monoprice is less than a buck. Just connect the RCA cable from the console to the female end, connect the male coax end to your TV, tune to TV/Cable manually, find the right channel (again, 3 or 36), and you're off and away playing your favorite classic games. This method is actually easier than using those old switchboxes, so consider it even if you do have one.
If you're using coax for your retro console but you also want to keep your OTA antenna connected or have an old cable box plugged in, those old switch boxes could come in handy, but there's a better way. Atari Age notes it's easier to just buy a coaxial switcher that you can plug your console and your TV source into. You'll get better video quality over those old switch boxes. You can even use them to connect multiple consoles to the same TV, and plus, they're really cheap.
Check out this $10 3-port model from Parts Express, this similar $10 model, orthis cheaper 2-port model for $3. All of them will get the job done. It's important to get a manual one though, AtariAge reminds us that the signal from some of the older consoles generally isn't strong enough to trigger automatic switching boxes.
Get Around a Display Without Coax Inputs Using a VCR or DVD Player
If none of the above options really work for you, you could potentially get around dealing with your TV entirely by going through a device already connected to your TV that has an auxiliary input. If you still have a VCR attached to your TV via composite or component video, or you have a DVD player connected via component or even HDMI, check the back. If it has an RCA or a coaxial input (and your TV doesn't, of course—or you're using a PC monitor or some other monitor without coaxial inputs), you're in business.
Just connect your console to the back of the VCR or DVD player using your preferred coax trick above. Then connect the VCR or DVD player to the monitor or TV using composite or component (whichever is better, or available), and set the device to its auxiliary port. You'll lose some video quality because you're running the signal through a second device on its way to the screen, but it's better than having no signal at all.
These aren't the only ways to get the job done of course, but they're some of the easiest and most broadly applicable to the widest set of old consoles, from old school Ataris and Commodore PCs all the way up to not-really-old-but-still-retro consoles like the N64 and the Dreamcast. With a little time and attention to all the ports on the back of your TV, it should be a snap.