The Best Gaming Consoles in 2021

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This isn’t your ordinary best gaming consoles list: we go in depth and discuss the features you won’t see on the Amazon page, like emulation support. We evaluate consoles from both the last and current generations, especially since getting your hands on one of the latest consoles can be quite difficult at the time of writing.

Note: while we will be discussing options available through hacking/homebrew/jailbreaking below, please do careful research before buying a console for that purpose or attempting to hack your own! At the time of writing, for instance, only some older Nintendo Switches can actually be hacked.

1. Nintendo Wii U

The Nintendo Wii U is the red-headed stepchild of the Nintendo home console family, but in the context of this article, it’s a surprisingly good contender!

First, let’s talk official backward compatibility support in the Wii U. Wii games are natively supported, as are some Nintendo DS games on the eShop. You also have NES, SNES, N64, and Game Boy Advance games available on the Wii U eShop. Previously with the Wii, you would have access to an even larger library of backward-compatible games with its Virtual Console service, but since that has been discontinued, you can’t access those games with the Wii U today unless they’re already installed.

If you’re willing to hack your Wii U, suddenly you’re in much better territory. Not only are all the previously-listed games compatible, you’ll also get GameCube compatibility back. This is a feature that was inexplicably removed from the official console. (This is especially odd since the GameCube, Wii, and Wii U all share the same processing architecture, just with improvements to power and speed over the generations.)

Hacking the Wii U also opens the floodgates to RetroArch, which can be used to emulate just about anything made prior to the N64. While RetroArch and other emulators can also run on Wii, the Wii U’s improved power over its older brother allows it to emulate classic games with much fewer and performance issues.

2. Microsoft Xbox One (S/X)

Since the Xbox One was released, Microsoft has made official backward compatibility a pretty big deal. With the Xbox One, you can natively play Xbox 360 and original Xbox games on your console. With the enhanced Xbox One X, the visuals of these games are enhanced with higher resolutions and superior texture filtering. The One X also runs supported Xbox One games at higher resolutions and framerates, which can be especially useful for games that are throttled to low resolutions on the original One hardware.

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So official backward compatibility is incredibly solid and arguably better than the competitors. But what if you want to get a little unofficial and start running some emulators?

Actually, you don’t necessarily need to get unofficial! Just activate Developer Mode on your Xbox (for $20), and you’ll be able to install RetroArch. With RetroArch, you’ll be able to easily emulate games up until around the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation 1 era. Past that, you’ll start having a lot of performance issues, especially if you aren’t on the Xbox One X.

3. Sony PlayStation 4 (Pro)

Official backward compatibility support on PlayStation 4 consoles is a mixed bag. Through the streaming service PlayStation Now, you can play a high number of PS3 and PS2 games, but that’s a far cry from actually running those games on your own console, especially if you don’t have a good Internet connection. Some native PS3, PS2, and PS1 games can be found on the PlayStation Store and are playable on the PS4, but your actual discs are not compatible with the console.

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With the PlayStation 4 Pro, you get enhanced resolution and framerate in supported PS4 games but no improvements to official backward compatibility.

With a hacked PS4, the situation improves. Using RetroArch, you can play games up to the PS1 and Nintendo 64. If you go as far as installing a custom Linux build on your PS4, you can even push it as far as running some lighter GameCube and Wii games on Dolphin, but don’t expect high framerates in all titles, even with the PS4 Pro.

Despite the limited backward compatibility, the PlayStation 4 is still lauded as one of the best gaming consoles ever made. While we’re focusing mainly on backward compatibility and emulation in this article, don’t forget the actual retail games that are available for these consoles. At the end of the day, the games matter most.

4. Nintendo Switch

The Nintendo Switch is an interesting example. Officially, your only option for backward compatibility is emulating NES and SNES games by paying for the Switch Online service. Compared to the Wii U and Wii, the backward compatibility of something like the Virtual Console simply isn’t here, officially. The Virtual Console had more games from newer systems than Switch Online does!

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However, this doesn’t make the Switch a bad console necessarily, especially not if you’re able to get your hands on a hackable model. Even the regular old Switch is enjoying a high volume of AAA PC ports like Doom Eternal and Mortal Kombat 11, but with hacks, you can emulate pretty much anything up to the Nintendo 64 and PS1 extremely well.

5. Sony PlayStation 5

Like the PlayStation 4, the PS5 doesn’t offer much in the way of playing games from the PS3 and prior. However, the PS5 can play PS4 games, even off disc. At bare minimum, those PS4 games will behave as if they are running on a PS4 Pro with the corresponding enhancements, but a select few PS4 titles have seen PS5 enhancement patches. One of the games that sees the biggest improvement from this is Ghost of Tsushima, which gets its framerate doubled over both the PS4 and PS4 Pro versions of the game, alongside other visual enhancements.

At the time of writing, this console has yet to be cracked, so there are no emulators. If you’re shopping with that in mind, you’re a bit out of luck. But if you want to see even better versions of PS4 games, or the PS5’s incoming library of new games seems appealing to you, this remains a compelling option.

6. Microsoft Xbox Series (S/X)

Last, but absolutely not least, are the Xbox Series S and Xbox Series X consoles.

If you read the previous Xbox One entry, you already have an idea of what to expect here. Series S/X backward compatibility goes all the way back to the original Xbox with a number of upgrades to visuals. With $20 and some patience, you can also unlock Developer Mode and install RetroArch on the system.

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The Xbox Series S is the cheapest of the new-gen consoles but is capable of GameCube, Wii, and PS2 Emulation. You can even play PSP games!

The Xbox Series X is essentially the same story as the Series S when it comes to emulation, but since it’s much more powerful, you can expect to see a proportionate improvement in emulation performance. If you want the ultimate emulation home console, the Series X is probably your best bet – especially as development continues to improve the performance of emulators available on the system. We wouldn’t be surprised to see PS3 and Wii U games running on the Series X in a few years!

Wrapping Up

In terms of pure hardware power, systems like the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 simply can’t be beaten by other consoles. However, you don’t need to buy these consoles to have a great gaming experience. The cheaper Series S is still the second-best console for emulation, and hacking the older systems can exponentially increase the playable games. Nintendo Switch is also a great choice to play Nintendo exclusive games.

Christopher Harper
Christopher Harper

I'm a longtime gamer, computer nerd, and general tech enthusiast.

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