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Retro Consoles Let Gamers Travel Back in Time

Sentimental gamers are paying top dollar for consoles that can play their favorite childhood games.

FAIRFAX, Va. (

TheStreet

) -- How are the

Nintendo

and

Sega

generations supposed to grow up when people keep handing them new toys?

As games for the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis enter their third decade of rust, new consoles and game emulators are reviving them and making them profitable for companies like

ThinkGeek

. While a console that breathes new life into the blown-upon contacts of NES, Super NES and Genesis games can cost as little as $40, high-octane retro devices can cost more than some new consoles.

"It's the nostalgia factor," says Ty Liotta, ThinkGeek's merchandise manager. "People like having that tangible thing that they remember as a kid."

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Some of the new Frankensteined consoles Liotta imports from Asia and Europe require more than just nostalgia. The Retro Duo and its Super Nintendo-style controllers, for example, are only useful to gamers who have old Nintendo cartridges to play and a couple hours to clean them with either air or a rubber eraser. The aptly named Gen-X requires old copies of

Sonic the Hedgehog

and

Mike Tyson's Punch Out

for its Genesis and Nintendo slots.

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Even if someone has enough old Nintendo games to warrant the Retro Mini X, which lets users play directly with the device or connect it to a television, they would have to own an old tube TV to play

Duck Hunt

with the included light gun.

Any of those consoles can be had for less than $60 and don't risk getting a gamer into a Napster-style legal dispute. The GP2X Wiz handheld game emulator, however, is the best kind of trouble. Created by a South Korean vendor ThinkGeek's staff encountered during their travels, this five-inch-wide unit runs Linux, has 1 gigabyte of storage and can run emulation programs for games designed for

Atari

,

Commodore

, Nintendo and Sega systems, to name a few. While it also plays video files and Flash games, it can handle a Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME), which makes just about every game that ever graced an arcade yours.

Wiz users can travel back in time while playing their favorite childhood video games.

The bad news is that it's $179, which is more expensive than a new Nintendo DS or

Sony

(SNE) - Get Report

PlayStation 2. It also lacks all but the simplest emulators and games, forcing players to download them or rip the "read-only memory" (ROM) files off of their old cartridges using other equipment. Logistically, that's not such a problem because tons of Web sites offer emulators and ROMs. Legally, however, game ROMs are a touchy subject. Usually, if someone owns the game, they can use the ROM. If not, it's like putting music files found on a file-sharing site onto an iPod -- illegal, but hard to track.

"Our position is that what you do is going to be your business and we don't provide you with ROMs," Liotta says. "You've seen what the record industry does, and that could happen to ROMs. It hasn't so far, but that could change."

Gamers who have vast catalogs or are willing to take a risk on illegal files can get a decent handheld emulator for less than $100. The A320 Pocket Retro doesn't play as many games as the Wiz, but supports Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Gameboy Advance, Sega Genesis, Neo Geo and Capcom arcade games. Its $99 price tag includes emulators, 4 gigabytes of memory, a FM radio, voice recorder and a media player.

If that's too complicated, ThinkGeek also sells old Sega Dreamcast consoles, which don't seem retro until you remember that the device debuted during the Clinton administration.

"Current items are always becoming older, so you never run out of retro," Liotta says. "For me, the Atari 2600 was more nostalgic and the customer's not into it. Their retro is the NES."

-- Reported by Jason Notte in Boston.

Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.