You can make just about any platform work with these things in mind, but if I had to pick a sweet spot, I’d look hard at the Xbox 360 Slim for super-budget gaming—you can find it pretty cheaply, it has huge libraries of decently modern games, and they’ll connect directly to a modern TV over HDMI. You might also check out the Nintendo 3DS, which has more games than you can shake a stick at. If you want to go back even further, the PS2 has one of the biggest and best libraries in gaming history, but is a bit more complicated to get running on a high-def TV. Or you can go with the buy-and-fix model for a last-gen PS4 or PS4 Pro, but this does carry a bit more risk if it’s your first time attempting such a repair.
Remember, just because a platform is old doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer. Even if you owned that console when you were younger, you were probably a different age with different interests at the time—so there’s a whole slew of games you might not have played yet. (I myself am just now exploring the Castlevania series, having never played it in my youth.)
Whatever console you buy, just make sure the controllers are in good condition before you fork over the cash. Some used controllers can be…rough.
Finally, you could opt for a game streaming service instead of a used console, depending on how much you play. On a budget, Nvidia’s GeForce Now is probably your best bet, since it allows you to play games you bought from other stores (where sales are plentiful) and has a free tier that allows you 1-hour sessions after waiting in a queue. After that hour is up, you have to re-enter the queue, but you can keep playing all night long. As long as you have a decent enough Wi-Fi connection (or an Ethernet cable), this could end up being the cheapest way to game, since it’ll work on whatever PC you already have—which means no extra hardware spending necessary. Other services are good too, but may be more costly—Shadow lets you play games you own from any service but has a $12+ monthly subscription, while Google Stadia is available to use for free, but you have to buy games from their store.
Figure out what kinds of games you want to play and do the math on what the cost will look like in the long run, and you should find a platform that’ll work well for your needs—and hey, if you already have a PC, you can easily combine an old console, a free streaming service, and your PC’s integrated graphics to get the most out of all your options.
Hunt Down Cheap or Free Games
Shopping for hardware is, frankly, the hard part—finding games to play should be much easier. No matter what platform you ultimately chose, here are a few ways to get your hands on the cheapest games possible:
- Buy used discs: Digital games may go on sale, but you’re always at the mercy of what the publisher and game store chooses to charge. With discs, you’re free to haggle, buy games in lots, or wait for a screaming deal from someone desperate to Marie Kondo their closet. Plus, if you buy a used disc, you can turn right back around and sell it when you’re done—you can’t do that with digital games. (More on this in a bit.)
- Grab classic games for next to nothing: Remember, there are probably dozens of classic games that you still haven’t played, and they can likely be had for pennies on the dollar. Stores like GOG offer piles of classic PC games, and source ports allow you to play some popular games (like Doom or Descent) with more modern controls. Thanks to a freebie from Bethesda, I recently got to try Daggerfall—the predecessor to modern Elder Scrolls games like Skyrim—for the first time (with a few community mods for a better experience). You don’t even need to go super retro—you’d be surprised what games are playable on low-powered laptops.
- Stock up on free games: Free games are more prevalent than ever, especially on PC. the Epic Games Store gives away free games every week, while GOG, Ubisoft, and other stores occasionally toss out freebies as well. Sony is currently giving away a few games to encourage staying at home. Pay-what-you-want bundles from Humble Bundle and Itch.io can offer free (or almost-free) games on PC, usually from indie developers. And free-to-play games can be loads of fun too, but watch out for games designed to get you to pay later (Rocket League is infinite fun for $0, World of Warcraft requires a subscription once you reach a certain level). You may even be able to rent discs for free from your local library.
- Shop the sales on newer games: Even if you shop savvy, new games are going to be the most expensive of all, so this isn’t my first recommendation. But if you’re dead set on playing Doom Eternal (and you have the hardware to run it), a little patience can go a long way—it’s still selling for full price at most stores, but it’s gotten as low as $20 during sales. If you can wait a year and track prices using a tool like IsThereAnyDeal, you can get new-ish games at big discounts.
- Grab a cheap online subscription: Sony and Microsoft require subscriptions to their PS Plus and Xbox Live Gold services, respectively, to play online. But you also get a few games each month with your subscription, and if you plan on playing online anyway, it’s a good idea to set up a reminder each month to grab those games while they’re available. Oh, and don’t pay list price for those subscriptions either: you can often find year-long subscriptions for huge discounts, making them a much better deal.