what retro bikes are best to avoid if looking to use regularly off road?

Avoid rear suspension, it's just a pain in the arse to work with and you gain little compared to anything new.

Front sus or rigid is up to you, choose a simple fork that takes the edge off.

Steel or Ti will do you, your choice.

Bonded frames, well they separated back in the day (looking at you Dyna-Tech) and in reality are just more complicates.
Alu frames, some are cracking (as in the bad way ;-) but late 90's I think are better.

Choose a nice colour, go from there.

You had Kona, did you like it, if so get one. Mid 90's, either of top end frame (Explosif or just under) job done. Can be built with almost anything you like.

Worry about another bike after that.
Or grab that GT, not seen many crack report of their top end frames.

All that goes down the pan if you like weird and fun, slightly different bikes. At that point have at it.

what where your dream bikes or the bike you wish you had.
wow some great ideas and info already thanks. i had a kona fire mountain so fairly inexpensive. I would ideally like a klein adroit but thats obviously overkill for my intended use and also too expensive although i have more expensive modern bikes i wouldnt intend to spend anywhere near that money, I did quite like the look of the raleigh dynatech bikes but was very concerned about the bonded tubes holding in the lugs after all these years. I may just opt for another zaskar or a steel kona as that seems a popular suggestion. i agree that hardtail seems the best option for me but would love an old pace or answer manitou fork upfront although im not adverse to a nice project two rigid fork again. I have a pace rc40 hanging up in the garage but it is no good as oil leaks from a tiny hole where the bonded arch meets the fork legs so more just for wall art.
No Kleins, Funk's, Manitou's, Pace's, Yeti Arc's / AS short travel , AS long travel, Alpinestars and most definitely not anything aluminium from Mantis....
I'd start from what do you want out of the bike. Is it to ride and get a bit gnarly, a nostalgia trip, something a little on the fancy side?

Sounds like you liked the Kona and zaskar you owned, so they would be a decent choice for a trip down memory lane, a familiar path well trodden.

Nowt wrong with that, I've done similar with bike choices and why I own and won't sell my GT Team RTS. Had a 2 bitd, it cracked. Wanted to find another, but luck was on my side and I found a nos team frame in my size. It was in the states but needs must so bought it.

I then went on a trip of discovery with other builds. Bikes I wanted but couldn't afford as a kid. Owned many, some were great (a giant CFM carbon lugged frame, I regret parting with that, I dynatech torus, full ti, still have that gathering dust as don't get to ride much), some disappointed (a Klein rascal in gator fade, looked so good but I got numb feet and hands even on short rides).

Material didn't seem to matter, all were sound, as some have said, it's about the life they've led.

If I were looking for a build now, I'd probably look for a steel Saracen killi with the lovely wishbone stays, got one, but needs a repair. Or a ti frame, as they are lovely to ride.

Nowt wrong with alloy either.

I would love to do a resto mod estay.

Parts can be replaced or sourced so I'd not worry about that. Forks are an interesting part. Suspension wise, I've tried many, older forks are of their time and you can still find a good set and look after them. Pace are a good bet as user just backdated on here is an ex pace employee and has a business looking after old forks, so you can get them as good as new. Older Judy's are supported by srp parts wise. Marz seem to just be bomb proof so a good bet. I've gone down the road of getting as new a fork as I can and sourced lowers with v mounts, such as 32mm sids and rebas, fox floats in 32mm. Modern damping and tech that supports our old braking choices (or limitations).

Good luck in your search, I hope you find the frame you want and turn out a bike you enjoy riding.
cheers ishaw there is some great info for me especially the fork servicing and spares stuff. i have considered a retro bike for some time and recently a chap in my cycle group brought a nice retro gt out (not a zaskar but similar looking) and that really made me want a retro bike even more. I have fond nostalgic thoughts back to that era of mountain biking and would love to have a bike that could see some active use but its intended use would be just singletrack stuff so nothing to horrendous. i have no expectations of it performing like a modern bike in fact thats the appeal of it to me.

what size bike would be usable do you think. I have a large sized 26" wheeled 2013 commencal meta sl that i use to ride (now my partners bike) and at 6'1" i could likely fit something a bit larger although it does have a low toptube compared to retro stuff. I am longer legged so perhaps larger retro frames are available to me and a so far my back does not seem to hate low front ends from long stems but im likely jinxing it now :)
Kona have a size chart. Just use that as a start. Look for 1997/8 size charts. Almost certainly a 20" Kona frame, though you may prefer a 21 if your legs are longer. 20 will be much easier to find.
(quick search, but many others)
Post in thread 'KONA Sizing' https://www.retrobike.co.uk/threads/kona-sizing.233453/post-1753080

I size up on a 19inch to 20 inch and I'm only 5-10, but longer legs. It is really comfy to ride for general use. (i have both sizes).

The size will actually be different on some bikes as they use a different way of measuring, just check beforehand.

What area are you in, there may be people local to you.

The worst that happens if you get another frame and sell on or hoard the old one
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Worth experimenting with shorter stems on older bikes to bring up the front. At your height, you'll need pretty much the largest frame most companies were doing back in the 90s.
I'd also be looking for something with a higher front end: suspension corrected geometry and a longer head tube.

Just because if you are going to ride it then it will be more comfortable for a "higher mileage" individual. :) .

Ive got a bontrager which is lovely to look at but not comfortable to ride because it's too low. I've just bought a larger Rocky mountain which should be better.