Video game emulation involves running software that mimics the architecture and capabilities of older gaming systems. This allows you to play vintage games from previous console generations on modern computers, phones, tablets, and even specialty emulation handhelds. With the right emulator and ROM files, classic games can be relived on devices that the original developers never dreamed of.
Table of Contents
Why Emulate Retro Games?
There are many great reasons to emulate classic console and arcade games:
- Play beloved games from your childhood like Super Mario Bros., Sonic, and Mortal Kombat
- Experience historically important titles that influenced the entire industry
- Save money by playing old games for free compared to hunting down original cartridges
- Avoid old hardware failures by playing on new devices
- Use save states and cheating features not available on real hardware
- Compare different versions of games across regions and platforms
- Translate games never released in your language at the time
- Improve graphics with HD visuals, filters, and shaders
- Add mods and QOL improvements that update old classics
- Share classic gaming experiences with younger generations
- Learn about programming and game design from the past
Of course, you should still buy and play authentic retro games when possible to support the original developers. But emulation fills an important niche in preserving gaming history.
Emulator Software Overview
The emulation software itself replicates the full environment necessary to run old games. This includes:
- CPU emulation – Recreating the original console’s processor, like the NES’s custom 6502 derivative. This allows emulators to run the game’s original machine code and assembly instructions.
- Graphics rendering – Renders the game’s pixel graphics, sprites, backgrounds, etc. in a way that mimics the original display output.
- Sound emulation – Plays back the game’s music, sound effects, and audio channels using the same synthesis methods as the real sound chips.
- Controller input – Maps modern keyboard, mouse, gamepad, and touch controls to the original controller ports and buttons.
- Media loading – Allows games stored in ROM images to be run like inserting a cartridge or disc into the original system.
- Timing – Important for matching the precise timing that games relied on for gameplay, physics, and logic.
In many cases, emulators allow the internal resolution and other processing to be increased beyond the original hardware specs. But the overall architecture aims to identically reproduce the console environment.
Obtaining Game ROM Images
In order to run games on an emulator, you need files containing the game data itself. These are known as ROM images or ROMs and are digital copies of game cartridges and discs. There are legal ways to create your own backups, but most emulator users obtain full game sets online. While downloading these may violate copyright in certain countries, the law often turns a blind eye to small-scale game preservation.
Common sources for finding game ROMs include:
- Torrent sites – Large online piracy hubs like The Pirate Bay host torrents with full collections of game ROMs. Use a VPN for safety.
- ROM sites – Smaller sites focused just on hosting ROMs for download via HTTP and cloud storage.
- Fan pages – Enthusiast sites may have individual game ROMs available. Check social media and forums.
- Retro gaming Discord servers – Gaming communities often share Google Drive links to game libraries.
- Newsgroups – Usenet and its binary newsgroups contain many retro game archives.
Whatever your source, be cautious of malware risks from downloads. And avoid sharing the files publicly or selling them since they are likely copyrighted. Emulation should be for personal, non-commercial use.
Major Gaming Emulation Projects
There are mature open source emulators available for most retro game consoles and arcade systems. Some of the most popular projects include:
- Dolphin – GameCube and Wii emulator. Requires a powerful PC for best performance.
- Cemu – Emulator for Nintendo’s Wii U console, able to run games like Breath of the Wild.
- PCSX2 – Plays PlayStation 2 games. Also requires a modern fast PC.
- RPCS3 – New but promising emulator for Sony’s PlayStation 3.
- EPSXE – Long-running emulator for original PlayStation games. More accessible than PCSX2.
- PPSSPP – Plays PSP games with high compatibility across devices.
- DeSmuME – Nintendo DS emulator playable on phones, tablets, and computers.
- Citra – 3DS emulator still in development but able to run many commercial games.
- Dolphin – GameCube and Wii emulator. Requires a powerful PC for best performance.
Retro Console Emulators
- higan – Extremely accurate SNES emulator focused on preservation, from byuu.
- SNES9X – Compatible SNES emulator good for playing on weak PCs.
- Nestopia – Top choice for NES emulation for usability and library support.
- Kega Fusion – Combines Genesis, Sega CD, 32X, Master System, and Game Gear emulators in one.
- PCSX-ReARMed – Lightweight PlayStation emulator designed for ARM devices like the Raspberry Pi.
- EmulationStation – Frontend that provides a console-style interface for loading multiple emulators. Useful on set top boxes.
- MAME – Massive, reference-quality project to document and emulate arcade cabinets.
- FinalBurn Neo – Alternative multi-arcade emulator that may offer better performance.
- FB Alpha – FORK of FinalBurn focused on Capcom CPS arcade boards.
- Pinball FX3 – Popular digital pinball simulation with recreations of real tables from Williams, Bally, and Gottlieb.
Best Platforms for Emulators
Since most emulators have modest hardware requirements, they can be run on a variety of modern devices:
- Windows PCs – The most flexible option, capable of emulating a wide span of older systems smoothly. Useful for hooks into original controllers.
- Android devices – Phones and tablets work great for emulating simpler, 8 and 16-bit systems like NES, SNES, Genesis, and handhelds. Large screens and battery life make them very portable.
- Raspberry Pi – Tiny single board systems can readily emulate up to PS1 generation consoles. The affordable Pi Zero 2 is sufficient for 8 and 16-bit games.
- Retro game handhelds – All-in-one portables with integrated controls designed just for retro emulation. Options include the Anbernic RG353P, Retroid Pocket, and PowKiddy V90.
- Desktop Linux – Many emulators started on Linux. Lightweight distros can effectively emulate a broad range of older systems.
- Jailbroken iOS devices – iPhones and iPads can install emulators if you bypass Apple’s restrictions. Performance is generally very good.
- Mac – Works well for simpler emulated systems, but may struggle to run intensive 3D emulators without Windows compatibility layers.
Best Emulators for Key Platforms
With so many emulators available, it can be tough to know where to start. Here are some of the best free emulation options for major retro gaming platforms:
|Nintendo Entertainment System||Nestopia, Mesen, puNES, FCEUX|
|Super Nintendo||higan, SNES9X, ZSNES, Mesen-S|
|Nintendo 64||Project64, Mupen64Plus, 1964|
|Game Boy (Color)||Gambatte, SameBoy, mGBA, BGB|
|Nintendo DS||DeSmuME, MelonDS, DraStic (Android)|
|GameCube / Wii||Dolphin|
|Sega Genesis||Kega Fusion, Genesis Plus GX, BlastEm (web)|
|Sega Saturn||Yabause, Mednafen|
|Sony PlayStation||ePSXe, DuckStation, RetroArch PCSX ReARMed|
|MAME Arcade||MAME, FinalBurn Neo|
Optimizing Emulator Performance
Running demanding 3D emulators that recreate newer 32-bit and 64-bit systems requires solid PC hardware for ideal performance:
- CPU – A modern processor with high single thread speed is vital. Intel Core i5 or Ryzen 5 and up recommended. Ensure you’re not throttling.
- GPU – A DirectX 11 or Vulkan compatible discrete GPU with at least 4-6GB VRAM enables upscaling, AA, and shader enhancements.
- RAM – 8GB is sufficient for most emulators, but 16GB helps avoid slowdown in larger PS2 and Wii games.
- Storage – An SSD avoids long load times. Larger games take 50-100GB so plan disk space accordingly.
On Android, opting for a phone with a Snapdragon 8 series chip, high RAM counts, and fast storage will provide the best experience. The GPU is less critical for simpler 2D emulators.
Emulator Features and Display Enhancements
Beyond accurately replicating original systems, many emulators offer modern features to assist gameplay and enhancement visuals:
- Save states – Snapshots to instantly save progress anywhere ingame, often with multiple slots.
- Rewind – Backup in time within a game to retry difficult sections quickly.
- Cheats – Built-in cheat codes and hacks to unlock content or gain advantages.
- Fast forward – Speed up emulation to breeze through boring sections.
- High resolution – Renders at resolutions like 1080p and 1440p versus 320×240 or 640×480 originally.
- Widescreen – Stretches 4:3 display modes to fill modern 16:9 screens.
- Anti-aliasing – Smooths jaggies from retro pixel art using edge smoothing filters.
- Enhanced textures – Some fan mods update low-res textures to HD versions.
- Shaders – Post-processing visual effects that better mimic CRT displays or arcade monitor phosphors.
Controllers for Emulation
Playing emulated games with a proper controller greatly improves the experience compared to using a keyboard. Some good peripherals for emulation on PC and mobile include:
- 8bitdo SN30 Pro+ – Bluetooth gamepad designed for retro games with swappable SNES-style buttons.
- Sony DualShock 4 – Solid controller with gyro inputs and extensive PC/mobile driver support via USB, Bluetooth, or adapters.
- Xbox One Controller – Comfortable and ubiquitous modern gamepad good for analog-driven PS1/PS2 games.
- Mayflash DolphinBar – Wireless sensor bar works excellently for connecting Wii Remotes as accurate motion controllers.
- Ipega telescoping – Affordable Bluetooth controllers for Android that extend to clamp around your phone.
- Wired USB adapters – Lets you use original Genesis, NES, SNES, and other classic controllers with PCs.
- Arcade sticks – Joysticks and authentic arcade controls vastly improve fighting games and arcade ports.
Emulator frontends provide a central interface for organizing and loading your game library across multiple emulators:
- RetroArch – Extremely full-featured open source frontend playable on most platforms. Steep learning curve but very customizable.
- LaunchBox – Attractive Big Box frontend on PC with scraped box art and platform themes. Limited mobile support.
- EmulationStation – Designed to look like a game console UI. Best on Pi and Linux but works across platforms.
- Recalbox – Linux distro built specifically for emulation with controllers and TV mode in mind. Based on RetroArch.
- ArcBrowser (Android) – Robust mobile frontend with cloud syncing between devices. Supports LLC arcade control panels.
- Pegasus (Android) – Frontend focused on usability with automatic scraping and collections.
These platforms handle controller management, provide game browsing and searching, and often include functions like achievement tracking and cloud syncing.
Online Game Services
In addition to offline play, some emulators connect to services that facilitate online multiplayer:
- XLink Kai – Tunneling software to play system link games online. Works well for emulating local multiplayer on Xbox and PS2.
- Parsec – Service that streams your emulator screen to friends to play couch coop online.
- Wiimmfi – Custom server that has revived online play for many Wii and DS games. Integrates with Dolphin and DeSmuME.
- RetroArch netplay – Built-in netplay using rollback networking code to play emulated games online.
While imperfect, these services allow you to collaboratively play older games whose official servers were shut down years ago.
Legality and Ethics of Emulation
It’s important to point out that while emulation itself is legal, acquiring commercial ROM images may violate copyright in many regions. Every user must make their own decision on the ethics of their specific situation. There are a few common perspectives:
- Emulation helps preserve important history and enables play when original hardware fails. Many companies have abandoned old titles and platforms.
- For exceptionally old games, ownership rights are unclear. Copyright terms eventually expire, allowing cultural works to enter the public domain after ~70-120 years depending on the laws.
- Strictly personal small-scale use for titles you own causes minimal material harm compared to large-scale piracy operations.
- Developers who are still actively selling re-issues of their older titles via services like Virtual Console would likely object to unauthorized distribution.
- Certain societies argue that copying digital goods inherently deprives creators of profit, while others reject these assumptions in favor of broader public access and sharing of knowledge.
Moral judgement ultimately depends on your country’s laws, your own conscience, and whether the original works are still meaningfully available in the commercial marketplace.
Reliving gaming’s past through emulation provides an incredible window into the origins of modern interactive entertainment. It enables preservation of influential and beloved titles whose original media may be deteriorating. And it adapts these classic experiences to be playable on convenient modern hardware. With care and discretion around distributing copyrighted content, it can help maintain our cultural heritage in video games for future generations. Just be sure to support game creators by purchasing authentic retro systems and software when feasible.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is emulator use completely legal?
This depends on your specific situation. In many countries, downloading copyright ROMs is illegal but emulators themselves are legal under fair use provisions. Owning legal dumped copies of games you purchased may be permissible for personal archival use. Check your local laws.
What are the best settings for improving graphics in emulators?
Higher internal rendering resolutions, anti-aliasing, shader effects like CRT filters, texture filtering, and widescreen hacks/patches can enhance visuals. Take care not to overprocess pixel art though – simplicity is part of the retro appeal.
Can you play local multiplayer with emulators online?
Yes – XLink Kai and Parsec are solutions that enable tunneling or streaming emulated games online for multiplayer. This revives many older titles abandoned by defunct servers.
Do old light gun games work well with emulators?
Yes, most can map mouse input quite accurately. The DolphinBar also enables perfect Wiimote pointer control. MAME light gun games require a bit more setup but work decently.
What are the best controllers to use for retro game emulation?
For original authentic feel, USB adapters allow using real Genesis, SNES, NES and other classic pads. 8bitdo makes exceptional Bluetooth gamepads inspired by retro controllers. Xbox/PS4 controllers are great general options too.
Can you play emulators on a Raspberry Pi?
Yes, a Pi can handle emulators for systems up through the 16-bit era very smoothly. Even N64 is playable on a Pi 4. Add controllers and a case and it makes an awesome tiny retro gaming rig.
How do you setup arcade ROM sets and emulators like MAME?
MAME uses CHD images containing necessary BIOS files and ROM data. Its complex so use game manager tools like ClrMamePro. Final Burn Neo uses ZIPped ROMs making it easier to run games.
Are there legal ways to obtain game ROMs for emulators?
For personal use, you may be able to legally dump your own personal cartridges/discs using hardware solutions. Many very old commercial games where ownership rights are unclear are available on Internet Archive. Homebrew game ROMs are also fine to download.