This story was originally published and last updated .
Right now, it’s not an easy time to be a gamer looking to play the latest and greatest titles. Between all the headaches you’d face trying to get your hands on a PS5, or afford a 3080 for your new PC rig without taking out a second mortgage, it’s enough to make you want to give up on the whole mess. But if you’ve got even a moderately powerful smartphone, and are willing to invest a little time, there’s a whole world of classic gaming waiting to be tapped into (on the cheap, no less) through the power of emulation.
For the better part of the past 35 years now, gamers have been using some clever software to reproduce the functionality of older consoles on newer hardware. By faithfully emulating the behavior of all the components that built up those gaming machines — everything from the CPU, to audio and video chips, to all input/output circuitry — and pairing that with a copy of the game software (most often referred to as the ‘ROM’) you can relive these classic titles without needing any of the original equipment.
While emulation got started on the PC, like pretty much all software these days, emulators have migrated to smartphones — and done so in spades. With the right app, and access to the right ROMs, you can play anything from a blocky Atari 2600 (or VCS to you cool kids) game to relatively modern Wii titles. So what do you need to start emulating?
Choosing your emulators
Unlike Apple’s App Store, Google Play is simply brimming in emulators
No matter where your tastes in gaming lie — whether you’re into home consoles, handheld devices, rich 3D worlds, or just some basic platforming — there’s an emulator that’s got you covered. Some only attempt to emulate a single console, while others might focus on a few related devices. The most ambitious try to emulate pretty much every system under the sun. Let’s start with just such a heavyweight: RetroArch.
It’s best to think of RetroArch like a framework: it’s not so much an emulator itself, but a front-end that lets you install “cores” that add support for various systems. There are dozens upon dozens available for download, letting you emulate anything from an NES to a PlayStation 2 or even modern consoles like the Nintendo Switch.
While support is impressively broad, and RetroArch offers lots of useful configuration options, it can really be a bit overwhelming at times — when you’ve got the option of installing half a dozen different Game Boy cores, how do you know which is best? So though it’s very powerful, this solution may be more geared to users comfortable with experimentation and tinkering.
The Switch may be Nintendo’s current portable console, but there’s plenty of gaming still left to be had from prior-gen systems, like the 3DS. This emu’s a relative newcomer to the scene, only arriving for Android last year, but it’s already made quite the name for itself. The Nintendo 3DS emulator taps into your smartphone’s hardware to even support features like the console’s front-facing camera and motion controls. While it’s still technically in early access, development’s continuing at a nice pace, and compatibility is only getting better.
It’s important to note that Citra will only function with decrypted 3DS ROMs. If you’re getting errors along this line, try using a tool to decrypt your files.
DraStic is just what it sounds like: a Nintendo DS emulator. DS is easily one of the most popular platform to emulate on Android, and DraStic is well-loved for good reason. It runs well, supports a lot of customization and configuration, and even supports things like saving your save status to Google Drive so it syncs across your devices. Fancy.
It does cost $5, but the consensus is that it’s well worth it. Updates have slowed a little recently, but when support’s already this good, you really don’t a new release every month.
Sticking in the Nintendo camp, Dolphin is another multi-system emulator, but one with a much tighter focus: Dolphin works with the GameCube and Wii (fitting, as those two are essentially the same system). Even though we’re emulating modern 3D-heavy games, both performance and compatibility are pretty impressive, letting you get your Smash Bros. on while on the go.
Sega consoles may be a thing of the past, but the great games live on
The Dreamcast may have signaled Sega’s exit from the hardware scene, but dammit if it didn’t leave us with a few really quality games along the way. Android users have both Reicast and Redream to consider, so if you face any glitchy operation on one (and with a system as complex as the Dreamcast, that’s to be expected), give the other a shot.
Many emulators are labors of love by a small team of dedicated hobbyists, and while that means you can find lots of really nice free software out there, sometimes it’s worth tossing a few bucks to a dev who’s put together a particularly nice effort. ePSXe is just such a highly regarded PlayStation emulator, though it faces some stiff competition from FPse.
Everbody’s got that one console that holds an extra-special place in their heart, and for me that’s the noble Super Nintendo. The great thing about hardware from this era is that the emulation’s really come a long way, offering a play experience that can be nearly identical to the real thing.
My Boy! / My OldBoy!
After the NES itself, the Game Boy has one of the longest emulation histories, so it’s little surprise that current apps like these two are extremely full-featured and offer excellent compatibility. My Boy! handles all your Game Boy Advance titles, while My OldBoy! supports the original Game Boy and subsequent Color model. Both are paid apps, but advanced features like support for virtual link cables help these two stand out among some healthy competition.
I’d be remiss to bring up SNES and turn a blind eye to Genesis — wars have been fought over less. Coming from the same dev as Snes9x EX+, MD.emu supports hardware ranging from the lowly Master System up to the Sega CD add-on.
With the world’s games at your fingertips, what are you going to play first?
Psst, hey buddy, want some ROMs?
There’s nothing sketchier in the emulation world than bridging that gap between “I’ve downloaded my emulator” and “let’s play some games.” It’s a mire of intellectual property law, copyright, and chasing down broken links on some of the most malware-looking websites you’ll ever visit.
The problem is that emulation doesn’t do you any good without some games to emulate, and getting your hands on that software in an appropriate format can be tricky; it’s easy to buy a used cartridge or CD, but neither one can be accessed by your phone. You may have some success pulling files off an optical disc with your PC, and if you’re really lucky you may have access to cartridge dumping hardware, but most of us are going to look online for games.
While you could just dive right into Google, searching for “NES ROMs” or what have you, a surprisingly robust ROM resource has emerged in the form of Archive.org. Search by console name and a keyword like “ROM” or “collection” and you are going to find a lot of hits. Keep digging around, and you might just hit the mother lode. Just make sure you do the honest thing and only download ROM files for games you actually own. And if you’re pulling a lot of Archive bandwidth, think about making a donation.
The Internet Archive: what isn’t it good for?
With older systems, this tends to be all you need to get up and running, but others will require some additional system files — often a BIOS dump — in order for the emulator to operate. Thankfully, the Archive is awash with these too, so your biggest headache here will probably just be figuring out where on your phone each emulator expects you to place these files.
By now you’re all set up to be emulating some of your favorite games, but there’s still one step to go before we’re actually playing them: input. While games built from the ground up to work on smartphones do their best to work within the limitations of touchscreen control, a 30-year-old NES game is going to be operating at a disadvantage.
All of these emulators attempt to make do with on-screen virtual controls. With enough practice, maybe you could learn to operate them without being constantly annoyed, but there’s no mincing words here: they suck. If you want to run emulators on your smartphone and not end up hating your life, you’ve got to pick up a dedicated controller.
The perfect controller for Android emulation action may already be in your living room
The good news is that you’ve got tons of options, and might not even need to go shopping for anything new. If you’ve got a system like a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, you can probably just pair your existing controllers over Bluetooth with your Android phone. Failing that, there’s no shortage of affordable wireless controllers available, like the 8Bitdo model you see peeking out all the way up top. And if you’re really looking to score some retro cred, you could even hook up a wired USB controller. But no matter what, pick one, just so you’re not stuck rubbing your screen like an idiot.
You’ve got your emulator, set up its BIOS files, assembled some of your favorite ROMs and disk images, and now you’re all set in the control department. It’s time to kick back, microwave up some Bagel Bites, and settle into a well-deserved classic gaming marathon.
The emulation scene continues to make inroads on handsets, and every year we see more and more high-quality software emerge for mobile. Combined with the always-growing power of smartphone hardware, emulation continues to become an increasingly viable option for gamers looking to keep things fresh by turning an eye to the past.