From the days of the arcade to the battle royale craze, the video game industry has changed as much as it has stayed the same. Although the social aspects of gaming are still around, the design and scope of games have changed considerably. If you’re looking to relive the former days of gaming without dusting off your old console — or, worse, buying one pre-owned — our list of the best emulators will get you started on the right path.
What is emulation?
An emulator is a piece of software for your computer that functions as a virtual console, allowing you to play ROM files that work in a similar fashion to digital copies of your favorite cartridges or discs. Most of them do so by recreating the correct environment for games to function, often by using demanding games to determine how API calls should be rendered. As you might imagine, emulating newer consoles becomes tricky without high-end hardware, but even Android smartphones can emulate some older consoles.
The software is pretty easy to obtain — many emulators are freeware distributed as zip files, after all — but downloading your ROM files online presents a legal quandary since you might not actually own the game in question.
The issue is one of intellectual property. Emulators on their own aren’t illegal to use, they’re simply a custom compiler for certain applications. The actual game files, on the other hand, are a different story. Depending on where you are in the world, the laws regarding personal backups may vary, but the rule is generally that it’s okay to have a digital backup of a game you already own a copy of. Sites that host or share torrent links to copies of games do so for users who don’t have the means to back up cartridges or discs themselves.
The exception to this rule is the MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) program, which catalogs classic arcade titles and makes them available as an act of historical preservation. If you just want to play those titles, look no further.
One to rule them all – RetroArch
In the past, emulation was, more often than not, something of a juggling act. To play games that appeared on different consoles, you had to install and configure multiple programs — one for each console you wished to emulate. That could be a headache. These days, things have become streamlined and easier overall, thanks to a program known as RetroArch.
RetroArch is a program that acts as a hub for all your emulation needs. With it, you can download and install various emulation “cores” to the system, organize your ROMs and game files, and configure your experience through a single front end that makes emulation a breeze … once it’s set up. RetroArch’s open-ended flexibility gives the user a ton of control with which to customize and fine-tune their emulation experience, and for the most part, it’s easy to use.
From the download directory on the RetroArch, select your operating system and download the appropriate compressed files. Extract it into an empty folder, and launch the program by clicking the RetroArch executable or application file. If you don’t have a controller plugged in, use the arrow keys navigate about the menu, with the X key taking the role of the A button and the Z key taking the role of the B button by default.
Once inside, you’ll need to install some cores. You can actually install them from directly within RetroArch via the Online Updater. Once there, select Core Updater and scroll through the list of available systems.
The breadth of options available for RetroArch can make it overwhelming to use, however, and some emulators require extra steps for installation. Because there are often multiple cores available for each system supported by RetroArch, we’ve selected our top picks to save you some guesswork and allow you to get straight to your nostalgic waxing. If you’re planning on using any of the systems below, this is by far the easiest way to emulate.
|Nintendo Entertainment System||Nestopia UE|
|Super Nintendo Entertainment System||snes-mercury|
|Sega||Genesis X Plus|
You’ll still need the ROM files for the games you want to play, but because of their varying legal status, we won’t be sharing any links here. Suffice to say, they aren’t hard to find, but remember you’re likely only allowed to use ROMs for games you already own, depending on where you live. Save your ROMs in a folder, separated into subfolders by console. In RetroArch, navigate to Settings, select Directory, and choose File Browser Dir. Select the folder with your ROMs in it, and you should be ready to load them up.
A stand-alone emulator is likely the right choice if you’re looking to emulate just a single system, though, or if you’re put off by RetroArch for whatever reason. Luckily, we’ve included stand-alone picks for consoles and operating systems that are not currently supported by RetroArch. Check out each selection below for further details.
Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
The NES was heralded upon its debut (under the name Famicom in Japan) in ’83 as one of the greatest systems, if not the greatest system, ever built. Although the console didn’t make its way to the United States until ’85, it still managed to breathe new life into the flailing video game industry and set the gold bar for all future game endeavors. Simply put, the NES was revolutionary and spawned several of the most iconic video game franchises of all time, including Super Mario Bros, Mega Man, Final Fantasy, and The Legend of Zelda. And even though it is far less powerful than most smartphones today, it’s still just as awesome.
Stand-alone Emulator: FCEUX
The FCEUX emulator is the go-to emulator of choice for most of the NES community, and it couldn’t be easier to install and use. Simply download FCEUX from the Downloads page, use Ctrl+O or Open from the File menu, and select the ROM you want to play. There’s no need to extract them; like a lot of older ROMs, FCEUX can play them straight from the zip or 7zip package.
The all-in-one application offers features for both the casual and more advanced gamer, providing user-friendly tools for debugging, video recording, ROM-hacking, and creating speedruns. It’s essentially a merger of various forks — when developers take the source code of one piece of software and use it to develop something else — of FCE Ultra, a previous NES emulator. This means that it combines different elements from the assorted forks to create more advanced emulation software. Current ports include Windows, MacOS, and Linux, among others.
RetroArch core: NESTOPIA UE
Technically, the official Nestopia emulator is no longer being actively supported by its developers, hence the “UE” tacked onto the end of this version’s name. The UE stands for “Undead Edition,” as it is an unofficial continuation of the original Nestopia emulator. However, don’t let that fact dissuade you from using this as your NES core with RetroArch — it’s one of the best NES emulators compatible with RetroArch. It’s admittedly not quite as feature heavy as our stand-alone pick, FCEUX, but Nestopia UE is still one of the best. If you’re looking for an emulator that is still being updated, Mesen is a good alternative.
Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)
The NES may have been a hit in the United States and abroad, but the 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System took console gaming to a whole new level when it was released in Japan in 1990. Despite being introduced surprisingly late compared to other 16-bit consoles at the time such as the Sega Genesis, the SNES far outsold its competition. Some of the top-notch titles included Super Metroid, Chrono Trigger, Donkey Kong Country, and dozens of others.
Stand-alone emulator: SNES9X
SNES9X is the clear victor in the battle for the ultimate SNES emulator. It’s among the most compatible of any SNES emulator — it’s capable of running even the later Super Famicom releases — and also comes equipped with a ton of great features that have been continually honed and refined over the years such as image upscaling, video filters, cheats, and online multiplayer. The Turbo Mode is another awesome feature for power leveling and fast-forwarding through games that seem to move along at a snail’s pace. Ports include everything from Windows and MacOS to mobile versions for iOS and Android. SNES9X is also available as a core for RetroArch, should you choose to use it over bsnes-mercury.
RetroArch Core: bsnes-mercury
Bsnes-mercury is a SNES emulator core for RetroArch. It’s a fork of the BSnes emulator that has been steered toward adding in more robust functionality, such as the use of BIOS files, which is absent in our stand-alone SNES emulator pick, SNES9X. Bsnes is well-regarded for its clean code but bears a reputation of having moderately higher minimum requirements for machines running it than most emulation software, as it does not use any workarounds to achieve its emulation speed or ROM compatibility. This is especially true of the more robust feature set on Bsnes-mercury. That said, if you’re emulating on a Windows PC, you will likely be able to run the emulator and most games with no trouble.
Nintendo set the bar incredibly high for video game consoles, and subsequently itself. The company followed the critically acclaimed SNES with the Nintendo 64, the last of the cartridge-based consoles to hit the market (and one of the most expensive game-wise because of it). The 64-bit system wasn’t anywhere near as successful worldwide as its predecessor, but it did manage to ship 30 million units before it was discontinued in 2002. It remains one of the most recognized consoles to this day.
Stand-alone emulator: Project 64
Project 64 is one of the most compatible Nintendo 64 emulators out there and doesn’t require any sort of BIOS image like its PlayStation counterpart. The default plugins, though rather low-level in nature, work surprisingly well, closely mimicking the 64’s original audio and video components. The emulator isn’t too heavy on features, though there is multiplayer support, cheat functionality, and an intuitive tool for altering the aspect ratio without any unnecessary cropping or stretching that would compromise the original viewing experience. The emulator does a nice job recreating the experience if you have a decent graphics card and RAM. It’s a straightforward emulator, but a fine option, and one of the first to be introduced in the wake of UltraHLE’s unfortunate discontinuation.
RetroArch Core: mupen64plus
Mupen64plus is the only Nintendo 64 core available for RetroArch, and is therefore the sole option for RetroArch users wanting to emulate classics like Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Like Project 64, Mupen64plus is customizable through numerous options, settings, and plenty of plugins. It even has great cheat support, speed adjustment capability, dynamic recompilers for 32-bit and 64-bit machines, and Rumble Pak support. While we’re recommending the RetroArch core version of the emulator, there are also versions available for Windows, MacOS, Android, and Linux.
Nintendo GameCube and Wii
Nintendo finally hopped aboard the optical-disc bandwagon with the release of the GameCube in 2001, albeit with mini discs as opposed to the full-sized versions available on other consoles at the time. It was capable of better graphical output than the PlayStation 2, and even though it suffered from the smaller library, there were numerous classics exclusive to the platform like The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, Metroid Prime, and Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader.
Five years later, a crazy little contraption called the Nintendo Wii was introduced. Aside from updated graphics, the system also touted advanced motion controls and a virtual console hub where users could purchase and play selective titles from Nintendo’s past. The console garnered quite a bit of hype upon its release, and went on to outsell its much more powerful competitors, the Xbox 360 and PS3, and had a host of top-tier first-party titles like Xenoblade Chronicles and Mario Galaxy.
Dolphin is the one-and-only GameCube and Wii emulation software you should consider. The software performs just as well, if not better, than the original consoles ever did and comes loaded with some great features.
The trick here is that emulating Gamecube and Wii hardware requires a lot of computing horsepower. Only those with already impressive gaming machines will be able to achieve consistent performance. The frequently asked questions page on the Dolphin Emulator site should help you navigate any issues that arise, as well as determine hardware compatibility.
In addition to anti-aliasing and quick-save functionality, you can also play games in 1080p high definition, a feature the actual Gamecube and Wii lacked. Even syncing your Nunchuck is a simple two-click process, assuming your computer is equipped with a cheap Bluetooth receiver. Sure, it has a few bugs here and there, but the open-source software is constantly being updated and enhanced to address various flaws and compatibility issues. It may be your only choice for a GameCube and Wii emulator, but it’s also a terrific one, and available for RetroArch, Windows, MacOS, Android, and Linux.
Gameboy, Gameboy Color, and Gameboy Advance
The original Game Boy featured the return of 8-bit graphics, albeit in portable fashion. It was another huge success for Nintendo, selling more than 116 million units worldwide, and spurred a line of successors that would eventually lead to the Nintendo DS, the bestselling handheld gaming system of all time.
Stand-alone emulator: VBA-M
There may be a plethora of Game Boy systems out there, but one emulator seems to fit the bill better than any other: VBA-M. Like FCEUX emulator, VBA-M merges the best elements of multiple Game Boy forks into an all-in-one emulator (both as a core for RetroArch and stand-alone), featuring both grayscale and color options. VBA-M is available from SourceForge, and at time of publish, it’s being updated frequently, though the project has moved to GitHub.
Other noteworthy tools include various graphic filters, debugging tools, screenshot utilities, real-time IPS patching, a full-screen mode, auto-fire support, and a fast-forward button akin to some of the other more popular emulators on our list. Despite being spearheaded by multiple people at different times, and a general lack of updates in the past several years, the software has been ported to Windows, MacOS, and Linux systems as well as the GameCube and Wii. The stand-alone emulator requires the latest version of Microsoft DirectX to run properly, so be sure to update the software if you haven’t already.
Nintendo DS (and DSi)
The Nintendo DS (NDS) is the bestselling handheld of all time, and the overall second-bestselling dedicated gaming device of all time. The handheld is known for its massive library of games featuring titles aimed at every demographic of gamer, including the quiz/education Brain Age series, minigame collections like WarioWare: Touched!, and classics like Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow and Metroid Prime: Hunters.
Stand-alone Emulator: No$GBA
No$GBA (pronounced no cash G-B-A) began life as a Gameboy Advanced emulator, but is by far the most fully-featured Nintendo DS emulator, and one of the only ones with DSi support. It’s also the fastest NDS emulator, something that can be difficult due to the two screens and dual processors within the handheld itself.
Certain features of the DS console are not included (like WiFi and multiplayer), and some games have graphical or sound glitches, but for the most part, this emulator runs very well, with a robust list of compatible games. Mouse movements are used to simulated touch/stylus screen controls, so playing titles like Metroid Prime: Hunters or Cooking Mama is possible. Certain NDS games were played with the console sideways, and No$GBA features a setting to play such games with the screens oriented in that way. There is also a No$GBA debug tool that developers can use to test and debug NDS and GBA games.
DeSmuME is the best DS core for RetroArch, but it does have a few limitations, especially when compared to stand-alone emulators. Most notably, its DSi compatibility is lackluster, and the RetroArch core version doesn’t support BIOS files. However, those minor limitations aside, DeSmuME is one of the best emulators for DS emulation. It’s simple to set up and use, has a handful of graphical and audio options to tweak, and even supports GBA emulation.
3DS and Wii U
The Wii U and 3DS are fairly recent, though like most Nintendo consoles, emulators have already started accumulating. Both systems have a number of impressive exclusives, such as Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon on Wii U, and Monster Hunter Generations, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and Fire Emblem Awakening on 3DS. They’re comparatively young — the 3DS was released in 2011, and the Wii U in 2012 — but already there is a small but active scene working to make 3DS and Wii U emulation a reality … sort of. These emulators are young and aren’t recommended for general use yet. However, if you’re interested in emulation and the community around it, they offer a great place to jump in. Heck, you may even want to jump in and offer your services to help make emulating these modern machines a reality even sooner.
Stand-alone emulator: Citra (3DS)
Citra is a work in progress, but it’s come along surprisingly fast. You won’t be able to run any games at full speed, and even if you did, it’s likely they will be full of errors or glitches, or even completely lack any sound playback. It’s not unreasonable to think that you’ll be playing 3DS games in your PC at full speed and compatibility in the relatively near future, however. Now, this is of course very exciting, but it bears a massive caveat: The 3DS is still an active console. Nintendo is developing and releasing games for the system. This makes obtaining ROMs to run on the emulator even more precarious.
Stand-alone emulator: CEMU (Wii U)
Like the 3DS, Wii U emulation is in the early stages, with around 50% of the Wii U library playable, and requiring extremely powerful PC hardware due to the high resource needs. However, Wii U emulation does exist, and it’s actually coming along at a surprisingly quick pace, even faster than 3DS emulation in some respects, despite the more complex hardware. The sole Wii U emulator is CEMU.
A few months ago, programmers could barely get games to load; now, with the latest version of CEMU on particularly beefy systems with a fair amount of configuration, some users have gotten games like Mario Kart 8 and Twilight Princess HD to run relatively smoothly. Other games, like Mario 3D World, or Splatoon, can at least be started and might even load into the game, but are currently unplayable. We wouldn’t expect to find many of these games all that easily either, since they are still being made and sold by Nintendo, meaning the company is more likely to actively stop any attempts to pirate their software. That said, given the speed at which development seems to be moving, within the next year or two a decently equipped PC may be a feasible Wii U emulation machine.
Nintendo’s latest hybrid console has taken the world by storm, with excellent exclusives like Animal Crossing: New Horizons and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Although it’ll be more than a few years before you can properly emulate these games, there is an active Switch emulator.
Stand-alone emulator: Yuzu
Yuzu comes from the same makers as Citra, and unsurprisingly, development on the platform is moving at a brisk pace. The vast majority of the Switch library is either unplayable or nearly unplayable, but there are a few games you can give a shot. Super Mario Odyssey and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate work, but not well, while some indie titles like Super Meat Boy and Shovel Knight run with little to no issues. The bigger issue is finding ROMs for Switch. The console is only a few years old, and Nintendo shows no signs of slowing down development for it. If you want ROMs right now, you’ll need to resort to piracy, which we don’t recommend, even if you own the physical game.
Sega was always the Pepsi to Nintendo’s Coca Cola; the Domino’s to its Pizza Hut. During its heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, the company produced a hit-or-miss lineup of consoles and accessories, most notably the Genesis (hit) and the Dreamcast (miss). Regardless of its waning popularity, Sega created its own cast of video game superstars, including a blue hedgehog with lightning-fast agility. The Japanese company may have since shifted its focus from hardware to software, but it created a lasting ripple effect in the video game industry that can still be felt today.
Stand-alone emulator: Kega Fusion
Kega Fusion is the premiere choice when it comes to emulating Sega games on your computer. Although it doesn’t have emulation options for the Saturn and Dreamcast sadly, the comprehensive emulator still can run games fairly accurately from any other mainstream Sega console (i.e. Genesis, Game Gear, Sega CD, etc.). That being said, Fusion is compatible with almost every Sega game ever made for those systems, and features all of the basic features we come to expect from a rock-solid emulator including save states, cheat support, audio and video capture, online play, and various gamepad support.
The audio may sound a little off from time to time (the Yamaha YM2612 sound chip isn’t the easiest thing to accurately emulate), but the video is still as pixel-like as we remember it. Full-screen mode, upscaling, and various rendering filters are also at your disposal and ports are available for Windows, MacOS and Linux systems.
RetroArch core: Genesis X Plus
Like Kega Fusions’s stand-alone emulator, the Genesis X Plus is capable of emulating a wide variety of Sega consoles, including Genesis, Mega Drive, Sega/Mega CD, Master System, Game Gear & SG-1000. Genesis x Plus boasts full compatibility with the entire libraries of all supported consoles. That’s an impressive feat and gives you access to hundreds of classic titles. The RetroArch core version even includes support for BIOS files.
The Dreamcast was Sega’s final console before moving on solely as a game publisher. The console was impressive at the time of release — ’98 in Japan, ’99 in the rest of the world — boasting higher-quality 3D graphics than either the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation, as well as being the first home console to feature online multiplayer and web browsing. However, it was quickly overshadowed by Sony’s more powerful PlayStation 2 — in large part due to the PlayStation 2’s DVD playing capabilities. This lead Sega to ultimately discontinue the system just a few years later in 2001. Despite this, the Dreamcast went on to garner something of a cult following due to a number of classic games that were released exclusively for the console, including Shenmue and Phantasy Star Online, as well as a number of beloved fighting games like Soul Calibur and Dead or Alive 2.
The problem is, actually getting to play those classics is a longshot, because the Dreamcast emulation scene on windows is … well, dead, at least at the moment. There are a few stand-alone emulators, but they have since been abandoned by their development teams and left behind, going un-updated for months or even years. You can give DEMUL or nullDC a shot, but only a few games are fully compatible, and stability can often be an issue. Dreamcast emulation has mostly migrated to Android, with Reicast being the go-to emulator on that OS (it’s worth noting that Reicast is still in the earlier stages of development and compatibility is lacking). There is even a ReiCast core for the Android version of RetroArch.
PlayStation and PlayStation 2
Sony’s original PlayStation, later rebranded the PSOne, was the company’s first major play in the world of console gaming. The 32-bit platform has sold more than 100 million units since its initial 1994 debut and didn’t halt game production until almost 11 years later, a mere half a year before the launch of the PlayStation 3. Whereas Nintendo and Sega primarily targeted a young demographic, Sony aimed its new console toward slightly older gamers, essentially ignoring the sub-15 audience who were seemingly dead set on the other aforementioned consoles. It was a bold move, and one that successfully helped usher in the modern era of gaming.
Following it was the PlayStation 2, the top-selling game console of all time. With a staggering 3,800 game titles and the second-longest production run behind only the Atari 2600, Sony only announced the system’s discontinuation 13 years after its release. Needless to say, the PS2 was a huge success for Sony and included many notable enhancements not offered in the first PS, such as DVD playback and online gaming.
Stand-alone emulator: PCSX
Truth be told, there is no perfect PlayStation emulator out there, but the PCSX-Reloaded does a decent job of mimicking the original console. The emulator touts a nice set of standard features and robust compatibility that works accurately with most games, but also requires a few video plugins and an official PlayStation BIOS image in order to function properly — something that is technically illegal to download and distribute online. The stand-alone emulator supports Windows, MacOS, and Linux, and as a core for RetroArch known as “PCSX-Rearmed.” Although your graphics card doesn’t need to be top of the line, you’re going to need a bit more power under the hood when you make the jump to emulating fully-fledged 3D games. Emulating PS games and games for subsequent consoles is not as straightforward as the earlier systems, but it can still be done.
Stand-alone emulator: PCSX2
The PCX2 is basically your only option when it comes to emulating classic PS2 games on your computer. The software is compatible with most PS2 titles and is still being actively developed from the good folks who built the original PCSX. You will need to snag a BIOS file and a few plugins before you can play (which is just as legally suspect as downloading ROMs/ISOs), but the game does a decent job capturing the proper speed given that the software is trying to replicate the PS2’s multiple-core processor.
Configuration can also be a chore, but it’s fairly comprehensive if you tweak the settings for your machine using a little trial and error. The software supports Windows, MacOS, and Linux, but you’re going to want to ramp up your graphics card and computer capabilities if you really want to experience everything the emulator has to offer. Unfortunately, those looking for a RetroArch core version of PCSX2 — or really any PS2 RetroArch core at all — are out of luck. You’ll need to download the stand-alone emulator.
The PlayStation Portable (PSP) was Sony’s more expensive, more powerful answer to Nintendo’s DS handheld, and was released December ’04 in Japan and March ’05 in North America. The PSP was a haven for niche genres like JRPGs and experimental games. And thanks to features such as ad hoc multiplayer, media playback, web browsing, and even an analog control nub, the PSP was an impressive machine. In Japan, the handheld saw massive success thanks to being home at the time to one of Japan’s most popular gaming franchises, Monster Hunter. Many top-tier franchises had entries on the PSP, including God of War, WipeOut, and Final Fantasy.
Stand-alone emulator: PPSSPP
When it comes to PSP emulation, PPSSPP is really your only option and for good reason: The software runs incredibly well. On decent PC hardware, PSP games look and run better. The emulator has the capability of running games at twice their original resolution, effectively removing the “jaggies” on polygonal models that were caused by the PSP’s lower-resolution screen. In addition to that, the software is able to boost the resolution on certain textures that may have appeared blurry on the handheld’s screen. Unlike emulators for Sony’s home consoles, the PPSSPP doesn’t require any legally questionable BIOS files to run. It’s also available on the Google Play Store for Android.
It also has a number of fine-tuning options, as well as an impressive JIT (“just-in-time recompiler,” software that simulates PSP machine code). In some ways, the PPSSPP might be the better way to enjoy the PSP’s best games (if you’re willing to sacrifice the mobility of the original system, that is). That said, PSP emulation is tricky, and not every game is fully compatible, so keep that in mind. PPSSPP is available on Windows, Mac, Linux, and a vast array of other operating systems and devices, and is also available as a core for RetroArch.
If you don’t know what an arcade is — and sadly many people don’t anymore — we don’t really feel the need to explain. They were a great, short-lived idea that we wish were still around in every town today. Unfortunately, not every classic made its way to home systems either. Some were revamped and released on consoles as virtual titles or bundles, but official releases often seemed few and far between.
The Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME)
MAME is a great option for emulating the classic arcade games without the quarters. The software is supposedly intended strictly for preservation and historical purposes, but that can’t be properly done without actually playing the games in all their glory. Features are pretty minimal — aside from a full-screen mode — and stay true to their arcade roots despite technological advancements and the increased ROM compatibility over the years. MAME also supports Neo-Geo games that are difficult to emulate anywhere else, but unfortunately, the software hasn’t received an overhaul in a good while. You can also use MAME to emulate and create your own in-home arcade machines. It is available on Windows, MacOS, and Linux, and as a core for RetroArch.