The best console emulators
Emulate Super Nintendo, Playstation, Gameboy and Co on PCs, Macs and Android
Many enthusiastic gamers have had their first daddling experience with game consoles such as the Super Nintendo, Gameboy or Sega Mega Drive. With emulators you can bring these and other popular systems to life on PCs and Android devices. We looked at the best emulators and explained what to look for when downloading games.
With emulators you can not only use Android apps on Windows, Mac and Linux, but also play old treasured games for MS-DOS or consoles on modern computers or even the smartphone. Even the arcade machines known from amusement arcades can be brought home with it – or at least the games that were running on them.
Game emulators for classic handhelds and home consoles such as GameBoys, the Nintendo 64 or early generations of the Sony PlayStation are particularly popular. We took a closer look at many of the emulators and show you in our photo series which systems can be emulated on which platforms, which functions the emulators offer and which restrictions you have to accept.
What does an emulator do?
Emulators simulate hardware in the form of software. For example, the hardware structure of a GameBoy is imitated within a software environment into which data from GameBoy cartridges – so-called ROMs – can be loaded.
The aim of emulator development is usually to reproduce the performance and feel of the original console as accurately as possible. Quite often, however, only a basic hardware framework is imitated – often just enough to be able to emulate as many of the most popular games as possible in a stable manner.
However, these partial emulations are often a reason for errors, for example in the display. A supposed bug in a game can therefore be due to an imprecisely programmed emulator and not to the game or its ROM file.
Advantages and disadvantages
Getting to consoles from the 80s and 90s is not easy and very expensive. Emulators are an inexpensive and convenient alternative to keep the games of yesteryear alive. Another advantage over the hardware originals is that game data can be modified – for example, some emulator games have bug fixes and translations that players of the original have to do without.
Many games also benefit from the graphic power of modern PC systems, which can provide improved eye candy with shaders, anti-aliasing and higher resolutions. Some emulators offer online multiplayer modes – for example by simulating the GameBoy link cable – or status memory functions.
The latter allow a game to be saved at any time so that you no longer have to rely on the in-game memory function of the original games – which is often impractical or at least cumbersome.
However, not all that is emulated is gold either. In addition to the aforementioned legal gray area for ROM downloads, the emulator gambler has other stumbling blocks here and there. Emulators need a relatively high computing power so that everything runs smoothly and the original system can be reproduced “authentically”.
This not only applies to the emulation of newer consoles, but is also noticeable when emulating older devices. The very authentic SNES emulator bsnes requires at least a Core i7 with 3GHz, for some exceptional games even more. If you wanted to emulate a more sophisticated system like a Playstation 4 or an Xbox One, even modern computers would still be too weak.
For this reason, many emulators attach more importance to “simply” emulating as many of the games popular for the respective system as possible – or a few particularly stable.
In the case of emulators, authenticity always means high hardware requirements. So everyone has to decide for themselves whether gaming is important in itself, or whether it really has to be the exact look and feel of the console original.
An example: Due to the pixel technology of modern screens, older games usually appear much edgier and uglier than they did on old tube screens – after all, these were based on scanning per image line and not per pixel.
In order to bring this retro aesthetic – which is paradoxically more beautiful than the higher-resolution emulation – to life on modern systems in a way that is easy to digest for the eye, additional graphic elements such as shaders are required. This ultimately leads to higher hardware requirements.
Console emulators for Windows, Mac and Linux
The older the emulated system, the more and more stable emulators can be found for it. Therefore, one of the most stable emulators in our galleries include Nestopia Undead Edition, which is the NES console emulated, the SNES emulator Snes9x and Gambatte for GameBoy and GameBoy Color fans. For subsequent Nintendo generations such as the Nintendo DS or the Wii there is, for example, DeSmuME or Dolphin.
In many emulators, extensive settings can be made, which is often necessary to play the games. Some of the Playstation emulators in particular – above all the PS2-Emu PCSX2 – offer many setting options, but also require that you deal with them in more detail. Once you’ve done that, you’ll usually be rewarded with a performance boost. The same applies to some of the other candidates in our picture gallery.
For example, some of the N64 emulators, such as Project64 and CoolN64, can be given nicer game graphics with appropriate plug-ins and high-res textures – the latter even on Android devices. The emulator community of the popular N64 console is particularly active here and offers a lot of data for free online.
Nintendo’s first home console is the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES for short. The version sold in Japan differed optically and in a few details also in terms of technology.
The device was sold in Japan under the name Famicom. Many major game series have their origins on the NES, such as Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Mega Man, and Final Fantasy. There are many emulators for the NES, but Nestopia Undead Edition is considered the most accurate. Special features such as online multiplayer and an emulation of the Famicom Disk System, a hardware extension for the NES, round off the emulator.
In addition to emulators for classic devices – handhelds or game consoles – other platforms can also be mapped on modern systems. For example, if you want to play different retro adventures, you can either be lucky and, like many of our favorite retro games and classic games, have been adapted to modern systems, or you can get them to work in an emulator.
For many older games, DosBox is a prerequisite – but many older point & click adventures from Lucas Arts can also be played with ScummVM. From a technical point of view, this program is not an emulator, but an interpreter, which is why we do not present it separately in our photo series; In the end, however, it comes down to almost the same thing for the user.
A special emulator that is not listed in our gallery is MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator): with this you can play games that the older ones among us still know from arcade times and from arcade machines – and that without 50 Throwing in a penny for another game.
Play old console games on Android smartphones and tablets
Modern smartphones and tablets often have far more power than the consoles used to have. This makes them the ideal way to use emulators on the go. The SNES comes with Snes9x EX + on the Android device, with Mupen64Plus AE you can also play N64 ROMs on the go.
If you have a few euros left, you can also start Nintendo DS games on Android with DraStic DS Emulator or play Playstation with ePSXe on the train. RetroArch should also be emphasized.
This is a uniform, versatile user interface that not only emulates many systems, but can also run on many systems – including Android devices. All emulators presented in the gallery come with a virtual gamepad, but not every game can be sensibly controlled with it. Bluetooth gamepads, for example, can help – or you can use a gaming tablet with built-in control buttons.
Most mobile emulators save the game that is currently running and pause it so that calls or the like don’t endanger the high scores. Incoming iOS devices unfortunately have to remain outside the console emulation without workarounds, as Apple does not allow emulators in the app store. We go into the special features of the mobile versions of various emulators in the picture gallery.
Console emulators for smartphones and tablets
Snes9x EX + is a port of the Snes9x emulator for the Android system. Most games run smoothly and the emulator supports not only common Bluetooth controllers but also the official Wiimote, with which it automatically connects.
All roads lead to ROM: games and BIOS data for emulators
An emulator itself is only half the battle: in order to use it sensibly, you also need appropriate games that run on it. While the emulators represent the respective consoles, suitable games can be found in the form of ROM files or ISO images. These files contain exactly what is in the original games on the game modules, cartridges, CDs or DVDs.
In addition, some emulators require BIOS files that form the operating system for the hardware being emulated. In the vastness of the Internet there are many websites that contain BIOS files as well as ROMs and ISOs. However, caution should be exercised when using such sites: the games and BIOS data are almost always copies of copyrighted material that is illegal to distribute. Downloading this data falls into a legal gray area at least.
If you have the original consoles and games, then you can theoretically create private copies of all data legally with the appropriate copier hardware and then use them in appropriate emulators. However, this process is complex and time-consuming. Even copying game CDs you have bought yourself, such as those for the Playstation or Dreamcast consoles, is not possible by simply ripping it on the PC.
You don’t have to do without old-school fun, because the so-called homebrew scene provides game ROMs that they have created themselves for many emulators on various websites for download – one of the most popular and productive is ROM Library.
Many of these free games are based on popular originals such as Super Mario 64 and, unlike the original games, can be freely distributed and downloaded.