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They Don’t Make Games Like They Used To, so Get an Emulator

A pile of old game cartridges

Modern games can be amazing in many ways, but think of the hours you spent memorizing the fatalities in the original Mortal Kombat or getting ripped apart by dogs in Resident Evil 1 and you’ll get a warm feeling. If you want to experience all of that again, it isn’t difficult.

Companies have tried to fill the gap with ports and remasters of old games. Both of which make them playable on modern devices. However, those remakes and reboots leave a lot to be desired.

Splatterhouse received a godawful reboot during the PS3 era, Golden Axe sequeled itself to death around 2008, and Micro Machines never replicated the chaotic fun of the first couple of games.

So, can you go back to the good old days? Sure. Any game can theoretically be emulated. Current hardware and software limitations only make emulating current and previous generation consoles difficult, so any nostalgia itch will be easy to scratch. Here’s what you can currently do and how you can do it legally.

What Emulators Are

A pair of NES controllers
Aaron Brafa/Shutterstock.com

An emulator is essentially a program that runs software on a device it isn’t designed to run on. Your phone is not designed to run Nintendo 64 games and Nintendo 64 games certainly weren’t designed to run on cellphones that did not exist at the time.

An emulator creates a virtual version of a device that can run those games. The software in question mimics original hardware and runs the game on top of that—so emulation requires more computing power. Technology has advanced to the point where processing power isn’t an issue when running most emulators.

Emulators also tend to be specific to a type of device. Want to run a DOS game? You need a DOS emulator. PlayStation 2 fan? You need a PlayStation 2 emulator, and so on. Some emulators can combine multiple similar systems. For example, Kega Fusion can play files designed for a variety of Sega consoles. Some emulators can also “update” older games by adding features like pausing or saving game states.

Where To Get Game Files

A cartridge dumper
Color Tree

Emulators themselves are perfectly legal. But getting game files to use with those emulators is a bit of a legal grey area. A case related to someone using an emulator to play a game on another device has never gone before a court, so there are no precedents or certainties to draw on. However, our sister site HowToGeek did consult a law professor about the legal aspects of emulation.

The consensus seems to be, ripping a game from an old cartridge or CD you own for personal use would fall under fair use. You can make additional copies of games you own, provided you’re the only one using them. Sharing the files afterward or downloading copies of a game you don’t own would be illegal.

So dig through the cupboard, pull out your old favorites, and digitize them. For CD and DVD-based games, a PC or laptop CD drive and some software will be enough to rip the game files. It is possible to play CD and DVD-based games directly from the disks—but ripping the files can provide superior load times and reduce the possibility of damaging your disks.

Older games that came loaded on cartridges require some specialist hardware. You’ll need a “cartridge dumper” specific to the kind of cartridge you want to digitize.

Once you have the files, you need a way to play them.

Your PC or Laptop Can Do a Lot

As mentioned earlier, emulation requires significantly more processing power than the original device had. Modern PCs and laptops have computing power in abundance and offer an easy way into emulation.

Most modern gaming PCs and laptops should be able to emulate anything up to seventh-generation consoles (which includes the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360) without too much of an issue. Any problems will probably come from the emulation software.

Although digitizing older cartridge-based game files is complex, playing them on a PC or laptop is simple. Emulators can cover a whole family of consoles; for instance: Kega Fusion will emulate anything from one of Sega’s systems. Install the emulator, select the game file, and you’re ready to play.

For CD and DVD-based games, your ripper should be able to save the files as an ISO—which essentially bundles the game into one file that mimics the original disk. The ISO file then needs to be mounted on a virtual drive. Then boot your emulator, choose your virtual drive, and that’s all there is to it.

Controllers are also simpler on PC, with modern XBOX and PlayStation controllers either being plug and play via USB or easy to hook up with Bluetooth. USB versions of classic controllers are widely available if you want that nostalgic feel. And there’s always your keyboard and mouse if you’re going to avoid purchasing other accessories.

Your Phone or Tablet Allows You to Play Old Games on the Move

A Surface Duo playing Mario 64
Josh Hendrickson / Review Geek

Emulation apps are also widely available on cellphones and tablets. The Google Play Store and Amazon have a range of emulators you can download for free—including emulators for every pre-Millenium console. There is even an in-development build of a PlayStation 2 emulator. Download an emulation app for the console of your choice, upload some game ROMS onto your phone, show the emulator where those files are, and you’re good to go.

Unfortunately, due to an App Store policy banning emulators, iPhone and iPad users will need to put a little bit more effort in. You can jailbreak the phone, but jailbreaking will leave your phone open to security risks and will void your phone’s warranty. The Alt Store does not require you to jailbreak your phone and does not ban emulators. So, get that up and running, load your new emulator with files, and you should be ready to retro game on the move.

While there are benefits to mobile emulation, there is a downside. A significant issue relates to controls. Retro game control systems are clunky compared to modern efforts—and that only gets worse when you’re playing with a virtual controller. Hooking an actual controller up to a phone can be a bit of a pain. Having to carry a controller with you also makes mobile emulation a bit less portable and convenient, which would take away your phone’s main advantage when it comes to emulation.

You Can Make a Specialist Device

A raspberry Pi in a N64 case

If you want to be a little more hands-on, you can make a dedicated portable emulator from a Raspberry Pi. Your dedicated emulator is highly customizable and can meet specific needs. You can attach a small screen and make a portable all-in-one device, or you can turn your Pi into a miniature version of a classic console.

The handheld option is more expensive as you’ll need a small screen, a speaker, and a built-in controller of some kind. All of the parts you need can be purchased separately or together as part of a kit. A mini-console can use any Pi case, plug into a TV via an HDMI cable, and full-sized console controllers can connect via USB.

RetroPie offers a range of emulation software covering every console, including the PlayStation 2. The software is free, and RetroPie has also provided a detailed installation guide to get people up and running. All versions of the Pi are supported, but RetroPie recommends a Pi 4 as that is the latest and most powerful version.

Although your emulator will work without a case, you should have one. Not only does a case protect your device, but it adds a lot of aesthetic value. You can buy or 3D print everything from a basic Raspberry Pi cover to elaborate copies of classic devices with built-in screens and speakers.

You Can Also Buy a Pre-Built Emulator

A Sony PlayStation Classic

You may even own one already. Backward compatibility, which allows consoles to play games from older consoles, relies on emulation. Not all older games are playable, but the Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S have a list of older games all the way back to the original Xbox that will play on the consoles. Much like discussed earlier, the new Xbox consoles actually emulate full Xbox 360 and original Xbox hardware, complete with bootup sequences to make backward compatibility possible.

Official emulators for classic consoles, like the Sega Genesis, PlayStation One, and the SNES Classic, are on the market. The official emulators look like smaller versions of the original consoles, come pre-loaded with games instead of relying on disks or cartridges, and contain modern features like HDMI ports.

The downside is that the official emulators are more expensive than many DIY options, and the game selection can be limited—the PlayStation Classic only comes with 20 games, the SNES has 21.

Dave McQuilling Dave McQuilling
Dave McQuilling has spent over 10 years writing about almost everything, but technology has always been one of his main interests. He has previously worked for newspapers, magazines, radio stations, websites, and television stations in both the US and Europe. Read Full Bio »