Video game consoles ebb and flow like any other piece of technology in this world, rising and falling in popularity based on the latest-and-greatest system and the next must-have game. The evolution is so quick that we often forget there was a time when Nintendo was the king, when the PlayStation was considered groundbreaking for using compact discs, and Sega was still doing something other than milking that blue hedgehog for all he’s worth.
Needless to say, video games have come a long way from the heyday of cartridge-based functionality and 2D, side-scrolling masterpieces. But just because a game is old doesn’t mean it’s no longer fun — ahem, Mario Kart 64.
What is emulation?
That’s where emulators come in. 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. The software is pretty easy to obtain — many emulators are freeware distributed as zip files — but downloading your ROM files online presents a legal quandary since you might not actually own the game in question.
Picking an emulator
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 tons of control with which to customize and fine-tune their emulation experience, and for the most part, it’s easy to use. Extract and install the program, then use the UI to to download cores for your desired system. That said, the breadth of options available for RetroArch can make it overwhelming to use, and some emulators require extra steps to install. 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 get straight to your nostalgic waxing.
In addition, we’ve also included our picks for standalone emulators, should you choose to forego using RetroArch. A standalone emulator is likely the right choice if you’re looking to emulate just a single system, or if for whatever reason you’re put off by RetroArch. Similarly, we’ve included standalone picks for consoles and operating systems that are not currently supported by RetroArch.