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 undisputed king, when the PlayStation was considered groundbreaking for using compact discs, and when Sega still was 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 eight-bit, 2D side-scrolling masterpieces. However, just because a game is old and was made for a defunct system, that doesn’t mean it isn’t still fun.
That’s where emulators come in. An emulator is essentially 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.
Regardless, here are our go-to picks for the best video game system emulators so you can relive those beloved classics or experience the youth you never had. Keep in mind that although the emulation software for a particular console does its best to mimic the original hardware, it will be flawed and never truly replicate that experience you had as a kid. But it sure can try.
Updated 5-13-2015 by Brendan Hesse: This article has been updated to include emulators for PSP, Sega Dreamcast, and Nintendo DS, as well as minor updates to reflect existing emulator functionality.