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 game, 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.
Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
The NES was heralded upon its debut (under the name Famicon 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. The 8-bit system included titles from licensed third-party developers that produced and distributed software for the platform, resulting in hundreds of games. 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 phones today, it’s still just as awesome.
The FCEUX emulator is the go-to emulator of choice for most of the NES community. The all-in-one application offers features for the 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 then go off and develop something else off of it) of FCE Ultra, a previous NES emulator, combining different elements from the assorted forks to create more advanced emulation software. Ports include Windows, Mac OS X and Linux among others.
It may not have as many advanced features as FCEUX, nor is it being actively developed, but NEStopia is still another great option for a popular NES emulator – though it might not have as many features as FCEUX. Although it was originally a Windows exclusive, there are now ports for both Mac OS X and Linux systems.
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 other.
SNES9X is the clear victor in the battle for the ultimate SNES emulator. It is the most compatible of the two we recommend — 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 Mac OS X to mobile versions for the iOS and Android.
What ZNES lacks in title compatibility, it makes up for in sheer speed. The software doesn’t lag as much as SNES9X, and it still features all the great tools such as fast-forward functionality, image upscaling, online multiplayer, cheats, and more. Another awesome feature is the ability to rewind a game a few frames — something incredibly helpful during tough boss battles. It’s nothing fancy, but that’s what makes it so easy to use. Official ports include Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, and even an unofficial Xbox version.
Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy 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 best selling handheld gaming system of all time.
There may be a plethora of Game Boy systems out there, but one emulator seems to fit the bill better than any other. Like FCEUX emulator, VBA-M merges the best elements of multiple Game Boy forks into an all-in-one emulator, featuring both grayscale and color options. 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, Mac OS X, and Linux systems as well as the GameCube and Wii. The emulator requires the latest version of Microsoft DirectX to run properly, so be sure to update the software if you haven’t already.
Sega was always the Pepsi to Nintendo’s Coke, the Domino’s to its Pizza Hut. During its heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, the company produced a hit-and-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 Speedy Gonzalez-like agility. The Japanese company may have since shifted its focus from hardware to software, but it still created a lasting ripple-effect in the video game industry that can still be felt today.
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 from those systems ever made, 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, Mac OS X and Linux systems.
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 and showed that Nintendo still had a knack for churning out new heroes while reinventing old franchises in a 3D world. It also featured games like GoldenEye 007, and the first Super Smash Brothers game, which was really, really awesome.
Project 64 is one of the most compatible Nintendo 64 emulators out there and doesn’t require an sort of BIOS image like its PlayStation counterpart. The default plugins, though rather low-level in nature, work surprisingly well in 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 the aspect ratio without any unnecessary cropping or stretching that would compromise the original viewing experience. Visually it’s not as striking as the real thing, but the emulator does to a nice job recreating the experience if you have a decent graphics card and RAM. It’s a pretty straightforward emulator, but its a fine option that one of the first to be introduced in the wake of UltraHLE’s unfortunate discontinuation.
Mupen64Plus is another cross-platform plugin-based emulator that features standard compatibility with most 64 ROMs. Like Project 64, it doesn’t boast a wealth of notable features, but does have a great cheat function, speed adjustment capability, dynamic recompilers for 32-bit and 64-bit machines and Rumble Pak support if you choose to run the software on Linux. The most recent release, launched in March, addressed many previous issues and brought a few worthy enhancements to the new build. Mupen64Plus supports Windows, Mac OS X and Linux as well as a few other operating systems.
Nintendo GameCube and Wii
Nintendo finally got aboard the optical-disc bandwagon with the release of the GameCube in 2001, albeit with mini discs opposed to the full-sized versions available on other consoles at the time. In spite of being released rather late compared to its competitors, it lacked some of the standard hardware features available on competing consoles (i.e. DVD playback functionality), possibly leading to its sluggish sales numbers and limited game library.
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 it’s release, and went on to outsell its much more powerful competitors the Xbox 360 and PS3.
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. Aside from anti-aliasing and in-game save functionality, you can also play games in 1080p high definition, a feature lacked on the actual Gamecube and Wii. Even syncing your Nunchuck is a simple – two-click process assuming your computer is equipped with a cheap Bluetooth receiver at the very least. 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 despite being officially discontinued long ago. It may be your only choice for a GameCube and Wii emulator, but it’s also a terrific one and available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.
PlayStation 1 & 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 the youth demographic, Sony aimed their new console toward slightly older gamers, essentially ignoring the sub-fifteen audience who were seemingly dead set on the other aforementioned consoles. It was a bold move, one that also successfully ushered 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 recently announced the system’s upcoming 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.
Truth be told, there is no perfect PlayStation emulator out there, but the PCSX-Reloaded and ePSXe do a decent job of mimicking the original console. They both tout a nice set of standard features and a robust compatibility that works accurately with most games, but they also require a few video plugins and an official PS BIOS image in order to function properly — something that is technically illegal to download and distribute online. Both emulators support Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, but ePSXe is the only one of the two still in active development after a lengthy four-year hiatus. 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.
The PCX2 is basically your only option when it comes to emulating classic PS2 games on your computer. The software is compatible with more 2,000 titles (with more on the way) 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, 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. Features are pretty basic and the emulator is certainly flawed — a problem that plagues any software attempting to emulate modern games — but it’s constantly getting better despite its rather limited beginnings. Configuration can also be a chore, but it’s fairly comprehensive if you tweak the settings for your machine using a little trail-and-error. The software supports Windows, Mac OS X 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.
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 great, short-lived novel ideas 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.
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 apparently that can’t be 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. It is available on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.