The rise of smartphones has led to a renaissance for a lot of classic games, but ports don’t always live up to the nostalgic glory of the original. If you’re craving some gaming action from yesteryear, then consider installing an emulator.
You can find plenty of Android emulators in the Google Play Store, just in case you want to bring your old consoles back to life. Thanks to assiduous accessory makers, you can also pair a lot of these emulators with special Android gaming controllers, rather than using the on-screen buttons.
We’ve picked out some of the best emulators for Android and listed them below.
A note on emulators
Emulators are legal to download and use, but you should exercise caution with games.
There’s a lot of abandonware readily available, so you can often find public domain games to play without legal worry. However, ROMs pulled from game cartridges and discs are illegal to obtain if you don’t own a physical copy. For instance, you can get in legal hot water if a copy of Super Mario 64 is discovered on your PC and you don’t own a Nintendo 64 console or a copy of the game.
That said, downloading or offloading a game you currently own isn’t a problem — just don’t distribute it. Hoarding games you don’t own is called piracy. Some emulators will also require you to provide the BIOS, which can also be illegal unless you also own the console.
An added bonus for Chromebooks
Most modern Chromebooks support Google Play, so you can install Android-based emulators as you would on any other Android device. The downside is that you might not have a touchscreen, and emulators may not have the necessary tools to convert mouse and keyboard input. You will likely need a wired controller, like the PS3 DualShock 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Switch Pro, or others. The upside is that, in most cases, you can play in fullscreen mode.
Citra Emulator (Nintendo 3DS)
The Nintendo 3DS is a weird handheld to emulate due to its two-screen design, but this emulator pulls it off with flying colors. Given it targets single-screen devices, everything you need is either crammed onto a transparent layer or pushed to the right (or bottom) to emulate the second screen. It’s one of the newer emulators on Google Play, listed as an “Early Access” app. Still, it’s packed with loads of awesome features like gamepad support, motion controls, texture filtering, and more.
Dolphin (Sega Dreamcast)
The best console Sega ever created was the Dreamcast, hands down. It was the first console with an internet connection (56K) along with mouse and keyboard support via Quake III Arena. Sega abandoned ship rather quickly, but you can still relive all that Dreamcast greatness through Dolphin. It’s one of the older Dreamcast emulators to date and the recent 2018 overhaul takes advantage of newer hardware for a smoother, more native experience.
M64Plus FZ (Nintendo 64)
Oh, the good ole’ days of playing Hexen 64 (shown above), Doom 64, Super Mario 64, and GoldenEye 007. Where has all the time gone? You can relive those precious memories with this great Nintendo 64 emulator. What’s great about this app is that it scans your device and creates a clean library complete with box art. Just tap on your game and you’re back in 1996. It’s highly customizable too, allowing you to switch between a long list of emulations, or add your own. The $4 Pro version adds support for SD cards and GDrive cloud backup.
Anyone who wants to turn the clock back to the days when arcades ruled needs to check this out. MAME stands for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, and the Android version supports more than 8,000 different ROMs. For more demanding games, you’ll want decent hardware, and you might run into trouble with performance.
My OldBoy! (Nintendo GameBoy Color)
We can’t have a “best of” list without this GameBoy emulator. It runs both the original monochrome and GameBoy Color games. Highlights include Link Cable emulation, GameShark code support, a fast-forward component to skip all the long, boring drab, and more. The $4 paid version removes ads, speeds up the fast forward feature, adds data syncing with Google Drive, and more. If you’re more of an “advanced” gamer, the $4 My Boy! app emulates the Game Boy Advance.
PPSSPP (PlayStation Portable)
If you want to run your Sony PSP games on your Android device, then PPSSPP is the emulator for you. You can use it to play free homebrew games, or dump your own PSP games in .iso or .cso format. You can even transfer saved games from your PSP. Not everything runs perfectly, and slow down is pretty common, depending on the Android device you use. That said, you will need a decent set of specs to run games.
If you’re going to be basking in a variety of old game consoles, then you might fancy an emulator that covers all the bases. RetroArch is an open-source engine that actually pulls in other open-source emulators. You’ll find options for the NES, SNES, PlayStation, Sega Genesis, N64, and a whole lot more. Select the one you want to run when you launch RetroArch.
Snes9x EX+ (Super Nintendo)
This free SNES emulator is open source, and compatible with the vast majority of games. You need an Android device with at least a 1GHz processor, which isn’t going to be a problem nowadays. It comes with Bio Worm, and you can add ROMs to your internal storage or SD card. As long as games are in .smc or .sfc formats, then they should work just fine. There are also no ads, which is a rarity for a free app.
2600.emu (Atari 2600) ($3)
Who can resist some old school Atari action? This 2600 emulator is open source, and it runs well on the majority of Android smartphones. You’ll need ROMs in .a26 or .bin formats, and zipped files will work just fine. It also supports save states and some controllers via Bluetooth.
C64.emu (Commodore 64) ($4)
If you have fond memories of the Commodore 64, you can relive those early 80’s games with this emulator. It supports a wide variety of file formats, and you should be able to get a Bluetooth keyboard or gamepad working with it.
DraStic DS Emulator (Nintendo DS) ($5)
Here’s a Nintendo DS emulator that’s impressively fast and stable. You can save and resume at will, fast-forward the gameplay, use various controllers, and sync saved games via Google Drive. You can also tweak the size and placement of the DS screens.
DosBox Turbo (MS-DOS) ($3)
This is a DOS emulator that will run your classic DOS and Windows games on your Android device. It’s optimized and runs fast, but you’re likely to encounter the odd random crash — just like DOS programs! It has full mouse, keyboard, and joystick emulation, as well as a host of other features (including LAN support) that make it the best option in the Play Store right now.
FPse for Android (PlayStation One) ($4)
If you want PlayStation One action, then look no further. This emulator is solid, it’s compatible with the vast majority of games in various formats, and it’s easy to use. It supports real-time saves, game compression, and a host of controllers, including the PS3 controller. It’s well worth the money.
MD.emu (Sega Mega Drive / Genesis / CD / Master System) ($5)
Anyone pining for Sega’s world of gaming will love this emulator. It covers the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, CD, and the Master System. If you’ve got a fast enough device, this is going to run pretty much anything, and it covers .bin, .smd, .gen, and .sms formats, in zip files if you prefer. Sound quality and stability are excellent, and there’s cheat code support for .pat files.
NES.emu (Nintendo Entertainment System) ($4)
You’ll enjoy solid NES game emulation with this app. It also emulates the old Zapper gun, and some other bits and pieces. It will read zipped ROMs in .nes or .unf formats, and it can handle .fds files with a Famicon BIOS. With save-state support, configurable controls, and backup memory, it has everything you need.
Can’t get enough of old games? Take the retro action to your PC with our list of the best PC gaming emulators, and our guide on how to build a gaming PC for under $500. And since you can’t live in the past all the time, here’s our list of the top 25 Android games of the moment.
- The best console emulators (NES, SNES, Genesis, and more)
- Nintendo Switch vs. PS4
- Nintendo 2DS XL vs. Nintendo 3DS XL
- The best PS1 emulators for Android and PC
- The best retro gaming console for 2021