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Emulators have changed the iPhone forever

Street Fighter emulated on an iPhone.
Nadeem Sarwar / Digital Trends

The iPhone App Store is finally home to a few emulators. For folks not into gaming, an emulator is software that allows you to run code from another platform. In this case, we are talking about emulators that let you play titles from retro game consoles (such as the Game Boy Advance) by taking the code installed on hardware (like a cartridge) and letting it run via apps on non-native machines (such as iPhones and iPads).

It seems fans have kept their eyes on this landmark development. Soon after its release, the Delta emulator app climbed to the top of the App Store download charts in 35 countries. An iPad app is already on its way. The momentum continued with the release of the Gamma emulator for PlayStation 1 titles. And last week, PPSSPP – arguably the best mobile emulator out there – landed on the App Store.

It’s a development that makes the iPhone more fun — and in more ways than one. The App Store — and especially the Arcade section — is already home to some visually stunning games. But they don’t command the kind of yearning that retro games elicit. These games are a beautiful recapturing of an era long gone. A touch of nostalgia. And there isn’t a platform more expansive and eligible than the iPhone.

Why now?

Castlevania game on an iPhone.
Nadeem Sarwar / Digital Trends

After years of being on the fence, Apple has finally warmed up to the idea of emulators. This came hot on the heels of massive changes it made to the iPhone ecosystem in the wake of market rule overhauls in the EU. There are multiple reasons that Apple has avoided emulators, with two core hurdles being legal gray waters and inherent platform fears.

I’ll give a brief primer on the legal situation here. Nintendo nuked the hell out of Yuzu, an emulator for the Nintendo Switch, over charges of allowing “piracy at a colossal scale.” Yuzu officially maintained that an enthusiast must own their own game BIOS — which means you are supposed to have bought a legal copy from Nintendo – before you dump the file and play it on a phone or a PC.

Yuzu did not even release pirated copies of games, nor did it sell product keys. But that was not Nintendo’s argument in the lawsuit. “Without Yuzu’s decryption of Nintendo’s encryption, unauthorized copies of games could not be played on PCs or Android devices,” argued the gaming giant. In the wake of a $2.4 million settlement, multiple developers stepped away from similar projects.

Delta emulator skin options on iPhone.
Nadeem Sarwar / Digital Trends

But the undertone is clear. Nintendo doesn’t want any other party to reap dollars at the expense of its own game coffers. Now, let’s shift the focus to Apple. The company isn’t really a fan of the apps-within-an-app formula. That’s also one of the key reasons Apple fought tooth and nail against allowing cloud-based game-streaming apps such as Microsoft’s Xbox on the App Store.

Why? Cloud-based games run atop a server, and that means you don’t need the latest fire-breathing silicon and thermally pampered hardware to play games. Even regulators are on the same lines. In Apple’s own words, it feared a world where “all that matters is who has the cheapest hardware,” and consumers could “buy a [expletive] Android for 25 bux (sic) at a garage sale and … have a solid cloud computing device” that “works fine,” says the U.S. Department of Justice in its lawsuit against Apple.

It’s not just about playing games

God of War on an iPhone.
Nadeem Sarwar / Digital Trends

Game emulation doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Of course, Apple must also be wary of the fact that Nintendo could come knocking at its doors for allowing apps (read: emulators) that are in copyright violation of its proprietary software.

Well, the attitude has relaxed toward emulators, at least on Apple’s end. And so far, neither Nintendo nor Sony have armed their lawsuit cannons against emulators targeting games released for retro consoles that are no longer officially sold.

A key aspect of emulation is keeping retro games alive. Games that are no longer officially sold — and are years and decades into the past — are revived and given a new platform to run. A healthy share of preservationists and retro game hobbyists believe that emulation is a great way to preserve old games that are at risk of getting lost forever.

Mario on an iPhone via an emulator.
Nadeem Sarwar / Digital Trends

It’s no small issue. In 2023, the Video Game History Foundation and the Software Preservation Network revealed that approximately 87% of classic games have vanished forever. That’s a massive chunk of gaming history lost to the tides of time.

But Apple’s relaxed attitude could breathe new life into those efforts, and I’m all for it. In fact, the kind of firepower that you get, even with a few-generations-old iPhone, is still enough to run almost any retro game emulator witouth a hiccup. That’s a lucrative incentive for developers.

Microsoft, which has committed to game preservation on the Xbox platform, would be elated at the developments. Of course, Microsoft would want to make some money while it’s at it. But for an average retro game enthusiast, including myself, the arrival of game emulators is great news and a sign of Apple loosening its grip in the right ways for a change.

I hope this streak continues

An iPhone 15 Pro Max laying face-down outside, showing the Natural Titanium color.
Joe Maring / Digital Trends

The arrival of emulators is a sign of another massive shift in policy. Apple is technically allowing you to obtain software code built for another platform, load it into an app, and then enjoy it on an iPhone. that sounds somewhat like letting the iPhone run software obtained from a place other than the App Store. Is the walled garden finally lowering its guard?

One of the reasons that the iPhone courts a lot of hate are how unnecessarily complex some basic processes are. Why do I have to move a picture from Photos to the Files app in order to be able to rename it? The entire file storage system is a mess. But Apple has been learning one step at a time.

The ability to set default apps, play picture-in-picture videos, customize home screen widgets, lock screen settings, have password-protected browser tabs, and access offline maps is a sign that Apple is slowly learning a practical trick or two from Android.

Allowing sideloading and expanding app payments in Europe this year is a sign of increasing “openness” in the Apple ecosystem. In retrospect, it’s almost unprecedented. Game emulators happen to be riding the first wave of this landscape change, one that is global and not restricted to the EU.

It’s a beautiful way of making a small concession, especially since it has a crucial game preservation aspect to it. But this is Apple at the end of the day. I am dearly hoping the precedent set by the embrace of emulators persists and encourages more liberty for an iPhone user in the coming years.

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Nadeem Sarwar
Nadeem is a tech journalist who started reading about cool smartphone tech out of curiosity and soon started writing…
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