We live in a period when newly released games are reaching mind-boggling levels of the realism of graphics and gameplay variety and innovation. However, it all comes at a rather hefty price, as in getting the rig that’s strong enough to run these games smoothly; all that can cause headaches. If, on the other hand, you’re a member of the ‘older’ gamer generation, you surely feel nostalgia towards the yesteryears, when Super Mario and old school Zelda was the bomb. Luckily, with the development of technology, we’ve come a full circle and those old games, whose original consoles we don’t even own anymore probably, are once again playable, but this time through emulators on our PCs, mobile phones, and consoles. Here’s the list of emulators that make our favorite retro games run the smoothest on new-age machines we’ve compiled.
Like Tolkien’s famous book trilogy says – one emulator to rule them all! RetroArch seriously has it all and not only is it a game emulator, but it’s also able to run old software of other types, such as multimedia players and libraries, like FFmpeg. It supports all the vintage gaming consoles, as well as some old school computer prototypes, such as Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and Thomson computers, and even programming languages, like CHIP-8. It also runs on multiple devices and OSs: Windows, Linux, macOS, Android, iOS, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, Raspberry Pi, even on web browsers through a compiler called Emscripten.
RetroArch begun as SSNES and its initial purpose was to replace bsnes/higan’s Qt-based interface, but over the years more cores were developed and it grew into a stand-alone cross-platform emulator. It was created in 2010, renamed to RetroArch in 2012, and its latest release was a little over a month ago at the time of writing – the beginning of August 2020. It’s been on Patreon for four years now, which spurred more motivated maintenance and development. It also serves as a base for a Linux distribution Lakka.
The most redeeming quality of RetroArch is, obviously, using one emulator to play games from different platforms without having to juggle and set up multiple individual emulators. It’s free, it’s open-source and it’s very flexible in terms of organizing and customizing your ROM files and playlists. Admittedly, it doesn’t have the simplest setup out there, but worry not, as there are plenty of detailed tutorials on how to set it up to suit your preferences, moreover, it does automatically set up controllers. An interesting feature, so to say, is that it renders your mouse completely useless – you have to use arrow keys, Enter and Backspace to navigate around. Another fun thing is, it has an achievement system akin to Steam’s, so it gives some sense of progress and accomplishment that maybe wasn’t as present in old school games as it is today – even the more ‘static’ games, like The Sims 4, have an achievement system nowadays.
Depending on which console you want it to emulate, RetroArch will use a different core. Some of the more famous ones are Nestopia UE for NES, bsnes-mercury for SNES, mupen64plus for N64, Genesis X Plus for Sega Genesis, and DeSmuME for Nintendo DS. Now onto other stand-alone emulators, for those who only need a specific console.
FCEUX is a stand-alone emulator for Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) is the most popular and probably the best NES emulator currently. It’s very simple to use – just open your ROM of choice, no need to unzip it, it will read it automatically by itself, as is the case with most emulators. For the more advanced users, it offers tools for hacking the ROMs, map-making, and debugging; there is also video capturing options for the aspiring YouTubers out there.
MAME or Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator is what its name suggests – an emulator that takes us back to the days of arcade machines at various fairs, bars, restaurants, and other public places, where we struggled to reach the controls and see the screen properly as wee kids. Unlike the majority of other emulators, the MAME dev team doesn’t allow hacking or modding the games in any way that would make them run differently than they did, even at the cost of performance quality – the philosophy behind this is “You want arcade games? You get an authentic arcade game experience.”
MAME, however, is not too user-friendly, as it has no graphic user interface (GUI) and requires the usage of command lines to be set up. Luckily, there is extensive documentation provided by developers themselves that should help with this tedious task. If it’s still too much, you can always turn to RetroArch!
This emulator is meant for Sega Genesis, a system that has always kind of been in Nintendo’s shadow, but has nevertheless produced some iconic games, most notably Sonic the Hedgehog. Although Kega does offer support to some other Sega systems, such as Game Gear and 32X, it doesn’t support some of the more popular ones, like Saturn and Dreamcast. Nevertheless, this emulator is still the best for most Sega games, and it offers various features, such as multiple save slots, cheats, and even online playing options.
RetroPie is technically not an emulator, but a Linux distro for Raspberry Pi, but its sole purpose is playing vintage games from multiple retro consoles. There are a lot of full installation guides on the internet, and it’s probably good to mention that you might need a memory card to store all those games, as well as a controller and a power source. This handy little thing supports a wide variety of consoles, ranging from the 1970s Atari to some more recent, less vintage consoles such as the original Wii. It is, essentially, RetroArch but as a stand-alone OS, and it is, indeed, based on the combination of RetroArch and EmulationStation.
This emulator, you guessed it right, supports all the iterations of Game Boy, including the original one, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance. It aims for authentic Game Boy experience, providing both the colored and the grayscale versions, as well as the usual hacking and debugging tools for the tech-savvy. One other interesting feature is the compatibility with the GameCube and Wii emulator Dolphin, which reflects the original Game Boy devices’ ability to connect to the original GameCube. Awesome, isn’t it?
Emulating PlayStation games is notoriously hard due to Sony’s console structure, but PCSX does a good job at emulating the original PS experience; the same goes for the PlayStation 2 counterpart, PCSX2, which is also the only emulator that is even remotely able to work properly. Both of them require their respective original PlayStation BIOS image to work, as well as some plugins to emulate the PS multicore machines.
The ranking numbers were purposely left out in this article, as there can’t be one absolute “best” emulator, aside from maybe RetroArch, because of the different natures of the consoles being emulated. There are some more notable emulators, namely SNES9X for SNES, Project 64 for N64, and Stella for Atari 2600 and Mednafen for the original PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and Game Boy Advance. These would merely be considered the best out of all of their respective consoles’ emulators.