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Switched's Comprehensive Guide to Video Game Emulators

emulator guideThe video game emulator -- the bit of software that allows nostalgic button-mashers to mount an NES on their PCs in order to relive halcyon "HADOUKEN!" days -- is one of the most misunderstood elements of modern computing. But we're here to tell you exactly what they are, how they work, and even offer a comprehensive directory of the best ones for your favorite platform. Read on for our indispensable manual for the contemporary gamer looking back to a time when finally figuring out Kitana's "Babality" was a day's work well done.

What is an emulator?

Simple answer: an emulator makes one system imitate another by tricking software into running on a computer for which it wasn't designed. Perhaps the most popular example is MAME, or the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator. MAME is able to fool copies of old-school cartridges (called ROMs -- more on those below) into believing your computer is a classic arcade machine. This allows PC gamers (or cell phone gamers) to play arcade titles at home as long as they were willing to deal with the legal gray area of downloading ROMs. (More on that later, too.)

Note: These are not ports of arcade games. It's different from, say, playing the original arcade version of 'Mortal Kombat' on your Super Nintendo. MAME runs code taken directly from an arcade machine on another system by helping your system mime that particular machine. This means an emulator must create a virtual representation of the CPU and other hardware for which the game was originally designed. All of this mimicry requires a significant amount of computing power, so while you may think your brand-new PC should be able to run 10-year-old PlayStation games without breaking a sweat, there's a chance it'll slow way down. But older games, such as those for the SNES, shouldn't pose a problem.

Why would I use one?

Businesses and research labs often use emulators to run older applications designed for outdated hardware. But the most common (and fun) purpose is to resurrect forgotten game systems. Gaming consoles and arcade machines are just computers designed for one specific purpose: to play video games. With an emulator, you can turn your PC or smartphone into a classic arcade, Sega Genesis or even a PlayStation. Not only does this instantly increase the number of titles at your disposal, but it also gives you the ability to play higher-quality games. This is most true with smartphones: For every 'Angry Birds,' there are a dozen crappy Scrabble clones. 'Super Mario Bros.' and 'Final Fantasy VII' will be welcome additions to your mobile gaming library.

So what are these ROMs?

Arcade cabinets and game cartridges hold their software on ROM, or read-only memory. When they're ripped from their original storage (like those dusty, gray NES cartridges) and become distributed digitally, they collectively become known as "ROMs." These are exact copies of the code that once powered a 'Donkey Kong' cabinet or 'F-Zero' cartridge. Generally, ROM is the term used for almost any game run with an emulator, although, in the case of more recent titles (such as PlayStation games), ROM chips were replaced with CDs and are more accurately called ISOs -- a type of "image" file used to replicate CDs.

It's also worth noting that ROMs aren't always legal. There are plenty of places in the shadier parts of the Web that allow you to download ripped games, but owning a ROM is only legal if you have the original physical product.

What can I emulate and what emulator should I choose?

There are quality emulators available for Windows, Linux, OS X, iOS and Android. That doesn't mean that every gaming platform will be fairly represented on each OS, and some are only available with a little bit of tech know-how. In fact, every emulator for iOS requires you to jailbreak your device. (Apple has been rather strict about keeping emulators, which could potentially be used to play pirated games, out of the App Store. The company is happier approving at least three dozen fart apps.)

Commodore 64

commodore 64The Commodore 64 is the best-selling personal computer of all time. For many homes in the early- to mid-'80s, the 64 was the first foray into the world of computing. It was cheap, and, in terms of graphics, put the Macs and PCs available in 1982 to shame. It also packed the legendary SID chip for producing music and sound effects. To this day, musicians -- including Timbaland and Tree Wave -- turn to the SID when they crave that retro gaming crunch. The Commodore 64, despite its obvious vintage, still remained relevant well into the '90s. In fact, AOL, our parent company, began life as Quantum Link, an online service for the Commodore 64.

Key games: 'International Karate+,' 'Pirates!,' 'Elite,' 'Impossible Mission,' 'Wasteland'

Best Emulators:

Atari 2600

atari 2600The longest continually produced console in history, the Atari 2600 helped popularize home game consoles starting in 1977, and didn't officially hit retirement until 1992. The list of classic 2600 titles is staggering, and their simplicity makes them endlessly playable and addictive. Though popularly called the 2600, the console was actually called the Atari VCS (Video Computer System) for the first five years of its existence. The 2600 was also the first machine to bring the "arcade experience" into the home with relatively faithful adaptations of Space Invaders and Missile Command finding their way on to the system.

Key games: 'Space Invaders,' 'Yar's Revenge,' 'Pitfall,' 'River Raid,' 'E.T. The Extra Terrestrial'

Best Emulators:


NESWhile the Atari 2600 may have introduced many to the concept of video game consoles, it was the Nintendo Entertainment System that truly kicked off the modern gaming era. Following the video game crash of 1983, it was the NES that almost singlehandedly saved the home-gaming industry from total collapse when it hit the U.S. in 1985. It ultimately went on to outsell the nearly ubiquitous 2600 and spawned countless gaming franchises that live on to this day. The NES has become such a cultural touchstone that even its quirks are remembered with fond nostalgia. After all, how many of you can say you've never spent several minutes blowing into a cartridge until you were about to pass out? It's easily the most beloved console ever.

Key Games: 'Super Mario Bros. / Duck Hunt,' 'Donkey Kong,' 'Mike Tyson's Punch Out,' 'Super Mario Bros. 3,' 'The Legend of Zelda,' 'Contra,' 'Bubble Bobble,' 'Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse,' 'Mega Man 2,' 'Metroid'

Best Emulators:

Sega Master System

Sega Master SystemThe Sega Master System, or SMS, is actually the name of a bundle that included the Sega Power Base, two controllers and a light gun. But it's the name that stuck with Sega's first entry into the U.S. home game market. Released in 1986, seven months after the groundbreaking Nintendo Entertainment System, the SMS failed to make much of an impact in North America, despite being far more technically advanced than the NES. Its failure can largely be attributed to a much smaller stable of games and a much higher price than the NES. Still, there were some legitimate classics for the system, including the first installments of several franchises that are still with us today.

Key games: 'Space Harrier,' 'Ghost Busters,' 'Alex Kidd in Miracle World,' 'Wonder Boy,' 'Phantasy Star,' 'Ys: The Vanished Omens,' 'Fantasy Zone'

Best Emulators:

Sega Genesis

Sega GenesisFor almost two years, starting in 1989, Sega owned the 16-bit market in the States. NEC had the TurboGrafx-16, but beyond 'Bonk's Adventure,' the system had little in the way of compelling exclusive content, and the Super Nintendo wouldn't hit shelves till until the summer of 1991. Once the 16-bit wars were in full effect, though, Sega positioned itself as the cool and more adult console: selling 'Mortal Kombat' with blood and gore intact, and casting the speedy, aggressive 'Sonic the Hedgehog' as an antidote to the cutesy plodding of the plumber over at Nintendo. The nostalgia crowd may favor the SNES these days, but nothing out of the House of Mario will ever compete with the adrenaline rush of launching Sonic through 'Green Hill Zone: Act 1.'

Key games: 'Sonic the Hedgehog,' 'Toe Jam & Earl,' 'Zombies Ate My Neighbors,' 'Earthworm Jim,' 'Vector Man,' 'Gunstar Heroes,' 'Mortal Kombat'

Best Emulators:

Sega Saturn

sega saturnOne of the more under appreciated consoles to ever grace homes in the U.S., the Saturn was Sega's follow-up to the Genesis, and a competitor to the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. The 32-bit, CD-based console helped usher gaming into the optical disc era. Though its 3-D capabilities could never match the PlayStation, the Saturn was well-regarded for its stellar 2-D performance, which made it popular with fans of 2-D fighting games. Several issues plagued the Saturn that ultimately led to it being discontinued just three years after its 1995 launch. But that was more than enough time for some patient developers to put out a handful of classic titles and stellar adaptations of arcade games, including a number of popular Sega franchises.

Key games: 'Virtua Fighter 2,' 'Panzer Dragoon Saga,' 'Shining Force III,' 'Street Fighter Alpha 3,' 'Guardian Heroes,' 'Crazy Taxi'

Best Emulators:

Super Nintendo

SNESWhat is there to say about the Super Nintendo? The console's innumerable classic RPGs make it well worth at least emulating, if not owning. The SNES stood as a testament to what resourceful developers could do well into the 32-bit era. 'Donkey Kong Country' was just as visually stunning as anything on the PlayStation, 'Star Fox' was a proper 3-D game with polygons, and 'Super Mario World 2' was about as unique as a game gets aesthetically. Many of these titles are so beloved they're still being remade and released for the Game Boy Advance, DS, Wii and iPhone. Greatest gaming console ever? Just maybe...

Key games: 'Super Mario World,' 'Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past,' 'Super Metroid,' 'Chrono Trigger,' 'Donkey Kong Country,' 'Mega Man X,' 'Final Fantasy III,' 'Super Mario Kart'

Best Emulators:


n64The Nintendo 64 was the first truly 64-bit console to find its way into the homes of gamers (despite Atari's claims to the contrary, regarding its ill-fated Jaguar). It also marked the first time that Nintendo was roundly defeated by the competition. Though it shipped more units than the Sega Saturn and Dreamcast combined, it managed only a third of what the PlayStation sold worldwide. This is, at least partially, due to the N64 sticking with the ROM cartridge format while the rest of the industry shifted to CDs -- the cartridges held less and cost more to make. That isn't to say there weren't plenty of great games available for N64; many argue that 'Ocarina of Time' is the best installment in the Zelda series, and 'Golden Eye' may be the greatest first-person shooter ever. Those two titles alone make this system well worth emulating.

Key Games: 'Super Mario 64,' 'The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time,' 'Golden Eye 007,' 'Perfect Dark,' 'Paper Mario'

Best Emulators:

Gameboy Color and Gameboy Advance

gameboy color and advanceThe Gameboy brought console-quality portable gaming to the masses. Over the years, the bulky body was slimmed down and the sickly green monochrome screen was given a dash of color. In terms of technological capabilities, Nintendo always seemed a little behind the curve when it came to hand-held gaming. But the Sega Game Gear, Atari Lynx, and TurboExpress couldn't convince U.S. consumers to put down the Gameboy and the impossibly addictive 'Tetris.' Eventually, some 12 years after the release of the original Gameboy, Nintendo finally released the first truly significant upgrade to its hand-held line: the Gameboy Advanced, a portable system with capabilities similar to the SNES. Since games for these systems were designed with portability in mind, they make the transition to emulators on smartphones quite nicely.

Key Games: 'Tetris,' 'Advance Wars,' 'Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow,' 'Pokemon: Yellow,' 'Metal Gear Solid'

Best Emulators:


sony playstationThe SNES had limited 3-D capabilities, and the Saturn was a capable polygon-pusher. But, for most gamers, it was the PlayStation (PSX) that exposed them to the wonders of games in the third dimension. You may know that the PlayStation began life as a planned add-on for the SNES, developed jointly by Nintendo and Sony. When The House that Mario Built backed out of the deal, Sony decided to move forward -- and it turned out to be the smartest thing the company ever did. The PlayStation crushed the competition and became home to all of the hottest gaming franchises of the era (save any Nintendo properties). Owe it to your geek cred to at least fire up a few of the console's more notable titles in an emulator.

Key Games: 'Final Fantasy VII,' 'Tekken 3,' 'Chrono Cross,' 'Castlevania: Symphony of the Night,' 'Metal Gear Solid,' 'Tony Hawk's Pro Skater,' 'Resident Evil 2,' 'Vagrant Story,' 'Tomb Raider'

Best Emulators:


qbertMuch of the story in past gaming eras has taken place in the arcade, so it only makes sense that one of most popular and mature emulators out there would focus on classic arcade cabinets. Unlike other entries on this list MAME, or Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, doesn't focus on a single gaming console; it recreates common hardware from several different arcade systems -- from 'Space Invaders' to 'Neo Geo' and all the way up to more modern games like the 'Tekken' series. Getting MAME up and running on Linux and OS X machines requires you to build it from source code, but it's the best way to experience arcade games in your home (or on the go).

Key Games: 'Space Invaders,' 'Ms. Pac-Man,' 'Street Fighter II: Championship Edition,' 'Metal Slug,' 'Marvel Vs. Capcom: Clash of the Super Heroes,' 'Smash TV,' 'QBert,' 'Donkey Kong'

Best Emulators:

Special Mention: ScummVM
space quest iiScummVM isn't an emulator in the purest sense, but it does allow you to run classic point-and-click adventure computer games -- once the zenith of video game storytelling. A vast majority of titles from the heyday of LucasArts and Sierra can be run on modern PCs, smartphones and even consoles like the DS and PSP with the aid of ScummVM. The point-and-click interactions and slow pacing make these games a natural pairing with modern touchscreen phones. And best of all, it's been ported to more than 20 platforms -- so if it runs software, it can probably run 'Maniac Mansion.'

Key Games: 'Maniac Mansion,' 'Day of the Tentacle,' 'The Curse of Monkey Island,' 'Beneath a Steel Sky,' 'Space Quest II,' 'King's Quest IV'

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