Emulators – A Comprehensive Guide

What Is An Emulator?

An emulator is software or hardware that allows a system to ’emulate’ another computer system. For retro gaming fans, emulators are a revelation as they allow us to enjoy using the old consoles and computers that we used to enjoy.

Emulators prove an excellent way to continue to use legacy hardware/applications, but with the added benefit of not having to maintain old hardware which can be prone to failure.

Emulators play a hugely important part in the desire to preserve software. In particular, retro gaming enthusiasts are huge advocates of emulators as it allows the preservation and accessibility of games that are gradually being lost to degradation of media such as DVDs, CDs, Floppy Disks as well as cartridge-based hardware.

It is also a controversial subject involving many brands that still exist today who have made games previously purchased online unavailable for download.

What Are Emulators Used For?

Emulators are used for many different purposes, from business to entertainment, emulators have become a staple part for both industrial use and for personal use, especially retro game fans.

Emulators are commonly used for personal use, especially computer & game console emulators. There are many popular emulators around as well as emulator ‘frontends’ which act as a user-friendly GUI between the actual emulator and end user. Examples of emulators include PCSX2, which is a popular Sony PlayStation 2 emulator which is available for Windows, macOS & Linux.

In business, emulators are equally as common. For example, a team of developers use a mixture of both Windows PCs and Mac systems, however, there is a requirement that they all need to use a Windows application for a task.

This is where a form of ’emulator’ can come into use. Software called Parallels for Mac allows users to run ‘virtual’ instances of Windows, so they can efficiently access a Windows environment alongside their Mac OS.

Another very popular emulator product is RetroArch, this is commonly referred to as an emulator, but as mentioned above, it acts as more of a frontend and toolset which run emulator ‘cores’.

RetroArch makes the configuration of emulators and your games library much more accessible and easy to use. The difference between RetroArch to other emulator frontends is that it is easy to ‘one-click install’ emulator cores, making it an excellent all-in-one solution for retro gaming enthusiasts.

Another product called Launchbox is a well-regarded emulator frontend, this is available on Windows & Android devices and offers a very attractive frontend which can be used to manage your game collections along with comprehensive artwork, video and database integrations to give a premium experience.

What Are The Best Emulators For Playing Retro Games?

We love testing out lots of different emulators for our favourite retro systems! As a result, we can save you all the hassle of installing lots of different emulators yourself and recommend the best emulators for your favourite systems. From Atari to the ZX Spectrum, we’ve played games on.

Check out our recommendations for the best emulators:

What Are The Most Popular Emulators?

There are now hundreds of emulators that exist that cover everything from emulating the original Pong home console, through to more present day systems such as the Nintendo Switch. The best place to start is with looking at the most popular emulators currently available. The following are considered at present, the most popular emulators or emulator packages to use.

RetroArch

RetroArch is the choice for the majority of retro gamers out there. It is a free open-source package that is essentially just a frontend for emulators, but it does so much more than many other frontends out there. It actually has versions not just for PC, Mac & Linux, but also for Android, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PSP and PlayStation Vita.

RetroArch allows one-click installation of its emulator ‘cores’, which are packaged versions of popular emulators such as Dolphin for the Nintendo GameCube/Wii, PicoDrive for Sega systems such as the Master System & Genesis/Mega Drive, VICE for the C64 and Snes9X for the SNES.

RetroArch offers many core options for over 70 systems. It offers a huge amount of configuration, in addition to the emulator options of each emulator core, RetroArch also has a defined set of features that allow features such as netplay, video shaders, audio filters, and cheats as well as game library management complete with artwork.

RetroArch Mega Drive CRT Scanlines
Sega Genesis/Mega Drive Classic After Burner running on RetroArch

With no end in sight for the developments and updates it receives, RetroArch still remains one of the leading ways to play retro games on many systems and appears as though it will be for many years to come.

RetroArch is available from the official RetroArch website here.

RetroPie

RetroPie is a package designed primarily for the Raspberry Pi. It is free and is a Linux-based package that utilises versions of both RetroArch and EmulationStation. There are also versions of RetroPie that can be used on Linux on a PC and Odroid devices with Ubuntu installed.

RetroPie is hugely popular and is one of the most affordable ways to play retro games. There are versions for the Raspberry Pi 1, Zero, Pi2, Pi3, Zero 2 W and the Raspberry Pi 4 and 400 models.

Getting up and running with RetroPie is as easy as downloading an installation image from the RetroPie site, then copying it to a micro sd card and it is ready to boot. All you need to do is add your own game ROMs to the micro SD card, or alternatively a USB stick.

With RetroPie, you can emulate over 50 systems, including favourites such as the Genesis, NES, SNES, N64, PS1, PS2, GameCube, Neo Geo, Dreamcast, Amiga, C64 and many more.

Do You Need To Own The Game To Use An Emulator?

From a purely technical perspective, no. An emulator simply is a piece of software which emulates hardware. There are many homebrew titles and public domain games that are freely available and often included with many emulators.

If you intend to play games that were commercially available, it is suggested that you own the original.

It is also possible with many emulators to use the original media on the emulator. For example, if you have a CD/DVD drive on your device, the PS1 emulator ePSXe offers the ability to run games from the original CDs. PS2 emulator PCSX2 also offers the same functionality where you can play original PS2 DVDs.

As with anything where media and copyright is concerned, you must take responsibility for your own actions.

Are Emulators Safe?

Yes, emulators are safe to use – So as long as you are downloading reputable software! Using emulators is no different to downloading and using any other application online. You should take all the typical precautions so as to not download anything that may compromise your device or online privacy.

Here are some quick tips to ensure you can stay safe online when using emulators:

  1. Ensure you know what you are downloading and where you are downloading from. This should seem obvious to most experienced internet users, but since emulation is a niche area, it is not unusual to have to download emulators directly from developer websites. Just do a bit of research before committing.
  2. Have anti-virus software installed. Again, this is nothing unusual for the average computer user. Good anti-virus software will help keep your computer protected from viruses and malware.
  3. Utilise anti-virus software browser extensions. These will help you further by flagging up any questionable websites as soon as you visit them, saving you from potentially downloading anything you wish you hadn’t!
  4. Only download software from reputable websites. This seems an obvious one, but it is easy to get roped in to just downloading something from the first site on Google because it seems the quickest solution.

What Is An Emulator ROM?

A ROM is typically a dump/image of a game or piece of software, placed into a single file for use with an emulator. The term ROM can be used incorrectly when discussing game images, but is commonly used when talking about games and emulation.

It is important to differentiate the emulator and the ROM. The ROM is the game/software which is loaded into the emulator which is typically an application written to emulate hardware.

Do Emulators Cost Money?

Some emulators cost money, some are free. Typically, you will find more examples of emulators costing money at places like the Google Play Store, where there are lots of emulators, both free and paid apps.

There are also examples of emulators that cost money for the PC and Android. Redream, the Sega Dreamcast emulator is a good example here.

Redream offers a free version as well as a premium version, which is a one-time purchase of $6 (at the time of writing) which offers some improved functionality including increased upscaling offering high definition rendering improving visuals, increased amount of save state slots as well as a custom discord server role.

Dreamcast Emulator Redream offers a ‘Premium’ version of the emulator

You will easily find an emulator meeting your needs for free though, you might just want to consider paying for an emulator should you require any specific functionality.

Do Emulators Have Better Graphics Than Original Hardware?

The benefit of emulators is that you are not restricted by the video output of the original hardware. Many emulators have upscaling features built in, which multiply the pixel count of the games to improve the fidelity on screen for the end user.

In addition to upscaling, emulators benefit from being able to use the latest video outputs at the highest resolution. The only limitation tends to be the maximum resolution of your display and the limit the developer has imposed on the amount of upscaling the emulator will offer.

It is not only resolution upscaling that emulators offer additional tools such as increasing anti aliasing, to help with smoothing jagged edges and anisotropic filtering to help improve the appearance of textures, which is vital with emulating more recent retro systems such as the PS2 & GameCube/Wii.