A Guide To Emulators | What Is Emulation?

What Is An Emulator?

An emulator is a program or app that you install on your device to play ROM files. These ROM files are the game files and you can think of emulators like the original console that played the games. Just about every major gaming console has at least one existing emulator available for it.

Emulation allows gamers to back up video games, ensuring that none are unnecessarily lost to time. With the closing of various online gaming stores, like the Nintendo eShop, emulation allows us to play these games long after they are no longer available to buy anywhere else. Video game preservation is important and allows future generations to experience games they otherwise might not have been able to.

Some retro games are so incredibly expensive and so hard to find that it can be next to impossible to get a physical copy.

How To Use An Emulator?

Emulators are very common these days and have become an integral part of gaming as a whole, catering to a wide range of purposes. Retro game enthusiasts often turn to emulators for personal enjoyment, utilizing computer and game console emulators to relive the magic of classic games. To enhance the user experience, frontend interfaces, or ‘frontends,’ bridge the gap between emulators and users, offering a user-friendly graphical interface. One very popular example is Yuzu, a Nintendo Switch emulator available for Windows and Linux devices.

While RetroArch is commonly referred to as an emulator, it stands out as more than just that. Acting as a frontend and a comprehensive toolset, RetroArch simplifies the configuration of emulators and manages your video library with ease. Its unique advantage lies in the ability to easily install emulator cores, making it a go to solution for retro gamers seeking an intuitive experience.

Meanwhile, Launchbox is another highly regarded emulator frontend, available for Windows and Android devices. Similar to RetroArch, Launchbox has a visually appealing frontend and offers a captivating platform to manage game collections. It also includes video game artwork, video, and database integrations – it’s really a top notch experience.

Emulators continue to evolve and serve a myriad of purposes, captivating both personal and business users alike. As technology advances, the world of emulation opens new doors of possibilities, enabling us to indulge in the nostalgia of classic games and enhance productivity in various domains.

Are Emulators Legal?

Emulators are completely legal. Back in the early 2000’s, a Sony Playstation emulator named Bleem appeared on the scene. Sony later took Bleem to court, claiming that they were infringing on their copyright, however Bleem ended up winning the court case, thus proving then and there that emulation was legal.

Fast forward to today, emulation is still legal, however it’s not that cut and dry. While many emulators do exist for current generation video game consoles, this is a bit of a hot topic amongst gamers. Many argue that emulating current generation games is unethical and that you shouldn’t emulate any games from the current gen or the one previous.

For example, one of, if not the best site for ROMs named Vimm’s Lair only allows users to download ROMs from systems that are older than the current and previous generation of games. While this obviously is in part probably for legal protection because they are operating a ROMs website, there is also a moral argument to be made as well.

Is Downloading Emulator ROMs Legal?

What Is An Emulator ROM?

A ROM is a file that contains the data from the video game that you are trying to run. It’s often originally dumped from an original copy of the game. The difference between an emulator and a ROM is that an emulators is the program that you use to run the ROM files. The emulator can essentially be seen as the gaming console and the ROM is the game itself.

Having said all of that, how you choose to play your video games is up to you. Just know that downloading ROMs however is not legal. See that catch here? Emulation is legal, however downloading ROMs isn’t. This is a bit of a grey area as many gamers who use emulators do in fact just download their ROMs online instead of ripping them from games they already own directly.

Technically, the only legal way to play ROMs on emulators is to extract the game files onto your computer and compile them that way.

Emulators are software that emulate video game console hardware, thus allowing you to play games on a different setup. While technically you may be able to simply download ROM files from the internet to use with your emulators, it is our suggestion that you also own the original copy of the game if feasible.

Emulating current generation games is usually frowned upon by many gamers, especially emulating indie games that you can currently buy. This is because smaller studios have less resources and often, ever sale really is a matter of surviving. Most indie games don’t cost nearly as much as AAA titles either.

When it comes to emulation and ROMs, you are the one who makes the ultimate decision. That being said, you also are the one who will be held accountable for your actions. Be safe and know what is legal in your location.

Which Emulators Are The Most Popular?

It depends what systems you’re looking to emulate. There are emulators for just about every single gaming console ever released, even some very obscure ones you might not have heard about before. In fact, there are hundreds of emulators available for systems like the Amiga, the ZX Spectrum, and even now the Nintendo Switch. The two most popular emulators at the time of writing this are RetroArch and RetroPie.

RetroArch Emulator

RetroArch emulator

RetroArch is a power emulator frontend architecture that simplifies the process of emulating retro games. RetroArch is free and open source and is available for just about every popular device you can think of – Windows PC, Mac and iOS, Android devices, Xbox, Playstation 4, Playstation PSP, Playstation Vita, Nintendo Swtich, and so many more!

RetroArch is also available on many popular store fronts for free, including Steam, Amazon App Store, Samsung Galaxy Store, Huawei App Gallery, and Google Play.

RetroArch’s secret sauce lie in its use of emulators cores. These cores are pre-packaged versions of popular emulators for different gaming systems that you can easily install with the click of a button.

The list of cores available is quite extensive and there are over 70 different gaming systems installable. RetroArch offers a great deal of customizability, with settings available for each core, but also offers online play with friends, gaming video shaders, audio filter settings, and the ability to use cheats in your favorite games. You can also add video game artwork to help manage your library of ROMs.

RetroPie Emulator

RetroPie emulator

RetroPie is another popular emulator package designed meant for Raspberry Pi powered devices. It is a free Linux package and uses versions of both RetroArch and EmulationStation. RetroPie also have versions available for Linux PC’s and Odroid devices.

RetroPie is has sparked somewhat of an emulation movement of sorts. Many Raspberry Pi powered emulation devices have popped up and have thousands of games packed into them. RetroPie is available for the following; Raspberry Pi 1, Zero, Pi2, Pi3, Zero 2 W and the Raspberry Pi 4 and 400 models.

All it really takes to get started with RetroPie is downloading the installation files, copying them to a micro SD card, and you’re ready to go. All you need after that are your ROM files.

RetroPie has support for 50 different retro gaming consoles from the SNES and NES to the Sega Genesis, Nintendo 64, Playstation 1, PS2, GameCube, Dreamcast, and tons more.

Are Emulators Safe To Use?

As long as you are downloading an emulator from its official website location, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Emulators are safe to use – they’re legal and they’re just like any other software program you might download and install on your devices. It’s similar in theory to using Steam, Discord, etc. It’s simply an application that you use to run types of files, i.e. game ROMs.

Our recommendation is to not download emulators from 3rd party websites. You never know what these sites may have added to the files and it’s always best to download from the original source.

  • Don’t download emulators from 3rd party websites that reupload them. Be sure you know and trust the website you are installing the emulator from. Look at the URL, the branding, check online to see if the website is in fact the real one.
  • Make sure you have an anti-virus software installed on your computer. This will help you stay secure and will notify you if there are any suspicious files detected. Even outside of emulation, this is good practice to help keep your system secure.
  • If you’re unsure, make a post to Reddit and ask the /r/emulation community if the site you are about to install from is legit.

Are Emulators Free?

With so many free emulation options out there today, it seems difficult to justify spending money on one. Most emulators are in fact free, however some do charge a fee. Usually, you’ll find emulators on the Google Play Store having upgraded versions available to unlock additional features like removing watermarks, enabling save states, and allow online net-play.

An example of an emulator that costs money to use is Sixty Force. Sixty Force has a free version available, but it doesn’t have the ability to use save states and contains a Sixtyforce watermark at the bottom of the screen. The paid version of the Sixty Force emulator is $15.

Without the ability to use save states, most users aren’t really using Sixty Force without paying the upgrade fee.

Another example of a paid N64 emulator is M64Plus FZ, one of the best Nintendo 64 emulators for Android that offers both free and paid versions on the Google Play Store. Online play is only available in the pro version of the app.

Do Emulators Have Improved FPS, Performance, and Graphics?

With how far technology has advanced over the last 20+ years, it’s a no brainer that running older games on more powerful hardware will allow us to experience it in a more optimized way. Not even just retro games either, the Nintendo Switch emulator Yuzu can run Switch games in 4k 60FPS.

Considering how underpowered the Nintendo Switch console’s hardware is, only running Switch games on a PC allow for this kind of performance. It’s incredible how significantly improved certain games can look.

For the N64, plugins like the GLideN64 emulator graphics plugin were created to improve the graphics for emulated Nintendo 64 games.

By default, many emulators do have upscaling built in which increases the pixel count of games to improve the video quality for the player. Besides the upscaling, running games on a high end gaming PC can drastically improve performance, FPS, and graphics quality. Having a higher end max resolution display can also improve the experience as well.