The overwhelming popularity of smartphones may have led to a renaissance of sorts for a lot of classic games — but ports don’t always live up to the nostalgic glory of the original. If you’re craving some gaming action from yesteryear, then consider installing an emulator. You can find plenty of Android emulators in the Google Play Store, just in case you want to bring your old consoles back to life. Thanks to assiduous accessory makers, you can also pair a lot of these emulators with Android gaming controllers rather than using the on-screen buttons. We’ve listed some of the best free and affordable emulators for Android below.
Are emulators legal?
Yes. Emulators are legal to download and use, but you should exercise caution with games. There’s a lot of abandonware readily available, so you can often find public domain games to play without legal worry. However, ROMs pulled from game cartridges and discs are illegal to obtain if you don’t own a physical copy. For instance, you can get in legal hot water if a copy of Super Mario 64 is discovered on your PC and you don’t own a Nintendo 64 console or a copy of the game.
Downloading or offloading a game you currently own isn’t a problem — just don’t distribute it. Collecting games you don’t own is considered piracy. Some emulators will also require you to provide the BIOS, which can also be illegal unless you also own the console.
Added bonus for Chromebooks
Most modern Chromebooks support Google Play, so you can install Android-based emulators as you would on any other Android device. The downside is that you might not have a touchscreen, and emulators may not have the necessary tools to convert mouse and keyboard input. You will likely need a wired controller like the PS3 DualShock 3, Xbox 360, or Nintendo Switch Pro. The upside is that, in most cases, you can play in fullscreen mode.
Classic gamers who can’t get enough of older games can now bring that retro feel to their PCs. Our list of the best PC gaming emulators will tell you all about it. And if you feel like branching out from your classic video game preferences, our comprehensive list of the best Android games can offer inspiration.
AetherSX2 (PlayStation 2)
If you’re hankering for PS2 games, then this is the only emulator you need. You could use a multi-console emulator, but AetherSX2 is just about the best standalone emulator for PS2 out there. The app’s pretty easy to set up and use, though you’ll need your own BIOS, and there are plenty of useful features, like support for gamepads as well as the option to adjust per-game settings. It’s updated frequently, too.
Citra Emulator (Nintendo 3DS)
Citra is an open-source “work in progress” emulator for the Nintendo 3DS, which can play many of your favorite games. The Nintendo 3DS is an unusual handheld to emulate, due to its two-screen design, but this emulator pulls it off with flying colors. Given it targets single-screen devices, everything you need is either crammed onto a transparent layer or pushed to the right (or bottom) to emulate the second screen. Despite being listed as an “Early Access” app, it’s loaded with awesome features like gamepad support, motion controls, and texture filtering. The latest beta implements a GPU shader cache, which improves performance and reduces frame rate stuttering.
Dolphin (Sega Dreamcast)
Dolphin is a powerful emulator that lets you play GameCube and Wii video games on your Android device. While the best console Sega ever created was the Dreamcast, hands down, it was also the first console with an internet connection (56K) along with mouse and keyboard support via Quake III Arena. Sega abandoned ship rather quickly, but you can still relive all that Dreamcast greatness through Dolphin. It’s one of the older Dreamcast emulators, but it can still leverage newer hardware for a smoother, more native experience.
M64Plus FZ (Nintendo 64)
Oh, the good ol’ days of playing Hexen 64, Doom 64, Super Mario 64, and GoldenEye 007. Where has the time gone? You can relive those precious memories with this great Nintendo 64 emulator. What’s great about this app is that it scans your device and creates a clean library complete with box art. Just tap on your game and you’re back in 1996. It’s highly customizable too, allowing you to switch between a long list of emulations, or add your own. The $4 Pro version adds support for SD cards and GDrive cloud backup.
Anyone who wants to turn the clock back to the days when arcades ruled needs to check this out. MAME stands for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, and the Android version supports thousands of different ROMs. For more demanding games, you’ll want decent hardware, and you might run into trouble with performance.
My OldBoy! (Nintendo Game Boy Color)
We can’t have a “best of” list without this Game Boy emulator. It runs both the original monochrome and GameBoy Color games. Highlights include Link Cable emulation, GameShark code support, and a fast-forward component to skip all the long, boring drab. The $4 paid version removes ads, speeds up the fast forward feature, adds data syncing with Google Drive, and more. If you’re more of an “advanced” gamer, the $5 My Boy! app emulates the Game Boy Advance.
PPSSPP (PlayStation Portable)
If you want to run your Sony PSP games on your Android device, then PPSSPP is the emulator for you. You can use it to play free homebrew games, or dump your own PSP games in .iso or .cso format. You can even transfer saved games from your PSP. Not everything runs perfectly, and slowdown is pretty common, depending on the Android device you use. That said, you will need a decent set of specs to run games. It now supports Android 12.
If you’re going to be basking in a variety of old game consoles, then you might fancy an emulator that covers all the bases. RetroArch is an open-source engine that actually pulls in other open-source emulators. You’ll find options for the NES, SNES, PlayStation, Sega Genesis, N64, and a whole lot more. Select the one you want to run when you launch RetroArch.
Snes9x EX+ (Super Nintendo)
This free SNES emulator is open source, and compatible with the vast majority of games. You need an Android device with at least a 1GHz processor, which isn’t going to be a problem nowadays. It comes with Bio Worm, and you can add ROMs to your internal storage or SD card. As long as games are in .smc or .sfc formats, then they should work just fine. There are also no ads, which is a rarity for a free app.
2600.emu (Atari 2600)
Who can resist some old-school Atari action? This 2600 emulator is open source, and it runs well on the majority of Android smartphones. You’ll need ROMs in .a26 or .bin formats, and zipped files will work just fine. It also supports save states and some controllers via Bluetooth, all for $3.
C64.emu (Commodore 64)
If you have fond memories of the Commodore 64, you can relive those early 1980s games with this emulator for $4. It supports a wide variety of file formats, and you should be able to get a Bluetooth keyboard or gamepad working with it alongside configurable on-screen controls.
DraStic DS Emulator (Nintendo DS)
Here’s a Nintendo DS emulator that’s impressively fast and stable and costs just $5. It lets you play Nintendo DS games at full speed on many Android devices, enhances 3D graphics to at least twice their original resolution on high-end quad core devices, and tweaks your gaming with thousands of cheat codes. You can save and resume at will, fast-forward the gameplay, use various controllers, and sync saved games via Google Drive. You can also customize the size and placement of the DS screens.
FPse64 for Android (PlayStation One)
If you want PlayStation One action, then look no further. This emulator is solid, it’s compatible with the vast majority of games in various formats, and it’s easy to use. It supports real-time saves, game compression, and a host of controllers, including the PS3 controller. It’s well worth the $3 price tag.
MD.emu (Sega Mega Drive/Genesis/CD/ Master System)
You’ll love this $5 emulator if you’re pining for Sega’s world of gaming. The device covers the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, CD, and the Master System. This device can support pretty much anything as long as you’re using it on a fast-operating device. It can run .bin, .smd, .gen, and .sms formats, in zip files if you prefer. The device features above-average sound quality and reliability and cheat code support for .pat files.
NES.emu (Nintendo Entertainment System)
This excellent app — which costs $4 — lets gamers enjoy stable NES game emulation. It mimics several pieces like the old Zapper gun. It reads zipped ROMs in .nes or .unf formats, and can handle .fds files with a Famicon BIOS. It targets any gaming need you can think of and has save-state support, configurable controls, and backup memory.