What Are Video Game Emulators and How Do They Work?

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Matthew_Anderson
edited August 2023 in Gaming

Do you ever feel nostalgia for old video games? If so, you’re not alone. Prices for vintage consoles continue to rise as demand outpaces a shrinking supply, but in today’s modern age, you don’t have to buy a vintage console to play Nintendo 64 games. With the help of an emulator, you can play your favorite retro games on PC.

What is an emulator?

Throughout the development of emulators, they have been used for two main purposes. The first is to run an operating system different from the one you use for your hardware, like if you have a Mac and want to run a Windows program. The second one, and the focus of this article, is to play video games.

Emulators are available for every console imaginable, even for more recent ones like the Nintendo Switch. For some consoles, using an emulator can mean a decline in performance. This is especially true for more recent consoles like the Switch. However, emulator games also provide many features not available within gameplay on the original console.

Every emulator is different, but some of these special features include saving at any point, playing on “quick mode” to get through levels faster and taking screenshots. For some, this means that emulator games are equal to or even improve upon the original games. This makes playing games on an emulator a special and enjoyable experience.

Emulators work by reading either ROM files or ISO files. An ROM is a file that contains all the information from a single video game cartridge, while an ISO contains all the information from a single disc. This means that, in order to play a specific game on an emulator, you have to download the ROM/ISO file for that game, which the emulator then reads. Both types of files are relatively easy to find online, but for reasons stated later, no links to ROM or ISO files will be shared here.

Standalone vs. multi-system emulators

Overall, there are two types of emulators: standalone and multi-system. Standalone emulators work for only one console, like the Atari 2600 or the Sega Genesis. Others, like the popular RetroArch, are multi-system. When fans began to develop emulators in the 1990s, there were only standalone emulators; multi-system emulators came along a bit later.

What standalone emulators deliver in ease of use, they lack in customization and special features. Standalone emulators are also typically preferable for complex consoles like the Playstation 2. Multi-system emulators, on the other hand, excel in customization, but may be difficult for the casual user.

Legality of emulators

Emulators themselves are perfectly legal: they are typically created by fans for fans, so the use of their software in and of itself does not constitute any legal issues. The gray area lies within the use of ROM or ISO files. It is generally accepted within the gaming community that while it is legal to use ROM files for games you already own, it is probably not legal for games you do not.

That being said, the legal precedence in the area is very limited, and most gamers who use emulators do so without any legal challenges. Due to this legal ambiguity, however, no links to ROM sites will be listed in this article.

Video game emulator recommendations

1) RetroArch 

RetroArch is well known as one of the best and most trusted multi-system emulators out there. Its interface gives users a large amount of control over gameplay features while still being relatively easy to use. What’s more, once you’ve taken the time to customize the platform, your changes will apply universally, meaning that you won’t have to implement these changes separately for each different console.

For each console, RetroArch requires you to download what is called a core. You can download cores within RetroArch via the Online Updater. As part of RetroArch’s open-ended flexibility, there are many different cores available for each console: you may want to check this article by digitaltrends for specific recommendations.  

Like most emulators, it is free to download on the Apple Store, Google Play Store, and many more. It is also available to run on an incredible number of platforms, including a number of old versions of Windows no longer supported by many developers and some niche operating systems like Raspberry Pi. It can even be downloaded on other video game consoles, like the Nintendo Switch or the Wii.

You may feel that this expansive range of customizable features is intimidating. If you’re a casual user looking for a more user-friendly gaming experience, check out some of the systems below. 

2) Snes9x

Snes9x is one of the top standalone video game emulators out there. It allows PC gamers to replay vintage Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) games, one of the most sought-after emulation consoles for today’s gamers.

It also works smoothly without many extra features, which is great for those who just want to get straight to the fun. With Snes9x, you can play over almost every single one of the 1700 SNES titles, including some that were only ever released in Japan. 

3) PCSX2

If it’s PS2 games that you want to play on your computer, PCSX2 is your best bet. It supports 2667 PS2 games, a significant majority of which are considered “playable or perfect.” This is no easy feat, since the PS2 is a relatively newer console whose complex technology is more difficult to emulate.

Because of this technological complexity, you’ll have to download a BIOS image to use this emulator, the legality of which is as questionable as that of ROM/ISO files. Your computer may also need some extra processing power for the best gaming experience, like an enhanced graphics card. But there’s no doubt that PCSX2 is one of the most reliable choices out there for getting your PS2 fix.

4) Kega Fusion

Kega Fusion is the king of emulators for Sega games. Though it unfortunately does not support emulation for Saturn or Dreamcast, it is compatible with most other games made for the mainstream Sega consoles.

Its focus on accuracy means that other features are not as prioritized, but it still comes with some cool extras like online play, cheat support, audio and video capture and more. Yet its list of features never gets too long or complicated, which means you can count on the emulator being ready to go shortly after downloading.  

Kega Fusion’s last release date was in 2010, and there is no official website. However, it is available to download on various websites, including the Sega Retro website.

Conclusion

All in all, emulation is a great way to experience older games and get a dose of nostalgia. The programs have come a long way since their start in the 1990s, and fan developers continue to update and debug them. Emulation sometimes requires a lot of processing power from your computer, though, so be sure to check out these ACER gaming laptops that will have your back.  

Matthew is a freelance content writer whose work has previously appeared in well-known language-learning blog Fluent in 3 Months and The Happy Self-Publisher. His creative work has also appeared in Otoliths, CafeLit, and the Eunoia Review. He is currently based in Taipei, Taiwan, where he is studying for a master's degree in Chinese Literature.

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