There’s nothing quite like a nostalgia trip. Playing the Commodore 64 version of Boulder Dash or Final Fantasy III on Super Nintendo can make you feel like a kid all over again.
Of course, you probably don’t have your old console and computer hardware around anymore, but you can completely replicate the experience – on your big screen loungeroom flat screen no less – using an emulator. Just about every retro platform you care to name has an emulator or ten available for it, from major platforms like the Commodore 64 and Amiga to obscure platforms like the MicroBee and Tandy TRS-80.
The best part is that you can set all this up using hardware you probably already have. An old laptop or outdated desktop PC will do the trick. You don’t need a powerhouse home theatre PC to get it up and running.
The right hardware for retro games
CPU and video
You can make an emulation platform out of just about any piece of computing hardware you have around. Unless you plan to emulate relatively recent platforms like the PlayStation 2, most emulation platform have only modest requirements. A 1GHz processor and 1GB or RAM will do the trick for most tasks, and you can even get away with much less for older platforms.
The key requirement of any platform is the capacity to plug it into your loungeroom TV set. Recent computing devices will have an HDMI output or a DVI output (which can be converted to HDMI with a simple $5 converter cable), but if your computer has only VGA output and you don’t have VGA-in on your TV you will need a VGA to HDMI converter, which is typically a dongle that sells for about $40-$60.
For the game controller, you can really any PC game controller and it will work. Your best option, however, is the Xbox 360 controller, which is roughly 1,000% better than most of its competitors. You can just plug the wired controller straight in. If it’s the wireless version of the controller, you’ll need the Xbox 360 Wireless Gaming Receiver, which will cost you about $20, but you’ll need to hunt around on eBay as Microsoft doesn’t sell these locally any more. (We’ve had luck with knock-off versions, but these do require you to jump through a couple of small hoops to get the drivers installed.)
Keyboard and mouse control is tricker. For PC emulation you’ll need it, and many console emulators need to be at least launched with a keyboard and mouse, even if they support gamepad control thereafter. Your best bet is a wireless keyboard with integrated touch pad like the Logitech Wireless Touch Keyboard or NOONTEC Rii I8.
The software platform
While Windows still offers the widest variety of emulator applications, in practice you can do well on just about any platform. Linux, Mac OS and Android are very viable as underlying platforms for emulators.
One thing you will want to do is set up an easy way to launch the emulators without having to crack out the mouse and click on screen icons you can barely see from your couch. A “10-foot” interface lets you launch emulators and games without having to pull out the keyboard and mouse. There are a variety of good launcher apps available that provide this, but we’ll focus on two we like best.
Steam is a very good option, since it has an excellent Big Picture mode that can be controlled entirely with a controller. While Steam doesn’t offer emulators for download, you can add them to your Steam library by heading to the Library tab and clicking on Add a Game.
Another option we really like, and one that works smoother for emulators is GameEx, a front end for a variety of arcade and console emulators. It works really well in a TV environment, and while it can be a little complex to set up initially, it’s totally worth it. It will even download emulators for you!
All about ROMs and images
A software emulator is not enough to complete your task. You’ll also need the actual software to run on the emulator. Generically called “ROMs”, these are images of the software released for the retro platforms, ripped and packaged into a PC friendly format. (As an aside, even disk images such as Amiga floppy disk images that are not technically read-only are referred to as ROMs on the internet).
There are two types of ROMs you may need: system ROMs and game ROMs.
1. System ROMs.
System ROMs are the core software used by the platform, the BIOS-equivalent and operating system of the platform as it were. Most emulators you’ll download don’t need it or come with it built in, but for a handful of emulators like WinAUE or Mess you will need to get hold of the system ROMs.
2. Game ROMs.
Of course, to actually play something on your emulator you’ll need a copy of the game. With console emulation, cartridges and CDs are typically ripped into a single file. This makes them very easy to use: you just load the ROM file into the emulator. The emulator will then run the ROM just as if you’d plugged in the original cartridge.
With computing platforms you have disk images, which work in practice a lot like ROMs. They’re individual files that represent the contents of an entire disk (or tape). You load them into the emulator, and it acts as if they were a disk that you’d inserted into the drive (you can even write to them as if they were real disks).
Where do I get them?
1. Legal collections.
Although we wish otherwise, legal collections of licensed ROMs are few and far between. There have been a few abortive attempts at releasing collections, but there’s not much available. Some abandonware sites claim to have acquired legal permission to distribute ROMs, but there’s no real way to verify these claims. One special note, however, does go to Amiga Forever (www.amigaforever.com), which provides a full legal and licensed version of the Amiga system ROMs.
2. “Abandonware” sites.
Abandonware is a (non-legal) term used to describe content that is no longer available for sale and the maker is no longer profiting from it. There are many sites online that post abandonware – just Google it – most focussing on DOS and other PC platforms. Some of the most notable are Abandonia (DOS), Back to the Roots (Amiga), c64g (Commodore 64), Emu Paradise (multiple platforms) and CoolROM.
If you’re looking for comprehensive collections, BitTorrent is unquestionably the way to go. Entire libraries of games and ROMs are posted to BitTorrent. The complete MAME collection, every SNES game every released (and every version thereof), thousands of C64 or Atari 2600 games in one bundle. All these things and more are available, but you’ll need to be willing to wander into some dark legal waters on sites like The Pirate Bay and Kick Ass Torrents to get them.
So you’ve set up your PC, hooked it up to your TV and have your controller in hand. Now you just need the software that turns your three-year old PC into a 30-year old console or home computer.
Below we’ve listed our favourite emulators for some of the most popular platforms. This list is very far from comprehensive, but if you want a good selection of emulators to begin with, this is a good place to start. All the emulators listed here are free.
MAME is about 90% of the reason that people build emulation platforms. It’s designed to run ROMs of arcade games – yes, those games you used to go out and pay 20c/40c/$1 a pop to play. It emulates literally thousands of arcade games and what’s more it does it extremely well, very rarely crashing or having problems.
MAME is normally a command line tool, so you’re best off using a front end loader, and there are some very good ones that remove the keyboard requirements completely. We like MaLa.
Computing platforms can be challenging to emulate. With varying specs, writable media and complex underlying systems, these emulators can be tricky to set up.
Available on: Windows
The Amstrad CPC, a contemporary of the Commodore 64, has a variety of emulators available for it. Our current favourite is CPCE 1.9. It’s simple to use and works with nearly everything.
Available on: Windows
Compared to some of the systems of a similar era, the state of Apple II emulation is quite poor. You can try AppleWin, however, which it somewhat bare but does a decent job of recreating the system.
Available on: Windows, OS X, Linux and many more
There are a number of emulators available for the beloved Commodore 64 (and Vic 20/C128), but our current favourite is Vice, an open source emulator that has excellent compatibility and is relatively easy to use. If you’re going to run Vice we also recommend getting hold of Gamebase 64, a phenomenal front end and database of games for the C64.
Available on: Windows (other versions of UAE are available for other platforms)
The 16-bit Amigas were immensely popular computers, but they were also extremely complicated from a hardware perspective. WinUAE is the best implementation of a system to emulate all the Amiga’s variations, and it comes with simple settings that allow you to emulate, say, a stock Amiga 500. You’ll still need to source the Workbench disks (the Amiga’s OS) and Kickstart ROMs (BIOS equivalent).
Available on: Windows, Linux, OS X
Sometimes old DOS games don’t run well in Windows. They run too fast, there’s no sound, they don’t look right. That’s where DOSBox comes in, which emulates a older x86 running DOS and a SoundBlaster card.
Available on: Windows, Linux, OS X, Symbian, Android and more
What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of a platform called “Scumm”. That’s because there wasn’t a PC by that name; it’s actually the name of the game engine used by old LucasArts games like Day of the Tentacle and Secret of Monkey Island (among many others). ScummVM emulates that engine, allowing you to play those games on any of its many platforms. It has also been expanded to support play of many other games, including Sierra AGI/SCI games (King’s Quest, Space Quest and many more), AdventureSoft games and Westwood games. It’s quite brilliant, and a very easy way to play old favourites without worrying about specific platform emulation.
MESS (Multi Emulator Super System)
Available on: Many platforms.
MESS is the computer equivalent of MAME, built on the same engine but made to emulate a variety of different computing platforms. And that it does: MAME can accurately emulate dozens of different common and obscure computers. It’s not generally as easy to use as a dedicated platform emulator, and you will need system ROMs for any platform you want to emulate.
Compared to PCs, consoles are much simpler to emulate and the emulators are generally much easier to use. Most of the time, you just load the emulator, choose a ROM you want to play and go.
Available on: Many platforms, including Windows, OS X, mobile platforms and Linux.
Stella is the easiest, most accurate and most fun emulator for the old Atari 2600. It even has very cool features like an OpenGL mode that makes the 8-bit graphics appear a little less garish on modern screens.
Available on: Windows, OS X, Linux, Android
Nobody has quite nailed Nintendo 64 emulation yet, but mupen64plus comes close. It can accurately play most N64 games.
Nintendo Entertainment System
Available on: Windows, OS X, Linux
There are many NES emulators around, but we really like Nestopia – it’s very easy to use, plays everything and scales well on a larger screen.
Available on: Windows, OS X, GNU/Linux, Android and others
Whether it’s the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance or Super Game Boy, Visual Boy Advance has you covered. It works extremely well, and it very simple to use.
Available on: Windows, Linux, Android
Emulation of the original PlayStation has reached the point where you can play most games for the platform very smoothly. ePSXe is your best bet for doing that, with an easy to use interface and cool features like image scaling.
Available on: Windows, OS X, Linux
According to PCSX2’s compatibility list, approximately 85% of all PS2 games are playable on the emulator, although if you’re looking for a crisp “just like the real thing” platform you’ll likely be disappointed. Some games work extremely well, but many meet the bare definition of “playable”. It’s a complicated emulator to set up and requires a hefty processor (2.8GHz and 2GB of memory is recommended).
Sega Genesis/Megadrive, Master System and Game Gear
Available on: Windows, OS X, Linux
Like Super Nintedo, Sega Genesis emulation is very solid nowadays, with very accurate reproduction. Your best bet for the Sega Genesis is Fusion, which is easy to use and looks good. As a bonus, Fusion also emulates the Master System, Game Gear, 32X and SegaCD.
Super Nintendo Entertainment System
Available on: Windows, OS X, GNU/Linux, Android, iOS, many more.
When it comes to Super Nintendo emulation, nobody does it better than SNES9X, which will play just about any SNES ROM without any trouble or fuss.