An introduction to game emulators

It occurred to me recently that not everyone knows what an emulator is or how to use one. Particularly among console gamers and other people who haven’t used PCs so much. Every gamer with a PC should know how to use an emulator, so this post is going to serve as an introduction for those who need it. If you already know how to use emulators, you can probably skip this one, but if you don’t know how to use emulators, this post will change everything for you. Let’s get started.

What is an emulator?

From Wikipedia:

In computing, an emulator is hardware or software that enables one computer system (called the host) to behave like another computer system (called the guest). An emulator typically enables the host system to run software or use peripheral devices designed for the guest system.

That sounds a little technical, so here’s my explanation:

Emulators are programs that play console games right on your computer.

More exciting, right? You get the emulator, which is a program on your computer, and you open a file, which is the game you want to play. Then you play it. This means that your PC is not just limited to PC games – it can play everything from Nintendo to Playstation 2. There’s even emulators in the works for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. It will be a while, but we’ll eventually see emulators for Playstation 4 and Xbox One. And whatever consoles they make after those, too. No game ever stays console exclusive forever.

What can emulators do that consoles can’t?

The most obvious benefit of using emulators is that your PC can now play almost every game ever released. You can also switch between consoles without having to actually change the hardware you are using, or connect two dozen machines to your TV. Aside from that, there are actually quite a few other benefits.

For one, you can use any controller you want. There a ton of controllers available for computers, but you can use an Xbox 360 controller or Playstation 4 controller, or even classic style controllers made for the PC.

Games also often look and perform a lot better when using an emulator. Graphics can be improved, made more clear and crisp, and even rendered at 1080p or higher. The older sprite-based games can be smoothed over, making them appear much better then they did natively.

There are a lot of other improvements, too. Many emulators allow you to play multiplayer over the internet. Game Genie or GameShark abilities are often built-in, and most emulators allow you to save and load your state anywhere at any time, or fast forward through slow parts of the game.

How do I get started?

The first part is downloading an emulator. What emulator you run depends on what console you want to emulate. There’s different emulators for different consoles, and many consoles have more than one emulator. This is the program that is going to load your game.

Here’s a quick run down on what some of the popular ones are for every console. I’ll drill down more into the specifics for each console in the future, but this should be enough for you to explore and get started.

Please note – this is not a complete list at all. I’m not even listing most consoles. For example, there are emulators for Commodore 64, Atari 2600, Game Gear, Sega Dreamcast, most arcade systems, and more. This list is just a few examples for more popular consoles. I’ll give you some links later in this article where you can find the rest.

NES: FCEUX is a very good choice. It’s a very powerful emulator with great compatibility. If you are more than a casual player, this emulator also offers debugging and hacking tools, and is very popular for recording tool assisted speedruns.

Super Nintendo: Snes9x is the gold standard of SNES emulators. It can play almost any Super Nintendo game, and has been ported to everything from Android to the Sega Dreamcast.

Nintendo 64: Project64 is good, but they recently added in opt-out malware in their installer, so be careful when you install it. If you want to avoid the risk all together, you can get an older version from The Emulator Zone or try an alternative like Mupen64Plus.

Gamecube/Wii: Dolphin is the only emulator in this category, but it’s a great program. It can play Gamecube and Wii games in full 1080p and even features networked multiplayer. There’s an Android version, too.

Playstation: There are a lot of options here, but PCSX-Reloaded is my favorite. The windows version seems to be unmaintained right now, but it still works well. You can download builds here. ePSXe is also good.

Playstation 2: PCSX2 is the only real option for Playstation 2. It’s not perfect, but compatibility is still high. They claim that over 94% of games are playable, although you might encounter some glitches. The emulator is in very heavy development though, and they even release a monthly progress report on how things are coming along.

Where can I get games?

This is a touchy subject, and a lot of people ask this around different forums only to find their post has been deleted, or even worse, they have been banned.

The reason for this is that downloading games from the internet is illegal. Emulation websites like to play it very safe, so they usually wont allow any discussion about where to get games at all. Don’t worry – I’ll point you in the right direction – just be careful who you ask about this.

Update: After this article was published, I posted it to Reddit’s /r/gaming. Less than 24 hours later, the post was deleted and I was permanently banned from the forum. The official reason was “Enabling or attempting to enable piracy”. Keep in mind, that is only for saying that places to download them exist, you just have to Google for them, while otherwise stating that I do not condone piracy. So be careful when talking about this kind of thing online, because a lot of websites have a zero tolerance policy.

Okay, so where can I get games?

The only legal way to get games is to rip them yourself or play the original copy. This is easy for things like Playstation games, where you can use any software capable of creating an ISO from a CD, or just play it directly from the CD by putting it in your cd rom drive. It gets a little trickier for more complicated discs like the Wii, where have to rip the disc using homebrew software on an actual Wii. Making backups of cartridge games is harder still, requiring special hardware to read the cartridge. None of that is impossible, though, just a little tricky, and there are guides all over the internet to help you.

That being said, there are places on the internet where you can download games, you just have to Google for them. For legal reasons, this website, along most other websites, cannot condone this.

All I can say is that if you are going to try downloading games from the internet, be very careful what you download. Any sites that offer files of questionable legality may try to serve you malware. Know what kind of files you are downloading, and delete anything you download that doesn’t match. For example, Super Nintendo games always end in smc, sfc, or fig. Disc based games will usually be either iso or a cue and bin file. When in doubt, search Google and find out what kind of files you should be looking for. Never open any files ending in exe or bat under any circumstances, and it couldn’t hurt to have a virus scanner running, either.

Update: After this article was published, I posted it to Reddit’s /r/gaming

What is a bios and where can I get it?

A bios is the software that is running on the console itself, and is sometimes needed for an emulator to work. For example, Playstation and Playstation 2 emulators commonly a bios file. You only need one of these per console for games on that console to work.

Finding bios files falls under the same legal issues as games, so see my point above. It’s completely possible to rip the bios legally from your console, and there are guides on the internet to help you. If you are going to try finding it online, be safe and know what you are downloading, run a virus scanner, and never open executable files.

Where can I find more emulators?

The Emulator General wiki is the best source I’ve seen. They list emulators for over 60 systems, with notes and comparisons, along with emulators that run on other consoles and handhelds, recommended plugins, FAQs, modding, and more.

The Emulator Zone is also a fantastic resource, and lists emulators for all major consoles, along with utilities and news, and has been around for a very long time.

What is a frontend?

A frontend is a program that lists all of your games in one place and makes it easier to run them. Instead of opening the emulator and selecting the file you want to open, you can browse through a nicer looking list, select the game you want to play, and let the frontend take care of launching the emulator. They usually take a little bit of work to set up properly, but make things a lot easier and nicer to use once you do.

Try checking out LaunchBox, Emulation Station, Hyperspin, or you can add your games directly into Steam, if you would prefer to keep your classic and modern games all in one place.

Where can I learn more?

The emulation community is huge, and this article is only a primer. The Emulator General wiki mentioned above is a huge resource that I highly recommend looking at. There’s forums over at The Emulation Zone, and some emulators, like Dolphin, also have an active community. There’s also a great community of people on Reddit at /r/emulation.

A note about next-generation emulators

You might see Youtube videos or websites out there showing perfectly working emulators for current generation consoles. All of these websites and videos are scams. When you download them, they either charge you money (for nothing), or install a lot of malware on your system, so this needs to be very clear.

There are no emulators available for Xbox 360, Xbox One, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, or Wii U. Any websites or Youtube videos claiming otherwise are scams.

There actually are emulators in development for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. They are coming along well and progressing quickly, but they can’t be used to play commercial games yet. If you want to keep track of their progress, check out the Playstation 3 emulator, RPCS3, or the Xbox 360 emulator, Xenia.

As for anything more modern, we’ll just have to wait. It takes a long time of a system being out before emulators are made for it, but it will happen eventually. And that’s just for the few console exclusives that are still made. Most Xbox One and Playstation 4 games are coming out natively for PC now, so don’t forget to check Steam before worrying that you wont be able to play a game.


If you didn’t know anything about emulators before, this can be a lot to take in all at once. Pick one console that you’d like to try out and start there. After getting to know one emulator well, the others will be much easier to figure out. Remember that the emulation community can be very helpful, so don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

Have fun!


Michael Day is a web engineer, javascript junkie, video game enthusiast, and blogger. Hating how the big console makers were taking advantage of gamers, he made the switch to PC and set it upon himself to make a machine that did everything the more popular consoles wouldn't.