Thanks to the endless gifts that Moore’s Law continues to bestow upon us, cramming many of your favorite retro gaming systems into a phone that’s not much bigger than half a pack of playing cards has never been easier than it is today. Many of the most popular consoles from our past like NES, Sega Genesis, and Playstation One can all be enjoyed from wherever you are in the world thanks to mobile emulators, but getting started with emulation on Android is easier said than done.
A note to readers of this article: all emulators and games were tested on a 2013 Nexus 7, which includes a 1.5 GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor with 2 GB of available RAM. More current tablets and phones like the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 contain considerably more powerful graphics and processing chips, which means that although there was a ceiling on what we could achieve here (for example, the Nexus maxed out when we jumped from PSX to PS2), the more current your device, the more emulators you’ll be able to run on it.
With that disclaimer out of the way, it’s time to jump into some of our favorite ways to enjoy the gaming greats of yore on Android-enabled phones and tablets.
Choose Your Emulator
MyBoy! Game Boy Advance Emulator
If we’re going portable, might as well start with a system that’s made to let you mash buttons from the seat of your plane or the backseat of the family van. Personally, I have hundreds of fond memories of the time I spent with my trusty Game Boy Advance SP, popping it out in class, at home, or when I was waiting to get my very first drivers license at the DMV.
Now all those moments can be relived in their pixelated glory thanks to the MyBoy! Game Boy Advance emulator. Found on the Google Play store in Lite and paid versions ($4.99 to remove ads and save-state restrictions), the My Boy! emulator works with almost every title released in the GBA lineup, regardless of region restrictions or controller setups.
Users of the emulators may notice that some ROMs could have more trouble running smoothly than others (popular games like Golden Sun are notoriously finicky when it comes to emulator compatibility), however getting the game you want to work on your preferred platform is simply a matter of trial and error.
The MyBoy! emulator can be found on the Google Play store at the link here.
Though it’s already obvious from the outset, DS games are pretty much a match made in heaven for Android devices thanks to the touchscreen compatibility of many of its most immersive titles. The Drastic DS emulator takes advantage of this by giving DS lovers all the same features they’ve come to love on their Nintendo handheld, and ramping things up to 11 with post-processing graphics that can significantly improve on the textures and models that made DS games the classics they are.
But, even though they’re perfect for one another, it’s recommended you only run DS games on a device with a screen size of 5.5″ or larger, as the dual-screen setup can prove a bit too cramped for phones to handle all on their own.
Drastic is far better suited to tablets, where both the power of the device and the added screen real estate can add up to an experience that at times can even surpass what you’d normally get from playing a game on a DS itself. That said, if you’re serious about mobile gaming and emulators, it’s recommended to invest in a game controller holster like the GameKlip, which can free up valuable screen space and give you a better overall view of what’s happening on the battlefield at any given time.
The Drastic DS emulator can be found on the Google Play store as both a free release (limited gaming time, no saves, with ads), or for $5.99 flat with all features included and no limit on the amount of time you can play each game.
Yes, the wildly popular Gamecube/Wii emulator has gone mobile, and it’s better than ever before.
Helmed by a feverishly passionate group of gamers who can’t let some of their favorite Nintendo games fall by the wayside every time they leave their console, Dolphin is an emulator that will allow you to run any Gamecube or Wii titles on your tablet or phone with ease.
Better yet, like its desktop counterpart Dolphin also allows for netplay between up to four people at a time, meaning you can bust out your controller for a little multiplayer Smash Bros mayhem even while you’re winding down from that big conference on the road. Admittedly, Gamecube graphics and the frenetic pace of Super Smash Brothers Melee was a bit too much for the Nexus to handle all on its own, but video tests have shown that Nvidia’s game-centric Shield tablet with a Tegra K1 graphics chip was more than capable of handling the job without stuttering or slipping along the way.
The Dolphin Emulator can be found 100% free by clicking the link included here.
For the rest of your favorite childhood titles out there, we have ClassicBoy.
ClassicBoy digs up the graves of some of the most iconic gaming systems from the past and mashes them together in one all-you-can-eat buffet of retro gaming goodness. ClassicBoy is equipped to the nines with emulators for Playstation One, GameBoy Color, NES, Sega Genesis, SNES, Nintendo 64, and even the SNK NeoGeo for any fighting game fans out there.
The only reason we wouldn’t recommend ClassicBoy as a blanket solution for all games is there have been reports of compatibility issues among some of the more frequently requested roms, specifically Mario 64 and certain titles for Super Nintendo. This in mind, it’s still great as a one-stop shop solution for some of our favorite systems, and works with both NTSC and PAL-formatted games.
ClassicBoy is free to own from the Google Play store today.
Okay, now that you’ve found the emulator you want and installed it on the device of your choosing, it’s time to load up on some games.
In order to skirt copyright claims that could threaten their status on the Google Play store, most of the emulators you find here won’t come with a built-in way of downloading games from within the client itself. Instead, in order to build up your library you’ll need to visit a third-party provider, hubs like CoolRoms, DopeRoms, or RomHustler.
You can do this either by visiting the site from your desktop and loading the roms into a shared Google Drive folder than can be accessed by both platforms later, or you can simply visit the site from the device itself and point your emulator to the mobile browser’s download folder to find the games you want to play. Both methods will yield the same result, and how you go about getting your games boils down to a matter of preference.
Lastly, it bears mentioning that hundreds of some of the best retro games out there have been remastered as a part of the Google Play gaming lineup. Titles like Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy, and Crazy Taxi have all seen their fair share of reboots and rehashes, optimized specifically for touch surfaces to give them the ultimate in responsiveness and fluidity of motion while you play.
While plenty of purists out there could argue that the current gen of consoles is the golden age of gaming, there’s just as many old codgers on the other side of the argument that think what we got in the 90’s and early aughts can’t be beat.
The beauty of mobile emulators like these, of course, is you’re only limited to what you can play by the amount of spare storage left on your flash card and the power of the device in your pocket. Want to play Sonic and Mario side by side? No problem. Prefer to get a few matches of Smash in before that next important meeting? Dolphin’s got you covered. Mobile emulators are the enemy of boredom, and give you the chance to finally score that 100% playthrough for the Ocarina of Time even if you’re miles away from your Nintendo 64 at home.