Like any Nintendo console before it, the Switch can be emulated on modern platforms including Windows, macOS, Linux, and even mobile and handheld platforms. So what’s involved, and is it worth it?
How Does Switch Emulation Work?
Like other consoles, Switch emulation requires the use of an emulator. Emulators are software applications that mimic original hardware and provide additional options for playing native games. These can include graphical changes to resolution and rendering methods, the ability to save progress outside of the game’s normal methods, and easier access to mods and other software changes.
On top of an emulator, you’ll also need firmware, system keys, and game files. All of these can be dumped from a hacked Switch console using tools like TegraExplorer and Lockpick_RCM. Once these are in file format they should work in any emulator, though it is illegal to share or download these files from the internet as they are copyrighted materials.
Switch firmware is the software that runs on native Nintendo hardware and allows the console to function. System keys (most emulators only ask for a “prod.keys” file) are effectively decryption keys that allow you to launch games and other software.
Nintendo generally releases new system keys with each new firmware file, and many games require a minimum firmware version to run. Keeping your Nintendo Switch emulator up to date can take some work, plus you’ll need to dump your game files using a homebrew app like NXDumpTool.
Is Nintendo Switch Emulation Legal?
Most game consoles eventually receive emulators but the Switch received its first emulators relatively early in its lifecycle. The first Switch emulator, Yuzu, appeared in 2018, less than a year after the console’s release in 2017. A few months later a second emulator, Ryujinx, appeared.
Emulation is generally regarded as legal since no copyrighted materials are used in the creation of the software. But the practice of running games on non-original hardware has long been a legal grey area. It’s technically legal to dump files from your own console, download an emulator, and play games. However, since this makes it easy to share games, firmware, and other necessary files on the internet, the practice is often mired in controversy.
Downloading ROMs for games that you do not own from the internet is piracy, as is downloading someone else’s firmware or system keys dump. We spoke to a legal expert from the University of Arizona for their take on the legalities or dumping, downloading, and sharing ROMs.
It should come as little surprise that Nintendo, in particular, is opposed to the practice. Android Switch emulator Skyline announced in early May 2023 that it would be ceasing development because: “the risks associated with a potential legal case are too high for us to ignore, and we cannot continue knowing that we may be in violation of copyright law.”
In the same sweep, Nintendo lodged a DMCA takedown of the Lockpick and Lockpick_RPM tools required to extract system keys from a hacked Switch console. For a company like Nintendo, the goal is to limit piracy, and that means going after the projects that it sees as a threat.
Which Nintendo Switch Emulators are Available?
There are currently three main Nintendo Switch emulators that give you the best chance of successfully running games. These are available for a range of systems. The more powerful the system, the better.
Yuzu is the original Switch emulator, first appearing in January 2018. Yuzu is an open-source project that is available for both Windows and Linux, with over half of tested Switch titles yielding a “great” or “perfect” rating on the Game Compatibility List. Since the project runs on Linux, it is also possible to install Yuzu on Valve’s Steam Deck handheld.
Hey! Listen! Wait, wrong game
📣 Attention All 📣
🔥 Tears of the Kingdom is playable in yuzu
🚀 Full speed on most hardware!
✨ Experience in 4K or higher!
🚫 No hacks needed!
🎁 60fps, cheats, & more with mods
Experience the best way to play, today:https://t.co/cmwPNpop7G pic.twitter.com/SBmpsqE9ch
— yuzu (@yuzuemu) May 13, 2023
Yuzu was written in C++ and was created by the same team that made the Nintendo 3DS emulator Citra. The project has a particularly in-depth Quickstart Guide that walks you through the process of booting your hackable Switch into recovery mode, dumping system keys and firmware files, and even extracting games to the microSD card.
Ryujinx was the second Switch emulator to burst onto the scene in April 2018 and is also an open-source emulator that enjoys excellent compatibility. Around 80% of tested titles are considered in a “playable” state according to the Ryujinx Games List. The emulator is available for Windows, Linux, and macOS with a native Apple Silicon build available for modern Apple systems.
Thanks to Ryujinx, you can now catch the Psyduck in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet without destroying the world, day one on PC, even on 4K! #PokemonScarletViolet
LDN update coming Very Soon™! pic.twitter.com/CBD3wYQmiN
— Ryujinx (@RyujinxEmu) November 18, 2022
The Ryujinx Setup and Configuration Guide assumes you already have a hacked Switch and have dumped your system keys and firmware to disk. From here it’s a simple matter of putting the “prod.keys” file in the right directory and installing your firmware of choice before you can boot games.
Skyline is a Nintendo Switch emulator for Android that is no longer in active development owing to potential legal action from Nintendo. Since the Skyline project was open-source in nature, the source code is still available on the Skyline GitHub page for other interested parties to use or peruse.
If you want to use Skyline you’ll need to find a pre-compiled APK file or compile the code yourself from source. You’ll then need to sideload the app onto your Android device.
Switch Emulation Performance, Multiplayer, and More
The sort of performance you should expect from a Switch emulator largely depends on the hardware you’re using. There are many videos on the internet or mainstay titles like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild running at 4K resolution with double the game’s original frame rate, which proves that powerful platforms can overcome many of the Switch’s hardware limitations.
Even if you can nail the performance, that doesn’t mean that emulation is going to be flawless. Some games will still exhibit weird graphical glitches owing to imperfect emulation. Elements like shadows or water can render incorrectly, or artifacts can appear on the screen. Generally speaking: the older the title, the better the experience. New versions of emulators often target improved performance in modern titles.
This is why some people prefer to run the Wii U version of Breath of the Wild using CEMU, rather than using the native Switch version. CEMU is a more mature emulator with years of optimization. Since much of the Wii U catalog has been released on the Switch (including touched-up titles like Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario 3D Land), it’s always worth considering this route if you’re keen on emulation.
Both Yuzu and Ryujinx support multiplayer in some capacity. Take a look at Switch Games on LAN-Play.com to see which titles are supported. These work using local multiplayer modes that function over the internet, rather than using the standard Nintendo Switch Online experience.
Why Bother Emulating Nintendo Switch Games?
If you’re “legally” emulating the Switch, you already have a way of playing Switch games using your own hardware. But there are still reasons you might want to go through the hassles of emulation instead, and these are mostly related to graphics, performance, and convenience.
The Switch is a handheld console that can also be played on a TV, and that means it’s relatively underpowered compared to modern consoles like the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. You’ll miss out on higher-resolution graphics and faster frame rates if you stick with native hardware.
On a powerful PC, many Switch titles run at up to 4K resolution. Some can take advantage of unlocked, higher frame rates which means smoother performance. You may be able to overcome hardware bottlenecks where the Switch can struggle due to its aging mobile chipset.
On top of this, you can use any controller you want to play games as long as it’s compatible with your emulator of choice. You can mod titles easier than you would using a hacked Switch, with little to no repercussions for things going wrong. You can even play over the internet without the need for a Nintendo Switch Online membership, in some instances.
Having your Switch library on a PC or other platform is convenient. You can share your console with someone else in your house while still playing your games. You can stream your gameplay without the need for a dedicated capture device. You can even play earlier dumps of games if you don’t like what an update has done to a game.
There’s also an argument to be made for game preservation. One day, your Switch will cease to work. Nintendo’s eShop will go offline, and it could be hard to play games that you have purchased or buy new ones. With emulation developers putting in the work now, the platform can live on long past the natural lifespan of the hardware.
Love Switch Games? Buy a Switch
Switch emulation is in an interesting position. Many games emulate almost perfectly, with better graphics and performance than the original hardware. But you’ll need a Switch to do this legally, and it’s hard to argue with the convenience of Nintendo’s handheld form factor.
The hybrid console is a real success at this stage, with some killer games and a huge range of aftermarket accessories. If you’re vaguely tempted by the catalog, you should buy a Switch. The only real question you face is whether you go for a standard Switch, the Switch Lite, or the Switch OLED.
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