Video Game Emulator Guide | Turn your device into a retro console


Video game emulation is the process of digitizing and playing your old video games on modern devices like a phone, laptop, or even an unlocked $30 Fire TV Stick. Emulators are free applications that simulate the hardware of a video game system on a different computer architecture. This means that the gadget running an emulator acts like the console it imitates, complete with operating system and virtual storage device for game saves. Today, there is an emulator for all major video game consoles, ranging from the very first Atari 2600 to current generation systems like the Nintendo Switch.

But since you can’t run a cartridge or disc in most modern hardware, you’ll need to back up your physical collection of games to digital files called ROMs (named after read-only memory chips, which traditionally store games). video game data). For example, I run my PlayStation 2 game ROM collection from a compact Google Pixel 6a smartphone without having to pull out the discs or bulky original console. This means I also get modern conveniences like graphics upscaling, cheats, and even online play that the original hardware can’t match. Read on to see how easy it is to get started.

First, be aware that saving your games for personal use is legal.

Emulation often gets a bad rap due to its association with hackers illegally downloading ROMs from the internet and playing them using an emulator. On the other hand, you have the right to save (also called dump) the physical games you own to digital files that can be played by an emulator. If you have an old favorite’s disc or cartridge, you’ll need access to a computer to convert it to a file format that can be played by emulators on your devices. It’s a lot easier than it looks and it’s similar to how you might have ripped songs from CDs to digital MP3 files using iTunes in the beginning.

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video game emulator step by step documentation

Trevor Raab

video game emulator step by step documentation

Trevor Raab

Save a game disc

Those looking to play older cartridges will need to buy a general-purpose dumper like the $70 RetroBlaster, which comes with its own software for backing up Sega Genesis or SNES titles. You can buy separate adapters to back up cartridges for systems like the Gameboy or Nintendo 64. But for disc-based systems like the original PlayStation and beyond, you just need a computer with an optical drive DVD burner (or buy an external DVD burner if your system doesn’t have one) to create an exact digital copy of the game disc. You can use the free program ImgBurn to convert the contents of the disc into a single digital file. To keep things organized for later, you’ll want to create a dedicated folder for each system where you’ll put these games.

step by step instructions for emulator installation

Find the emulator for the video game console you want to play

Once you have your game files, you need to find an emulator so that their corresponding systems can play them. I mainly use an all-in-one emulator called RetroArch because it’s an app available on most digital storefronts like Steam for computers or the Google Play Store on mobile devices. RetroArch acts as a hub that combines emulators for multiple systems into one easy-to-navigate software. All you have to do is download the console you want to play as the “system kernel” from the main menu, then load it from RetroArch.

video game emulator step by step documentation

Trevor Raab

This eliminates the need to download separate programs for each console while transferring graphics settings, controller mappings, and menus between systems. Plus, it’s just nice to have all your consoles and games accessible from one clean space. RetroArch offers advantages that other standalone applications do not like the integration of RetroAchievement, Netplay to play classic titles online and screenshots or recordings. Ever since I dumped PlayStation 2 games, I’ve been using the application’s PlayStation 2 core called PCSX2. But if you just want to play on one system, here are some of the more popular single-player emulators that I’ve used a lot in the past and recommend:

Living room consoles

Handheld computers

Run an emulator on PC

video game emulator step by step documentation

Trevor Raab

Once you have downloaded and run the installer for one of these systems, you will find yourself in their main menu. You’ll want to point each emulator to a location to search for games, which is why we created the specific folders earlier. Head into Settings, choose Upload Content, and select the console game folder to add your titles. Once the process is complete, you’ll want to check that each game appears in the list. Now whenever you load into the app’s main menu, you can see your games along with their cover art. Click on the title you want to play and you’ll be greeted with the console splash screen followed by your game. While you can use keyboard and mouse controls, I prefer using the Xbox Elite Series 2 controller. It’s not cheap, but it’s a durable and comfortable gamepad that works wirelessly across multiple devices via Bluetooth. Beyond Xbox, I use it as a universal game controller with streaming sticks, computers, and tablets.

Run an emulator on Android

Modern Android phones and tablets now have the computing and graphics power to smoothly emulate systems as recent as the Nintendo Wii. For example, the budget $300 Pixel 6a plays demanding 3D GameCube and PS2 games in a widescreen format with stutter-free resolution enhancements. You can get emulators (like RetroArch) directly from the Google Play Store, but I like to use the standalone apps Dolphin Emulator (Wii/Gamecube) and AetherSX2 (PlayStation 2) for their smarter mobile interfaces and to keep libraries of separate games.

video game emulator step by step documentation

Trevor Raab

video game emulator step by step documentation

Trevor Raab

Although these emulators support touch controls, I recommend grabbing a mobile controller for your Android phone. I use PowerA’s MOGA XP7-X because it accurately recreates the comfort of an Xbox gamepad in a compact, telescoping design. Using a controller also removes touchscreen control overlays, which can be distracting. (Unfortunately, Apple’s App Store is locked down, which means iPhones don’t natively support emulation and require complex workarounds.)

Adjusting emulator settings

While emulators use default settings meant to work on a wide range of hardware, you can enable more powerful options such as stretching the image to fill the screen or increasing the resolution for an image sharper. Switching graphics settings from the widely supported OpenGL to Vulkan offers speed and visual quality gains. To make sure you balance graphical fidelity with performance, you’ll want to use the built-in frame rate counter to make sure you’re hitting your target speeds. For me, I’m happy with a baseline of 30 frames per second (fps), but videophiles might want the smooth performance of 60 fps.

menu screenshot

Fenollol Hunter

Old school video game emulation is a great way to satiate your nostalgia and extract more functionality from your devices. You get more ways to play in more places while improving the overall gaming experience. Most emulators even support action replay, so you can modify games with cheats or rewind the game if you make a mistake. With this knowledge, you can tackle some of the toughest games in your library and finally see their end after all these years.


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