Like you, I pine for the days when video games took 10 seconds to load and there were no massive cut scenes — just delightful shoddy jumpy action. Back in college, I kept a massive collection of emulators and games on an early laptop but have never taken the time to rebuild my library of beautiful classic games. So let’s get into retro gaming today, together, and learn how to use some killer game emulators.
If you’re not familiar with the system, this is how it works: first you need an emulator — the software that “emulates” the hardware of the original game system. It’s not hard to find a great database of these, especially since there is nothing illegal about hosting an emulator. Some of the cleanest sites for this include Emulator-Zone and LoveRoms where there are full lists by platform of system emulators, ranked by the community for how stable and useful they are. If you’re looking for a straightforward game player, that’s here. If you’re looking for something you can overclock and hack and cheat your way through, those are there too. Believe me, it’s the only way I’ve ever seen the end of a Castlevania game.
It’s also worth noting that the mobile stores for iOS and Android are also packed with emulator options, although functionality with touch screens and loading up files to those systems vary wildly so we’re not going to get into that here. Just make sure to pay attention to user reviews so you don’t wind up buying a product that’s going to brick your phone.
Next up is the tricky part: locating the games themselves. Games ready to be played on an emulator are called “roms” or often — for legally dubious reasons — “romz.” Most sites that host emulators wisely distance themselves from rom downloads, unless it is for educational or open source software, meaning that you’ll have to be your own guide for this part of the search. If you find a site that’s lacking in pop-ups and doesn’t require you to download .zip file formats, you’re probably in the clear — at least from a technical perspective. Legally, you’re only supposed to own roms of games that you already own in real life, but don’t try making the case that “they’re in my parent’s basement” if this gets you in trouble. Honestly, we’re not sure how many people are prosecuting the kind of users downloading old Game Boy Advance roms in 2016, so use your own judgement and try not to overdo it. For example, here’s the list of top rom searches on LoveRoms, and it sticks to the classics.
From here, it’s a matter of installing the emulator and building a folder on your computer or mobile device where the roms will live. Open that library, select a file, and enjoy.
If you find keyboard/mouse combinations too frustrating, remember that USB gamepads (including many based on original controllers) are insanely cheap on eBay and Amazon. For the upper-end players, there are console cabinets with joysticks that can price up beyond a thousand dollars a unit.
Still, however you choose to engage with these, be aware of your legality and do not engage with any file download that seems iffy. The last thing you need is to crash your operating system with a virus hidden in a copy of Yoshi’s Island.