Apple Has Lost Control of the iPhone. This New Game Emulator Is Proof.

The coming wave of game emulators is further evidence of the iPhone’s Android-ification.

Inverse contributing writer Ian Carlos Campbell playing Super Mario Bros. 3 on an iPhone using the D...
Lais Borges/Inverse; Photograph by Ian Carlos Campbell

Game emulation is having a big moment on the iPhone. Earlier this month, in a surprise move, Apple updated its app review guidelines to allow for retro game emulators on the App Store, a change that the company has resisted since the original iPhone launched in 2007. Game emulators aren’t illegal, but Apple has long been afraid of inadvertently supporting piracy (and losing out on the potential for game purchases in its own store).

Since Apple’s pivot, Delta, a game emulator that can play ROMs from the Nintendo Entertainment System to the Nintendo DS, has been hanging out at the top of the App Store’s charts, ringing in a new, looser era for Apple’s highly lucrative storefront. New regulation abroad and increased scrutiny from lawmakers in the U.S. have seemingly “encouraged” Apple to start changing how its platforms operate, and in the U.S. retro game emulators are the first to benefit.

But the success of Delta on the App Store is the canary in the coal mine of bigger changes coming to the company’s hardware. Where Apple once ruled over its most successful product with an iron fist, it now feels like the company has lost control of the iPhone. Apple’s reasons for making the iPhone work the way it does — as a closed, not open platform — are falling by the wayside. The question isn’t if the iPhone can open up more, it’s how open and computer-like it will be when the dust finally settles.

Delta and the AltStore

Delta was created by Riley Testut, a developer with a history of finding clever ways of skirting Apple’s App Store rules. Originally, that was with Delta’s predecessor, GBA4iOS, which used enterprise certificates to distribute the emulation software without needing to go through App Store review. After Apple revoked the ability to sign new versions of GBA4iOS, Testut created AltStore, an entirely independent app marketplace that used a separate development workaround to download apps like Delta. When Apple was forced to allow third-party app stores on the iPhone in Europe, Testut and his partner Shane Gill began the work to bring the store to Europe (now launched as AltStore PAL), and now, with Apple’s recent change of heart, Delta is also in the U.S. (though not without some copycat drama).

As the successor to what was primarily a Game Boy Advance emulator, Delta is a fantastic way to play any retro ROMs you might have legally dumped and squirreled away. (Inverse doesn’t condone piracy. It is illegal to play ROMs for which you do not own a legal copy of the game.) Delta faithfully (and playfully) recreates the buttons of the Game Boy, SNES, etc. complete with subtle haptics to approximate the feeling of plastic and rubber buttons, D-pads, and joysticks sliding against each other. You can play your games in portrait or landscape orientations and the button arrangement and screen size will adjust accordingly. I got sick of software buttons pretty quickly, but Delta also plays nice with controller attachments like the Backbone and Bluetooth controllers, so you can get a more tactile experience.

The only bad part of Delta is how annoying it is to get ROMs onto the iPhone — something that’s been true since Apple introduced the Files app in iOS 11. Either you drop your ROMs in iCloud Drive on your Mac (where my ROMs were organized) and hope they’ll eventually show up in the iCloud Drive section of the Files app, or you copy your ROMs to a memory card or external storage that can be connected directly to your phone over USB-C or a dongle if you have an older iPhone with a Lightning port. From there, you just access the ROMs through Delta and they’ll automatically sort themselves by game system and populate with the right cover art. Getting ROMS into Delta is annoying, but not annoying enough for the app to rocket to the top of the App Store, clearly.

iPhone’s Android-ification Continues

The new features Apple’s added to iOS to keep up with Android have increased complexity and utility.


Game emulators have been available on Android and the Play Store for over a decade at this point. The abundance of game emulator apps is the main reason so many handhelds are basically just Android tablets packaged in the body of a Game Boy or Nintendo Switch. Android makes it easy to download a bunch of emulators and sideload ROMs; the extra hardware just makes those games more pleasant to play.

Apple allowing game emulator apps on iOS is really just continuing a process that’s been in the works for years: the Android-ification of the iPhone. The iPhone’s increasing complexity and (much to Apple’s chagrin) openness is in direct parallel to Android phones. Apple might still be offering a smoother, less confusing, and more secure version of a mobile experience, but the iPhone is getting closer and closer to resembling Google’s.

A game emulator shatters Apple’s lush and safe garden.

Wilder than that ongoing transformation, allowing game emulation on iOS and iPadOS breaks the carefully cultivated app-based illusion Apple relies on. Yes, your iPhone can run an app, but because of Apple’s rules and optimizations, it runs smoother, usually has more consistent user interface designs, and performs more like it came pre-installed than if you were to run a third-party app on your desktop computer, where a developer can pretty much do whatever it wants. Not to mention, apps installed from the App Store are vetted by Apple to guard against malware, copyrighted content, or piracy (to name a few things Apple claims are benefits of the App Store). At least, that’s the argument Apple makes, though there have been several instances of apps that violated the App Store rules and should have never been approved somehow getting into the App Store

A game emulator shatters Apple’s lush and safe garden. Delta asks you to physically load game files onto your iPhone. It then runs those files, implementing a save state system on top of them that you have to manage. It’s the most obvious way an iPhone has behaved like a desktop computer since its inception, and it probably won’t be the last.

Cracks in the iPhone Armor

What’s important to make clear here is that anyone who owns an iPhone and is interested in video games is better off with this rule change. Concern that Apple was exerting too much control over gaming on iPhones and iPads, and the mere possibility that third-party stores could undercut the App Store was enough to get Apple to make this change. Combined with the company’s recent reversal on game streaming apps, there’s a possibility the iPhone will become even more of a handheld gaming powerhouse than it already is.

But Delta and game emulation finally making a splash on the iPhone is really a hint at something bigger.

Apple might be adopting more Android features at its own pace (usually presenting features as “new” years after Android introduced them), but not because it necessarily wants to. Now that we’re 17 years into the iPhone’s life, there are few new features to add annually, hence the cribbing from the Android camp. Supporting game emulation is just the start of the kinds of concessions Apple could make to evolve the iPhone into an even more mature and capable computer.

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