The best iOS game emulators to play on iPhone

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Since the launch of Android in 2008, Apple's iOS has clearly lagged behind its Google-backed rival in retro gaming. While some companies, notably Final Fantasy creator Square Enix, regularly bring their older games to the App Store via official mobile ports, the best fans of Sonic or Mario used to be able to access for free via the App Store Value-added games such as Sonic Dash or Super Mario Run

Sometimes, you want something meatier. Android fans will agree - since the platform launched, it's been open to game emulators, which can use software to emulate older consoles to play games from the '80s, '90s, and in some cases, even the '00s Even earlier games.

As Apple transforms the iPhone into a modern gaming powerhouse, launching fully-featured versions of games like Resident Evil: Village , the company finally seems ready to address this blind spot. Emulators can be tricky to have with game publishers, even if they're technically legal, but in an April 5 update, Apple finally changed the rules to allow them to appear on the App Store, subject to is that they do not distribute copyright infringing material.

Since then, a small group of dedicated developers have begun bringing retro gaming to America's most popular mobile platform. Here are the best game emulators for iPhone, and best of all, they're all free.

Backbone One Mobile Controller The best way to play games on the go is with a physical controller like the Backbone One.

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RetroArch is the most powerful emulator on the App Store, but technically it's not an emulator at all. Instead, it is a front-end that runs various simulation "cores" distributed by other developers. Think of RetroArch as a menu where each core is a different console that you can choose from and customize to your liking.

With all these options, navigation can be a little confusing. RetroArch's interface is simple, and while it can be spruced up with a variety of themes, it still sometimes dumps dozens of concepts simultaneously on a single page with little explanation of them.

The good thing is that once downloaded from the App Store, you can play games for over 70 consoles, including popular mainstream consoles like the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, and PlayStation 1. Works fine out of the box, but some may require BIOS (or operating system) files, or at least suggest adding a file or two for added compatibility.

That's the problem with emulators: they can't distribute copyrighted information, so you need to provide it yourself. Emulation enthusiasts are convinced that making backup files of games they own is legal under US law , although the practice has yet to come under serious legal scrutiny.

But RetroArch makes loading your own files more difficult than most competing programs. The general process is to open RetroArch, select Load Core , select the system you want to play on (each system may have multiple cores, with different performance levels), rather than selecting from a list of games, all games are displayed with a beautiful box art and the accuracy of the original hardware between them), click Load Content, then click Open and select your game from the file browser.

There's a lot to do every time you want to play a game, and it may require you to do some research beforehand on which core to use. And there's more - once you're in the game, there are dozens of settings to adjust, including Frame Limit and Lag.

For the most part, you can ignore these, but while you can use features like favorites and playlists to ease the pain, it can still be a bit overwhelming.

Enthusiasts will appreciate the fine-grained control, though, as settings can even be configured on a per-core basis. Others can at least rest assured that basic features like touch controls and save states (games can be saved anywhere, separate from the in-game save functionality) are easily accessible while playing, and you can do this in portrait or landscape mode model.

RetroArch is the best option for getting the most tweaks and consoles, and is worth downloading as a backup as it may be the only way to play some games. But if you're looking for something more user-friendly, there are other options.

Razer Kishi V2 Gaming Controller The Razer Kishi V2 is another great controller option for gaming on your phone.


Delta was the first emulator to become really popular on the App Store, functioning like a stripped-down but more user-friendly version of RetroArch. It also supports multiple cores, but only one core per console and only a select number of most older systems.

These include the Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance and Sega Genesis. Again, you'll need to provide the game files yourself, and in the case of a DS, the BIOS files.

But once you complete these steps, the setup is much simpler than in RetroArch. You only have to add the game to Delta's main menu once, browse iTunes or the file via the + icon in the upper right corner, and Delta will add it to the corresponding console's menu, complete with box art.

From there, just click on the game's icon to launch it. You'll see touch controls that work in both portrait and landscape modes, and you'll have access to basic features like save states and Button Hold, which allows you to hold down a specific button while you play the game (for Super Useful for games such as Mario World ).

In the app's settings menu, you can also add cheat codes, change the opacity of the touch controls, and even connect to a DropBox or Google Drive folder to load the game from there.

It's generally a smoother experience and, frankly, cuter. All of Delta's menus come in a very Gamecube purple color, and each system's touch controls come with great themes, which you can also swap out for custom options if you want.

If you just want to play older Nintendo games, Delta is probably your best bet, as it's similar to Retroarch but doesn't require a computer engineering degree to use.

8bitdo Ultimate Bluetooth Controller This is a great Bluetooth controller for those who would rather use a separate gamepad for gaming.

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PPSSPP is actually available as a core in Retroarch, but if you just want to play PSP games, it's your best bet.

That's because it gives you everything Retroarch does, but like Delta, it comes with an interface that's easier to navigate.

The problem is that it only works in landscape mode, but since PSP games are widescreen anyway, you'll probably want to use that instead.

The UI here isn't as clean as Delta, but it still offers a simpler basic flow than RetroArch (and the menu is cute, too, since it resembles an actual PSP menu). To play a game, simply open the app, click Load , and browse for the game's files. PPSSPP will add it to the game menu and after playing it will appear in the recent menu for later use.

Once in a game, click the ^ arrow at the top of the screen to view save status and more advanced options you can set for each game. As with RetroArch, there's some real vocabulary here, like "disable culling" and "skip GPU readback", but you can generally ignore these, and experts will appreciate the extra options.

The only real flaw with the app is that it's not as powerful as other systems, as Apple's coding restrictions prevented developer Henrik Rydgård from adding features like RetroAchievements and Vulkan graphics support. Rydgård said in a blog post that he's working on restoring the features, but performance will likely always lag behind versions of the app on other systems because Apple doesn't allow an on-the-fly recompiler to help re-translate the code for a smoother game.

Still, given the power behind modern Apple devices, this shouldn't be a problem for most people. The biggest issue I had while playing Mega Man Maverick Hunter X was the touch controls, but like every other emulator on this list, you can use an external controller if you want.

Note that you will eventually see a paid version of PPSSPP on the App Store, but if it's anything like past PPSSPP versions, it won't come with any extra features. Instead, purchasing it is just a way of supporting Rydgård's work.

PlayStation DualSense Wireless Controller - Cobalt Blue If you regularly play games on your PlayStation, the DualSense is a great controller for other devices as well.


Gamma is a hard sell, but if you really don't want to use RetroArch, it might be a good choice for you. This is another single-purpose emulator, this time for PS1 games, and it works similarly to Delta. In fact, in an interview with The Verge, Delta developer Riley Testut said that Gamma is based on and licensed from his work.

It should be a slam dunk, with a similarly simple setup process, just press the + in the upper right corner, add the game files, and automatically populate it into a list with box art. There are even links to services such as Dropbox or Google Drive folders, as well as the ability to use various skins via touch controllers. Gamma can also be run without a BIOS, but adding a BIOS can improve performance.

The problem is advertising. When launching the game and idling on the main menu, Gamma will play a minute-long ad that completely removes motivation. The app also asks to track your activity when you first load it, which can be a little scary.

There is a way to solve this problem, which requires turning off wifi and network data when using Gamma. But there's a lot that goes into just playing games from the '90s.

Which simulators are not on iOS?

Even with these four options, iOS still lags behind Android when it comes to emulation. Complex as it may be, RetroArch covers most bases, but systems like the PS2, Gamecube, Wii, and even the Nintendo Switch still don't make it onto the device, even though they can be played elsewhere .

Due to the limitations Rydgård pointed out, we may never see these systems coming to the iPhone, but thanks to widespread support for the PSP, coupled with ports of modern AAA games like Assassin's Creed: Phantoms , the iPhone is in a better position to be the best. There are more calls than ever.