Apple finally lets you emulate retro games on your iPhone

Retro gamers have long known that one of Android's long-term advantages over iOS is its emulator support. If you want to play your favorite old-school Nintendo, Sony, or Sega games on your phone, then the iPhone is basically a no-brainer unless you're willing to jailbreak your device or rely on more limited web-based emulators than dedicated emulation apps.

Well, it's not on my 2024 Apple bingo card, but times have "changed" on iOS: the company updated its App Store review guide on Friday, adding language that covers game emulators, as shown below:

Apps may offer certain software without embedded binaries, specifically HTML5 mini-apps and mini-games, streaming games, chatbots, and plug-ins. In addition, retro console emulator apps may offer games for download."

This is a huge reversal for Apple and is likely the result of pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice and the European Commission to open iOS to more services and competition. The U.S. Department of Justice's case against Apple builds in part on its history of suppressing things like cloud streaming and "super" apps. The company has since opened up support for cloud streaming apps like Xbox Cloud Gaming and GeForce Now. Friday's change in guidelines also suggests that Apple will allow developers to offer HTLM5-based mini-apps, which will support mega-apps like WeChat that offer such services on other platforms.

These iOS-compatible emulators are not yet available, but developers are expected to start working on them soon.

Are emulators illegal?

Emulators sometimes get a bad rap because many people believe they are being used to play games illegally. However, emulators themselves don't necessarily break any laws: simply building a program to play a game on a specific platform is usually legal and reasonable. The problem usually comes down to how these emulators run games, and the tactics that app developers use to encourage users.

Emulators allow you to play ROMs or digital files of games. These files can be obtained legally (usually through your purchase of the game), but they are often distributed illegally on the Internet. When emulators not only allow you to play pirated ROMs, but also actively show users how to download them ...... developers are in trouble.

Nintendo shut down the popular Switch emulator Yuzu last month for the reason of emulating games, but mostly to show players how to pirate games. Given that Nintendo has been going after people who post music on YouTube, they're more than happy to take down developers who let users "steal" games. So if developers want their emulators to appear on the App Store, they may need to make sure they only play legally obtained ROMs.

This means that if popular Android emulators like Retroarch and Dolphin come to iOS, they probably won't offer any advice on installing ROMs from the Internet. You can get your own ROM files from games you already own, or from other legitimate sources like that get passes to ROM collections for digital preservation.