iOS Video Game Emulators
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About emulation on iOS
At some point, you may have searched Apple's App Store for video game emulators and found absolutely nothing. Video game emulators are banned! They once existed at the very beginning of the iPhone's release. However, Apple woke up one day and suddenly decided to ban all video game emulators from the store. It's not fair, especially since emulators themselves are not illegal.
The good news is that it is possible to load video game emulators onto your iPhone or iPad. It's relatively easy to do, too! You may have heard of jailbreaking your device to load emulators. Jailbreaking is risky and voids the warranty, so this article will not touch on that subject. Rather, I'm going to review with you safe workarounds to use emulators. Some options are free, but most options (especially the better ones) require a fee.
Official game releases
To begin with, I'm going to contradict this article by saying you may not need video game emulators! As a webmaster of an RPG site, I feel compelled to point out that there are lots of RPG classics that were officially released in the App Store. Most of them have improved graphics or have been completely remade. They go for around $3-18 US. Those RPGs are listed below.
- Adventures of Mana
- Castlevania SotN
- Chrono Trigger
- Dragon Quest I
- Dragon Quest II
- Dragon Quest III
- Dragon Quest IV
- Dragon Quest V
- Dragon Quest VIII
- Final Fantasy I Remaster
- Final Fantasy II Remaster
- Final Fantasy III (3D)
- Final Fantasy III Remaster
= works with Bluetooth gamepads
Files app & extracting ZIP/RAR/7Z
Working with ROMs and emulators requires getting comfortable with iOS's Files app and extracting ZIP, RAR, and 7Z files. iOS's Files app comes with iPhones and iPads by default. Emulators require ROMs to be in a certain location. Hence, you need to use the Files app to move your downloaded ROMs from Safari's Downloads folder to the emulator's ROMs folder (just like on OSX or Windows).
When you download a ROM from a ROM site, most of the time it'll be a ZIP file. Every emulator has the ability to run ROMs from zip files. However, Safari-based emulators (which I talk about below) can't run games from ZIP files and require them to be extracted first. YouTube has lots of videos showing you how to use the Files app and extract ZIP files: How to extract ZIP files with the Files app.
CD-based games such as PlayStation 1 and Sega CD tend to be larger so ROM sites distribute games in a 7Z or RAR file instead of ZIP. The Files app doesn't support extracting them. Rather, I recommend installing iZip which supports extracting 7Z and RAR files.
Video game emulators aren't limited to apps. Did you know you can simply load a website in Safari (or any other Internet browser) to play ROMs? It's pretty cool! I have several of these emulation websites listed in my links. They come with a few caveats, though:
- When compared to app-based emulators, browser-based emulators are slower. It's running a program through a program, after all. Super Nintendo may be the highest platform your device can handle. Luckier people can handle PlayStation 1 and N64.
- These websites normally don't come with a way for you to save your progress.
- Screen filters, cheats, and other common emulator features aren't offered.
- Browser-based emulators are designed for desktops.
- They're all free, at least. You just need to tolerate their ad-infested pages.
Sorry, I know I'm painting a pretty dreary picture for you with this. I wanted to talk about the bad before talking about the good. As an iOS user, there is a solution for you when it comes to browser-based emulators. Let me introduce you to Afterplay.io!
Afterplay.io is an online platform of browser-based emulators. Its clean, ad-free interface is designed for iPhones and iPads. The way it works is you create an account with them (which is free), upload your ROMs (extract them first), and then you can play them.
By default, the controls are touchscreen. Bluetooth gamepads are supported, so you may hide the touchscreen controls for your physical controller. Your game progress is auto-saved to the cloud, allowing you to play & continue your games on multiple devices. Other features include fast forward and control customization.
The catch is that only Game Boy/Color/Advance/DS and Super Nintendo are free. If you want to play other systems, you need to pay for their premium subscription which is $5.99/month US.
While browser-based emulators are a good option, if you want the best emulation experience you need to download fully-fledged, app-based emulators onto your iPhone or iPad. Particularly, app-based emulators handle 3D graphics better by offering far more customization options.
Keep reading to learn about 'alternate app stores'.
Intro to alternate app stores
Did you know there's a way for you to sideload apps onto your iPhone or iPad without jailbreaking? This is possible when your device is currently in the 7-day developer trial period. As a developer, you have the freedom to install whatever apps you want outside of the App Store. Then when the 7-day trial expires, you lose access to your sideloaded apps.
So what if there was something out there that made this process easier so you can always enjoy video game emulators on your iPhone and iPad? That's where 'alternate app stores' come in. These special app stores make it easy for you to sideload apps once you're in the developer trial. Additionally, they make it easy to renew the developer trial so that you always have access to your sideloaded apps.
List of alternate app stores
- AltStore (Free!) - This is the best, free alternate app store. The drawback is that it can be tricky to set up. Fortunately, there are plenty of YouTube help videos and a dedicated AltStore Reddit to help you every step of the way.
- Builds.io ($20/year) - For an annual fee, this app store promises to be far easier to set up and use than AltStore. You can install emulators for all the classic systems: NES, SNES, Genesis, Game Boy, GBA, PlayStation 1, PSP, etc.
- Signulous ($20/year) - This is similar to Builds.io. The difference is that it makes it easy to sideload your own apps outside of their app store.
Remember what I talked about earlier about using the Files app and extracting files. Using the video game emulators provided by alternate app stores requires moving files around and extracting them.
The best emulators
Once you have an alternate app store up and running, you're going to have lots of options for video game emulators. In general, the best emulators are the multi-system emulators. There are two I need to highlight:
- Provenance is the best multi-system emulator for touchscreen controls.
- RetroArch is the best multi-system emulator for Bluetooth gamepads. If you need help with RetroArch, you can follow my RetroArch for Android tutorial (the UI is the same).
Using ROM hacks
There are hundreds of awesome ROM hacks out there that allow you to experience many of your favorite games in a different way. Some offer a more authentic experience such as a retranslation or adding back the game's original difficulty. Others fix the game's bugs or offer new features that improve the gameplay experience. If a game was never released outside of Japan, we could use a fan translation to play the game in English.
The #1 website to find ROM hacks is RomHacking.net. ROM hackers release their works as a 'patch' that needs to be applied to the game's ROM. Hence, RomHacking.net is a giant library of patch files.
So, as an iOS user, how can you apply a patch to a ROM?
- Attempt #1 - Pre-patched ROMs: Some ROM sites such as Archive.org have pre-patched ROMs. If you're lucky, you might find the ROM hack you're targeting already pre-patched.
- Attempt #2 - Patching on iOS: You can use this website, RomPatcher.js, to patch ROMs using Safari. This should work 50% of the time. However, many ROM hacks require removing the ROM's header before applying a ROM hack's patch.
- How do you know if a ROM needs its header removed for a ROM hack? The directions of the ROM hack's ReadMe file normally tell you. Some ROM hackers are nice enough to include a special patch for headered ROMs.
- If you used RomPatcher.js to patch a ROM, tested the ROM, and it shows just a black screen, that most likely means the ROM needs its header removed for the patch to work.
- Attempt #3 - Patching on a Mac: Unfortunately, you need a computer (Mac or Windows) to successfully apply any ROM hack. My patching tutorial can walk you through the process.
Lastly, I need to point out that some ROM hacks are stored in 7Z or RAR files. On iOS, I recommend using iZip to extract them.
In my links page, I have some good links to sites where you can download ROMs and ISOs for classic video game systems.
Finding games for PS2/PS3/PSP/GameCube/Wii and beyond is trickier due to how large games are. These games are typically not available in ROM sites readily found on Google. However, Archive.org is a superb site where you can find these games for download. Navigating that site isn't easy. It's easier to search Google with such phrases as “archive.org playstation 2”. I offer some more help with that in this image .
Another way you can try to find large/newer games is through Reddit. The best way to find them is by searching Google with such phrases as “reddit download playstation 2”.