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Best Emulators in 2024: Ultimate Guide to the Best Game Emulators for PC

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Best Emulators in 2024: Ultimate Guide to the Best Game Emulators for PC

Emulation is the best way to play older video games without having to own a dozen consoles. It’s also something that can be challenging for beginners. The best emulators for PC allow you to relive the glory days of gaming whether you prefer Pitfall to Super Mario Brothers or you’re a massive Pokémon fan.

Emulation from a PC is nothing new and there are dozens of ways to emulate titles from older consoles. While some systems like the Xbox and the PS Vita don’t have proper emulators, our list covers all the major classic consoles along with some systems from the 6th and 7th console generations.

Best Game Emulators for PC

Check out our top picks for the best emulators for PC.

RetroArch

Cross-platform emulation is nothing new, but some programs pull it off better than others. RetroArch is among the best tools to emulate games on a PC running Windows, macOS, or Linux.

RetroArch is a free, open-source program that’s been around since 2010. It’s also the most versatile emulator on our list between the types of games you can play and the systems it runs on. You can install RetroArch on a Raspberry Pi and make your own mini retro console or use it on a real console like the GameCube, Xbox, or PSP.

This emulator runs on the Libretro Core system, allowing you to emulate a variety of consoles and cabinets. It downloads emulation cores for individual systems, so you can access everything from one application instead of a dozen. Some of the more popular systems you can emulate through RetroArch include the NES, Sega Genesis, Commodore 64, PlayStation 2, and the Atari 2600.

Best Emulators for PC
The RetroArch emulator is a free, open-source program.

RetroArch differs from other emulators on our list aside from OpenEMU as it’s a front-end, not a traditional emulator. It’s highly customizable as well, even if the settings can feel like overkill to beginners at first. RetroArch is free to download and updated on a regular basis.

OpenEmu

When you own a Mac, most of the apps have a certain design language that fits in with Apple’s sense of style. If you like what RetroArch brings to the table but prefer something with a more familiar UI, consider OpenEmu, the best emulator for Macs.

The first thing you’ll notice about OpenEmu is the interface, which is smooth, streamlined, and feels right at home on a Mac. That means your entire library is easy to browse whether you’re trying to fire up Bayou Billy or load a save state from a Game Gear ROM. This multi-platform emulator makes organization a breeze, but it’s quite capable as well.

Best Game Emulators for PC
The OpenEmu emulator is a great option if you have a Mac.

With a few clicks, you can load popular emulators like Nestopia, PPSSPP, DeSmuME, or Dolphin. There’s also support for the Mega Drive, Nintendo DS, Game Gear, WonderSwan, and Atari Lynx, among others. Some of the flagship features of this emulator include enhanced gamepad options, graphic filters, and full save-state support.

OpenEmu has every feature a gamer could want, and while it doesn’t support as many systems as RetroArch, the selection is vast and covers all the major consoles. We feel OpenEmu is easier for beginners, but you can only pick this program up for computers that run the MacOS – not Windows or Linux.

DosBox

Many people focus on console emulation with PCs, which lets them play titles from systems like the NES, Genesis, and GameCube. When you want to take things back to the glory days of DOS games, the only emulator you need is DOSBox, which is the oldest emulator on our list.

Whether you want to run it as a standalone program or as part of an emu front-end, DosBox is a fantastic program. The UI isn’t fancy like you’ll find with other emulators, but it’s simple and highly effective on a number of games. It can emulate DOS games from the early days of PC gaming, but it’s also been used to re-release classics through studios like LucasArts and Bethesda.

While DosBox is capable of playing hundreds of older titles, it’s another emulator where you’ll want to check compatibility on certain games beforehand. It’s free and open-source, however, with an active community always ready to lend a hand. The style of the base program can take some getting used to, although there are plenty of DOSBox frontends available through their official site.

Best Game Emulators for PC
Check out DOSBox to emulate DOS games from the early days of PC gaming.

We’re big fans of DOSBox, and feel it’s the best emulator for PC to play DOS games outside of multi-platform programs like RetroArch or OpenEMU. DOSBox is available for Mac and Windows-based PCs, but works on other systems like Ubuntu as well.

PPSSPP

The handheld gaming scene was largely dominated by Nintendo in the early days, and still is thanks to the portable nature of the Switch. Sony’s PSP was a popular alternative for a time, and the PPSSPP PlayStation Portable emulator is the top option if you want to play these handheld games on a PC, smartphone, or slate.

PPSSPP allows you to run almost any title released for the PlayStation Portable from your PC. It upscales the images to fit large, modern monitors while allowing you to game in FHD. Development began on this PSP emulator in 2012 and has undergone significant improvements since that time. When it comes to compatibility, you won’t be disappointed with PPSSPP.

Best Game Emulators for PC
PPSSPP allows you to run most titles released for the PlayStation Portable from your PC.

At this time, the PPSSPP emulator can handle hundreds of PSP titles from Madden and MLB the Show to “minis” like Farm Frenzy and Retro Cave Flyer. If there’s a game you loved on the portable console, there’s a 99% chance you can play it on your PSP through PPSSPP. As with all the best emulators for PC, the program works across several platforms so you can run it on Macs, Windows PCs, or mobile devices.

We’ve seen a handful of other PSP emulators over the years, but competition is sparse as it’s hard to compete with the PPSSPP emulator. It’s an emulator this gamer has used extensively, and one that definitely lives up to the hype. PPSSPP is free to download, and there’s a Gold version that brings additional features to the table for a small price.

Mesen

Dozens of emulators can handle old NES games, but none do it with the accuracy of Mesen. This beloved emulator will play almost any game you throw at it the way it played back then — but with a slew of modern features.

From custom color palettes to overclocking, there are a lot of tools at your disposal with Mesen. That includes the ability to rewind the action on a whim during a boss stage. It has support for hundreds of mappers and you can record gameplay sessions with a few clicks. The modern features are nice, but emulation is where Mesen shines.

Best Game Emulators for PC
The Mesen emulator is thought to be the most accurate when it comes to classic Nintendo games.

Mesen is largely considered the most accurate way to emulate NES games for the Nintendo Entertainment System. While you can adjust speed and video options to suit your needs, it’s incredibly accurate across the board. It’s also not the only emulator from the team to consider if you love classic Nintendo games.

Mesen is an amazing emulator, and Mesen-S is another accurate program geared for the SNES, Game Boy, and Game Boy Color. Both emulators and their impressive tools are free, but they are only available for PCs that run Linux or Windows.

Project 64

Some of the most popular gaming consoles of all time have come from Nintendo, but the N64 holds a special place in most gamers’ hearts. From the unique controller to the outstanding library of games, there was a lot to love. While Project64 can’t reproduce the console’s unique design, it does let you play more than 200 games.

This open-source emulator recently celebrated a milestone and is just as popular now as it was 20 years ago. One of the reasons is accuracy and plugins. Project64 works with all the leading plugins like Angrylion, GLideN64, and ParaLLEI-RDP. This helps the emulator produce glitch-free gaming sessions whether you’re playing Legend of Zelda or Mario Tennis.

Best Game Emulators for PC
For fans of the N64, Project64 allows you to play over 200 titles from the classic console.

Project64 has had a few rough patches over the years, while facing stiff competition, but things have changed since the project opened up on GitHub. Users will now find regular updates for this emulator and the performance has improved dramatically. Needless to say, Nagware and BSOD problems are a thing of the past with Project64.

You can’t go wrong with Project64 if you want to emulate titles from the console, although it’s only available on PCs that run Windows. If you’re using a Mac or running Linux, mupen64plus is an excellent alternative.

Dolphin

Most emulation projects focus on classic consoles, but when a new generation arrives, developers tear into older systems. That includes the Wii after the Nintendo Switch launched, and the Dolphin Emulator is the best way to play games from those systems on your PC.

Dolphin is one of the newer programs on our list of the best emulators for PC. It sprang to life in 2003 as a GameCube emulator before making a comeback with the Wii in mind. Compatibility has improved significantly over the years as well, including the ability to use original GameCube controllers and Wii remotes.

Best Game Emulators for PC
The Dolphin emulator is available free for Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, and Xbox One.

Between the GameCube and Wii, the potential library for Dolphin is immense, but compatibility varies. Popular titles like Mario Party 8 and Marvel Ultimate Alliance run smoothly on PCs with the Dolphin emulator. You’re going to have trouble with oddballs like Alvin and the Chipmunks or Jerry Rice & Nitus’ Dog Football, however.

Dolphin emulator is another program available on a variety of platforms including Linux, macOS, Windows 10, Android, and the Xbox One. The emulator is free to download, and you can get an idea of game performance beforehand by checking the compatibility section on their official site.

PCSX2

Emulators don’t have any problems reproducing older console and PC hardware. Things are tricky with newer systems, however, especially when dealing with the PlayStation and Xbox generations. If you’re partial to the PlayStation 2, the PCSX2 emulator is the only emulator you’ll need.

PCSX2 is another emulator that’s been around for more than a decade and is still in development. It’s also a program that received a new interface this year, bringing it more in line with emulators that have a slick GUI. The emu utilizes a plugin system like Project64 for things like controllers, graphics, and hard drive emulation. Setup could prove frustrating for beginners, but the community is helpful and active.

Performance with the PCSX2 emulator can be finicky as it is with the Dolphin emulator because of the hardware. You can run it with a Core i3 chip and 4GB of RAM, but the faster PCs or gaming rigs will provide better results. Game compatibility is strong with over 2,600 games supported according to the developers.

Best Game Emulators for PC
The PCSX2 emulator is the go-to option for PlayStation 2 games.

PCSX2 is the solution to your emulation needs for the PlayStation 2. It can record sessions, mimic virtual memory cards, and will upscale content for modern monitors. We only found a handful of games that weren’t playable. While only a small percentage are perfect, more than 95% are fully playable through the emulator.

MAME

Before the Atari and C64 grabbed gamers’ attention or Oregon Trail was a hit, people were slotting quarters into arcade machines. The best way to play those coin-operated classics is through an emulator known as MAME, which has been around longer than most consoles.

MAME is designed to replicate CPUs and hardware from original arcade machines. While it can’t run Mario Party, with the right ROM you can play thousands of games accurately from the comfort of a PC. Accuracy is key with MAME, and you don’t need a high-end computer to use it. You will be blown away by the number of games it can replicate, however.

Best Game Emulators for PC
The MAME emulator has a huge catalog of games, including arcade classics.

There are more than 7,000 unique games playable through the MAME emulator and even more image sets. It can handle early versions of Pac-Man and demos along with more modern titles like Marvel vs. Capcom 2 or Tekken 5. It’s not as user-friendly as other emulators for PC with slick GUIs, but it is highly accurate and free to use.

More of the Best Emulators for PC

While the emulators we chose are the best for their respective consoles, they aren’t the only options. The emulation scene has been going strong for decades, so you can find emulators that mimic older PCs along with popular and rare video game consoles.

The Game Boy family of handhelds has become mythical. You can play many of those titles through Nintendo’s virtual setup, but the mGBA emulator is our recommendation for emulation on a PC. It plays games from the original console and tackles titles from the Game Boy Advance and Game Boy Color as well.

You can play Virtual Boy titles through MAME, but you will need an emulator called Citra to emulate Nintendo 3DS games on a PC. It’s a multi-platform program for Windows, Linux, and Macs, whereas DuckStation is only available on Windows and Linux. It’s designed to accurately emulate PlayStation One games, although Mac users will need to resort to OpenEMU.

Next-Gen Console Emulation

Most of the emulators on our list play the classics although a few work with newer consoles like the PlayStation 2 or GameCube. If you’re curious about the best emulators or PC that play next-gen games, you may be disappointed.

Xbox Emulation

Xbox consoles are hard to emulate, but there has been progress over the years. For the original console, the best options are Xemu or Cxbx-Reloaded, both of which have playable games if you have solid hardware. The same proves true for newer consoles. Development on the Xenia emulator has proved fruitful, but you are out of luck with the Xbox One — they don’t exist on PC.

PlayStation Emulation

Aside from some low-level emulators, the selection of next-gen PlayStation emulators is sparse. RPCS3 is a work in progress for the PlayStation 3 and the team has a list of 2300 playable titles for the emulator. With the PlayStation 4, you’ll find almost a dozen projects. Most are compatibility layers, and plenty have been abandoned. Kyty is one option to keep an eye on for the Ps4 and PlayStation 5, however.

The Wrap-Up

Emulation is a fun and unique way to play games that have been forgotten, along with classic titles from your favorite consoles. These emulators for PC will no doubt give you your daily dose of nostalgia. When you’re ready to take your emulation game to the next level and want the most accurate setup for classics, consider the MiSTER FPGA emulator.

This video fully explains game emulators and how they’re used.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does your PC hardware matter with emulation?

It won’t impact an NES emulator, but you want modern hardware if you’re trying to use Dolphin and other emus for next-gen systems.

Can you emulate games on the Steam Deck?

The Steam Deck is ideal for classic emulation and a great way to play classics on the go.

Do PC emulators let you use original controllers?

That comes down to your ports and controllers in some cases, but most emulators have a way to replicate the originals.

Can you emulate consoles from a smartphone or tablet?

Yes, many of the emulators on our list have a mobile counterpart although the selection is better on Android than iOS.

Are there any Switch emulators?

There are several that are considered works in progress including Yuzu, Ryujinx, and Skyline.

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