An abundance of gaming consoles has been released since the Odyssey was introduced by Magnavox in 1972. The Nintendo Entertainment System still stands apart as one of the classics, and the best NES emulator will let you relive those pixelated memories on modern equipment.
NES emulators allow you to play classic games on a variety of devices like Chromebooks, smartphones, and desktop PCs. While there are dozens of emulators for various platforms, our expert team has compiled a list featuring the best of the best.
Whether you want to play Metroid on mobile or revisit Death Mountain in LOZ on your gaming rig, we’ve got you covered.
5 Facts about the Nintendo Entertainment System
- The original NES was launched in Japan as the Famicom with a completely different design.
- The Nintendo Entertainment System has sold nearly 62 million units globally.
- Over 650 NES games were released in North America.
- Gradius for Nintendo was one of the first games to use a cheat code.
- The NES was discontinued on August 14, 1995.
The History of Nintendo Entertainment System Emulators: What to Know
Emulation in the computing world is nothing new, considering reverse engineering has been a popular pastime for decades. That includes retro video game console emulators, which grew incredibly popular in the 90s.
These early emulators gave gamers a way to play their favorites from the 70s and 80s without having to own the original hardware. While it’s challenging to track down who created the first NES emulator, NESticle was the most popular option after the NES release.
This emulation program was introduced on April 3, 1997, for Windows 95 and DOS. It was the best free NES emulator for PC at the time, and incredibly popular compared to other NES emulators like qNES, NESA, and iNES.
All but a few of the early NES emulators have been abandoned, although their impact lives on today. Early programs have forked into new branches while breathing life into the homebrew scene and launching a means for modders and gamers to get together.
The Best Nintendo Entertainment System Emulators
One of the joys of emulation is the ability to play classic games on different hardware. You can run an Atari emulator on an old PSP or fire up TurboGrafx-16 games on a desktop PC. That makes finding the best NES emulator somewhat difficult considering there are dozens of options for every platform.
With that in mind, we’ve put together a list featuring 7 of the top NES emulators for PCs that run Windows, Mac, or Linux. If you prefer mobile gaming, we’ve also included alternatives for NES fans on those platforms. There are no overall rankings this time around, but each of our choices is the best on its respective platforms.
As one of the older NES emulators still around, it’s no surprise to find Nestopia towards the top of our list. This open-source emulator works well on old and newer hardware, which makes it one of the best choices when you want to play classic Nintendo games.
This emulator was initially introduced as Nestopia in 2003 by developer Martin Freij. After a decade of development, it forked into Nestopia UE and is still running strong today. The original version allows customization of graphics and sounds while supporting the Power Glove, emulation save states, and recording.
You can also run this software on the PlayStation 2, Wii, and Xbox or within programs like RetroArch as a Libretro core. The New Nestopia Undead Edition performs flawlessly with Windows 10 and sports many of the features found on more modern emulators like Netplay, turbo pulse speed, and custom colors.
The newer fork of this lightweight program is just as capable with more mapping support but does not run on Macs. Both versions of Nestopia are free to download, and an excellent alternative to puNES, which is more accurate but doesn’t work with Macs.
Most of the NES emulators on our list are compatible with multiple platforms, whether it’s a combination of Linux and Windows or Android and iOS. The best Nintendo Entertainment System emulator for gamers that use a Mac is OpenEmu, which can handle more than one system.
OpenEmu is a multi-system emulator, acting like a frontend for emulator cores. It can use a default core for NES and SNES emulation. It can also load and play N64, Virtual Boy, Sega Master System, Atari, and PSP games with ease as long as you have the proper core.
OpenEmu works with more than a dozen different controllers and is as intuitive as you’d expect from software running on a Mac. It doesn’t ‘look’ like your typical emulator and can show alphabetized artwork from your entire ROM collection. Its controller mapping is excellent, it can play multiple ROMS at once, and has real-time 3D effects and image processing to boot.
This is the sleekest and most user-friendly emulator around, but you can only use it on Macs. It’s the type of program that will make your friends on Windows jealous, and it sees frequent updates. OpenEmu is in active development with over 10 million downloads and is available to download for free.
The emulator known as FCEUX has a long history that began life as FCE, the Family Computer Emulator.
It’s another project that was picked up by fans after development came to a halt. It’s also currently one of the best free Nintendo Entertainment System emulators for running old NES games on a modern machine.
This optimized emulator has all the bells and whistles found with Nestopia, but with advanced tools built in. ROM hacking is one perk, and users love the tool-assisted speedrun features. Debugging tools are next level as well, giving gamers a new way to enjoy older titles. It’s a fan favorite with YouTubers for a reason.
Given the number of options, this emulator could be overkill if you’re looking for something simple and lightweight. FCEUX is perfect for dedicated gamers who will appreciate map making, hacking, and tinkering with the games. It’s highly rated, and under active development with a recent round of updates.
Despite all the forks in the road, FCEUX has remained a winner with gamers and modders that run Windows. It’s another free NES emulator with flagship features, and plenty of test builds for platforms like Mac OS X and Windows 64-bit.
One of the tricky things with emulators is compatibility. Nothing is worse than getting excited about an older game only to find that it won’t work with your system or emulator. That won’t be a problem with Mesen, an emu designed for Windows or Linux-based PCs.
This emulator hasn’t been around as long as others, but it has been well-received by retro gamers. Mesen supports all licensed games along with the Famicon. It has many of the same features found on Nestopia like NetPlay, rewind, and overclocking. The cheat finder feature is a nice touch, and it’s able to load or save your progress quickly.
The capture features are top-notch, and it’s one of the easier emus to set up if you’re new to the scene. Custom color palettes, equalizer HD packs, and debugging tools are a few other noteworthy features you’ll find with the Mesen emulator.
The cycle accuracy of this software provides glitch-free gaming, and it can play every NES ROM under the sun. We also like the fact that you can use the Mesen emulator with RetroArch’s Libretro core system which adds to its versatility. Currently, this free Nintendo emulator only works on computers running Linux or Windows.
5. Nostalgia NES
Gamers interested in playing Bayou Billy or Super Mario Brothers on an Android device have no shortage of options to choose from. Only a handful are actually worth your time, however, like Nostalgia NES from Nostalgia Emulators.
Nostalgia NES lives up to its namesake in both style and functionality. It runs well on low-end devices but has settings to boost performance. You can control the app over Wi-Fi, adjust the strength of tactile feedback, and save your game in an instant. The on-screen controller layout is fully adjustable, so you can also set the buttons to suit your needs.
Want to use an external controller? That’s not a problem with this emulator, and we had no issues getting an 8BitDo gamepad working in our testing. The software will automatically scan your phone for any games. While there’s no box art like you’ll find with Mesen, the UI is clean and incredibly simple to use.
It’s hard to beat this emulator and the features it brings to the table. The free version provides everything we’ve covered and more. The Pro version adds a number of features for $4.99 including opacity, fonts, and faster quick-save capabilities.
6. Delta iOS Emulator
iPhone users have always had issues with emulators and App Store policies, which puts a damper on the emu scene. There aren’t nearly as many alternatives as you’ll find with Android, but the top choice is the Delta NES emulator which runs more than one type of console.
The obvious draw of Delta is that it allows you to play classic Nintendo games on an iPhone or iPad. Once you’ve worked through Mario Brothers, you can fire up a SNES cart and move to the next generation in Super Mario World. The Delta iOS emulator plays SNES and N64 games as well as ROMs from the Game Boy lineup.
From the Game Boy Advance to the original system, this software will take you through decades of Nintendo games. Delta supports quick saves, external controllers, cheat codes, and more. It has customizable skins to change the look of the UI and will even let you lock saves into Dropbox.
While you can’t download Delta from the iOS App Store, it is available for free through the Altstore. This software is in development, and Nintendo DS emulation is an option with a Patreon subscription to developers, Riley + Shane.
If you’ve looked into game console emulation, you have no doubt heard the name RetroArch. They are the most well-known name in the field even if their software technically acts as a frontend—not an emulator.
RetroArch is an amazing piece of software that can emulate almost any platform imaginable. The Libretro team designed it to work with emu cores, so its runs cabinet arcade games along with classic consoles like the Sega Saturn, SNES, NES, Atari, and the Commodore 64. It also plays games from forgotten consoles like the Philips CD-I and Watara Supervision.
The ability to play dozens of consoles from one interface is a perk, but the software itself is packed full of useful features. You can hook up Bluetooth controllers, unlock achievements, record, and stream. It’s highly configurable and can work with dozens of platforms. RetroArch runs as well on the PC, Mac, and Android as it does on the Playstation, PSP, or Xbox One.
RetroArch is free and its core system works with several of the emulators on our list. It’s the best NES emulator for any platform thanks to the core system, although it can be challenging to set up if you’ve never used an emulator before.
While our list only contains 7 of the best NES emulators, you can find an emulator that runs these classic games on almost any system. You can play Super Mario on a Smartwatch from Samsung or load T&C Surf Designs on any modern console with the right software. If you’re concerned about accuracy or latency, consider a hardware-based emulator like the MiSTer project.