The history of NES emulation is key to the history of gaming.
There is a huge market for retro-style games: just look at newer, popular games like Tunic and TMNT: Shredders Revenge that tap into that feeling. NES emulation is a huge part of gaming culture and it really does define some of the early eras of PC gaming and retro gaming communities. There will always be a demand for games that scratch that retro itch, but what makes retro games so appealing to fans?
Let’s dive into the history of NES emulation, how it works, and its lasting impact on gaming culture.
A Brief History of the Nintendo Entertainment System
Before we get into the history of emulation, we should talk about the console that started it all. Founded in 1889, the Japanese toy company, Nintendo, originally produced handmade hanafuda playing cards. Over the years, the company tried to compete in the wider Japanese toy market with mixed success. That was until they decided to enter the budding video game market with the Family Computer or Famicom. Originally released in Japan in 1983, the Famicom was a huge success and gave Nintendo the confidence it needed to enter the global gaming market.
The Famicom was redesigned and rebranded as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) for its North American release. When it launched, the NES was a huge hit and breathed life back into the declining video game market. It is credited with pulling the industry out of the great crash that started in 1984. To date, the NES is one of the best-selling consoles of all time. It kicked off legendary series like the Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and, of course, Super Mario Bros.
NES Emulation: Explained
The NES is a much-beloved console, so it only makes sense that fans and developers would want to dig into its source code and use it to practice their own skills.
But, the history of these emulators is murky, and there is a lot of debate about which was the first. Because emulation is often a side project and not sanctioned by the owner of the software it is emulating (more on that later), there is not always a clear record.
So, we’re going to break it down like this: what is an emulator, what was the first known NES emulator, and is there a clear line of emulators for the original?
What Is An Emulator?
Here’s the short answer: an emulator is a software that ’emulates’ other software.
NES emulators allow PCs to run the programs that cartridges would run on the NES hardware, therefore replacing the need for cartridges and the NES itself.
Emulators can also add features that the original games didn’t have. You can remap controller layouts or add save functions to games that didn’t have them.
You might wonder, why do this? Why not just play the games on the NES? Well, there are a couple of answers to those questions.
Why Make An NES Emulator?
First, just for the fun of it! When the NES was released, it was cutting-edge technology and budding hobbyists and developers wanted to understand the system and its programs.
Another reason was the lack of great games available on PC during the era. PC gaming, as we know it, was years away at the time, and consoles dominated the gaming market. There were some PC classics at this time like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, but no huge hits like Mario, Zelda, or Donkey Kong.
Finally, emulation allowed these games to live on even after the NES was discontinued to make way for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and other newer consoles. Some emulators came under fire, and they didn’t always work very well either—some of the earliest NES emulators could only play a few games and were missing audio. But, as developers continued to tinker, NES emulators got better and more playable.
NES Emulator Release History
There is no official release for the first NES emulator and the documentation from that time is vague. To avoid any confusion, we are just going to focus on the most popular emulators that were released for PC.
For instance, there was a Genesis Emulator which was created by Team Sonic developer, Yuki Naka. This was a program that allowed you to play NES games on the Sega Genesis. Sega never pursued this for obvious legal reasons.
Family Computer Emulator V0.35, FM Towns PC 1990
The first known emulator is the Family Computer Emulator released in 1990 for the FM Towns, a Japanese PC manufactured by Fujitsu. The developer, Haruhisa Udagawa, who had been a developer at Namco, basically created it as a side project. It only ran a few NES games: Xevious, Space Invaders, Famicom Tennis, Donkey Kong, and Mario Bros. The emulator had a lot of technical limitations including no support for sound. Also, it only ran on the FM Towns.
Pasofami, FM Towns PC 1993/Windows 1995
The Pasofami was in some ways an improvement of the Family Computer Emulator, but it had a lot of shortcomings as well. It was released in 1993 in Japan and then ported to Windows in North America in 1995. This is the first known emulator to work on a windows machine. Unlike the Famicom emulator, it supported sound, but the audio was very rough and it didn’t run games very smoothly. It too had a limited number of games but a few more than the first Famicom emulator.
It also had a registration fee and some pretty strict anti-piracy functions in place. There was code in place in the software that would wipe the user’s hard drive if it believed the copy had been pirated instead of paying the registration fee. Due to these issues and other complaints about the software, Pasofami didn’t last very long after its Windows release in 1995.
LandyNES, Beta MS-DOS 1996
There is very little info out there about LandyNES or its creator, Alex Kavinsky. Kavinsky, known as ‘Landy’ online, started the project in the early 90s.
A public beta with the file name “DC-NES.ZIP” was released for DOS in 1996, but the full version never came out. LandyNES is important because it was the foundation for iNES.
During the emulation project, Alex Kavinsky recruited Marat Fayzullin to help finish the project. After Kavinsky and Fayzullin had a falling out, they broke off to work on their emulators separately. Fayzullin finalized what they had been working on, which then became the iNES.
iNES, Windows 95 1996
This is where most people start the list of true NES emulators.
Before iNES, emulators were clunky, hard to use, and didn’t really run very well. The original iNES addressed a lot of those problems and released a fairly easy-to-use NES emulator that could run NES games on Windows. Although it was built on Ales Kavinsky’s code for LandyNES, iNES was its own thing, and it is actually still available today.
The iNES emulator also had an initial registration fee after V0.7. From this update on, users would have to pay $35 for the software, which at the time was a lot of money.
Still, iNES was extremely popular and it pioneered some very important features. It included the first save functions for NES emulators and you could also use GameGenie cheat codes for any games that supported cheats.
The iNES format, or header, is still used as the basis for many popular emulators today and has since been updated to NES 2.0.
NESA, MS-DOS PC 1996
Released in 1996, the name NESA stands for Nintendo Entertainment System in Assembler. This means the creator, Paul Robson, coded the emulator using assembly coding language so that it would be super quick. NESA was the first completely free and open-source NES emulator to become publicly available as well. Users could dig into the code and use it to create their own emulators or make modifications.
Although it was extremely fast when booting, it still didn’t have the smooth, feature-rich gameplay of iNES and unless users knew assembly language it was hard to modify. This was a great free alternative to iNES, even though it didn’t have as many compatible games. It was free to use and enthusiasts could look at the code. We couldn’t find any information about current versions, so it is safe to say it isn’t available today. But, it is still an important early NES emulator.
NESticle, MS-DOS/Windows/DX 1997
Of all the emulators in this list, this might be the one you recognize. The story of NESticle starts with Bloodlust Software, the brainchild of Icer Addis and Ethan Petty. While the duo eventually split up, Addis continued working under the mantle as he became interested in the retro gaming scene. Bloodlust Software released the NESticle emulator in 1997 and changed the NES emulation scene forever.
It was the fastest emulator out there, free to use, and, most importantly, it had far lower system requirements than its predecessors.
Until NESticle, it took some pretty beefy hardware (for the time) to run emulators. A lot of people couldn’t afford these higher-end machines and therefore couldn’t get in on the emulator action. NESticle could be played on much cheaper and more affordable hardware than any other. This, combined with its freeware status, quickly allowed it to become the most popular emulator on the scene.
It was also the most feature-rich emulator to date. You could use GameGenie codes and save states, the sound was great, and it even had an early version of screen capture where you could record gameplay. But, this didn’t come without drawbacks which eventually saw to the emulator’s demise. First of all, it had some game-breaking bugs, so even though it had fast game speeds and a lot of capability, some games just weren’t playable because it was built with speed in mind, and getting the games right was not a part of the original design. Most games were hacked and patched so much that you weren’t really playing the game as it was designed, you were playing a ‘bootlegged’ version of the original game.
NESticle had its last update in 1998 with version x.xx for MS-DOS before it quietly drifted into the dust bin of gaming history.
Current State of NES Emulation
Those are the big emulators that pioneered the software, built communities, and paved the way for the dozens of emulators that exist today.
One thing we haven’t touched on is what Nintendo, the creator of the NES and many of the ported games, thought of all this. They were not impressed. Nintendo is very protective of their intellectual property, so they weren’t thrilled about the rise of emulators. They believed that hubs for emulation were promoting piracy, and have worked to dismantle this practice with mixed success, but have made efforts to rerelease its library of classics.
In 2005, Nintendo announced that they would be making NES games available for Virtual Console on Nintendo devices. Today, Nintendo has emulations of nearly all their major retro consoles including the NES, SNES, and Nintendo 64 through its Virtual Console. Virtual Console and their massive library of games have yet to come to the Switch, but you can still play some retro games on Switch. In addition to the Nintendo emus, there are also tons of NES emulators out there like Nintendulator, Nestopia UE, and RetroTech.
Legality of Emulators
So, it sounds like there are a lot of great options to play retro games, right? Well, there is a caveat: NES emulators are completely legal but file sharing is not.
Most modern emulators don’t come with any games on the download. You have to find or purchase the original ROM and download the cartridge image onto your PC. Once, you’ve done this, you can play the game using an emulator. The legality of this is dicey, but as long as you own the game, you should be fine.
Despite the rocky relationship with Nintendo and other game developers, emulators deserve their place in gaming history. Most emulators on this list weren’t created out of a cynical attempt to get rich; they were created because people love the NES. We can’t fault the developers that fell in love with Mario, Samus, and Link, and wanted to take a crack at developing their own versions.
Ultimately, NES emulators have shown companies like Nintendo the value of preserving these beloved classics.