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Chapter 1: Intro to Emulation

By Alejandro Rodriguez. Last revised Sep 20, 2016.

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What is video game emulation?

A random assortment of popular video game emulators on a Windows 10 desktop

A random assortment of popular video game emulators on a Windows 10 desktop

What are people talking about when they mention video game emulation? They're talking about the process of playing video games on your computer or mobile device. This is possible with programs called video game emulators. Every video game emulator is made by fans for fans.

Creating a video game emulator is not an easy task. You can't just plug a video game console into your computer and copy over its data. Video game emulators are created from scratch with computer programming. They're fine-tuned for years until the output quality is as close to the real thing as possible. Pretty much everything in the video game emulation realm is free!

The ROM

When people are talking about ROMs, they're talking about games. It's a file that contains all the data from a single video game cartridge. It can be played on your computer by using a video game emulator. You must use the proper video game emulator in order to play a ROM. For example, you need a NES emulator to play NES ROMs and a Genesis emulator to play Genesis ROMs.

Video game ROMs are relatively small and are easy to find on the Internet. The video game systems that apply to ROMs are any system that uses carts. Systems such a NES, SNES, Gameboy/Color, Gameboy Advance, Genesis, N64, Atari, etc. Basically every 8-bit/16-bit system and portable systems. I have some good ROM download websites in my main links. People like to call these sites ROM sites.

ROM Archives

A ROM that you download is always in a zip file, a rar file, or 7z file (various compression & archiving formats). Depending on the ROM site you go to, a ROM can be delivered to you in one of two ways (listed below). Of which, you find out by opening the zip/rar/7z file. Let's say you download Super Mario World:

  1. A normal ROM archive
    A single ROM. You download a file called “Final Fantasy III (U) (V1.0) [!].zip”. When you double-click on it to open the zip file, you see “Final Fantasy III (U) (V1.0) [!].smc”. This is a normal, single ROM zip file.
  2. An all-version ROM archive
    An all-version ROM archive. You download a file called “Super Mario World (U) [!].7z”. Read below if you're unfamiliar with 7z files. So when you double-click on the 7z file to open it, inside you see the picture on the right. In view is a whole bunch of ROMs (I'm using WinRAR). This is an all-version ROM archive. It contains all region versions and all popular ROM hacks for the game.

Q: How can I open RAR and 7Z files?

You have many options. I recommend downloading WinRAR (2.79 MB); it can open rar and 7z. The origin software of 7z, 7-Zip, is free and open source.

You don't need to extract ROMs

In most cases you have a single ROM in a zip file. You don't need to extract your ROM for use with emulators, because every emulator supports running ROMs from zip files. This saves a lot space on your computer! But, yet if you have a rar or 7z file, not every emulator supports those archiving formats. You'd probably need to extract the ROMs from there.

The ISO

When people are talking about ISOs, they're talking about CD video games. These games include PSX, PS2, Saturn, Dreamcast, XBox, GameCube, and so on. An ISO is a file or archive of files that build up a single CD-based video game. Most emulators allow you to easily play an ISO as if it were a ROM (by going to File > Load Game). But, yet some require the ISO to be burned to a CD-R for loading via your CD-ROM. These days this is a hassle since CD-ROM drives are becoming a thing of the past.

A BIN/CUE game

ISOs typically come in one of two formats (shown below). These are the formats that emulators support.

  1. ISO - A single “ISO” file.
  2. BIN/CUE - A “BIN” and “CUE” file. These are ideal for burning to a CD-R with burning software that supports CD image burning.

Video game ISOs can be pretty large in size. If you have a mobile device with only 16 or 32 GB of space, you'd only be able to have a couple ISOs on it at a time.

It's fairly easy to find ISOs for older systems. Newer systems such as PlayStation 2 can be tricky to find. I have some good ISO download websites in my main links (but prepare yourself for a barrage of ads at those sites). Keep in mind that sites that contain ISOs are still called ROM sites.

The ISO/MP3

A Sega CD ISO/MP3 archive

This only applies to Sega CD and TurboGrafx16-CD games. These games existed on audio CDs. The first track is the data, and the rest of the tracks are the game's soundtrack. To dramatically reduce the size of these games, ROM sites convert the soundtrack to MP3. Hence, you have a zip archive with a single ISO file and a bunch of MP3s.

However, ROM sites don't always distribute Sega CD and TurboGrafx16-CD games as ISO/MP3. Other times they're just a single ISO or BIN/CUE (like I discussed above for ISOs). In this case, the audio tracks are packaged into the ISO or BIN file in their raw format. They're not compressed to MP3.

What's a video game emulator like?

In general, this is what the video game emulation experience is like:

Short animation showing what a video game emulator is like
  1. Opening the emulator: No installation required (usually). Most emulators don't have an install wizard; they're just an EXE. That means right after you unzip an emulator from its zip file, it's ready to go!
  2. Loading games: Games are loaded via the File menu.
  3. Windowed or fullscreen: Emulators let you play games in a small program window, or you can blow it up to fullscreen.
  4. Configure buttons: You can reconfigure the keyboard keys, or set up a USB gamepad.
  5. Screen filters: My favorite! Emulators let you apply filters that smear and blur pixels together. They make games look so beautiful. They look better than the real thing!
  6. Save states: Emulators let you save at any point in a game. You can always continue exactly where you left off!
  7. Cheats: Most emulators have support for adding Game Genie, Pro Action Replay, or Game Shark cheats.
  8. And more! This is just scratching the surface. Every emulator is different and offers a different selection of features.

Is video game emulation legal?

I suppose I would say on paper it's illegal. But the reality is that the Internet has been distributing ROMs and emulators since the mid 90s. Throughout all this time, no one has ever gotten in trouble for downloading video game ROMs.

As of 2014, InternetArchive.org started distributing ROMs (up to the 16-bit era). Have you heard of the Internet Archive before? It's such a prominent website that it's a staple for the Internet. The fact that even they are distributing ROMs now is a big deal! This means ROMs are pretty much legal now. Or more accurately put: ROMs are so old and unimportant that Nintendo and Sega doesn’t care about them.

If you feel guilty for downloading ROMs, you shouldn't. All the classic video game systems are 1-2 decades old now. You are not damaging the industry in any way or taking profit from anyone. Most of the old game companies don't even exist anymore. Heck, these days physical copies of classic games are so worthless that you can't even give them away.

Is your computer/device fast enough?

Oh yeah, definitely. These days even a cheap laptop with a Celeron processor can handle up to PlayStation 2 emulation. If you have an Android phone or tablet you can enjoy up to PlayStation 1/N64 emulation.

Are games too big?

That depends on what device you intend to use emulation on.

Desktops & laptops

These days with our 1 TB hard drives, classic game ROMs & ISOs barely make a dent on your computer. A SNES ROM, for example, is only 1-2 MB. That's nothing! Heck, even if you download a collection with every SNES ROM, that still takes up nothing on your hard drive.

The higher end gaming systems such as PlayStation 2 have pretty big games ranging from 1-6 GB. You're still fine with hard drive space as long as you don't download too many.

Smartphones & tablets

Smartphones and tablets typically only have 16-32 GB of space. If you have it full of apps and music, you probably only have 1-8 GB of available space.

  • NES, SNES, Genesis, and Game Boy Color/Advance games are tiny at 50 KB-2 MB so they're not a problem. You could download up to 100 games and not worry much.
  • N64 games are larger at 8-20 MB. Downloading a lot could be tricky.
  • PlayStation 1 games are the troublemaker; a single ISO can be 700 MB-1 GB. You can probably only fit 1 or 2 games at a time.

Can ROMs & emulators give you viruses?

Nope. Hackers and thieves don't use ROMs and emulators as vessels to infect your computer with viruses and malware. Just be careful where you go to download ROMs. The ROM sites in my links should be safe; they just have lots of ads. Be extra careful if you decide to use torrents. You're definitely safe if you download emulators from my site. My site doesn't have ads so that should be enough proof that you can trust me :)

What if you're not a Windows user?

This website focuses on Windows emulators. But, yet don't get the impression that video game emulation is exclusive to Windows. Pretty much every system out there has video game emulators:

  • Android: Video game emulators for Android are very easy to use. You can easily find them in the Google Play Store.
  • iOS: You must jailbreak your device to be able to install video game emulators for iOS. You're better off getting Android :)
  • Mac OSX: For all things emulation on Mac, check out MacScene.net and Bannister.org.
  • Chromebooks: There are some emulators. You can also use browser-based emulators. These emulators great on Intel based Chromebooks, but run sluggish on Arm based Chromebooks.
  • Linux: Yep, they've got emulators too. Look for them in the Software Center.