Whether you’re looking to relive the past or experience the origin of gaming you missed in your youth, your Windows, Mac or Linux PC can take you back to Mario’s salad days, the birth of the Final Fantasy series, and much more. Here’s how to get started with retro game emulation and turn your computer into the ultimate retro arcade in just a few minutes.While contemporary video games have come close to cinematic masterpieces, there’s often nothing better than the fun and simplicity of retro classics. If you’ve never jumped into the world of emulation, this guide will take you through the very simple basics and have you up and running right away. We’ll also take a quick look at ROM hacking so you can power up your emulation experience.
But wait! Before we get started, let’s go over the basics. When you’re talking about retro game emulation, you need two basic things: game ROMs and an emulator that can play them. A ROM is simply a copy of a game that exists as a file on your computer. An emulator is an application that’s capable of playing that ROM file on your computer. Basically, you can think of a ROM as a virtual game cartridge and an emulator as a virtual console. Now that you know what you’re dealing with, let’s get started.
Get Your Emulators
Finding an emulator is pretty simple, but you may prefer some emulators over others. We’re going to include our favourites for various platforms and, in some cases, a few alternatives if there’s a good reason to check them out as well. After we get through our picks, we’ll show you where to look for alternatives and additional console types so you can dig deeper if you want to. If you are looking at an emulator we didn’t recommend, remember that accuracy, performance, cheat code support, game pad support, and cross-platform compatibility are all things you’ll want to consider.
Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)
This is obviously just a short list of the many emulators available to you, but if you want to take a deeper dive you’ll find a comprehensive list over at Zophar’s Domain (just look at the right-hand column). It includes other popular systems like Gameboy, Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn and more.
Get Your ROMs
Finding homebrew and game ROMs requires little more than a simple web search. If you’re looking for Nintendo 64 ROMs, searching for “N64 ROMs” should turn up a variety of resources. You’ll then be able to look through the site for the game you want and download it easily. Even though searching is simple, let’s save you a little trouble. Here are some popular options for seeking out game ROMs:
- EmuParadise provides game ROMs for virtually every console ever made, from the Bandai Wonderswan to the Sony PlayStation 2. You generally have to click through a few screens to find a download link — which is sometimes not a link but a URL to a MegaUpload page — but the process always results in a download. If you download directly from the site rather than use MegaUpload, note that you’ll only be able to download one file at a time.
- CoolROM is another web-based resource for game ROM downloads that uses file mirrors for storage. In addition to ROMs, it keeps a database of emulators for Windows with a separate and dedicated Mac emulators page. It also comes with the bonus of letting you create a download queue (which is essentially a list of links, not a true queue) of ROMs you want to download.
- Usenet, or the service everyone knows about that nobody is supposed to mention, is a decent source for game ROMs. If you’ve already set it up, just search a binary index site like NZBMatrix or Newzbin for what you want. Some index sites have search filters that will let you look for ROMs by console, but note that a lot of older consoles (e.g. SNES) probably won’t have specific games posted. This is because the ROMs are pretty tiny and you’re more likely to find large game packs. If you can’t find what you’re looking for specifically, just search generically for game ROMs and you may be able to find nearly everything you’re looking for in a single download.
- BitTorrent pretty much offers the same ROM selection as Usenet. A tracker like Demonoid or even The Pirate Bay should turn up game packs easily.
Once you’ve got your ROMs, it’s time to start gaming.
Set Up Your Emulator and Start Playing Your Games
You’ve got your emulators and you’ve got your ROMs, but now what? Playing a game is as simple as opening a ROM in its respective emulator, but there are a few things you should know before you jump in for the first time.
Configure the Keyboard
Understand Saved States and Freezes
Power Up Your Personal Arcade
Even though you’re up and running, there’s still more you can do to make your emulation experience better. Here are a few ways to take your personal arcade to the next level.
Use a Real Game Controller
- BSFree Code Archive contains about every code for every system and every game. It’s archived the work of the Game Genie and Game Shark Code Creators Clubs and more.
- GameGenie.com contains all the old Game Genie codes plus cheats/tips/tricks that can be performed without a(n emulated) cheat device.
- GameFAQs is not only a great resource for finding walkthroughs for a particular game but also a resource for codes. It isn’t code-focused or nearly as comprehensive as the previously mentioned sites, but you can sometimes find some good code compilations here (particularly for older games)
- GameShark.com still keeps their code archive online for systems of the past, but you’ll mainly find codes for newer consoles like the PS2 and GameCube.
- The Code Hut is hosted on Angelfire, so you know it’s an old school web site that’s been around for a while. It has over a decade of archived codes for older systems.
Emulators for the older retro systems, like NES, SNES, Sega Megadrive, Gameboy, etc, will vary in how they accept codes. Because there were two primary competing cheat devices in the world at the time — the Game Genie and Pro Action Replay — some emulators implemented the format of one and not the other. That’s fine because the codes just need conversion, which you can accomplish with utilities like href=”https://www.gamewinners.com/device/misc/blgg2par.htm”>GG2PAR and GGHex (Windows-only). You just need to check your emulator’s documentation so you know which format it takes. Some will even take both and you won’t have to do a thing.
Hack Your ROMs
Editing character stats, for example, is something pretty easily accomplished in a HEX editor. Let’s use Super Mario RPG as an example. If you want Mario to start off with a large amount of HP, FP, strength, defence, etc., you’d first need to start a new game and figure out what his starting starts are. These starting stats will be hard-coded into the game. You’ll then need to convert his stats to HEX values (e.g. the number 100 is represented as 64 in HEX, and 255 is represented as FF) and then use the HEX editor to search your ROM for occurrences of these stats. Let’s say Mario’s starting HP and maximum HP were 30 and his starting FP and maximum FP were 4. In theory you’d be looking for a string that looks like 1E1E1414 because that translates to 30, 30, 4, 4 (in this case). Not all games place their statistics in a logical order and it can sometimes be a challenge to find what you’re looking for, but with a little trial and error you can alter your games in interesting ways with a few, tiny modifications. If you want to play around with HEX editing you can use any HEX editor you want (for the most part), but XVI32 (Windows) HEX Fiend (Mac OS X) are popular free options.
If you’re interested in hacking something like the graphic sprites used in a particular game, however, HEX editing is obviously an awful way to go about it. You’ll need specialised software, like Tile Layer Pro, to make meaningful changes. Generally if you’re editing complex data you’re going to need more complex software, but plenty is available. If you want to learn all about hacking your game ROMs, whether it’s more about HEX editing or messing with audio visual data, check out Romhacking.net’s start guide as well as the Romhacking.net Data Crystal Wiki for more specifics. Retro gaming is fun, but having your own, personalised ROM can make the experience even more appealing.