Retro gaming is sooo hot right now so we are here to give you some ideas on the best emulators to add to your Gaming PC right now. Playing older games is getting harder and harder. You see, over the last five years, retro game collecting (i.e. anything from the 2000’s and below) has become its own sub industry. What used to be second hand scrap can now command huge prices. So if you want to try and play some classic games, you need to try and hunt down the hardware and the software to go with them. A lot of work and VERY expensive.
Minimal Publisher support
Besides, it is not as simple as all that. A lot of older consoles were designed to run on CRT TV’s, not HD or higher screens. That means they tend to look pretty bad connected up to a modern display. Major publishers have sporadically republished some games on their platforms, but support has been rather thin on the ground. Nintendo have announced that their Virtual Console store on the Wii U and 3DS will be shutting down. Microsoft have done some fab work on bringing a lot of titles to their backwards compatibility offerings on Xbox but there are still noticeable exceptions. Sony is only now teasing more classic games with their revamped PS Now offering but we don’t know what they will all include.
So that leaves emulation and a lot of work from developers and enthusiasts has meant that is now a really viable way to play old games. This is nothing new, a lot of emulators for lower end systems (like 8bit and 16bit systems) have been readily available since the early 2000’s but we are now seeing some really niche or higher end systems getting great emulators.
So for those of you new to Emulation, we’ve put together a list of standalone emulators that we recommend you add to your Gaming PC. We state Gaming PC because we are looking here at the emulation of systems that need a bit more graphical oomph to get running well or take advantage of their features. So we are really talking PS1 era and above since even a basic Raspberry Pi can handle most things below.
The legal side…
We also need to tackle the thorny issue of ROM’s and Bios files. Emulators are totally legal and it is fine to play a backup of games you own. Downloading system Bios files and ROM’s though can fall into piracy territory. We’d recommend using free tools to backup software that you already own (which with a DVD drive, is pretty simple for disc based games). Otherwise, you are on your own to source what you need.
So with all that in mind, let’s go through what we think are the best emulators to add to your Gaming PC right now.
Dolphin – GameCube and Wii Emulator.
So we are starting off with our favourite bit of emulation kit – the Dolphin emulator. It’s also available on Linux, macOS and Android (though the latter needs a hefty chipset to run well). It is no secret that the GameCube is this author’s favourite past home console. It had a ton of great games, performed pretty well for the time and the tiny discs made us feel like a giant.
The issue with the GameCube today is that it doesn’t look great on a modern TV. The 4:9 default ratio gets stretched and the graphics have a dull and fuzzy washed out look. There are some costly solutions to using original hardware. There is a decent trade in modded HDMI Cube’s. Or you could spend over a $100 on something like the GCHD Mk-II (a great bit of kit btw but for real enthusiasts only). To this end, we’ve found that using Dolphin is our preferred way to play our original GameCube games.
There are lots of simple graphical tweaks you can use and if you have a decently spec’d PC, you are probably going to be able to upscale the graphics to 4k level resolution. Playing some classics like Metroid Prime with this resolution feels almost transcendent.
The other added bonus is the Wii functionality. The Wii was overlooked by a lot of gamers, particularly those unimpressed by the more gimmicky shovel ware titles that got pumped out during its life. While a more modern console, it too suffers from the issue of the GameCube in that it was never a High Definition ready machine. This means the games really pop when it comes to Wii games. We’d argue that the Wii Metroid Prime trilogy is the best way to experience these games at the current time.
Talking about the Wii will bring us round to controls and this is where Dolphin really shines in our opinion. You can connect any normal controller for GC and Wii games that use controllers. Given that there are a lot of USB GC style controllers that are PC compatible, these are really quick to set up and play. What is neat is that you can ALSO simulate the Wii Remote controllers and configure to use a standard controller. Or for a few dollars you can get a very cheap USB Wii sensor bar and then use any old Wii Remotes still lying around. We’ve found it has given our Wii library a new lease of life.
Add on that the ability to use cheats, multiple save states, lots of technical fiddles for performance and a simple UI, you have a must have bit of software. There is even a branched version for VR which you can use to try out with a PC headset. Be warned though, it is largely abandonware now but you can still play a little bit of Rebel Assault in VR!
PPSSPP – PlayStation Portable Emulator
PPSSPP is a class act from start to finish. The UI is clear and ’emulates’ that PlayStation UI look and feel. It is free, though you can get a Gold version to support the developers (that we recommend). It might seem odd to put a handheld emulator front and centre but this does a great job of reminding us just how good the PSP was. There was a really solid library of games for PSP but playing them now is quite hard, needing the hardware and a non swelling battery. Seriously, google it then check that old PSP you have in the drawer. You’ll thank us later.
With PPSSPP you can play that library but in a swoll higher resolution. The PSP screen resolution was pretty low but now you can upscale again to high levels and shows just how capable the PSP was and how detailed the games actually were. If your machine can handle it, try playing God Of War: Chains Of Olympus on 3x resolution. It looks home console quality. It also runs on Android but again, you need a beefy processor to do most of the work to get the best. Plus you get cheat codes, save states and even online gaming with online chat. Check it out!
CEMU – Wii U Emulator
Fine we get it… the Wii U is hardly Retro. Or is it? I mean, with Nintendo pulling the plug on its much maligned Switch predecessor this year, emulation is the way to go. Which is very true of this rather nice emulator. Developed since 2015 and with regular updates from a two person team, this is a solid edition. It needs a little more fiddling to get the most out of it compared to our previous programmes – it helps if you download shade caches for your games to help load times. Also, being a new machine, a good CPU and GPU combo is a must.
Still, this opens up the Wii U for everyone. Also, what we love is the ability to play Breath of the Wild at 60FPS in high resolution. Not essential, but boy does it look pretty. There is also a regularly maintained list of games that run well so you can check that out before backing up your favourites.
Citra – 3DS Emulator
This falls largely in the same camp as the Wii U. The 3DS is still out there but software is getting rarer and handheld batteries have finite lives. Not to mention that for some, the 3DS was just too fiddly for those with big hands. Citra does a great job of getting around that. It handles the two screen system really well, allowing the options to show both screens. You won’t get the 3d effect obviously, but upscaling something like Samus Returns makes up for that loss. It looks great.
We do need to warn though, the setup again is a little more onerous. Backups don’t work without a level of decryption which requires separate tooling. Touch screen controls for some games are simulated but is a little more fiddly using a mouse so users need to be aware of that. However, for those that want to sample a rich variety of the 3DS library but not have to hunch over their handheld, this is a neat emulator. The support is also excellent with a full library list of working and non-working games.
PCSX2 – PlayStation 2 Emulator
PCSX2 makes the list because for PC, there is not much competition. We prefer the UI and features of Play! but this is a newer emulator and has less game support. PCSX2 is more established but very resource intensive and the UI is not as intuitive. Not only that but you need to source your own BIOS files.
Still, you will be able to play a large amount of your PS2 library on this and it means, just like Dolphin, that you can upscale and make your PS2 games really shine. The PS2 was really the start of a very drab colour schemes for games – lots of browns and greys in many games. It can’t improve on that but it can do a great job in sharpening up images and improving overall fidelity.
You’ll find more tweaking needed here than with, say, Dolphin or PPSSPP and running these games upscaled will really make your fans hum like a full modern PC game. Still, PS2 games are quite cheap to collect for and very easy to back up using a DVD drive. Little Britain the game anyone?
Mupen64Plus – Nintendo 64 Emulator
N64 Emulation is a little easier than those noted above but to really upscale to a full size and play with high screen resolution, a good PC makes a big difference. There are a fair few N64 emulators out there but we tend to prefer Mupen64Plus. The UI is simple and it has easy to understand configuration. It also allows for up to 4 players in case you want to simulate Goldeneye grudge matches. Also neat is that the Android version runs well and can be played on most medium to high end Android phones if that floats your boat.
The N64 is often accused of having some ugly games, being the first generation of 3D modelling but actually, for the more colourful games like Banjo Kazooie, the upscaling really improves the game. Plus you can fiddle with the controls if you were not a fan of the original controller.
Redream – Dreamcast Emulator
The Dreamcast, like the N64, doesn’t necessarily need a particularly powerful PC to run but looks great nonetheless on a good screen upscaled. There are a few Dreamcast emulators out there and it was a hard choice, but for UI alone, Redream wins. Be warned, to get the best results you’ll need to pay for the premium version to get the upscaling etc. However, it is not expensive and if you are a fan of the console, it’s a fair price.
Dreamcast games were always colourful and playing on a good HD display brings the best out of them.
There are a few more we could mention but we aren’t at the stage where we can fully recommend which we’ll detail below.
RPCS3 – PlayStation 3 emulator
The PS3 is pretty old now and thanks to its complex architecture, not easy to port. This is one of the main reasons why Sony relies on cloud services to get access to PS3 games on PS Now. Emulation is possible and of the lot, RPCS3 is your best pick. You’ll be able to get some great games running. Note though that your PC needs to pretty good and emulation is still very much a work in progress. Some games just won’t play well. Plus, backing up PS3 games isn’t easy, they are more sizeable on your HDD and need configuration. So if you are desperate for Demon Soul’s but can’t find a PS5, this may be your best bet. Otherwise, maybe wait and join PS Now or get yourself a second hand PS3.
Xenia – Xbox OG & 360 emulator
The original Xbox was a beast for its time but had some quality titles. The 360 is possibly one of the most well known consoles ever made. So of these, Xenia is possibly your best bet to run both of these. With that in mind, while OG Xbox emulation is pretty good, the 360 is still a little work in progress. Also, with the effort to configure and the abundance of backwards compatible games on Xbox One and Game Pass, it really needs to be a game that you can’t get elsewhere to make you go through the effort. Still fun to play around with though.
DeSmuME – Nintendo DS emulator
There is nothing wrong at all with this emulator, and the DS is not that hard to emulate. Except, a lot of the best games relied massively on touch controls. Which means you have to use a mouse for those, which is possible, but we found trickier than a touch screen for games like Metroid Hunters. It is not a deal breaker, but our preferred route is to use DraStic on an Android phone or tablet which means you can play as the good Nintendo Lord intended. Still fun to play around with though!
There you have it, our pick of some great emulators for you to download and play on your Gaming PC. We iterate, this is our own thoughts and there are alternatives to most of these so have a google around. There are some great resources on the web and YouTube in particular by emulation enthusiasts.
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