What Are ROMs, Emulators & 8 Things to Know When Using Them

What are ROMs and emulators?

In the gaming community, a ROM is a game published only on console-type platforms such as the PlayStation 1, Wii, Switch, Gameboy, etc. Meanwhile, an emulator is software that imitates a certain console so that a user can play games for that console without having to own the actual console. For example, a PC user can install a Gameboy emulator so they can play a ROM of Pokemon Red.

ROMs (short for “Read-Only Memory”) and emulators are controversial subjects in the gaming community.

On one hand, gamers argue that emulators and ROMs are necessary since they’re the only way to play older games that are no longer sold, from consoles that are no longer manufactured.

Thus, for gamers, ROMs and emulators are a form of conservation to prevent these old games from being lost forever.

On the other hand, video game publishers and developers argue that ROMs and emulators are a form of piracy that causes them real financial losses.

In short, downloading and using emulators is legal, however downloading, sharing and selling ROMs is not and constitutes piracy. This is because ROMs are actual games that have been “cracked” while emulators are just software that replicates the functionality of a console.

In real life, however, it is very rare for any sort of action to be taken against users who share and distribute ROMs, especially those that use anonymous sites that hide the identity of the user.

Are all emulators free?

Practically every single emulator is completely free to download and install. This is because emulators are generally created by developers who are motivated mostly by passion and not money. That being said, most emulator developers do earn some money through donations from their community.

How to install and use an emulator?

As mentioned previously, emulators are necessary if you are a gamer on PC, Mac or Linux and want to play games that were only published on consoles such as the Gameboy, PlayStation 1, Switch, Wii, etc.

Fortunately, all emulators are completely free to download.  In most cases, you just need to do a web search for “[emulator name] download”, click on the first result, and begin the installation process.

In general, emulators are easy to install. For example, Dolphin emulator (Gamecube and Wii) just requires you to press the install button, wait, and then you can start using it.

However, other emulators are much more difficult to install and require you to follow long and very detailed lists of steps.

Once you install an emulator for a console, you must take into account that the emulator can only play ROMs for games published on that console.

For example, let’s say you have a ROM for Shadow of the Colossus, a 2005 game exclusively published on the PlayStation 2.

You can only play the ROM for Shadow of the Colossus with PlayStation 2 emulators such as PCS2X or LRPS2.

Trying to play the ROM for Shadow of the Colossus in an emulator such as Dolphin (emulator for Wii & Gamecube) simply won’t work, because Shadow of the Colossus was never published on the Wii or Gamecube.

For the same reason, trying to open a ROM for Mario Kart Wii on the LRPS2 won’t work, because LRPS2 is a PlayStation 2 emulator, and Mario Kart Wii was never published on the PlayStation 2.

This is, of course, a bit confusing, but if you really want to get into emulation, you must always do some research to figure out on what platform a game was published so that you know what emulator can play it.

How good is the performance of emulators?

In general, emulator gaming performance strongly depends on the quality of your hardware.

PCs and Macs with better GPUs and CPUs will have a much smoother experience playing emulated games than those with weaker hardware.

Next, emulators for older platforms such as Wii, Gamecube, or PlayStation 2 have much better performance than emulators for more modern consoles such as Switch or PlayStation 4.

This is mostly because emulators for older consoles have been out for longer, and this has given the developers time to optimize them.

Also, modern consoles have many protection measures in place to prevent emulation. These have a significant impact on performance.

Next, modern consoles are built on much more powerful hardware than older ones, so you will need more powerful hardware to run modern console emulators.

Another issue is that some emulators are better than others.

For example, there are two emulators for the Nintendo Switch: Ryujinx and Yuzu. Out of the two, Yuzu is generally seen as the more stable and better-performing emulator.

That being said, modern emulators offer unique features not present in the original consoles such as:

  • Speedups: basically a sort of fast-forward for games.
  • Resolution up-scalers.
  • Save-states, basically a more feature feature-richf game saves.
  • Advanced control mapping.
  • Wireframe viewing.
  • Etc.

Does downloading emulators give you viruses?

As a rule of thumb, installing modern emulators will not infect your computer with viruses. This is especially true for emulators that have existed for years and have large communities behind them. The only way your PC can get viruses is by downloading emulators from unofficial sources. To prevent this, verify that the site from which you want to download the emulator is legitimate.

Are emulators safe? Can they damage your computer?

Modern emulators are just as safe to run as any other program. In particular, modern computers use many protection systems to prevent any program, including emulators, from causing hardware damage. However, emulators can be just as demanding on your computer hardware as high-end games, so make sure your computer is properly cooled and doesn’t have any stability issues.   

As a rule of thumb, if your computer can run performance-demanding games and not crash or hang up, then it will almost certainly run an emulator without any sort of problems.

Can emulators be used to play multiplayer games online?

Some emulators support very basic forms of online multiplayer, usually through Wi-Fi or a Local Area Connection, that allows you to create a private server where you and your friends can join and play together. Do keep in mind however that only a few emulators support multiplayer, and even then it will only work with a handful of popular games.

What emulators are the best, and where to download them?

There are a lot of emulators available on the Internet, so this article will only contain links to the more popular and reliable ones:

Nintendo

NES

SNES

N64

Gamecube

Wii

Wii U

Switch

Game Boy, Game Boy Color

  • SameBoy
  • BGB
  • Gambatte
  • BizHawk
  • Emulicious

Game Boy Advance

DS

3DS

Game & Watch

  • MAME

Virtual Boy

  • Mednafen/Beetle VB
  • VBjin

Pokémon Mini

  • GBE+
  • PokeMini

Sega

SG-1000

  • MasterGear
  • MAME
  • BizHawk
  • ares
  • Genesis Plus GX

Master System, Game Gear

  • Genesis Plus GX
  • MAME
  • ares
  • Emulicious

Mega Drive/Genesis

  • BlastEm
  • Genesis Plus GX (CD support)
  • PicoDrive (CD, 32X support)
  • ares (CD, 32X support)

Saturn

  • Mednafen/Beetle Saturn

Dreamcast

  • Flycast
  • redream

Sony

PS1

PS2

PS3

PS4

PSP

PS Vita


Microsoft

Xbox

  • xemu

Xbox 360

  • Xenia

other

NEC – PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16

  • Mednafen/Beetle PCE (FAST)/SuperGrafx
  • ares

SNK – Neo Geo Pocket, Neo Geo Pocket Color

  • ares
  • Mednafen/Beetle NeoPop
  • MAME

Bandai – WonderSwan, WonderSwan Color

  • ares
  • Mednafen/Beetle Cygne
  • BizHawk

MSX, MSX2

  • openMSX
  • blueMSX
  • MAME

Arcade

  • MAME
  • FinalBurn Neo
  • Hypseus Singe (LaserDisc)
  • TeknoParrot🪟 (PC-based)
  • Model 2 Emulator (Sega Model 2)
  • Supermodel (Sega Model 3)
  • DEmul (Sega Naomi, Naomi 2, Hikaru, Atomiswave)
  • PinMAME/VPinMAME (Pinball)
  • DICE (discrete circuitry-based)
  • Flycast (Sega Naomi, Naomi 2, Atomiswave)

Where to download ROMs

We strongly discourage piracy, but there are certain games whose intellectual property is neglected, and they are nowadays mostly classified as abandonware.

These types of games can be found on sites such as:

1.       Classic Reload

Classic Reload is a repository of old-school games that can be played directly in the browser. While you can search for old games on Google, this site has a curated and organized collection that simplifies discovery and provides the unique capability to play these games online.

Visit Classic Reload

2.       OldGamesDownload

Old Games Download is a site dedicated to preserving and providing access to vintage and discontinued games. These games, which are not readily available or playable on modern systems, can be downloaded and enjoyed through emulators.

Visit OldGamesDownload

3.       Internet Archive

Internet Archive, or archive.org, contains a wealth of information, such as books, movies, music, and even video games.

These video games can be found on archive.org’s classic PC games section.

Visit Archive.org Classic PC games

Paul Bonea
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