Attack of the Mac Emulators: Retro Games on OS X

Remember all those great video games you had when you were younger? Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could download and play those games on your Mac? It turns out you can.

Today we enter into some seriously shaky territory that often stretches the bounds of both legality and awesomeness: the world of Mac emulators. More specifically the good ones, clones of old video game consoles. It’s a brilliant way to re-create a nostalgic experience on OS X, and relive the thrill of timeless gaming classics.

Emu-What?

By definition, there’s nothing wrong with the idea of an emulator. It simply involves some clever programming that makes one computer system act like another. You commonly see this in perfectly legal software products that allow you to run Windows on your Mac.

However, some intrepid programmers have used this concept to clone systems and games (referred to as ROMs) from companies that are fiercely against the idea; companies like Nintendo.

The Debate

Before we discuss some of the emulators available, you should know fully what you’re getting into. There’s a multifaceted raging debate surrounding these types of intellectual contraband and the players of both sides are quite passionate about their respective stances.

Nintendo refers to emulators designed to play their games on other systems as “the greatest threat to date to the intellectual property rights of video game developers (source).” Many professional content creators all across multiple fields such as music and feature films would agree that this is yet another assault on intellectual property from those that seem intent on eliminating the profits of all knowledge and entertainment-based industries.

Opponents of this argument argue that the many of emulator games available ceased production decades ago and aren’t available anywhere on the globe aside from the occasional garage sale. Therefore, if no one is selling these games and their original developers can’t possibly make any more money from them, then who does it hurt to return them from the grave?

Obviously, this argument applies to a select few emulators and only those games that aren’t ever going to be made available for download on Nintendo’s own marketplace.

Another pro-emulator argument states that if one already owns the game in question, making it work elsewhere is similar to exercising your legal right to backing up electronic data that you’ve purchased. For instance, if your parents bought you NBA Jam for SNES in 1995 and you therefore own this particular game, why is it wrong to then download and play this exact game, hacked to run on your computer?

Nintendo attacks this argument head on in the same thread as the comment above by saying “whether you have an authentic game or not, or whether you have possession of a Nintendo ROM for a limited amount of time, i.e. 24 hours, it is illegal to download and play a Nintendo ROM from the Internet.”

Despite these claims, several websites openly offer downloadable ROMs and have done so for nearly a decade without being shutdown. The story is the same for the emulators, many of which can still be found on the same sites they’ve been resident on for years. Not that this proves legality in the slightest, as it is no doubt too costly to track down any and all offenders.

The Emulators

Heated discussions and potential morality issues aside, the fact is that these things are out there and ready for download.

All of the emulators basically do the same thing and don’t really have interfaces beyond that of the games you load into them. Some seem to be more compatible with available ROMs than others so pay attention to the support documents.

Having never used many of these myself, I’ll have to refer to the descriptions given on the download sites which may or may not be reliable. Again, download these and any corresponding ROMs at your own risk and if anybody asks, we never had this conversation :-)

Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)

NES

The NES was the first real gaming system for many of us not old enough to own an Atari. Games like Metroid and Mega Man were outrageously difficult by today’s standards but held us fastened in front of our screens for countless hours.

RockNES – 4.0

“By far the most compatible NES emulator currently available for the Macintosh, given that it supports full PPU emulation, full sound emulation (including VRCVI sound, used by some Japanese games), battery backed RAM, Famicom DiskSystem, VS Unisystem, and some 69 different mappers. In addition, RockNES includes lots of different video modes, as well as the ability to load and save your game at any stage. You can even record movies of gameplay!”

Nestopia

“Nestopia is the current king of the NES emulation hill. It uses highly optimized cycle exact emulation, allowing it to run titles that rely on precise timing, many of which break under inferior emulators. This accurate emulation does come at a cost; Nestopia requires a minimum of a 600MHz machine for full speed; but if you have one, this the best available NES emulation for Mac.”

iNES

“iNES features include a PowerPC assembly core, and compatibility with the NES, Vs. Unisystem and DiskSystem. Thanks to its highly optimized core, iNES is playable at full speed on even the slowest PowerPC-based Macintosh! iNES is also the most compatible Nintendo emulator for Macintosh, and supports almost every known Nintendo game with virtually no glitching. This update also features improved video emulation, and smarter mapper handling.”

Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)

SNES

The SNES was the 1990s upgrade to the original Nintendo Entertainment System featuring amazingly detailed 16-bit graphics and enough buttons to convince your parents they never wanted to touch the thing. A good portion of my young life was spent in front of such classics as Super Mario All-Stars, NBA Jam and Final Fantasy III.

SNES9x (probably the best)

“Snes9x is a portable, freeware Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) emulator. It basically allows you to play most games designed for the SNES and Super Famicom Nintendo game systems on your PC or Workstation; which includes some real gems that were only ever released in Japan.”

“Snes9x is the result of well over three years worth of part-time hacking, coding, recoding, debugging, divorce, etc. (just kidding about the divorce bit). Snes9x is coded in C++, with three assembler CPU emulation cores on the i386 Linux and Windows ports.”

BSNES

“BSNES has a somewhat different purpose to most emulators; it focuses on accuracy over performance. To that end, it does not include any game specific hacks, or idle-loop skipping optimizations commonly found in other emulators. To add to the fun, it uses a cycle accurate hardware emulation. The net result of all this is the highest system requirements of any software I’ve released to date; those without a G5 class machine need not apply. If you meet the requirements, however, this is the most accurate SNES emulation available on the Macintosh platform.”

Silhouette

“Silhouette is supposedly a product of internal Nintendo research. When it came out, it had almost perfect emulation (sans SuperFX and other goodies). Version 1.0 is the only version ever released. It plays a great amount of games, but is slightly slower than SNES9x. Worth the download.”

Sega Genisis

Sega

Back before the Microsoft/Sony/Nintendo console wars ran them out of town, Sega actually used to make video game consoles. The Genesis was the nemesis of the SNES and had a three button behemoth of a controller. Sonic was introduced as Sega’s Mario and we all discovered that collecting rings at maximum velocity was an excellent way to spend the afternoon.

Genesis Plus

“Genesis Plus features very accurate emulation of the original Sega Genesis, even to the point that some software which has problems on the real hardware (Sonic Crackers, for example) exhibits the same behaviour under emulation.”

Generator

“Generator was developed as a college project by James Ponder as a mechanism for evaluating techniques for optimized processor emulation. To that end, it provides surprisingly fast performance for an emulator with no assembly code in it, using tricks such as block marking and redundant flag calculation removal.”

DGen

“DGen features pretty good compatibility with Genesis software and FM sound, all for the first time on the Macintosh, and all in a stand-alone emulator. This means that you can hear music in most games (though not all, as the implementation doesn’t appear to be perfect yet). DGen can also open ROMs compressed with Gzip – without expanding them first. In addition, it can open both .SMD and .BIN formats.”

Nintendo 64

N64

The N64 brought 64-bit gaming to Nintendo fanboys along with a heap of fully immersive 3D games like Mario 64, Goldeneye and Zelda Ocarina of Time. As a Nintendo brat myself I wasted no time in ensuring that my parents knew it was the only thing I wanted for Christmas. They didn’t see out of my room again until Easter.

Sixtyforce

“Sixtyforce is an emulator that runs Nintendo 64 games. It does this by dynamically translating the code that a Nintendo 64 uses into something your Mac understands. Nearly every part of a Nintendo 64 has been painstakingly recreated entirely out of software to pull off such an amazing feat. Download sixtyforce and try it yourself!”

Mupen64

“Mupen64 is a n64 emulator desgined to be multi-OS. It has been developped on/for Linux originally but the emulator has already been ported succesfully on Windows and MacOSX for example. Actually the program can be easily ported on all OS supported by the SDL library.”

Playstation

PS

The original Playstation marked Sony’s entrance into the game console foray. I remember thinking about how cool it was that the games were on discs! This made it possible to cram in lengthy pre-rendered CG scenes like those found in Final Fantasy VII, which blew away anything we were seeing on the N64.

The Pi

“The Pi is the fastest Playstation emulator for Macintosh in the public domain. It runs many demos and some homebrewn games.”

PSMac

“PSMac is another good playstation emulator for Macintosh. It doesn’t have the speed of The Pi, but it runs some demos that The Pi does not.”

PSX

“PCSX is a Sony Playstation™ (PSX) emulator which will allow you to play many PSOne game titles on a Macintosh Computer System. PCSX is not an original emulator but is ported from the Linux emulator of the same name. Since PCSX relies on plugins for core functionality several plugins have been ported and / or written from scratch. For simplicity these plugins are bundled with the main emulator download.”

Even More Emulators

We’ve just grazed the surface of emulators available for Mac. Here’s a few more worth checking out.

ROMs

The games that have been designed to work with emulators are known as ROMs and are separate downloads from the emulators. In fact, the controversy is really mostly centered around illegal ROMs being distributed and is not so much about the emulators themselves.

Again, compatibility widely differs across all emulators and ROMs so to make things work you’ll have to pay attention and perhaps experiment a bit. For a list of supposedly legally downloadable ROMs, check out Emulator Zone. Other sites, like ROM World, CoolRom and DopeRoms are not so eager to limit their offerings to such a small and morally upstanding list.

Conclusion

To sum up, you can in fact play tons of amazing and free old school video games on your Mac, but should you? Honestly, I can’t see how downloading many of the available ROMs is any better than pirating music. Sure, you can shift the blame to the distributors of the content and even to people like me who point them out, but if you’re downloading and playing them, it’s your conscience that is ultimately on the line.

I do find it strange that even if I go and legally purchase these old games from Ebay, even then I am in violation of the law (according to Nintendo) if I want to then play the game on my Mac. I always liked the idea that the right to backup your data was a loophole that meant if I actually owned the game I could download the ROM.

Unfortunately, many claim that this simply isn’t the case and I can completely understand why. After all, owning the Thriller cassette tape doesn’t necessarily give someone the right to pirate the MP3s. However, even this argument is structured on the fact that pirating MP3s reduces CD and MP3 sales. This is hard to apply to a situation where almost no one is concerned about the reduced sales of video games that haven’t been in stores since Zack Morris cruised the halls of Bayside High.

What do you think? Should it be against the law to download ROMs of games that have permanently gone out of distribution? Does your argument change if the person in question actually paid to own the original game? Also, let us know if you have any experience with any of the emulators above and what you think of them.


  • http://www.imleavingyoutheshow.com Justin Edge

    No doubt Nintendo’s argument is hinged on the ability to distribute the old games themselves on their new consoles via the internet. They’d make quite a bit of money if they struck a deal with Apple to distribute the games and an official emulator over iTunes, for example. No doubt with all of us children from the 80s buying things over online marketplaces, this would grow Nintendo’s profits tremendously and emulators and ROMs take a bite out of this potential gold mine.

    As far as my opinion. No man (or his mind) is an island. It is all of our responsibilities to contribute new ideas to everyone, even those incapable of purchasing those ideas. Download on!

  • http://www.abcdrs.com abcdrs

    Thanks for sharing
    I’m downloading sixtyforce now.

  • http://X111.com XIII

    So which actually work well?

    • http://www.coroflot.com/joshuajohnson Joshua Johnson

      SNES9X works like a dream… or so I’ve uhhhh, you know heard from other people who are not me ;)

      • Sayer

        It does work and I LOVE it.

  • bbb

    If the companies involved won’t make the roms & official emulators available at a competitive price then **** em – it’s their own fault for not listening to what the customer wants. Playing classic games on a Wii is fine but I’d rather use a Mac or iPhone.

    • http://www.imleavingyoutheshow.com Justin Edge

      Great point.

  • http://www.yummygum.nl Leon

    Now this is a nice post, thanks!

  • http://deliciousroom.com/ Yaro

    This post made me smile :)
    Just remembering old times…

  • Allan Watson

    There is also a Playstation 2 Emulator for mac called PCSX2. I have yet to get it to play any games but maybe someone with more knowledge can get it to work:
    http://pcsx2-mac.quant0r.com/category/pcsx2mac/

  • Jonathan

    FYI, the #1 place to download ROMs for all systems is http://www.emuparadise.org/roms
    I get all my roms from there and have been extremely satisfied. You won’t run into all the crap that you deal with in other places.

  • Tim

    Wow! How old are you? This news is so old I don’t think it needs its own blog post, unless you’re writing this for our grandmothers.

    • http://www.coroflot.com/joshuajohnson Joshua Johnson

      It’s not meant to be a “breaking news” story… just a heads up to anyone who doesn’t know they can play old games on their Mac. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Jeremy Duncan

      That comment didn’t seem necessary.

  • http://wordrom.com Vincent Klaiber

    Great article! Love to play all of the old games again. Specially ZELDA!

  • http://enrique-ramirez.com Enrique Ramírez

    There’s another great site to tackle all your emulator and ROM needs: http://nitroroms.com/ Site is ugly as hell, but has a LOT of stuff on it.

    Then again, there’s nothing like taking your old NES console out of it’s closet, pluggin it to your old SDTV and play some Duck Hunt (Fun fact: You cannot play Duck Hunt on a HD TV).

    • http://www.coroflot.com/joshuajohnson Joshua Johnson

      Really!? What’s the story behind that? Does the TV bounce the light that much differently?

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  • http://www.iynque.com iynque

    I still can’t play Final Fantasy on my PS emulator… Er… Assuming I have ever used one, which I haven’t…

    …but in theory, I get stuck at a certain point and the game just stops working…

    SNES9x is AMAZING, better than the original (with graphics filters) and same goes for sixtyforce with higher resolution 3D graphics than the N64 offers.

    …again, assuming I were to ever have used them… which I haven’t…

    Last I heard it was legal to use emulators and ROMs as long as you currently had an actual physical cartridge (in the case of SNES) and only used one or the other (not both at the same time).

    Hmmm… not sure, but I’m pretty sure if I buy a used SNES or N64 and a used copy of TLo,Zelda, Nintendo isn’t making any money off of it, so I don’t know why they would complain; they don’t stand to profit (or lose money) if I buy a SNES or emulate it with nicer graphics. :/

  • Jeremy Duncan

    I think Nintendo should just release the copyrights since they aren’t making any money on them anyway. If I were a marketing rep for Nintendo, Sony, or anyone else that has games like these… I’d start offering them fro free from the company website. At the end of the games I would give links and demos to the newer better version that ARE for sale. I think they would make a lot more fans and a lot more money that way….

    That being said, it is there product. They are and should be allowed to do whatever they want with it. I disagree with what they want to do with it, but I think the law is operating correctly by protecting the wishes of the owners of the property. It should be illegal, as long as they want it to be illegal.

  • daba

    there’s also a nintendo ds emulator for the mac:

    DeSmuME
    version: 0.9.5
    size: 11 mb
    download: http://desmume.en.softonic.com/mac

    downloading now, will comment again about if it works on latest mac os x.

    • daba

      I’ve tested this a few games and it works perfectly! The only thing that bothers me is that (as far as i know) there is no full screen mode.

  • http://www.lgadesigns.com/blog goldfish300

    thx for sharing :)

  • alessandro Reginato

    hi everybody, i downloaded PCSX, that is the only one ps emulator working on leopard..i also downloaded some roms but don’t know where to place them to make them work..anybody can teach me?thanks in advance

  • Joel

    You can also connect a wii controller to your mac. Might be better than a keyboard.

  • http://felixb.se Felix

    im going for SNES9x!
    thx

  • http://www.oe-design.com/ Ben Sinclair

    Haha! I love these old games! I’m so going to download and test some out. Memories…

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  • shin

    this by far… the best most useful post ever on macappstorm

    • http://www.coroflot.com/joshuajohnson Joshua Johnson

      Thanks!

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  • KsbjA

    Isn’t abandonware legal to distribute?

  • Stef

    Can’t believe ZSNES isn’t mentioned. There is an OSX port of it around, and it is categorically the BEST snes emulator around.

  • jimbob

    Iv been playing emulators for a while now & i just like to add this article was an excellent introduction to anyone out there who is new to idea of playing these old games!
    id just like to add that there are also some good pc engine emulators (i found this page after a quick google) http://www.zophar.net/macintosh/tg16.html
    i also recommend buying a usb ps2 adapter,these aimed at ps3 users who want to use their old pads on their ps3 but work just as well on windows and mac emu’s.
    lastly,i know im straying away from mac emulation now,but if you fancy a great pocketable emulation machine look up the dingoo a320 & a330 & if you get one off ebay they usually come pre-loaded with around 3000 roms (some of which will also work on your mac/pc emu’s)
    happy gaming! ^_^

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  • Firepox

    Whats wrong with pirating? Pirating is fun! ARGH IMMA PIRATE. Sides that there are only a few things that should be restricted online and illegal. One. Stealing actual money. Two. Pictures of the dearly departed in gruesome ways to offend others and the dearly departeds family. three. Things peados would love

  • Unknown

    Visual boy advanced is the best emulator! You can play all sorts of games and add gameshark codes!

  • http://www.temptationsdirect.co.uk/c/5254/Adult-Sex-Toys.html Nicky

    Youre so awesome, man! I cant believe I missed this blog for so long. Its just great stuff all round. Your design, man…too amazing! I cant wait to read what youve got next. I love everything that youre saying and want more, more, MORE! Keep this up, man! Its just too good.

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