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.


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)


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 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 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)


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 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 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


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 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 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


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 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 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.”



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 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.”


“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.


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.


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.