Sat. May 18th, 2024


Key Takeaways

  • Despite Nintendo shutting down Yuzu, the emulation scene is alive with huge development like Apple allowing emulators on the App Store.
  • Emulation is one of the best reasons to invest in a handheld like the Steam Deck, or a dedicated handheld focused entirely on emulation.
  • Legal challenges have a chilling effect on the emulator scene, but the rapid pace of development means that the scene isn’t going anywhere soon.


Emulation shouldn’t be a dirty word, despite what some hardware manufacturers believe. The good news is that the emulation scene is booming, and emulators aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.


Nintendo Is on the Warpath

Nintendo has a long history of opposing emulation, going as far as saying that the practice “harms development and ultimately stifles innovation” despite there being little evidence to support that assertion. You could argue that the thriving homebrew scene on platforms like the Wii proves otherwise.

The high-profile takedown of Nintendo Switch emulator Yuzu in March 2024 sent shockwaves through the emulator world. Not only was Yuzu immediately shut down, but so too were a handful of other projects including 3DS emulator Citra, Game Boy emulator The Pizza Boy, and Nintendo DS emulator Drastic.


It’s no coincidence that Yuzu was the most high-profile Switch emulator at the time, but there’s more to the Yuzu story than first meets the eye. To start with, Yuzu received financial support via Patreon, something that likely caused Nintendo to see it as more than just a community project. This might also be why Nintendo demanded a $2.4 million settlement (that Yuzu agreed to), rather than simply insisting that development ceased.

Nintendo Switch console with green and pink JoyCon controllers.
Tim Brookes / How-To Geek

In the days following the Yuzu debacle, speculation was rife about whether or not Yuzu was designed in a “clean room” environment. Some have suggested that Yuzu used the leaked Nintendo Switch SDK (software development kit) in its design. There are also claims that the team distributed ROMs on the Yuzu Discord server. Ultimately, neither of these mattered. Nintendo’s main claim was that Yuzu was “facilitating piracy at a colossal scale.”


But not even Nintendo argued that emulation is illegal in its filings. This legal challenge is predicated entirely on Yuzu and its associated projects enabling users to bypass digital rights management (DRM) safeguards designed to prevent piracy. The fact that Yuzu folded like a house of cards, avoiding court entirely, is arguably a good thing. That said, the fate of emulation wasn’t necessarily up for debate in this round of legal proceedings.

Furthermore, there are plenty of emulators still kicking around. In the wake of Yuzu’s demise, a fork called Suyu appeared almost instantly. Nintendo immediately issued a DMCA takedown notice, GitLab took down the repo, and the project’s Discord was shut down. But at the time of writing, Suyu still lives. The founder has even taken to Reddit to assuage fears that the project is dead.


3DS emulator Citra was also forked by the Lemonade project. Ryujinx, the other big Nintendo Switch emulator is still alive. And then there are emulation projects like Dolphin, CEMU, Mupen64Plus, snes9x, and many more that all target Nintendo hardware and are all still readily available. The cat isn’t going back into the bag.

Apple Now Allows Emulators on the App Store

Despite losing Yuzu, the emulation scene got a shot in the arm weeks later when Apple decided to make emulators permissible on its official storefront. You can now play retro games right on your iPhone. In a twist of irony, the first noteworthy emulator to arrive (Delta) focused on Nintendo platforms from the NES through to the Nintendo 64.

After spending the weekend playing Pokémon and Ghost Trick on my iPhone, I came to the conclusion that the iPhone is an imperfect yet welcome emulation device. Most games run without a hitch and it’s easy to get started, but the lack of physical controls and hit to battery life made me yearn for a dedicated handheld instead.

Delta for iPhone, a Nintend 64 controller, Nintendo DSi, and several cartridges.
Tim Brookes / How-To Geek


The change came after Apple was fined $2 billion in the EU for failing to comply with the Digital Markets Act. Apple’s loosening of the rules also applies to game streaming apps, integrations like HTML5 mini-apps and games, chatbots, and certain plugins. It feels very much like a “jump before you’re pushed” move from Apple, but it’s a win for retro game enthusiasts and curious casuals.

Of course, there are rules. Emulators cannot include copyrighted content (yes, downloading ROMs is illegal), must abide by existing App Store guidelines, and follow any applicable laws. It’s not a carte blanche guarantee that we will see every emulator added to the App Store either. The DolphiniOS project, an iPhone and iPad fork of the Dolphin Wii and GameCube emulator, won’t be arriving any time soon due to its use of the JIT compiler which Apple frowns upon.


But there are plenty of other emulators on the way, including multiple-system emulator RetroArch, MAME fork MAME4iOS, and PSP emulator PPSSPP. The r/EmulationOniOS subreddit is worth a look if you’re interested in following along.

Emulation Is Still a Big Drawcard for Handhelds

Handheld PCs like the Steam Deck are popular for their ability to play modern games, but they also excel at emulation. Projects like EmuDeck make it easy to add a whole suite of emulators to your Steam Deck at once. Alternatively, install individual emulators like Dolphin to emulate the GameCube or Wii on your Deck. You can even challenge yourself with Retro Achievements and integrate games into your Steam library.

There’s also a whole category of handheld devices designed specifically for portable emulation. Manufacturers like Anbernic create quality affordable handhelds that are powered by Linux or Android. Modern versions use OLED screens, Hall Effect joysticks and triggers, and include gyroscopes and USB-C display output.

retroid_pocket2+


These handhelds cost less than $200, with some hovering around the $50 mark depending on what you’re hoping to play. Unfortunately, there is a cottage industry of bad retro handhelds that try to tempt customers by pre-loading ROMs but are ultimately a let down due to poor build quality, underwhelming performance, and unforgivably mushy d-pads.

Emulation has permeated its way into mainstream gaming over the last few decades. It’s one of the best methods of game preservation, particularly for aging hardware like arcade boards and cartridges that are prone to degradation over time. It has also given rise to homebrew games and modified titles known as ROM hacks, and above all else provides an accessible way to experience older platforms and games.

Emulation is also present in many modern consoles, including the Nintendo Switch. If you’re a Nintendo Switch Online member you can access the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Nintendo Entertainment System catalogs, which emulate original hardware to play some of Nintendo’s most iconic games.


THE400 Mini being held between a person's hands
Bill Loguidice / How-To Geek

Mini consoles like the Super NES Classic Edition, PlayStation Classic, and 2024’s Atari 400 clone rely entirely on emulation. Many of these systems can be modified, allowing you to add more ROMs and play even more games on a modern TV. There are still many platforms that have yet to receive the mini console treatment, including the Game Boy, Nintendo 64, and more modern platforms like the SEGA Dreamcast.

And then there are the hundreds of emulator projects that still thrive to this day, including institutions like MAME with its monthly updates and FPGA hardware virtualization projects like the MiSTer and its ever-expanding cores. Development never ceases when it comes to emulation, a testament to which is the progress made on emulating modern platforms like the PlayStation 3 through projects like RPCS3.


Legal challenges like Nintendo’s takedown of Yuzu have a chilling effect on the emulation scene, but it would be wrong to conclude that such an event spells the end of the modern emulator. It would also be wrong to say that things have never been worse for the emulation scene.

Objection! meme in SEGA's Judgment.
SEGA

Sony’s lawsuit against commercial PlayStation emulator Bleem! in 2001 was arguably a bigger threat to emulation than what Nintendo achieved with Yuzu in 2024.

In the present day, emulators are like spot fires, you put out one and another pops up almost immediately.



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By John P.

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