Sun. Dec 10th, 2023

If you’re struggling to find anything worth playing on your Mac then why not look to the classics instead? Here are the best emulators you can use to play old games on your modern Mac.

The software that makes emulation possible is legal, hence the list of projects linked below. But an emulator without any ROMs is as useful as a console without any games to play. You should be aware that downloading ROMs from the internet for games you do not own is illegal.

None of the projects below will link to ROMs, so you’ll need to figure that part of the equation out for yourself. This is a legally gray area, where it is commonly accepted that creating ROMs from copies of games that you own is permissible.

It’s possible that downloading a ROM for a game you already own is covered by fair use, but the law isn’t cut and dry. Some emulators even require firmware files from the original software to run, and again the expectation here is that you will create them yourself.

Interested in learning more? We spoke to a lawyer for more details on the intricacies of ROMs and copyright.

1. RetroArch: Multi-Platform Emulation

RetroArch multi-system emulator running on macOS.

RetroArch is probably the only emulator you need. It’s a multi-system platform that integrates emulators into a single piece of software, with a Universal binary that works natively on both Apple Silicon and Intel Mac models. These individual emulators are known as cores, and they often make up some of the most noteworthy emulators on the web.

The beauty of RetroArch is that all of your emulation can take place within a single app, from a single interface. You can download cores within the app, point RetroArch at the folders that contain your ROM files, and even rely on the controller configurations (or remap them as you please). As cores are updated, you can update everything automatically from within the app.

RetroArch is a good choice for old and new systems. It often includes multiple cores for platforms so that you can choose which you prefer. Support ranges from old Atari systems to the PlayStation, Dreamcast, and Nintendo 64, plus MAME releases and individual arcade boards. There are even some source ports included for games like Doom and Quake II.

There’s even support for netplay, allowing you to play multiplayer titles over the internet either via the lobby or by manually setting a game up. You’ll both need to be using an identical ROM to make this work, and you can even use this feature to play over a local network if you want.

2. OpenEmu: Multi-Platform Emulation

OpenEmu multi-system emulator for macOS.

OpenEmu is an emulation platform that works in the same way as RetroArch. Everything lives under one roof, with separate emulation cores used to play games from a large variety of systems. Unfortunately, the project has fallen by the wayside in recent years and as such is only available as an Intel-based binary (but one that runs just fine through Rosetta 2 on Apple Silicon Mac models).

As a result, OpenEmu might not be as performant where it counts as RetroArch. This might not be such a problem, though, since the platform mostly focuses on older platforms anyway. Handhelds like the Sony PSP and Nintendo DS make up the most modern supported platforms, with the original PlayStation being the most modern home console.

You might prefer OpenEmu to RetroArch for its UI, which feels a lot more like a Mac app than RetroArch does. OpenEmu was designed with a mouse in mind, with ROMs separated by system and displayed in a tiled interface. Adding ROMs is a simple case of dragging and dropping into the app, and you can rate your collection, take screenshots, and use save states too.

The app is supposed to download box art for any titles that you add, but it didn’t work as advertised the last time we tried (probably due to the project being a bit outdated now). Here’s hoping that the project can spring back to life again, particularly considering how well Apple Silicon hardware handles emulation.

3. RPCS3: PlayStation 3

As a fledgling PlayStation 3 emulator, RPCS3 might just be the most adventurous project on this list. It’s available as a Universal binary for both Apple Silicon and Intel Mac models and it enjoys “playable” compatibility with around 68% of tested PS3 titles.

The open-source project has been alive since 2011, with an initial public release in 2012. However, it wasn’t until mid-2022 that RPCS3 received Mac support, with Apple Silicon models performing especially well thanks to an optimized build. You can consult the RPCS3 Quickstart Guide to find out what you need to get going, and how things like installations, updates, save data management, and pre-requisite files are handled.

Like many other emulators, RPCS3 allows you to customize the experience to your liking. This includes pumping up the resolution or scaling quality back if you’re having performance problems. RCPS3’s compatibility list shows that some games are even playable via netplay using RPCN, which tricks the emulator into believing it’s connected to PSN.

4. PCSX2: PlayStation 2

The PlayStation 2 had one of the greatest game libraries of all time, not to mention one of the greatest startup chimes of all time. Thanks to PCSX2, you can enjoy both of these things from the comfort of your Mac. This open-source project is available on macOS using nightly builds (so you’ll need to pick “Latest Nightly” rather than “Latest Stable” on the download page).

More than 97% of the PlayStation 2 library is classed as “playable” but only around 1% of those titles are “perfect” according to the the PCSX2 compatibility list. Fortunately, you can always ask on the PCSX2 Mac Support forum for help to solve problems specifically related to the Mac release. Failing that, there’s a healthy PCSX2 Wiki that can help you optimize the emulator.

Like similar projects, you can increase the rendering resolution to upscale PS2 games and improve the overall visual quality. It’s also possible to share virtual memory cards (and save data), and create save states so that you can jump right back into the action without using in-game saving mechanics.

5. xemu: Xbox

Play original Xbox games on your Mac with xemu, an open-source emulator that lets you play titles from Microsoft’s original console. This is possible using a Universal binary that runs natively on both Apple Silicon and Intel chips. As it stands, around 83% of titles achieve a “playable” or “perfect” rating on xemu’s compatibility list.

Before you play, make sure you understand xemu’s pre-requisite files requirements, and how to convert your disc images into the required “xiso” format. Once everything is set up, most controllers should just work out of the box, including Xbox One and Xbox Series controllers, and even DualShock 4 and DualSense PlayStation controllers.

Networking works, but at present only works for local system link games. You can pump up the rendering resolution for greater fidelity. Some games, like Jet Set Radio Future, look surprisingly sharp thanks to the art style (but textures will look a little soft and flat).

6. Dolphin: Wii and GameCube

Perhaps one of the most well-known emulators, Dolphin supports both Nintendo Wii and GameCube games natively via a Universal binary for Apple Silicon and Intel-based Macs. Dolphin is arguably one of the most successful modern emulation projects, with more than 97% of tested titles being either “perfect” or “playable” according to the Dolphin compatibility list.

Make sure you read through the various setup guides to understand what you need to do to improve performance, play games over the internet via netplay, and set up various accessories, like sensor bars, for the full experience. In addition to Wii and GameCube titles, Dolphin also supports WiiWare games that were downloadable via the Shop Channel.

Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to play with Dolphin, rather than on the original hardware, is the ability to boost resolution, apply anisotropic filtering, and add anti-aliasing.

7. Flycast: SEGA Dreamcast

Sonic Adventure 2 running in Flycast on macOS.

Dreamcast games are playable on your Mac via Flycast, an emulator that not only supports SEGA’s final console but the Atomiswave, Naomi, and Naomi 2 arcade boards. You can download Flycast from the project’s GitHub page or install the emulator using Homebrew. For the latter, you’ll first need to download and set up Homebrew, then run the brew install -cask flycast command.

What you’ll get is a Universal binary designed for Intel and Apple Silicon Mac models that runs many titles at full speed. Unfortunately, there is no official compatibility list for Flycast, so there’s a bit of trial-and-error involved. We’ve had success playing Sega Rally 2, Sonic Adventure 2, and Metropolis Street Racer with few issues.

You can boost the internal resolution to get a crisper image at the cost of performance, add anisotropic filtering, and even force widescreen support in games that didn’t originally support it. Make sure to scan the Flycast Wiki to learn more about BIOS files, arcade ROMs, and how to get up and running quickly.

8. DOSBox-X: DOS/Windows 95 or 98

Windows 98 running in DOSBox-X.

DOSBox is a mature MS-DOS emulator, and DOSBox-X is a fork of that project that adds a ton more features. It’s available with a Universal binary that runs excellently on Intel and Apple Silicon chips, allowing you to run software designed for DOS from the comfort of a modern macOS environment.

DOSBox-X makes the emulator even more powerful and convenient by adding support for 3dfx Voodoo graphics card emulation, Glide rendering, printing, networking, and more. You can create configuration files and launch them to quickly configure DOSBox-X for specific tasks.

This includes the ability to install Windows 95 or 98 to a virtual hard drive, with which you can play late 90s games. Performance is par for the era (so there may be better ways to play some of these titles), but that doesn’t mean a few hours spent with DOSBox-X and some old classics isn’t a great way to spend an afternoon.

9. FS-UAE: Commodore Amiga

Pinball Illusions running in FS-UAE on a Mac.

The Commodore Amiga range might best be known for its contribution to an evolving music scene in the 1990s, but the platform also happens to be chock-full of classic games. FS-UAE is the only emulator you’ll need to enjoy them, and it’s full of modern conveniences that make playing older titles better than ever.

Available as a Universal binary, FS-UAE works great on modern Intel and Apple Silicon Macs. The emulator relies on a launcher app that you must launch first to set up your session. Load disks into virtual disk drives, configure input methods, or switch between different models of computer in the launcher and then, when you’re ready, you can hit “Start” and FS-UAE will spring to life and execute your setup.

FS-UAE is a powerful emulator, with support for all manner of virtualized accessories, hard drives, expansion and accelerator cards, and custom hardware. Thankfully there’s a rich library of FS-UAE documentation that covers everything from dumping your old floppies to setting up MIDI devices.

Go Beyond Emulation with FPGAs

If software emulation doesn’t quite cut it for you and you’ve got a few hundred (or thousand) dollars burning a hole in your pocket, consider the holy grail of retro gaming: FPGAs.

Field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) are chips that can virtualize other chips. Rather than emulating how a system works in software, FPGAs recreate systems at the hardware level. This combines the convenience of digital storage with the accuracy of original hardware. Learn more about FPGAs and why they’re so great for retro gaming.

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By John P.

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