Best Emulators in 2024: The Ultimate Guide to Playing Classic Games on PC

Emulators allow you to play classic console and arcade games on your modern Windows, Mac, or Linux computer. With emulation, you can revisit childhood favorites and experience historic titles without needing to track down aging hardware. But with dozens of active development projects spanning multiple decades of gaming history, where should you start? This guide will cover the top emulators for major retro systems to help you get set up.

What Are Emulators and How Do They Work?

An emulator is a software program that mimics the functionality of a video game console or other computing device. It allows games and applications designed for that hardware to run on a different platform. For example, a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) emulator like Mesen can play 8-bit NES games on a modern PC.

Emulators work by recreating key components like the CPU, graphics and sound chips in software. The more accurately they emulate the original hardware, the more likely the games are to run properly. Emulator developers strive for high compatibility rates so the majority of a system‘s library is playable. However, due to the complexity involved, some games may have issues running smoothly or at all.

People use emulators to play old games for nostalgia, discover new retro titles they missed, preserve gaming history, speedrun classics, tool assisted runs, and even create game modifications and translations. Desktop PCs have the advantage over aging consoles in improved video/audio quality, customizable controls, save states, cheat codes, rewinding gameplay, and other convenience features.

Top Emulators for Major Retro Gaming Systems

This section will highlight recommended, actively developed emulators for each classic home console and arcade gaming era. We’ll focus on ease of use, accuracy, available features, and compatibility rates.

Fourth Generation (NES/Master System Era)


Mesen emulator playing Super Mario Bros 3

Platforms: Windows, Linux
Systems: NES/Famicom, Famicom Disk System
Accuracy: Extremely high
Compatibility: 99%+ of all licensed NES games
Key Features: Save states, rewinding, video filters, overclocking

Mesen is considered the most accurate NES emulator available, making it the top choice for playing 8-bit Nintendo games. It can run almost every title flawlessly while upscaling graphics. Mesen also emulates obscure peripherals like the Famicom Disk System. The easy-to-use interface includes gaming enhancements.

Fifth Generation (SNES/Genesis Era)


bsnes SNES emulator

Platforms: Windows, Linux, macOS
Systems: Super Nintendo Entertainment System
Accuracy: Extremely high (cycle-level)
Compatibility: 99%+ of licensed SNES library
Key Features: Rewinding, screenshots, video recording

For Super Nintendo emulation, bsnes prioritizes perfection over performance. At the cost of higher system requirements, it emulates SNES hardware at the cycle-accurate level for unparalleled authenticity. That makes it speedrunners‘ emulator of choice. The wide compatibility and helpful features earn it top marks.

Genesis Plus GX

Platforms: Windows, macOS, Linux, Raspberry Pi
Systems: Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, Master System, Game Gear
Accuracy: Very high
Compatibility: Almost all licensed Genesis games
Key Features: Save states, video filters, graphics overclocking

Genesis Plus GX is the best Sega Genesis emulator for most users. Its high compatibility covers the vast majority of Mega Drive games with solid performance. Save states and replay features make it easy to use while bonus systems like Master System are icing on the cake.

Sixth Generation (N64/PlayStation Era)


Project 64 emulator playing Mario Kart 64

Platforms: Windows
Systems: Nintendo 64
Accuracy: Very high
Compatibility: 200+ popular N64 games
Key Features: Plug-in system for audio, graphics, controllers

Project64 revolutionized N64 emulation when it launched. Today, it remains the best Nintendo 64 emulator for most Windows users with its high compatibility for top games backed by a plug-in infrastructure for optimal configurability. Key titles like Super Mario 64 and StarFox 64 shine thanks to renderers like GLideN64.


Duckstation PlayStation emulator

Platforms: Windows, Linux
Systems: PlayStation
Accuracy: Very high
Compatibility: Almost all licensed PS1 games
Key Features: Memory card support, upscaling, cheat codes

DuckStation focuses on accuracy and compatibility for PlayStation emulation with fast performance even on low-power devices. The result is a user-friendly emulator that can handle everything from Crash Bandicoot to Chrono Cross while introducing conveniences like GPU-accelerated upscaling.


Platforms: Windows
Systems: Sega Dreamcast
Accuracy: Very high
Compatibility: Majority of Dreamcast library at full speed
Key Features: Supports original Dreamcast controllers

Dreamcast emulation is notoriously tricky but Demul handles the majority of titles with aplomb. Highlights include Crazy Taxi, Jet Set Radio, and Soul Calibur all running smoothly. Support for original peripherals like the Dreamcast fishing controller rounds out this hidden gem.

Arcade/Coin-Op Games


MAME arcade emulator

Platforms: Windows, macOS, Linux
Systems: Hundreds of arcade boards and thousands of games
Accuracy: Unparalleled for mimicking real arcade hardware
Key Features: Extremely customizable, HLSL post-processing

When it comes to playing genuine arcade ROMs, MAME is unrivaled. It can emulate the CPUs, sound, graphics, and other chips from over a thousand different coin-op systems with a high level of accuracy. However, MAME‘s configuration options make it less beginner-friendly. For a plug-and-play experience try RetroArch or OpenEmu.

Multi-System Front Ends

The emulators covered above focus on one or two related systems for optimal accuracy. However, front ends like RetroArch and OpenEmu support dozens of consoles through the magic of cores. These act like mini emulators that RetroArch downloads and launches as needed for each system.


Retroarch emulator front end

Platforms: Windows, macOS, Linux, Android
Systems: Many classic systems via downloadable cores
Key Features: Shader support, save state management, customizable interface

RetroArch is the most full-featured front end available with support for everything from Atari 2600 to PlayStation Portable. It brings console-style UI polish with tons of options for power users. The range of community-developed cores covers consoles, computers, and arcades.


Platforms: macOS
Systems: Most classic home consoles
Key Features: Controller remapping, screenshots and video clips, game library organization

For Mac users, OpenEmu provides a streamlined all-in-one emulator with a gorgeous native macOS aesthetic. From Atari to PlayStation, it handles a broad range of key systems. OpenEmu lacks some deeper customizations but plugs-and-plays beautifully.

Tips for Improving Emulator Performance

Running emulators requires more system resources than native games. For best results, close background programs and disable CPU throttling. If dealing with audio crackling or choppy frame rates, try the following:

  • Use a discrete GPU like Nvidia GeForce or AMD Radeon rather than low-power integrated Intel graphics
  • Overclock your CPU and GPU within safe temperature ranges
  • Add more RAM if memory is capped out
  • Game at native resolution or integer scaling for pixel art
  • Lower graphical enhancements like anti-aliasing or post-processing
  • Optimize emulator settings per title for ideal playability

Specific compatibility questions and optimization advice can be found on community forums for each emulator project.

Early Emulation Options for New Consoles

While most emulators focus on retro systems, development teams have already started work on platforms like PlayStation 3, Wii U, and Switch. The results allow early experiments but come with substantial game compatibility and performance issues.

PlayStation 3: RPCS3 (25%+ games playable)
Wii U: Cemu (50%+ games playable)
Nintendo Switch: yuzu (30%+ games playable)

These next-generation emulators demand high-end modern PC hardware for best results. Progress happens quickly though. For example, yuzu jumped from ~20 playable games to over 100 in 2021 alone!

Relive Your Favorite Classics with Emulators

As this guide covered, emulators make playing thousands of arcade, console and computer games from previous decades conveniently accessible. Whether your goal is nostalgia gaming or discovering new retro experiences, emulators grant unlimited access to gaming history.

From Nintendo classics to arcade favorites, the easiest way to play retro favorites is by loading ROM files on your PC into one of these top-rated emulators. They provide authentic gameplay while letting you save anywhere or enhance graphics beyond original limitations.

So download an emulator that fits your needs today and enjoy reliving the magic of video gaming’s formative years!

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