Thanks to inexpensive or even free emulators flooding the Android Market, it’s perfectly possible to play almost every game system released right up to Sony’s revolutionary PlayStation whenever or wherever you want.
The only real problem is the lack of physical controls on Android phones, and while virtual control pads work relatively well a Bluetooth control pad – like the Game Gripper – is pretty essential for accurate play.
Most emulators support them, while some impressively allow you to use a Wiimote as a controller (the D-pad and buttons, obviously), but check the write-ups on the Android Market to be sure.
If emulation is a more serious pastime for you, Sony’s hit Xperia Play mobile is the primo choice for the retro hardcore thanks to its classy slide-out control pad.
To learn how to download emulators onto an Xperia Play (or any Android phone) read our handy guide.
Emulators run on it just fine, and if obtaining ROMs makes you feel like a dirty pirate genuine PS1 releases like Crash Bandicoot (bundled with the device) can be snapped up from the Sony Store.
(Note: Readers assume full legal responsibility for their actions and any consequences of following these instructions.)
Now, without further ado, join Pocket Gamer for a tour of the ten very best emulators and some handy tips on getting them up and running, and what games you simply must play.
psx4droid was hastily pulled from the Android Market before the Xperia Play hit stores, but the developer of the impeccable PSX (PlayStation) emulator quickly reposted the latest version for free on his website. Well done, sir.
You need a working PlayStation BIOS file and full disc images moved to a dedicated PSX ROM folder to use the emulator, but any extra effort is quickly forgotten once you boot up a game of WipEout or Resident Evil.
On a decent, mid-range or higher, handset (I used a Desire HD) almost all games run at impressively smooth framerates and require precious little menu tinkering.
The on-screen controls are fully customisable, so you can easily move the D-pad at the top left to a more comfortable position. Most emulators, bafflingly, have this as the default setup, along with annoying vibrating buttons (a hangover from the pre-multitouch days).
Advanced options, like anti-aliasing to smooth edges at the cost of framerate, are also worth experimenting with once you’re up and running.
Original PlayStation games may have aged worse than those on older consoles, due to the primitive 3D graphics of the time, but for Sony devotees it’s an outstanding and well supported emulator.
Move back a hardware generation to the 16-bit era and you’ll find games have matured like fine wines, with simpler graphics barely having lost their low-pixel count charms over the decades.
Almost all games run right off the bat at a scaled resolution that fits your screen in portrait or landscape mode, with solid audio support and well-placed, responsive controls.
Tinkering types can find plenty to fiddle with under the bonnet, including cheats, endless graphics options, and stacks of control pad layouts (and the option of using Bluetooth gamepads).
Astonishingly, net play is also possible via wi-fi or local Bluetooth.
Forget the 360 versus PS3 scuffles seen today. Back in the '90s nothing was more hotly contested in school playgrounds than the rivalry between the SNES and the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis in the US).
Both consoles had 16-bits of memory and could play solid arcade conversions, but one had mushroom-gobbling Super Mario and the other had speed demon Sonic The Hedgehog. It was a tricky call.
Just as simple to get running as its Nintendo equivalent, Gensoid is another solid performer with exactly the same tweaks and options nestled in the menus.
Sonic 2, a personal favourite, runs beautifully and the addition of a 'save anywhere' function takes the edge off having to complete the game in one go (unbelievably, the Mega Drive had no 'save' function).
However, unlike in SNESoid, minor graphical glitches abound. The sprites have boxes around them in Afterburner 2, for example, and there are some graphical artefacts in OutRun.
Even so, Gensoid is a solid piece of software – especially for platformers like Sonic.
Moving back a generation, and subtracting eight bits of power, we now move to a console that truly changed the world: the NES.
It’s the machine that first brought us Mario Bros. (previously the titular plumber was known as ‘Jump Man’ and only seen leaping over barrels hurled by Donkey Kong) and The Legend of Zelda, plus stacks of other classics.
While the chunky-pixelled visuals of the aforementioned games are primitive, the gameplay, level design, and chip-tune audio still impress nearly a quarter of a century later.
And as they require less processing power to emulate, performance is solid throughout and requires almost no menu tampering.
The options are still there, though, and for some titles - such as early fighter Punch Out! - an essential ‘Accurate Rendering’ option can be checked to ensure they open.
That game helps us segue smoothly into the handheld emulators and the ‘oid’ range’s stunning version of the Game Boy Advance, and a second chance to test Mario’s third adventure.
You see, Super Mario Advance included spruced up versions of that game and the NES original Mario Bros for added retro value.
The game runs beautifully via GBAoid, with no tweaks needed beyond disabling those pesky vibrating controls. You'll need an original BIOS, however, to run any games.
Game Boy Color Emulator
If the GBA isn’t retro enough for you, then the original monochrome Game Boy, and its less popular follow-up the Game Boy Color, should satisfy your cravings.
Unlike the other emulators above, Game Boy Color Emulator not only does exactly what it says on the tin but it’s entirely free, too.
There aren’t even any distracting ads, which are a bugbear of free Android emulators like the Tiger Nintendo series. It just works.
The on-screen controls do a more than adequate job of matching the clunky buttons of the original console and the visuals are actually sharper than they were originally (picture a Kindle constantly changing page if your memory’s hazy).
Back in the '80s, home consoles like the NES were expensive pipe dreams for many gamers, so gaming kicks had to be found via inexpensive home computers like the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
Cheap to buy and develop for, it was a bedroom coder's delight, and – despite its paltry 48K of memory – some of the most inventive, influential, and wacky titles ever were created for the ZX. Think 3D Deathchase, Head over Heels, Manic Miner, and Jet Set Willy for starters.
Best of all, Android Speccy emulator Marvin is an absolute joy to use. An on-screen keyboard is the spitting image of the rubbery-keyed Kempston original in portrait mode.
Flip to landscape and a one button joystick appears, although the hardcore gamers (read masochists) can stick with keyboard controls.
It all works well, but the real treat is the direct internet connection to ‘World of Spectrum’ - an online resource packed with seemingly the entire ZX back catalogue. It’s a veritable British Museum of 8-bit history.
As the developer notes, the emulator works best on true multi-touch devices, but tweaks for most handsets are still underway, and many games run well regardless.
They might look like a graphical dog’s dinner in these days of anistrophic filtering and ambient occlusion, but back in the day the Commodore 64's graphics were so realistic humble peasants would fall to their knees before such magic.
Mobile C64 is cheap and comes with all the basic loading files and some freeware games included in the package.
This is a great value emulator that uses a mix of built-in keyboard (with handy function keys) and a single button controller.
Inventive, or slightly mad, shooter design legend Jeff Minter’s Attack of the Mutant Camels and Gridrunner are included and, while wearing on the eyes for modern players, they run smoothly.
Leaving the creaky C64 in its dust, the super-powered 32-bit Amiga is – aside from my beloved Android – my favourite gaming machine of all time.
Currently, the best way to get Amiga titles running on Android is via UAE4Droid, but it’s still a fiddlier process than for other gaming devices due to the need for a range of Kickstart ROMs to boot up different titles.
I used this guide to get the emulator working and was impressed with the results.
A special treat is the ability to use a touchscreen cursor, or a trackball, as the Amiga’s mouse. It’s a little slow for action titles but ideal for playing point-and-click gems like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.
Finally, we come to the granddaddy of them all - the Atari 2600.
It was the first mainstream console, and nestled under more than 30 million wood-panelled TVs worldwide.
More than 7 million games were sold for the device, with essential ports of coin-guzzling arcade hits Pac-Man and Space Invaders sitting alongside utterly abysmal movie tie-ins able to almost cause the death of the entire industry (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial).
The virtual D-pad and single button controls work beautifully, and you can save wherever you want – a luxury owners of the original console would likely have bitten their spare arm off for.
If you never had a chance before to see where home video gaming began, it’s an unmissable opportunity.
Stay away from E.T., mind. It was buried in the desert for a reason.