The Legend of Zelda Wind Waker running on Dolphin emulator on an Android smartphone

There are loads of brand new games on the Google Play Store and you can find plenty of retro titles too. But what if your favorite classics aren’t available on Google’s app store? That’s where emulators come in.

Emulators let you play console games from past generations on modern hardware, including smartphones. But how do you know what emulators on Android will run well on your phone? You can either go through the painstaking process of downloading the best emulators for Android and trying them out for yourself, or you can save some time and read on as we cover general hardware requirements for all the major gaming generations.

Read more: Best emulators for Android

In creating this guide we spoke to some of the creators of the most popular emulators and tested them on various Android devices. We’re also only covering consoles from historically the biggest hardware makers in the business — Nintendo, Sega, and Sony.

Here’s everything you need to know about emulation on Android.

8- and 16-bit era: NES, SNES, Sega Master System, Sega Genesis

The SNES9X emulator on Android.

We start off with perhaps the least intensive generation in the 8-bit consoles. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Sega Master System wholeheartedly embraced 2D visuals, which makes them a breeze to emulate on most modern smartphones. Even some Symbian phones can emulate these consoles.

As for system requirements, the popular Nostalgia.NES emulator only requires an Android 2.2 device, but it can make use of OpenGL ES for hardware-accelerated graphics.

The MasterGear emulator is one of the top choices for Master System emulation and creator Marat Fayzullin told Android Authority that it has no specific minimum requirements. In fact, Fayzullin says you only need Android 2.3 and a 640 x 480 display. In other words, you can certainly get away with single-core Cortex-A7 processor and 512MB RAM if you’ve got an old entry-level device or even an Android Go handset.

When the 16-bit systems (SNES and Sega Genesis) came around, we saw consoles that were still largely restricted to 2D visuals, but they also upped the ante with more colors, Mode 7 pseudo-3D effects, and faster gameplay. We also saw the first proper 3D games with polygonal graphics on these consoles, thanks to the likes of Star Fox.

One of the most popular emulators for this generation of consoles is Snes9X EX+, targeting the Super Nintendo platform. Its developer recommends a 1Ghz+ single-core device for best results, while also noting that older versions of the app are available for less capable devices. Nevertheless, pretty much every Android device on the market now offers a 1Ghz processor at the very least, so you should have no trouble running SNES games on your device.

Moving to the Sega Genesis (or Sega Mega Drive for those outside the U.S.), MD.emu is one of the more popular Genesis emulators for Android and its team has successfully tested the emulator on older phones such as the Motorola Droid, Xperia Play and Galaxy S2. The almost ten-year-old Droid only offered 256MB of RAM and a single-core Cortex-A8 chipset at launch. Virtually every modern Android phone exceeds these specs, so you should be good to go.

Portables go mainstream – GB, GBC, GBA

Picture of a modded Nintendo Game Boy.

The original Game Boy arguably marked the first mainstream success for a portable console. Sure, it offered monochrome graphics when rivals delivered color visuals, but it didn’t chew through batteries quite as much as rival efforts. Nintendo’s 8-bit handheld was then succeeded by the Game Boy Color and the Game Boy Advance, with the latter being roughly as powerful as the SNES.

Much like the previous category, you can emulate these consoles on almost any Android device. John GBC and My OldBoy are two of the most noteworthy Game Boy emulators for Android, but neither developer lists hardware requirements. The My OldBoy app listing claims you can get 60fps on “very low-end devices” though, which bodes well for those with entry-level smartphones.

Opinion: The Game Boy helped me become who I am today, even if I never had one

Meanwhile, the developer behind John GBA calls for a 1Ghz dual-core chipset and 1GB of RAM, while the developer of the My Boy GBA emulator doesn’t list any specific requirements.

As long as your phone has at least 1GB of RAM then it exceeds the required specs for Game Boy and GBA emulation. Even ageing devices should play these games at a decent clip.

The 3D era – N64, PS1

The Mupen64FZ Plus N64 emulator for Android.

In the late 1990s, the console gaming industry went all-in on systems that were purpose-built for 3D graphics. As a result, this is the first generation that’ll really start to tax older phones.

The team behind the paid ePSXe Sony PlayStation (PS1) emulator says your bare minimum requirements should be a 1Ghz single-core chipset and 256MB of RAM, but those wanting a smoother experience should aim for a dual-core 1.2Ghz chipset (with “good OpenGL support”) and 512MB of RAM — roughly in line with the cheapest Android Go phones.

Don’t fancy paying for an emulator? The free FPSe PS1 emulator runs smoothly on the Xiaomi Mi Box — a budget Android TV box with a quad-core Cortex-A53 chipset and 2GB of RAM. If you want smooth gameplay and some headroom to turn things up, think about a device with these specs or better.

There are relatively few Nintendo 64 emulators for Android, but Mupen64Plus FZ is arguably the top pick around. The emulator uses the Mupen64 backbone, much like several other N64 emulators on the Play Store. Mupen64Plus FZ developer Francisco Zurita told Android Authority that you’ll need Android 4.4 to download it, but what about actually running games?

“For a minimum I would recommend at least 1GB of RAM and the equivalent of a Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 in GPU/CPU performance. Some games, like Conker’s Bad Fur Day, may require a faster CPU (TLB emulation is slower),” Zurita adds.

Related: 5 best N64 emulators for Android

Sure enough, N64 emulation on a device with a quad-core Cortex-A53 chipset (and 2GB of RAM) is a very pleasant experience for many games. I was able to play the likes of Super Mario 64, Wave Race 64, and Mario Kart 64 at a higher resolution, with virtually no performance hit. True to Zurita’s words though, the likes of Conker’s Bad Fur Day require a bit more oomph to run at a good frame-rate.

Another important consideration is storage space, especially for PS1 games. You should ideally have a phone with 16GB of storage at the minimum if you plan to play several PlayStation titles. You could also go down to 8GB of internal storage and store your ROMs on a microSD card. Nintendo 64 games, on the other hand, top out at 64MB.

Portable evolved – Nintendo DS and Sony PSP

The PPSSPP emulator.

The Nintendo DS and PSP have seen an explosion in emulator interest on Android over the past five years. The DS might be less powerful than Sony’s handheld, but both consoles have their fair share of killer titles.

The most popular DS emulator is paid app DraStic and the developer actually has a comprehensive system requirements guide on its forum. More specifically you need an Armv7a processor or better (basically anything other than ancient Cortex-A5 CPU cores), 256MB of RAM or better, a 480 x 320 display or higher, and Android 2.3 at the very least. The team recommends a quad-core CPU if you plan to run games beyond native resolution.

True to form, DraStic runs well on a device packing a budget quad-core processor, with the likes of Mario Kart DS and Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time running well with high resolution rendering enabled.

DraStic and PPSSPP are among the most popular emulators for Android, but games for the latter can still test some phones today.

Meanwhile, PPSSPP is undoubtedly one of the most popular emulators for Android and doesn’t seem to have a fixed spec sheet for requirements. An ageing hardware guide on the official website specifically suggests the Nexus 5 and Nexus 6, as well as the Galaxy S series. However, founder Henrik Rydgard notes that pretty much any recent smartphone should be able to run the emulator.

“The absolute minimal hardware requirements are so small these days that they’re not worth mentioning. Any device out there should be able to run PPSSPP to some degree, even if the more heavy games will run slow,” Rydgard noted on the project’s GitHub page.

God of War: Chains of Olympus is one of the most technically demanding PSP titles to emulate. Nevertheless, our testing found it runs at a mostly smooth, very playable pace on the Snapdragon 660-equipped Vivo V11 Pro (at 2x resolution), and was mostly playable on the Snapdragon 450-toting Xiaomi Redmi 5 at the PSP’s native resolution.

GTA Vice City Stories on the Redmi 5 via the PPSSPP emulator.

Demanding games like God of War: Chains of Olympus and Wipeout Pure perform poorly on low-end smartphones (quad-core Cortex-A53 devices and below) without severe resolution adjustments and other tweaks. However, less demanding titles still deliver a mostly smooth experience once you start fiddling with basic settings.

Frame skipping is one handy tweak that’s available on both PPSSPP and DraStic. This option can make a big difference to playability, especially on lower end devices that might be on the cusp of smooth performance.

Much like the Nintendo 64 vs PlayStation, Nintendo DS games are much smaller than PSP titles. MicroSD expansion or lots of internal storage is a must if you plan to play several PSP games then.

The cult classic – Sega Dreamcast

A Sega Dreamcast controller.

Believe it or not, there’s a Sega Dreamcast emulator on the Play Store, dubbed Reicast. Sega’s final console played host to some eclectic titles, such as Crazy Taxi, the Shenmue series, and Jet Set Radio.

The Play Store page lists requirements of a 1.2Ghz dual-core Cortex-A9 chipset, a Tegra K1, Mali 400 or an unnamed Adreno GPU, and at least 512MB of RAM. Sega’s console also used GD-ROM discs (with some games coming in at roughly 1GB), so plenty of storage is a must here too.

These system requirements are pretty tame compared to other consoles from the same era. You should theoretically be able to play these titles on recent budget-minded octa-core phones, but what about going even lower?

Reicast is one of the few Dreamcast emulators on Android.

Metropolis Street Racer and Daytona USA delivered a mostly smooth frame-rate on a device with a quad-core chipset (Cortex-A53). Meanwhile, Soul Calibur also offered playable performance, but saw numerous graphical glitches. MDK2 was another title we briefly tested and it was quite smooth, although the emulator didn’t detect my Xbox controller’s shoulder triggers for some reason.

These results bode well if you’ve got a budget device. Who says you have to stick to 16-bit emulation with low-end phones?

Taking emulation to the max – Nintendo GameCube and Wii

Easily one of the most technically demanding emulators for Android, Dolphin brings GameCube and Wii games to smartphones, and it’s come a long way since its initial release in 2013.

The emulator has some significant system requirements in order to run it at a playable pace. The development team notes that you’ll need a 64-bit processor and Android Lollipop, but that’s not all you need.

From this extensive testing over the years, Android Authority‘s emulation addict Adam Sinicki notes that a Snapdragon 835 won’t cut the mustard for the most demanding GameCube titles, so you should think about a Snapdragon 845 phone with performance mode at the very least. But even here, Adam says you can expect some laggy performance in demanding titles.

Those on the hunt for the smoothest performance possible should grab a phone with the Snapdragon 855 chipset. Adam noted in his Xiaomi Mi 9 review that it was the first device to play the ultra-demanding Metroid Prime at a smooth frame-rate.

The Snapdragon 855 stands out as being the only mobile chipset to run even the most demanding games in Dolphin.

Personally, I was able to play the opening minutes of the Wind Waker at between 27 to 30 fps on the Huawei Mate 20 Pro in performance mode (using OpenGL and Vulkan). This was pretty playable for me and although there were a few dips on the odd occasion, it wasn’t frequent enough to ruin the experience. That said, turning off performance mode yielded far more variable results, dipping as low as the teens in some areas.

Just don’t expect to play much, if anything, if your phone only has an octa-core Cortex-A53 chipset (e.g. Snapdragon 625, Snapdragon 450, Helio P22, Kirin 659). I tried out Metroid Prime on the Redmi 5 (Snapdragon 450) and frame-rates dropped to the mid to low teens, or even single digits every now and again (especially when switched to OpenGL). Results were slightly better for Mario Kart: Double Dash, which generally hit 20fps for the most part (with occasional drops to 15fps), but you’re still looking at a slow-motion affair.

Metroid Prime performed slightly better when moving up to the Snapdragon 660. It’s easy to see why, as Qualcomm’s chip has four heavy lifting Cortex-A73 cores (in addition to four Cortex-A53 cores) as well as a better GPU. Performance is far from stellar though, with the frame-rate hovering between the 20s and 30s on the opening map, and dropping into the teens now and again. In short, those with quad-core Cortex-A53 chipsets or below should stay far away from Dolphin.

It’s also worth noting that Qualcomm chipsets tend to fare much better than Exynos, MediaTek and Kirin SoCs. This is apparently due to Qualcomm’s better driver support and the beefy GPUs too.

Final tips

The Nintendo GameCube.

You can emulate pretty much anything up to and including the Dreamcast and Nintendo DS if you’ve got a budget quad-core smartphone or Android Go device. Many PSP games can be emulated on cheap quad-core hardware too, but the most demanding PSP titles require powerful cores and mid-range or higher GPUs.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Dolphin emulator for GameCube is generally reserved for flagships only. Even some Snapdragon 845 and Kirin 980 phones struggle to play the most demanding games at a smooth clip.

While your overall experience will inevitably hinge on your phone’s hardware, there are a few other quick tips that might help if you’re struggling with emulators for Android.

Many emulators offer a variety of options to eke out better performance or tweak the graphics. Whether you’re tweaking the resolution, toggling specific hacks, or simply changing the graphics plugin or renderer, these options can yield dramatic improvements.

Another thing to remember about emulators is that performance can vary by game. All isn’t lost if you tried a title and it doesn’t run well at all, as a few other games might actually be playable.

Finally, keep in mind that different emulators have different priorities. One emulator might forego accuracy in favor of speed, resulting in low system requirements, but another emulator might make accuracy a priority, but this usually requires faster hardware. It doesn’t hurt to try out different emulators either if there are several good ones around.

What’s your favorite emulator on Android? Do you have any emulation tricks and tips to share? Let us know in the comments!

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