What is a Video Game Emulator? (with pictures)

Jessica Ellis

A video game emulator is a computer program that can cause one computer system to act like a different system. Using emulators allows people with modern computers to play video games from obsolete systems or a different platform without having to buy the operating system or machine. While using your modern machine to play the original Atari® Pitfall may be fantastic, there is considerable legal controversy about copyright issues in emulation.

Video game emulators allows people to play video games from obsolete systems, like Super Nintendo.
Video game emulators allows people to play video games from obsolete systems, like Super Nintendo.

Console emulators recreate other systems and make them compatible with your computer. While they are most often used to revisit classic games long out of print or systems off the market for decades, they can also be used to modify games or translate them. Recently, classic gaming fans have been able to create new games for old consoles using emulator systems.

Video game emulators may be featured in Nintendo Wii machines, which will allow Wii users to play classic games.
Video game emulators may be featured in Nintendo Wii machines, which will allow Wii users to play classic games.

The first widely used video game emulator was released by a game-developing company called Bloodlust Software. The emulator, first created in 1997, replicated the original Nintendo Entertainment System® and was nicknamed NESticle. The program proved a smash hit with those longing for the glory days of console gaming, and was quickly followed by Bloodlust Software’s Sega Genesis® emulator, Genecyst.

Emulators are available to download all over the Internet, and now have working models that mimic most early game systems. It is entirely possible to have Sega Genesis®, Super Nintendo®, Atari ST® and Intellivision® games all playable from your desktop or laptop. Because of how copyright laws work in the United States, most emulators are shielded from legal threat. Most emulators are created by reverse engineering, a protected form of technology under the laws of many nations.

The legal controversy is about the video game downloads, or ROMs, themselves. These are protected under copyright laws, and it can be a violation to download or use them. This leads to an interesting situation, where it is perfectly legal to own a video game emulator, but not to own any games for it. Many video game emulator and ROM sites post a disclaimer saying that you may only download the games if you own the respective real versions of them, but this is often disregarded.

In recent years, computer gaming giants have attempted to fight the spread of emulation gaming by both legal and innovative means. In addition to putting pressure on government committees to crack down on websites providing ROMs, many companies also released compilations of older games for use on modern machines. Most recently, the Nintendo Wii® game machine has a built in emulating component, allowing users to legally buy games for many classic console systems and play them on the Wii®.

Emulators are a dicey subject and a legally gray area in many places. While they may cross some copyright laws, they allow gamers the chance to play games that are impossible to find otherwise because the system is no longer available. If you would like to try using a video game emulator, download from a reputable source and be aware of your local copyright laws.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a EasyTechJunkie writer.

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Discussion Comments


@ GeorgesPlane- I have an Xbox 360 and I can use it as an emulator. Microsoft offers many of the classic retro video games for sale on their Xbox Live service. You can buy classic video games originally for Nintendo, the PC, Sega Genesis, super Nintendo and other systems. I have downloaded titles like Contra, Doom, Duke Nukem, Castlevania, and Wolfenstein.

They cost less than $10 apiece, and they are fun to play when you don't have time to get lost in some of the expansive games that are currently out on the market. These were all the games of my generation and they have a nostalgic quality to them. Sometimes I play them just to take a step back in time to where I can pretend that I am a kid again with no worries beyond getting to the next level.


I have a cool video game emulator that is integrated into my Google home page. It lets me play the old Mario and Zelda games from the original Nintendo Game Console. Using my keyboard as a game controller takes a little getting used to, but it’s nice to be able to have those classics at your fingertips. Having the emulator also saved me from finding an old console that actually works and then hunting down all of these old games.

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