Your Android smartphone is a powerful device in comparison to the games systems of yesteryear. Machines that used to take an entire arcade cabinet to house now fit very comfortably inside your pocket, making the touchscreen a great way to relive your gaming glories.
There are a few ways to approach retro games on Android smartphones (or, indeed, a tablet, as the methods are identical for both types of device). Let’s begin by taking a look at the simplest option; the Google Play store.
There’s been a huge retro gaming revival movement going on for almost a decade, and game makers are well aware of this. Many of the classic titles you knew and loved have been officially revived, and often revamped, for contemporary platforms. So you might be surprised to find that a quick search on the Google Play app store could reveal a new, legal, and officially supported re-release of the game(s) you want to play.
The benefit of this approach is that it takes no effort to get them working. They've been redesigned to run correctly on your smartphone, so all you need to do is buy them and download them. These versions are also likely to have redesigned controls that better suit a touchscreen, or work with Bluetooth controllers, making them easy to play and enjoy. Retro games on Android app stores are huge categories these days, so you might even discover some classics that you missed the first time around,.
The next approach is emulation. This is a process that runs an app, called an emulator, on your Android device that mimics the behavior of an old game system’s hardware. Effectively, it’s like creating a virtual SNES, Genesis, Amiga, arcade machine or any other piece of classic gaming hardware right on your Android device.
But in order to play those beloved games of yore, you then need to load software into your emulated hardware. These games are referred to as ROMs, and it’s the equivalent of inserting a tape, disk or cartridge into the emulated hardware that’s running on your phone or tablet.
Now, there’s a grey area regarding the legality of downloading ROMs to run on emulators. Sometimes the original game has been abandoned by the owner, or the owner no longer exists, but that doesn't necessarily make it legal to download. Some people have given permission for their old game ROMs to be distributed, in which case you’re good. Others still own the games, and don't want them sending out across the internet. We can’t tell you where to find them, or whether a particular ROM is legal, ethical or available. But if you really want them, you’ll find the info you need.
Once you have a ROM, it’ll need moving to your Android’s SD card or internal memory, where it can be loaded via the emulator. The benefit here is that you're playing an exact copy of the game you remember, and not a revamped or re-engineered version. It can take a little effort to get them working on an emulator, and not all games are forced to be supported. For the authentic experience, however, emulation is a great option.
RetroARCH is a good emulator to begin with, as it’s easy to setup and supports a host of different retro gaming systems. And there are new emulators coming online all the time, as Android devices become powerful they can handle increasingly advanced retro hardware. Currently you can expect to get decent performance from the generation of hardware that included the Sony PlayStation and Sega Dreamcast, or make use of MAME to run arcade games from around 1995 to 2000.
It’s also worth considering that retro gaming emulation is a hobby in itself, and you can have a great time organizing your collections of ROMs, adding screenshots, artwork and videos to your emulator, and getting your phone working with controllers, big screen TVs and more. All you have to do is take that first plunge into game emulation, and you’ll never look back.