How to play old games on your PC, smartphone and tablet: play old Super Nintendo, Sega Megadrive and Commodore 64 games on modern hardware.
Modern computers offer a formidable amount of processing power – and modern computer games push this to the limit. Triple-A blockbusters such as Tomb Raider and Lost Planet 3 will max out your CPU and call for all the horsepower available from a beefy graphics card.
Bigger isn’t always better, though. Many older games – ones that would be considered technically limited by today’s standards – are remembered with a great deal of affection.
And if you want to relive the heady days of Super Mario World, Quake and Bubble Bobble, the tremendous number-crunching capabilities of a current PC make it possible to do so. Virtually every retro gaming console and home computer you can think of can now be emulated at full speed in software, allowing you to run classic games right from Windows, often in glorious Full HD.
Here’s how to find and run retro games, and prove that the old days really were the best. For those for whom console gaming will forever be the poor cousin of PC gaming, we’ll also explore the various ways you can revisit classics from the days of the DOS prompt.
How to play old games on your PC, smartphone and tablet: Getting classics the easy way
Setting up an emulator isn’t the only way to play old gaming classics. Jump onto eBay and you can often find the original hardware. Demand has kept prices pretty buoyant, however: you’ll pay in the region of £60 for a Commodore 64 with a handful of games, and around the same for a Super Nintendo. The Sega Megadrive has depreciated faster, so if you’re after a sniff of Sonic the Hedgehog as it was meant to be played, you might need only £30 for an original 16-bit console.
Buying consoles from eBay isn’t terribly convenient, however. If your TV has only HDMI connections, you’ll need to get hold of an RF or scart converter, while retro gaming hardware also tends to involve trailing cables across your living room – wireless console controllers became the default option only with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
When it comes to PC games, some publishers have updated their old releases to work on newer hardware. Head to Steam, for example, and you’ll find the likes of Railroad Tycoon II, The Secret of Monkey Island and Wolfenstein 3D nestled alongside newer titles, often for sub-£5 prices. There’s also the DRM-free option of Good Old Games, where almost 700 titles – including SimCity 2000, Theme Hospital and the first three Tomb Raider games – are available, thanks to licensing agreements with around 30 games publishers. Often enough, games are compatible with both Windows PCs and Macs, and best of all, Good Old Games offers truly impulse-buy pricing, with many titles available for less than $10 (around £6).
There’s also a burgeoning business in porting older games to the iPhone and iPad, partly because Apple doesn’t allow emulators onto the App Store (since this would allow the execution of unapproved code). Search the store and you’ll find plenty of high-quality options, including old-school Sonic titles from Sega, plus Doom and a touchscreen version of the old ZX Spectrum classic Manic Miner.
How to play old games on your PC, smartphone and tablet: Emulating older hardware
If, for whatever reason, you can’t play the game on its original hardware or in a ported form, it’s time to turn to an emulator – a program that emulates older hardware, allowing the original game code to run on a modern device.
Emulator software is available for all sorts of devices, but some make better emulation platforms than others. Android users, for example, will find plenty of emulators for old games consoles in Google Play, or distributed as APKs from enthusiast websites – we’ll list some of these at the end of this feature.
Unfortunately, the running-and-jumping mechanics of classic platformers don’t translate perfectly to a touchscreen, and the complex combinations of an old-school beat-‘em-up present real problems. To make things a bit easier, many emulators allow you to choose where controls are displayed, and let you configure what happens if you mash multiple buttons at once. You can also get dedicated controller accessories for mobile devices, although this obviously compromises the portability of a tablet or smartphone.
If you’re going to run an emulator, therefore, we recommend doing so on your PC. There’s a wider choice of physical controls on offer, and more power to ensure everything runs smoothly. You’re also less likely to run into problems with mismatched screen sizes.
There’s more choice, too. The emulator scene on the desktop PC is well established: you name a hardware platform and there will be a developer who claims to have a working emulator for it. The range includes arcade cabinets and modern consoles as well, although we’ll focus on older systems here, not least because emulating newer platforms places significant demands on even high-end PC hardware.
There’s even an emulator for old MS-DOS systems, called DOSBox. You might not think such a thing would be necessary – after all, the basic x86 architecture hasn’t changed in decades. However, while the core hardware of a modern PC can trace its lineage back to the 1970s, the same can’t be said for the operating system. Windows 8 incorporates all sorts of hardware abstractions and security features that were completely unknown when older games such as Quake ruled the roost.
To run older games, therefore, a DOS emulator is the answer. The multi-platform DOSBox is a supremely lightweight piece of software – the download is less than 2MB – that recreates a DOS 5 environment, complete with built-in support for mouse, CD and SoundBlaster hardware, and allows you to mount a directory on the host PC as a hard disk. From there, you can reacquaint yourself with DOS prompt commands and install compatible software.
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