How to play old games on your PC, smartphone and tablet: play old Super Nintendo, Sega Megadrive and Commodore 64 games on modern hardware.

DOSBox isn’t the only way to get old PC games running: if you prefer, you can set up a virtual machine in a host such as the free VirtualBox and install MS-DOS, or a compatible operating system such as FreeDOS. This is a more complicated approach, but it has the advantage of allowing you to set things up exactly as you want them. DOSBox doesn’t offer an easy way to save your local configuration, although you can create custom configuration files containing different settings, and specify which you want to load from the command line. For more information, check out the comprehensive DOSBox wiki.

One last notable emulator worth mentioning is ScummVM, which doesn’t simulate a particular computer at all, but is rather an open-source implementation of the game engine that underpins dozens of 1990s point-and-click adventure games, including Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Full Throttle and the classic Secret of Monkey Island. All you need to run Scumm games is the emulator and the original data files. You can obtain these by buying an old CD-ROM on eBay – expect to pay between £10 and £30 – or download free and demo games from the project website.

How to play old games on your PC, smartphone and tablet: Finding games

Run retro games on your phone, tablet and PC

Although DOSBox and ScummVM can work with original game discs, most emulators can’t use the original media – after all, there’s nowhere to plug a game cartridge into a modern PC. To play a game you therefore need to obtain a soft copy of the program data, called a ROM file.

How you do this is a thorny question. British owners of ebooks, CDs and films are legally permitted to make digital copies of their content, as long as they don’t circumvent DRM technology. This means that if you own a game cartridge, you can legally dump its contents to your PC using a device such as the Retrode, a USB-based reader for Super Nintendo and Sega Megadrive cartridges.

This isn’t terribly convenient, however, nor cheap: the Retrode costs €$65 (around £45), and has been produced in limited quantities. It’s much easier to find an online archive – there are plenty indexed on Google – and download a ROM file that someone else has already ripped. Unfortunately, this is considered copyright infringement.

The same is true for “abandonware” – software so old that the copyright holder no longer sells or supports it. While you’re unlikely to get in trouble for nabbing a long-forgotten game, some titles represent trademarks that are still exploited today, such as the 25-year-old original Prince of Persia.

A final word of warning: not only is downloading console ROMs legally problematic, it’s also risky. Not every big link marked “Download” on these sites links to the file you’re looking for. Some ROM sites use underhand tricks to get you to visit sponsored sites, and one ROM site in particular is notorious for hectoring you into using its bespoke downloader, which then tries to install bogus software on your PC alongside the file you’re actually after.

There is a truly free alternative. The Internet Archive operates a project called The Old School Emulation Center (TOSEC), which archives classic games for a number of old systems in the name of preserving classic code in an accessible format. For those averse to downloading emulators, there’s even in-browser emulation for several platforms, allowing you to play, for example, the original 1981 version of Pac-Man as it was on the Atari 2600.

How to play old games on your PC, smartphone and tablet: Eight PC and Android emulators to try

Snes9x (PC)

A truly tiny download, Snes9x offers support for the Super Nintendo’s greatest hits. Support for DirectX means it’s an install-and-go emulator, which can create AVIs of gameplay. Built-in support for proper gamepads means you can recreate the early 1990s straight from Windows.

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