7 Free Classic Video & Computer Game Emulators

If you’re tired of modern games with their 3D graphics, you can escape to the the past with these free classic computer and video game console emulators.

While it’s perfectly legal to download and run these emulators, in order to play the games you’ll need to find them. Most are still under copyright, and due to U.S. and international laws, will be for quite a long time. So you’re on your own for finding the game ROMs. But a search engine that rhymes with “frugal” might be of some help.



While the NES might be the reigning champion of the retro video game scene, simply because it was so popular, it’s the Atari 2600 that I’ll always have a soft spot for. There just seems to be something about the blocky look the games had, or the palettes full of bright primary colors compared with the  dark, grungy look that modern games have. Stella is an Atari 2600 emulator that takes its name from an early code name for the console. It plays nearly every game made over the 2600’s lifespan. There’s also a recently addition that is very cool. The use of modern LCD displays changes the look of these old games significantly, which were designed when the only TVs were CRTs. You can simulate the effects of these old tubes on Stella.


MAME logo

If you pine for the days of pumping quarters into arcade machines, then MAME might be for you. MAME stands for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, and boy, do they mean it. If a game was ever slapped into a cabinet somewhere, chances are you can play it in MAME. You can go all the way back to “Space Invaders” or play more modern games like “Mortal Kombat.” It can be a little tricky getting the games to actually work, though. It’s mostly a matter of finding the right ROM to use. But when you do, you can save your quarters for the laundromat. Or you can save the money and build yourself an arcade cabinet you can stash your computer in for that authentic feel.

Virtual Apple

Virtual Apple

If you have a hankering for Apple II games, then there’s a Web site for you. Virtual Apple is a large collection of Apple II games that runs right in your browser without having to download an emulator program. There are two sections, those for the original Apple II series and the Apple IIGs, a more advanced version that never quite found its audience, released as Apple decided to focus on the Macintosh. But the sheer size of the library is what makes this site essential. Yes, it even includes “The Oregon Trail” so you can try to make it to Oregon while killing off the buffalo and avoiding dying of dysentery.

And speaking of browser-based classic gaming…

Virtual Atari

Virtual Atari

The creators of Virtual Apple has also brought the Atari 2600 to the Web. Virtual Atari includes just about every game that was released for the platform, and together with the Virtual Apple you can have the ultimate 8-bit experience, without having to install and download a bunch of stuff.


If you’re a fan of the Commodore 64, VICE is the Swiss Army knife of Commodore Emulators. VICE’s virtue is that it not only emulates the C64, it can also emulate the 128, The VIC-20, the Plus/4 and the PET series, those these machines weren’t nearly as successful as gaming platforms as the Commodore 64 was, except for the VIC-20. In addition to having to find games to play on it, you’ll also need to track down the ROMS for each system you want to emulate. There are images floating around the Web if you know where to look, and if you’re technically inclined and have any real machines stashed away, you can also extract the ROMs from them.


FCEUX Web page

Of course, no mention of classic gaming would be complete without the NES. It’s natural for people of a certain age to long for the system that revived video games in the U.S. aftet the market crashed in the early ’80s. FCEUX is a cross-platform emulator that not only emulates the NES Americans came to know and love (and blow on the cartridges when they glitched), but also its Japanese ancestor, the Famicom. If you have the inclination, you can hack ROMS and write scripts in Lua, as well as create movies of your gameplay to prove to your friends how awesome you are at “Super Mario Bros.”


KEGA Web page

Sega was Nintendo’s chief rival in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Though the Sega Master System couldn’t compete with the NES juggernaut, it did manage to attract a following, and in 1989 the company leapfrogged Nintendo technologically with the Genesis, two years before they released the Super NES. KEGA aims to be a Swiss Army Knife of Sega system emulation, emulating the Master system and its Japanese counterpart, the Mark III, and the Genesis (known internationally as the Mega Drive), and the 32X, among other less popular systems.


And for more 16-bit fun, there’s always the Super NES. For those who have strong memories of “Street Fighter II” and “Super Mario World,”  ZNES allows users to travel back to the early ’90s to relieve their video game glory days. ZNES is another free open source emulator that, as the name suggests, allows.

There are many more emulators than I can possibly list in one article. If you have a favorite old system, there’s probably an emulator for it. Some of these were covered already in our list of open source games. If you want a real NES on the go, check out our post on the NES Portable Game System.