If you’re a fan of retro gaming, but like to play on the go, then your best option is Android. From the Sega Genesis to the Nintendo 64, you can install a wide range of emulators on Android devices. As if that wasn’t enough, Android phones, tablets, and TV boxes can run re-released classic games from the Play Store.
Here’s everything you need to start enjoying retro gaming on Android.
How to Turn an Old Phone Into a Retro Game Console
To turn your old phone (or brand-new device) into a retro gaming system, you’ll need the following:
You should have most of these items on hand already. Arguably the trickiest part of this is picking an emulation solution and finding the ROMs (see below).
You may have heard of platforms like RecalBox. While these aren’t available for Android, a tool that you can run is RetroArch. This is a “frontend” for the Libretro project, a collection of emulation cores that run classic video game ROMs.
With RetroArch installed on Android, you have access to all the emulator cores you need to start retro gaming. Once you copy the classic game ROMs to your Android device, you’ll be ready to play.
All you’ll need to do then is use a virtual controller overlay or connect a controller to start playing. Our guide to connecting a game controller to Android should help you out here.
Can I Run RetroPie or EmulationStation on Android?
Other retro gaming suites, such as RetroPie or RecalBox, are not available on Android. RetroArch—which you many know as Lakka on systems like the Raspberry Pi—is your best option.
Similarly, there is no EmulationStation launcher available on Android. Some have made attempts to port its interface, but these have had mixed results. While it isn’t impossible to get EmulationStation running on RetroArch, you probably don’t want to waste game time messing with it.
A Word About Retro Gaming ROMs
Before we start, it’s vital that you know what a ROM is, and the legal position around downloading them.
A ROM is essentially an entire game. It stands for Read-Only Memory, but it has come to indicate the file used for playing a game. These files are readily available on the internet, but downloading titles you don’t own is essentially illegal. The safe option is to only download (or manually export) games that you own a physical copy of.
MakeUseOf doesn’t condone illegal downloading of ROMs.
When searching for ROMs, it’s difficult to ensure that you’ve downloaded the right file and not malware. Most of the time, ROMs come in the form of a ZIP file. While this isn’t always the case, you should always avoid EXE or APK files. These can run on your PC or Android device, and can be harmful if downloaded from an untrusted source.
Typically, the older a game, the smaller in size it is. For example, a Commodore 64 game might be around 40KB, while Super Mario World for the SNES is something like 330KB. Newer games are considerably larger, such as Pokémon Black for the Nintendo DS, which totals around 110MB.
Retro Gaming on Android With Kodi
Another option for retro gaming on Android comes with the latest version of Kodi. The popular media center software supports a new feature in version 19 “Leia,” known as Retroplayer.
So if you have Kodi on Android, you can easily set up a retro gaming environment on your phone or tablet. For the full instructions, see our guide on playing classic games on Kodi with Retroplayer.
Install the RetroArch Games Emulation Suite for Android
Imagine having one app to control all your retro games—that’s the idea behind RetroArch. It supports a wide range of old game consoles, which you can manually choose or have it automatically detect.
As you can see, two different versions are available for Android: standard RetroArch for older devices, and a 64-bit version. You’ll need to check which version you need before installing. However, the Play Store page should tell you if the selected version is incompatible with your device.
After installation, RetroArch will request permission to your files and folders, then scan your system. This will detect any ROM files that you have already copied over.
Once up and running, RetroArch will display the options to open a Quick Menu (for in-game settings). To get started, select Load Core > Download a Core to download the emulator you wish to use.
After this, use Load Content to select a ROM to use with the chosen core. Minutes later, you’ll be playing your favorite retro games.
Also available in RetroArch is an Online Updater tool to keep the software up-to-date, as well as a Netplay feature. This enables network play of games on many retro platforms. Perhaps the best feature of RetroArch, however, is the ability to save the game state.
This works with titles that didn’t even have a save function originally, allowing you to stop and resume your retro gaming session whenever you like.
ClassicBoy Android Retro Gaming
An alternative to RetroArch, with much improved control customization and a smart interface, is ClassicBoy. While the original version of the app hasn’t been updated since 2014, a near-identical “Gold” version is also available.
The two versions look almost the same, and both include an in-app purchase to unlock more features. Aside from the recent update, the only difference with the Gold version is that the in-app purchase costs $3 instead of $5. It’s up to you whether you prefer a cheaper purchase or a more recently update app.
But for those few dollars, you get completely customizable controls and a slick interface. Compared to RetroArch, it has slightly fewer choices for consoles to emulate and no auto-detect option.
Its controls are completely moveable and resizable, so you can squeeze all the buttons over to one side or make the D-pad small enough that it doesn’t touch the square screen in the center.
The cost really isn’t a bad deal for the seven emulators included with this app. In addition, it has gesture and accelerometer controls, plus external controller support for up to four players.
Which Retro Game Emulator Should You Use?
It’s tricky to choose the right emulator, especially when there are multiple options for the same platform. Take a look at our guide to the best retro game emulators on Android for suggestions. You can find emulators specifically made for most consoles with a quick search on the Play Store.
But why use any of these instead of RetroArch or ClassicBoy? Well, in some cases you might do so to support a certain system. For instance, ClassicBoy doesn’t support Nintendo DS yet.
In other cases, they might lack something that you want, like on-screen control customization or an improved user interface. Below, we’ll compare the on-screen controls from two different apps.
The first image, above, is from the RetroArch emulator. The N64 buttons look less skewed in landscape than they do in portrait, but they’re still quite intrusive and distracting.
Conversely, the shot above is from N64oid. The transparent keys are easier on the eye, while the buttons can be mapped for a better gaming experience.
Build an Android Retro Gaming Console
Is there anything more fun than playing retro games on your Android device? With the right physical controller, you can get a solid gaming session going with only your phone, tablet, or Android TV system. With a vast library of single and multiplayer games at your fingertips, you’re going to have a lot of fun.
Ultimately, RetroArch is the unrivaled master for retro gaming on Android. If you’re planning to build a retro gaming system using Android, RetroArch is the software you will need to make it happen.
If installing emulators for retro gaming fun sounds too difficult, try these classic Sega games for Android instead. They don’t require any setup on your device.