When it comes to computers, emulation is a process of simulating a platform, such as a computer system or a gaming console, with the intent of running software on it. In simpler terms, what this means is that emulators allow you to play games and run programs that are not available on your Mac (or your PC, for that matter). However, this is done in a rather inefficient way, by making a virtual copy of the console inside your computer, and then running the game on that. Because of this, running a game on an emulator typically requires a device much more powerful than what it originally ran on, as this original device needs to be simulated. This is why emulators are generally only available for older systems. For example, you can emulate the original PlayStation and PS2 without much of an issue, but emulating PS3 – still a fairly old system – requires very powerful hardware, and emulating PS4 is currently borderline impossible. Certain tricks are used to make emulators faster, smoother, and less demanding, as not everything needs to be simulated perfectly, and corners can be cut here and there. But you also cannot simplify too much, because then things will stop working properly, the games will get buggy and start crashing. The best emulators for Mac do a very delicate job balancing all of this to provide you with the best experience possible. So what are they? Well, here’s a comprehensive list to get you started with emulation on Mac.
The best Android emulator for Mac – Bluestacks
While Android is a modern platform, it can be emulated easily. Among the variety of Android emulators, Bluestacks is the most advanced one. Firstly, it is available for both Windows and Mac with full functionality. Secondly, it allows effortless, automatic transition to PC game controls and convenient hot-keys that you are used to from any regular PC game. It provides high performance and graphics in any mobile game even on a relatively weak PC or Mac, as computer processors are usually more powerful than smartphone ones.
Other capable Android emulators include NoxPlayer and LDPlayer.
NoxPlayer runs Android 9, while both Bluestacks and LDPlayer run Android 7. Though 7th version of Android is still well-supported, running a newer version might still be needed in some cases. That said, newer versions are also likely to be more resource-demanding, so it’s a trade-off.
LDPlayer is another great emulator. While it doesn’t have all the features that Bluestacks has, it still has all of the most important ones, and it runs great even on low-end PCs.
Information about iOS emulation
Regrettably, there is no accessible way to emulate iOS to play iPhone/iPad games. While certain solutions exist, they are both paid and developer-oriented. Which is to say they’re not intended for playing games, but to let developers test their applications and websites. As unfortunate as it is, most iOS games are also available on Android. However, if you have a new M1 Mac, you can run iOS games and software without the need for emulation at all.
To download and run any iOS app on an M1 Mac, do the following:
- On your Mac, go to Mac App Store and click on your profile in the bottom left corner.
- Under “Account”, click iPhone & iPad Apps.
- You can download and run apps from there.
Do note that not all iOS apps will be available to you, as developers have control over whether to let users install their iOS games and software on Macs or not.
OpenEmu is not an emulator, and yet, no article about emulation on Mac would be complete without mentioning it. That is because OpenEmu is an app that provides an easy, accessible interface that allows you to emulate many different game consoles without any headaches. Just add the game you want to play to the OpenEmu library, and it will automatically choose the correct emulator to launch it in, as long as the game is for one of the supported platforms. It also provides organization tools to help you manage your library of old games.
Supporting NES, SNES, GBA, DS, GameCube, Sega Genesis, PS1, PSP, as well as several other, less-known platforms, OpenEmu is a must-have for any emulation enthusiast on Mac. Another similar application is RetroArch, also worth checking out.
Emulators of Sony consoles
Currently, only the first three generations of PlayStation consoles can be emulated, as well as PSP and PS Vita. PS1 and PSP will not be listed here as OpenEmu already covers that. Vita will not be listed as its emulator is not very capable, but you can check it out here. PS4 emulation is in its infancy – while emulators do exist, they cannot run commercial games. And, of course, the work has not yet even began on PS5 emulation. To that end, any website claiming to have a working PS4/PS5 emulator is fake and should not be trusted.
The best PS2 emulator for Mac – PCSX2
PS2 was an immensely popular console, selling more than 150 million units in total. With this popularity came a massive amount of high-quality games, and so it should come as no surprise that many people want to emulate it. However, because PS2 was also a very complex device, it is hard to emulate despite its age. Still, emulators do exist, and out of these, PCSX2 is the best one. Though technically demanding, it is capable of playing most titles – the developers estimate that PCSX2 is compatible with around 98% of PS2 games.
It is worth noting that the official download link for Mac hasn’t been updated in ages. Use the button on the right to download a newer Mac version from the PCSX2 forums. Alternatively, you can use Play!, another PS2 emulator. Though it is a worse emulator in general, capable of playing only 24% of games, its MacOS version is frequently updated.
The best PS3 emulator for Mac – RPCS3
Few people would call PS3 a modern game system, but in the emulation world, it can still be considered as such, as it is the last Sony console that can be emulated. Well, there’s Vita, but, being a portable device, it doesn’t count. Either way, PS3 emulation is feasible, but is far from a solved problem. The only emulator of note, RPCS3, can run 66% of games, is very demanding on the hardware, and isn’t always user-friendly. The emulator remains in active development precisely for that reason – there’s still a lot of work to do. Still, being able to play two-thirds of the PS3 game library on a powerful computer is much better than not being able to play PS3 titles on anything other than PS3 at all.
While you cannot currently download a RPCS3 version for Mac, it is being developed and will release soon (mid-to-late 2022). For this reason, we’ve included this emulator in the list.
Emulators of Nintendo consoles
OpenEmu has support for many Nintendo consoles: NES, SNES, Nintendo DS, Nintendo 64, GameCube, and even the obscure Virtual Boy. However, it does not have support for Wii and 3DS, so here’s what emulators you should be using to run games released for these consoles.
The best Wii emulator for Mac – Dolphin
It would not wrong to say that Nintendo Wii has changed the console industry. Intended to be different from the start with its innovative Wii Remote controller, Wii is often credited as the force that made Microsoft develop Kinect, and made Sony develop PlayStation Move. For this reason, emulating the console can be awkward at times, as so many games were designed around the Remote. Still, emulation is possible, using a program called Dolphin. This emulator can run both GameCube and Wii games with reasonable accuracy – around 60% of games are playable. The drawback, of course, is that it requires powerful hardware to run. But that, unfortunately, is a common theme when it comes to emulating anything even remotely modern that isn’t very similar to your regular computer on the inside. And Wii was pretty different, so, well, here we are. On the bright side, Dolphin supports using the Wii Remote as a controller, should you happen to have one.
The best 3DS emulator for Mac – Citra
Being innovative and unusual was Nintendo’s development strategy for a while, and 3DS is no exception. And although the idea of giving a handheld two screens instead of one did not stick around and didn’t make any waves, it was still a highly popular console with many noteworthy games releasing for it. Which, in turn, makes emulating it a worthwhile endeavor. Several 3DS emulators exist, but Citra clearly stands out above the rest. The majority of games that Citra’s developers tested are playable, and more than a half of them run either flawlessly or near-flawlessly. Meanwhile, the other 3DS emulators are only capable of running a few games at best. So there’s really no competition. Though, of course, you may find the games unplayably slow if your computer isn’t powerful enough.
Another thing to note is that Citra does not support M1 Macs.
Other miscellaneous emulators
There’s more to gaming than just Sony and Nintendo, even if you live in Japan. So here’s a quick overview of the state of emulation on Mac when it comes to other companies.
- Almost all Atari and Sega consoles are supported by OpenEmu, however it does not support Sega Dreamcast and Atari Jaguar. Flycast will help you emulate Dreamcast, and Virtual Jaguar is obviously the one for the Jaguar.
- When it comes to Microsoft consoles, the original Xbox can be emulated with xemu. 360 has a barely-functional emulator that is not available on Mac, and, of course, neither One nor Series X/S can be emulated.
- DOSBox can help you emulate DOS games, and even old Windows games with the right know-how (the game has to support Windows 95 or older for this to work). However, as only very old games can be played this way, we recommend following this guide if you’re interested in running Windows games on Mac.
- Many obscure platforms can be emulated with MAME. That said, the MAME project explicitly focuses on emulation accuracy over speed, so not everything will be playable.