Mobile games are fine, but they don’t live up to the heights of classic Game Boy, Nintendo 64, or PlayStation titles. We’re talking about Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda, Pokémon, and much, much more. If you want to play these games on your iPhone, you need to install an emulator for iOS.
Apple doesn’t allow emulators on the App Store, but we’ll show you four other ways to install them on your iPhone or iPad instead. Best of all, most of these methods are free and none of them require you to jailbreak your iPhone first.
Explaining Emulators and ROMs
An emulator is a piece of software that mimics a computer system, like an old video games console. If you want to play a Nintendo DS game on your iPhone, for example, you need to install a Nintendo DS emulator.
You also need a ROM for the game you want to play. A ROM is the software version of a video game. You can use the same ROM with multiple emulators, as long as the original game worked with the console you’re emulating.
While emulators are open source, making them free and legal to use, ROMs are a little more complicated. If you already own a game, in some cases you can make a ROM version of it for personal use. However, a Nintendo FAQ has previously suggested that using ROMs of its games for any reason is against the law.
No matter what, it’s a crime to share a ROM with anyone else. That said, plenty of people do it anyway. All it takes is a quick Google search to find whatever ROMs you’re looking for.
You can then download them on your iPhone to open with your emulator of choice. We can’t control if you choose to do this, but know that MakeUseOf does not condone this practice.
What Are the Best Emulators for iOS?
Before we show you how to install emulators on your iPhone or iPad, you probably want to know the iOS emulators we recommend. There’s easily enough to talk about here for a separate article, so we’ll keep it brief.
Here are the most popular emulators for iOS or iPadOS:
- Delta: Multi-platform Nintendo emulator
- GBA4iOS: Multi-platform Game Boy emulator, superseded by Delta
- iNDS: Nintendo DS emulator
- PPSSPP: PlayStation Portable emulator
- Provenance: Multi-platform emulator, including Atari, Sega, and Sony systems
- Happy Chick: Multi-platform emulator with a built-in ROM library, but lots of ads
Delta is probably the best emulator for iOS, with support for numerous Nintendo consoles including the Game Boy Advance, N64, and Nintendo DS (for the Delta developer’s Patreon subscribers). The best way to install Delta is using the AltStore, which is the fourth method detailed below.
How to Install iPhone Emulators Without Using the App Store
Apple doesn’t allow emulators on the App Store, which is why it’s so much easier to install emulators on an Android device. Still, there are plenty of other ways to install emulators on an iPhone without using the App Store.
Here are four ways to get emulators on your iPhone or iPad, from the simplest to the most complicated. The simplest method also happens to be the least reliable; for less frustration, you may want to skip straight to the last option, using the AltStore, which is by far the most reliable free option.
1. Download Emulators From an Alternative App Store
Countless websites make it quick, free, and easy to download emulators for your iPhone or iPad. All you need to do is find the emulator you want on one of these alternative App Stores, download it, then tell your iPhone to trust that app’s developer. The problem is that these emulators stop working all the time, especially if you’re always running the latest version of iOS.
You’ll frequently find the emulator you want isn’t available, or the one you downloaded last week doesn’t work anymore. This happens when Apple revokes the developer’s “enterprise certificate,” which is what lets you install apps outside of the App Store.
It can take anywhere from a couple of hours to several weeks for the developer to get a new certificate, during which time you can’t install that emulator. You can’t even use it if you already installed it. There’s nothing you can do except cross your fingers and wait, or try a different website.
Still, if you want a quick download, without needing to pay anything, these sites are usually your best option.
Visit any of the following alternative App Stores using your iPhone or iPad and tap the Install or Open button next to the emulator you want. Watch out for ads and follow the onscreen instructions for each site:
After downloading an emulator, you should see an iOS or iPadOS alert asking for permission to install it. Tap Install, then wait for it to appear on your Home screen. Lastly, go to Settings > General > VPN & Device Management and tap the developer’s name to Trust or Install that app.
If an app says “Unable to install” then it’s currently revoked. Try another store or skip to the next method instead.
2. Buy a BuildStore Subscription for More Reliability
The BuildStore uses the same method as above, but has far fewer revoked apps because it limits access to registered devices. You need to pay a hefty sum of $19.99 per month to register your device, after which you can download any of the available emulators at no further cost.
While most emulators from the websites above get revoked about once every three weeks, this only happens to apps on the BuildStore about three times a year on average. And when they are revoked, the BuildStore gets them back up and running much quicker.
When you sign up for the BuildStore, you register a particular device. That means if you upgrade or replace your iPhone, you’ll need to pay for a subscription again.
Follow these steps to sign up for a BuildStore account:
- From the device you want to download emulators on, open Safari and go to builds.io.
- Follow the links to Get Access Now, then create an account.
- Follow the prompts to sign up, or sign in if you already have an account.
- Sign in to PayPal to set up payment for the subscription.
- Tap the button to Install Profile, then Allow the BuildStore to download a configuration profile from the popup that appears.
- Go to the Settings on your device and tap the Profile Downloaded link at the top of the page. Alternatively, go to General > VPN & Device Management.
- Enter your passcode and agree to Install the profile.
The next time you visit the BuildStore, sign in to view the range of emulators. Select the emulator you want, then tap Install, followed by Open to download and install that emulator on your iPhone or iPad.
3. Use Cydia Impactor to Compile Emulators
Cydia Impactor is a free Mac, Windows, and Linux app that makes it incredibly easy to install custom apps on an iPhone or iPad. All you need to do is download the source code for the emulator you want, then drag and drop it into the Cydia Impactor window.
Cydia compiles the code and installs that emulator on your iPhone. It works as though you developed the app yourself and are installing it on your iPhone for testing purposes.
Without an official Apple Developer account (which costs $99 per year), you need to repeat this process every seven days to re-sign the app. If that sounds like too much hassle, take a look at the AltStore method below.
Follow these instructions to install emulators using Cydia Impactor:
- Download and install Cydia Impactor on your computer.
- Find and download the IPA file for the emulator you want. These are usually available for free with a quick Google search.
- Use the cable that came with your iPhone or iPad to connect it to your computer.
- Launch the Impactor app and select your device from the dropdown menu.
- Drag and drop the emulator IPA file onto the Cydia Impactor window.
- Follow the prompt to enter your Apple ID and password. If you use two-factor authentication with your Apple ID, create an app-specific password to use.
Wait for Cydia to compile and install the emulator on your iPhone or iPad, after which you should find it as an app on your Home Screen. Remember to repeat this process every seven days to re-sign the app.
4. Use AltStore to Get the Delta Emulator Forever
The AltStore works in a similar way to Cydia Impactor: compiling apps on your device as though you developed them yourself. However, it automatically connects to your computer over Wi-Fi to re-sign apps, which means you don’t need to worry about the seven-day time limit.
The most popular app available through the AltStore is Delta.This is actually one of the best multi-platform emulators for iOS, and the AltStore is the best way to install it.
For this to work, you need to install the AltServer app on your Mac or Windows PC. You also need to make sure your iPhone and computer regularly connect to the same Wi-Fi network while that app is running.
Follow these steps to install Delta on your iPhone using AltStore:
- Download and install AltServer on your Mac or Windows computer.
- Use the cable that came with your iPhone or iPad to connect it to the computer.
- Open iTunes (or Finder on macOS Catalina and later) and turn on the option to sync your iPhone over Wi-Fi.
- Launch AltServer on your computer, then open it from the menu bar (or System Tray in Windows) and choose to Install AltStore on your iPhone or iPad.
- Enter your Apple ID and password.
- On a Mac, follow the prompts to install and activate the Mail plugin. This includes restarting the Mail app and enabling the AltStore plugin from its preferences.
- After a few seconds, the AltStore app should appear on your iPhone.
- Go to Settings > General > VPN & Device Management and choose to Trust your Apple ID. Then use the AltStore app to download and install Delta.
Use Emulators to Play Classic Games on Your iPhone
Now that you know how to download and install emulators for iOS and iPadOS, you probably need help deciding which games to play first. Almost everything is available to you, so it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with choices.
Our advice is to revisit games from your childhood. What do you remember fondly? What did you never get the chance to play? If you answered Pokémon to either of those questions, take a look at our comprehensive guide to playing Pokémon on your iPhone and start reliving your childhood!