As the video gaming juggernaut rumbles tirelessly onwards, one might assume that the past is in danger of being forgotten. Games like Gears of War 3, Rage and Uncharted 3 are pushing the graphical standard into hitherto unknown realms, while titles like Skyrim boast gameplay so engrossing that previous efforts seem almost simplistic in comparison. Surely then, no one could possibly be interested in dusty old retro titles when such aesthetic splendour is available right here, right now?
Mercifully, that couldn't be further from the truth. Despite the massive strides being made in terms of both visuals and depth, more and more people are casting their gaze into the past, looking to reacquaint themselves with classic titles or discover vintage experiences with a fresh pair of eyes.
While services such as the Wii Virtual Console, Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network are allowing us to enjoy drip-fed classics from yesteryear, the rapid expansion of the smart phone arena has also played a huge part in keeping retro gaming alive. The average handset is comfortably capable of replicating the performance of 8 and 16-bit machines, with some even tentatively dipping a toe into 32 and 64-bit waters. Astonishingly, consoles that were once considered cutting edge only a decade and a half ago can now be carried around in your pocket.
Google's Android operating system is arguably at the forefront of this retro revival. This is largely thanks to the platform's open nature; while Apple's iPhone is locked down and its App Store diligently policed, the Android Market is slightly more lax - which is both a blessing a curse, if you look at the sheer volume of dodgy downloads available.
Emulators do occasionally get taken down due to copyright infringements, but for every one Google removes, five more seem to sprout up in its place. Such moves are futile anyway; Android supports multiple marketplaces, and also allows users to to 'side-load' applications downloaded from sources other than the official Android Market. On the iPhone, such functionality is only possible if you jailbreak your device, thereby invalidating your warranty.
If you're reading this and wondering just how it's possible to transform what appears to be a fairly standard Android handset into a dream ticket to some of the finest games from the past thirty years of video gaming, then rest easy. The purpose of this feature is to not only to inform but also to educate. We're going to showcase the best retro gaming applications, where to source games and how you can use proper controllers to create the ultimate portable gaming platform.
Step 1: Preparation
You may assume that you'll be able to source all of your emulators from the official Android Market. Sadly, due to Google's inconsistent policies on such programs, many of the best and most established emulators are no longer available for download there, while poorly-programmed substitutes appear on an almost daily basis as opportunist coders look to make a quick buck. With that in mind, one of the first things you'll want to download is the SlideMe 'SAM' app. This is an alternative app market for Android which has provided a safe haven for developers locked out from the official market.
To install SAM - as well as any other applications you download - you'll need to make sure you phone is configured to allow side-loading. In your phone's 'Settings' menu, selection the 'Applications' option and ensure that the 'Unknown Sources' box is ticked.
Step 2: Choosing your Emulators
Between the Android Market and the SlideMe Market, there's no shortage of emulators to download. It pays to be wary, however - many of these programs are based on the same code, and crafty developers charge exorbitant prices for apps that are readily available for free elsewhere. Here we present a selection of the best downloads, saving you the bother of having to find out the hard way.
Nintendo's SNES needs little in the way of introduction, and its lofty reputation is sure to place it at the top of many would-be emulation enthusiast's wish list. Thankfully, Android is served well by the sublime SNES9X EX, which offers a highly accurate replication of the 16-bit powerhouse. Must-have classics such as Super Castlevania IV, Zelda: A Link to the Past and Chrono Trigger all play perfectly. So comprehensive is this particular emulator that it even supports Super FX games like Star Fox and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island. Sadly, due to a recent complaint (presumably by Nintendo itself), SNES9X EX has been removed from the official Android Market, but it can be downloaded free of charge direct from the SNES9X developer's website. While you're at it, check out MD.emu, PCE.emu and GBC.emu, all from the same developer.
While Tiger Arcade doesn't emulate every single coin-op game, it's capable of handling some surprisingly complex titles and will happily play the vast majority of Neo Geo MVS games and Capcom CPS2 releases. This means you can enjoy Metal Slug, King of Fighters, Street Fighter Alpha and DoDonPachi on your phone's screen. The recent launch of an Android port of MAME4All could endanger Tiger Arcade's position as the number one choice for coin-op classics, but for now it remains the king of the hill. You can grab it from the SlideMe Market.
FPse for Android
While Sony is busy working on its PlayStation Suite for Android devices, you can get a taster of what authentic 32-bit gaming is like by downloading this accomplished emulator. FPse offers near-flawless performance and is compatible with a staggering range of PlayStation titles. Even demanding games like Gran Turismo run at full speed, although you'll need a phone with at least a 1GHz processor to achieve such wonders.
Arguably the most advanced machine to currently be emulated on Android, the Nintendo 64 is host to such seminal classics as Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and F-Zero X. N64oid allows you to emulate these stunning games, as well as many others. The only snag is that performance and compatibility are patchy - some games work better than others, while many refuse to load. Still, if you pick wisely you'll be able to enjoy some of the finest video games ever created, all from the comfort of your Android device. N64oid is available on the SlideMe Market.
Step 3: Getting the perfect interface
If you're lucky enough to own a Sony Ericsson Xperia Play then you have our permission to feel very smug indeed. The Xperia Play's physical gaming controls make it ideal for retro gaming, and many emulators now automatically support the handset's button layout without the player having to change a single setting in the options menu.
For those of you with less well-equipped Android devices, you'll either have to make do with imprecise touch-screen controls or you can opt for a more appealing alternative: a proper pad.
Thanks to the fact that both the Nintendo Wii Remote and the Sony PlayStation 3 pad use Bluetooth to communicate with their respective consoles, they can also be linked to your Android phone using apps such as Bluez IME, Wii Controller IME and Sixaxis Controller. Many emulators - such as SNES9X EX - actually include Bluetooth pad support from within the app itself, but those of you hoping to use a Dual Shock 3 will need to make sure that your phone is rooted first - a process which varies in complexity from device to device and isn't for the fainthearted.
If you want the authentic PlayStation experience without having to root your phone, you can try the Phonejoy pad. Shamelessly derived from the iconic Dual Shock design, this pad boasts analogue sticks and plenty of buttons. Using Bluez IME, you can pair it with your phone and map the inputs to various Android keys. It even comes with a little kick-stand which allows you to rest your phone on a flat surface for optimal viewing.
Another option is the iControlPad, a wireless gaming controller produced by the industrious team behind the Pandora open source handheld. The iControlPad boasts a fantastic D-pad and twin analogue sliders, as well as a multitude of buttons.
When you consider that many Android phones - such as the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S and Samsung Galaxy S2 - come with HDMI-out capability, the prospect of bringing life to old software becomes even more interesting. Using wireless pads like the iControlPad and Phonejoy, you can hook your phone up to your LCD TV and enjoy a near-perfect console experience.
The future of retro gaming on Android
Being able to carry around hundreds of classic games in your pocket is a truly amazing experience for anyone who has lived through the 8, 16 and 32-bit eras. However, technology rarely remains static. We've recently seen the Asus Transformer Prime introduce quad-core power to the Android tablet market, and companies like Samsung, HTC and LG are feverishly working on incorporating the same processors in their phones. This will herald a new era of mobile power, and that means a whole new generation of retro consoles will be potentially up for grabs.
The 128-bit Sega Dreamcast has already been emulated on Android (albeit at a low frame rate) and one has to wonder what doors a quad-core 2.5GHz CPU will open; could we be playing PlayStation 2 and Xbox titles on our phones in a year or two? With the rapid advancement of mobile tech, it's certainly possible - but as we've hopefully illustrated, there's still plenty of enjoyment to be had emulating less advanced hardware.
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