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The new best free iPhone app has no ads and is full of retro fun

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iPhone - Apple App Store
Maria Diaz/Edited by ZDNET

Craving the nostalgia of Game Boy, NES, or Nintendo 64 games? The day has finally come where you can play them on your iPhone with the Delta emulator downloaded from the App Store, which is currently the #1 app on the free apps list.

Apple just updated its App Review Guidelines to officially allow “retro game console emulator apps” in the App Store for the first time, changing course on what was a steadfast no-no for decades.

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As of right now, there are a few emulators in the App Store to choose from, but the most well-known and highly-rated is Delta, an all-in-one emulator that supports game files (known as ROMs) from NES, SNES, Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo 64, and the Nintendo DS.

Apple’s decision to allow “retro” game emulators is open-ended, but not without some rather obvious boundaries. The Game Boy, originally released in North America in 1989 obviously makes the cut, and the Nintendo 64 was released in 1996, making it nearly 30 years old at this point.

Riley Testut, the developer behind Delta has been in the business for decades, and it shows in the app, which is polished, optimized, and offers a host of features. Testut’s list of open source projects is extensive but includes the AltStore, an alternative to Apple’s sanctioned app marketplace where Delta first was offered.

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Delta doesn’t come with any games. You’ll have to download the ROM file from a website that offers them, and then import the files into the app. The process is easy, however, and takes mere minutes.

delta emulator for ios

Retro games on the Game Boy and Nintendo 64 emulators in Delta.

Screenshot by Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

Emulator apps are nothing new, but they’ve long been kept out of Apple’s walled garden for obvious copyright reasons. Users could still install them, of course, but that required jumping through a series of hoops and jailbreaking your iPhone.

Seems like a lot of work just to play some Super Smash Bros.

That’s not to say that it’s going to be a free-for-all. Nintendo has, unsurprisingly, asserted that downloading ROMs is illegal, as stated in its intellectual property FAQ, and it has gone after developers in the past for distributing them.

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The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2000 that emulator software is covered by fair use law and does not constitute copyright infringement, which protects the emulator software, but the ROM files may be a little bit trickier to pin down. 

For users concerned about downloading questionable files, there are also other options. You’re not required to play Nintendo games. There’s an entire thriving community of indie homebrew games designed for retro consoles like the Game Boy Color that can be downloaded for free as well.

Apple’s opening up of emulator software on the App Store all but constitutes an approval of their distribution, but it is yet to be seen how Nintendo will respond in the long run to these games’ availability on a non-native device like an iPhone. As emulator software continues to evolve, siloing games to their native consoles will likely become increasingly difficult. 

For now, Delta is free, doesn’t collect user information, and doesn’t include ads. I’m unsure how long this will last, but this seems like a perfect chance to fire up some nostalgic games on my train ride home.

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