Retro Gamers Rejoice As Apple Allows Emulators On The App Store

hero apple app store icon

For quite some time, Apple's App Store guidelines have banned applications from running software that's not "embedded in the binary." In other words, an app that loads another app is a no-go. This, obviously, had the knock-on effect of banning all emulators from the App Store because that's exactly what they are: an app that loads other apps—those other apps just happen to be coded for an entirely other platform.

Well, the latest update to the App Store's review and submission policies has amended section 4.7 to allow for some applications that "offer certain software that is not embedded in the binary." The rule goes on to specifically note "HTML5 mini apps and mini games, streaming games, chatbots, and plug-ins," but it also mentions "retro game console emulator apps," saying that these programs can "offer to download games."

apple mini apps

This is a pretty interesting ruling, but it's not worth getting too excited over just yet. Apple says that developers are responsible for "all such software offered in your app," and that obviously includes that you're not falling afoul of rules and regulations regarding copyright. In other words, throwing a fork of NEStopia emulator up onto the App Store with a big ol' "Download Mario" button is not going to fly.

retroarch android
Retroarch for Android may not be pretty, but it works a treat.

It's not quite clear whether this rule change opens the door for something like Retroarch. Retroarch is a frontend for the libretro project, which itself is a standard format for emulators to plug into such a frontend. The emulators themselves are distributed as "cores" that slot into the frontend which then provides native platform services, like audio, video, and input management. In a sense, Retroarch and other libretro projects are sort of like "apps that load apps that load apps." Appception.

If you decide to jump into emulation on your iPhone, you are definitely going to want a gamepad of some kind. Most folks agree that the best in the business right now is the Backbone One, which offers a full set of Xbox-like controls for any iPhone game that supports controller input. You simply pull the controller handles apart, slide your iPhone into the middle space, and then close it so that the data connector slots into the charging port of your iPhone.

BACKBONE One Mobile Gaming Controller (Lightning Connector): $99.99 on Amazon
BACKBONE One Mobile Gaming Controller (USB-C Connector): $99.99 on Amazon

The original recipe Backbone One uses a Lightning connector, but if you have a brand spanking new iPhone 15 (or if you're a filthy Android-using plebeian like the author), there's also a version with a USB Type-C connector. Whichever one you pick, it's a hundred bucks, but keep in mind that these devices are not only snap-on gamepads, but also include pass-through charging and a 3.5mm headset jack, so you don't even need a separate headphone adaptor.

8bitdo ultimate
8BitDo Ultimate Wireless Gamepad for PC, Switch, Android, and Apple: $49.99 on Amazon

Of course, if you have an iPhone 15 or one of many high-end Android phones (sorry, Pixel users), there's another option: using your TV. Indeed, most devices with USB Type-C connectors can actually output a video signal that is easily converted to HDMI, allowing you to simply hook up your phone to just about any modern TV or projector and enjoy whatever you want on a bigger screen. That includes gaming with a wireless controller. That's right: grab one of these awesome 8bitdo pads (freshly updated with precise Hall-effect joysticks) and let your iPhone pretend to be just about any game console ever made.

This all depends on exactly what Apple allows emulator developers to do, though. Apple is notoriously stingy with application permissions, and there's nothing in this update that implies that emulators will be able to load ROM files from the phone's storage. For that, you might need to jailbreak your iPhone, and if you can do that, you can already run whatever emulators you want. C'est la vie, we suppose.