Apple just opened up the App Store to retro game emulators

finger about to touch Apple App Store icon on iPhone
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

While the best Android phones let you download all kinds of retro game emulators, Apple’s closed App Store has long prevented parity on the iPhone. But that now appears to be changing, with Apple updating its developer guidelines to explicitly allow “retro game console emulator apps” — though the details remain murky.

“Apps may offer certain software that is not embedded in the binary, specifically HTML5 mini apps and mini games, streaming games, chatbots, and plug-ins,” the new text reads. “Additionally, retro game console emulator apps can offer to download games.”

It’s important to note that while emulation is a legal gray area, that’s not thanks to the emulation software itself (as long as they don’t contain copyright manufacturer source code). 

It’s the games themselves — or “ROMs” — that are the sticking point. These cover the full gamut of legality, from fully public domain, to copyrighted but with the owner no longer existing, to copyrighted and still actively protected by the rights holder (Nintendo, for example, is well known for aggressively going after those who distribute its older titles.)

Apple is looking to sidestep that whole question with the next lines. “You are responsible for all such software offered in your app, including ensuring that such software complies with these Guidelines and all applicable laws,” the text continues. Software that does not comply with one or more guidelines will lead to the rejection of your app.”

That essentially leaves two possibilities, and we won’t know which is correct until app makers start testing the rules. The first is that Apple will allow emulators as long as they don’t supply copyrighted ROMs themselves. How difficult it would be for gamers to add missing games themselves could very well limit the success of such apps. 

The second, as Ars Technica posits, is that this isn’t to allow an emulation free for all but to permit rights holders to create their own retro games collections. In other words, Sega, Nintendo, or Sony could theoretically build a games collection app where users buy extra emulated titles. Sega already has a bunch of older games to download on iPhone, but thanks to the rigid App Store rules, each one is a standalone app.

Either way, while Apple gave no explanation for the updated rules, it’s likely due to the antitrust suit that the company is facing in the United States and other actions it’s facing within the EU

Softening its strict App Store rules might let the company deflect criticism from regulators about anti-competitive behavior. Still, we’ll have to see what kind of apps are allowed through before we can tell if much has really changed in practice.

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Alan Martin

Freelance contributor Alan has been writing about tech for over a decade, covering phones, drones and everything in between. Previously Deputy Editor of tech site Alphr, his words are found all over the web and in the occasional magazine too. When not weighing up the pros and cons of the latest smartwatch, you'll probably find him tackling his ever-growing games backlog. Or, more likely, playing Spelunky for the millionth time.