In the ever-changing landscape of video games, it’s easy to switch between new versions, while leaving plenty of great versions in the dust. Unfortunately, a lot of these fantastic titles aren’t that easy to play anymore, unless you use an emulator. A good chunk of Super Nintendo (SNES) games just weren’t released in the West, translated into English, or sold in the United States. And if you have a copy of it, it can be difficult to get it to work properly if your equipment isn’t in its best shape.
Where to turn then? Emulators are a great option for trying out games from yesteryear, but not just any will do. Our guide to the best SNES emulators currently available should help you get started with a program that fits your needs.
A note on emulators
Emulators have always existed in murky legal territory. While games enjoyed through emulation are no longer sold, the rights are often held by the original company. Emulators are legal in most countries, but downloading a game to play on an emulator is often not, and distributing an emulator is considered counterfeit in most countries.
Nintendo is particularly protective of its games, and while it hasn’t sued people who download emulators, it has lobbied people who host games to download. It also makes emulators a prime target for the spread of malware, as there are few “official” distribution channels.
Mini / Canoe SNES
There is a perfectly legal and safe way to enjoy SNES games without owning a vintage SNES. This is Nintendo’s SNES Classic Edition.
Nintendo didn’t put an entire SNES in the SNES Classic Edition. Instead, to power their adorable micro-console, they turned to the same platform that pretty much every microcomputer uses: Linux on an ARM processor, like the one found in the most smartphones. Nintendo also built a custom emulator called Canoe.
Canoe is far from being the most compatible or even the most accurate emulator. It doesn’t even properly emulate all of the games included on the SNES Classic. But it is usable, has low overhead, and has the advantage of being the basis of a micro console that is capable for the price.
Using Hakchi2 CE, custom firmware for the SNES Classic, you can turn the adorable little thing into an emulation machine. Due to how well Canoe works on equipment, it is generally best to use it whenever possible.
You can’t download Canoe to use it independently of the SNES Classic Edition, and given its flaws, we doubt you will. But it’s an easy legal option that anyone can sit back and enjoy within minutes of ripping the SNES Classic out of its box.
Higan is the product of one of the big players in the field of emulation, byuu. The current version can run 12 different systems, but the one that started it all was the SNES. Byuu is also the creator of the famous bsnes emulator that formed the basis of higan, and if you’re looking for the most recent version of that kernel, you’ll want to get some.
Most of the more popular SNES emulators started to develop in the late 90s. Due to the lack of computing power, these emulators tended to focus on high level emulation (HLE), which attempts to effectively simulate the response of a system, but does not attempt perfect accuracy.
HLE focuses a lot on functionality rather than form, which often results in some games not performing or performing well. There was even a time when ROMs (copied games) had to be modified from their original format to work on these HLE emulators.
Bsnes (and later higan) was designed to be cycle specific. This low level emulation (LLE) seeks to render the original code of the games as accurately as possible. This allows you to play games and get as close as possible to the experience you would have on the console. The downside is that it takes a lot more computing power to achieve this. Even higan isn’t 100% accurate yet, and it will likely be years before the processors are powerful enough for that to be a possibility.
But if you are looking for the best and most accurate experience possible, you should use higan. Also, if you like some of the more obscure SNES props like the Satellaview, higan is by far the best choice to use.
SNES9x has its roots in two of the oldest SNES emulators. The early days of emulation are a blur and a lot has been lost in the ether, but two of the first (successful) attempts to run Super Nintendo games on PC were SNES96 and SNES97. The two developers of these emulators, Gary Henderson and Jerremy Koot, got together in July 1997 and merged their work. The result is SNES9x.
Why use SNES9x when higan and bsnes have better compatibility and are more accurate? In fact, there are several areas where SNES9x is the emulator to beat. It is light on system requirements and is available on Android, jailbroken iOS phones, Nintendo 3DS, PSP, and more.
From the appearance of the SNES9x website, you would think that work stopped around 1999. However, the forums are still active and the emulator is actively maintained by developer OV2.
The “official” versions are far from the only SNES9x versions available. For mobile, you’ll want to take a look at SNES9x EX + or SNES9x Next (also available as a Libretro Core). There is even a version available for Pocket PCs, so you can Mario on your PDA. Seriously!
Development began on ZSNES in 1997, and although it has grown in popularity, it is among the less accurate emulators still in regular use. Compared to the emulators above, its execution is absolutely appalling. Still, there are a few great reasons to keep a copy.
If you want to check out some SNES ROM hacks, which are modifications of existing game fans, you are going to run into issues with high precision emulators like bsnes or SNES9x. Since ZSNES was so popular when SNES ROM hacks and ROM hacking tools became popular, many of them used the emulator to test their games. This means that a lot of ROM hacks weren’t designed for precision, but around the peculiarities of ZSNES, so they don’t work well (or at all) in this emulator.
There is also the question of netplay. If you really want to play SNES games online with your friends, ZSNES (especially versions 1.36 and 1.42) has one of the best working codes of any SNES emulator available. Unfortunately, netplay was removed in version 1.50, so you’ll have to stick with the older ones to play multiplayer.
The last advantage of ZSNES over other emulators is that it can run on a turnip. It has surprisingly low overheads, so if you’re stuck on grandma’s old Hewlett-Packard Windows ME, ZSNES is the emulator of choice.
No $ SNS
The No $ line of emulators have low accuracy, but there are a few marginal reasons to check them. No $ SNS, the SNES version, has some features that are not available on other emulators. Plus, it’s the only way to use extremely rare peripherals (besides having the console itself, of course).
The features of No $ SNS include rare features like the Exercise Bike (which is a thrilling exercise bike for the SNES), Barcode Battler, Pachinko Dial, NTT Data Pad, X-Band Keyboard, and Twin-Taps (a pair of push buttons created specifically for a Japanese trivia game) will all work with it. It can also emulate additional hardware like the Satellaview Super Disc CD-ROM.
The No $ SNS has an excellent debugger with its premium assembler and disassembler. You can also test the code on an actual SNES with a single tool. If you are looking for homebrew or ROM tips, these features are invaluable. Overall, the No $ SNS is a great choice for adding unusual peripherals and creating a unique experience.
In the end, SNES emulators make nostalgia possible – you can play old games without worrying about licenses or malware. This list gives you a great starting point to find a quality emulator and start exploring the past. Keep in mind that you should never use an SNES emulator for any illegal activity.