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The Best Nintendo 64 (N64) Emulators for Android

Posted by William Sattelberg on August 8, 2018

Today’s video game consoles are powerful beasts, rivaling or surpassing even the highest-end PCs in their raw processing power and video display resolutions. An unfortunate side effect of that power, ironically, is that creating games that take advantage of it requires enormous studios with multi-million dollar budgets for each and every game. Because of that, games have to be epic in scope and enormous in their player base – it’s a case of go big or go home. This is great in one way – we get some amazing modern games. But it’s bad in another way, because most of the great games of the past (which are still great) could never be made today. Fortunately, however, there are ways to still enjoy those great legacy games even on modern hardware – even fairly simple hardware like Android tablets or smartphones.

Call it an effect of Moore’s Law. All computing devices grow more and more powerful each year. Only two decades ago, the Nintendo 64 was one of the most popular consoles on the market, famous for revolutionizing the 3D gaming scene. While Sony’s competing console, the Playstation, was undoubtedly the more powerful of the two (to say nothing of Sega’s failed and final console, the Dreamcast), Nintendo’s platform was home to some of the most important and influential games in history. Yet a modern Android tablet or phone has significantly superior hardware capabilities compared to any of those consoles. That means that there is plenty of room for emulators, that is, software programs that run on the Android and let it pretend to be a Nintendo 64 console, and actually run N64 games. And those games are terrific!

Super Mario 64 showed competing companies just how 3D platforming should be done, and still holds up today as one of the best Mario titles Nintendo ever produced. Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart 64 became staples for friendly competition, and Mario Party 2 and 3 cemented the device’s foothold in the co-op scene. Goldeneye 64 and Perfect Dark brought the FPS to new heights that wouldn’t be surpassed until the original Halo game came out in the next generation of consoles. And no one will ever forget their first time playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a game that still holds the heart of many as the greatest game of all time. That’s not to mention dozens of other classic games, including Star Fox 64, Paper Mario, Banjo Kazooie, and 1080 Snowboarding.

There are dozens of classic games available for the N64. So, with the exponential growth of mobile processing power and the revolution of emulators, you can take them on-the-go, playing in long car rides or over your commute to work. The N64 emulator scene is huge, and it’s no different on Android devices. Unlike many consoles, there are quite a few selections for emulators on Android, and it might be a bit confusing which one to choose. So, if you’re looking for a guide for the N64 emulator market on Android, you’ve come to the right place: we’ve found the best one.

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I tested several different emulators on Android, selecting based on user rating and amount of downloads on Google Play. Unlike the Nintendo DS or PSP emulators on Android, most N64 emulators are completely free. The majority of these emulators are built off the open-source Mupen64 emulator on Windows and MacOS, first developed in the early 2000s. Both of my top picks, MegaN64 and Mupen64Plus FZ, were built on top of the Mupen architecture last developed over a decade ago. While both of these emulators perform about as well as the other, I have to give my overall pick to Mupen64Plus FZ, a great performing emulator that also happens to be completely free.

One of my favorite features of Mupen64Plus is the ability to unzip files immediately. When moving my local ROMs over from my PC to my Shield Tablet, I prefer to do so in .zip format, as to save time and file size. Mupen allows you to immediately unzip these files in-app, thus sparring the user from having to do so in a file manager application. Definitely cool. The app isn’t the prettiest emulator I’ve tested—that definitely belongs to the DS emulator DraStic, or maybe the PSP emulator PPSSPP—but it is clean enough to find any menus and settings you may need for in-game control. Mapping my controller for the Shield was a quick and easy process, and I was up and running in minutes. I didn’t even have to turn the game controls off—they disable themselves after only five seconds of non-use by default.

I tested two games, both of which I own physical copies of for the N64. Super Mario 64 is, in many ways, the go-to game for the console: it was a launch title for the device and still holds up today. For my second testing game, I used Pokemon Stadium 2, a game that is far more intensive and demanding on devices, as it was developed farther in the console’s development cycle. It also used the Expansion Pak, which provided additional RAM for the console to use in powering the game.

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My test started with Super Mario 64, running on Mupen’s default emulation settings. This included a global scaler, upressing the graphics to a higher resolution to suit the 1080p display on the Shield Tablet. I didn’t notice any dips in performance as I ran around the Mushroom Kingdom as Mario, and even managed to defeat King Bob-omb, the first boss and first star in the game. The controls, both on and off-screen, operated smoothly, and I had no trouble taking down the game’s first villain. The game looked better than it ever did when running on the 64, with Mario’s rough textures smoothed out, though the emulator obviously still showed each rough edge on Mario’s face. Still, this would be my preferred method of playing the game, with performance, as expected, quite outstanding.

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Pokemon Stadium 2, a game that is not only difficult to run but notoriously buggy and problematic on emulators, originally looked like a wash. The game was crawling, with noticeable slowdown to under 15 frames per second. I also experienced a crash fairly early in my testing. At this point, it wasn’t looking good for Stadium 2. I dove into the individual-game settings in Mupen, and was able to run the game at its native resolution, as opposed to the emulator’s default scaling settings. Restarting the game, the performance boost of Stadium 2 was immediately noticeable, with the game running at or slightly under 30FPS through the menus.

That doesn’t mean the game was perfect, however. Unlike Mario, I did experience the occasional bug, either with text being displayed incorrectly or textures popping in and out on occasion. I also experienced difficulty with my controller, with the game occasionally not responding to my presses or, in some cases, outright ignoring them. And finally, as I should note, I only got one battle to work without the game crashing. This happened on every emulator I tested, which makes me think that Pokemon Stadium 2 is, at its core, a difficult game to emulate. The time I did get the emulator to work, though, was purely magic. Playing a full-fledged 3D Pokemon game on my tablet was a great experience—when it worked.

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This doesn’t mean Mupen is a bad emulator, though. If you’re looking to play N64 games on your Android device, it’s the emulator to beat, although MegaN64 provides a good alternative if necessary. The important thing with N64 emulation is to remember to keep your expectations in check. The N64 is a notoriously difficult console to emulate, and not every game is going to run without issues. Thankfully, these N64 emulators are free, running on the open-source Mupen engine, so you won’t lose anything but time testing a game on your device. I had a blast revisiting Mario and Pokemon on my tablet, so don’t take my word for it—go check out Mupen64Plus on the Play Store and give it a go yourself.

 

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