Retro game emulators are now welcome in the App Store — but don't get too excited

apple app store logo
(Image credit: Apple)

2024 will be an exciting year for iPhone users, largely thanks to the EU's Digital Markets Act (DMA). Some features, like sideloading apps, are only available to EU iPhone users, but this new feature that allows retro game emulators in the App Store will be available to everyone (via Ars Technica).

Before you get too excited, there's a big caveat to Apple's seemingly gracious addition to its App Store. While Apple is now allowing "retro game console emulator apps" to let users download games, the company says all app software has to comply with "all applicable laws" or face app rejection. 

The wording is irritatingly vague, as you'd expect, but here's what this could mean for the future of retro game emulators on iOS.

Retro game emulators might be limited on iOS

Emulator apps are entirely legal, but the legality of ROM files downloaded and used to play games via an emulator isn't always clear. 

Some ROMs are public domain or allowed distribution by the original creator. Other ROMs are copyrighted intellectual property with unknown or unenforced ownership. And many of the most popular or sought-after ROMs, like games by Nintendo, aren't legally allowed to exist in emulators because the company that owns them still wants to control distribution. 

Because of the legal gray area when it comes to downloading and running ROM files, emulator apps on iPhone will likely be more limited than those you'd find on Android and desktop platforms.

Sonic the Hedgehog running on an iPhone

(Image credit: Samuel Axon / Ars Technica)

In Apple's exact words, apps "may offer certain software that is not embedded in the binary," including "retro game console emulator apps [that] can offer to download games," but developers are responsible for "ensuring that such software complies with these Guidelines and all applicable laws." 

The fine print goes on to state that "Software that does not comply with one or more of these guidelines will lead to the rejection of your app." Game emulators are likely one of the biggest reasons EU iPhone users would want to use third-party app stores and sideload apps, so it's possible Apple's adding this feature as an attempt to get users to stick with the App Store.

But if Apple intends to enforce removing emulator apps from the App Store that technically break "applicable laws," there might not be a great selection of retro games to play unless the original game publishers use emulators to run ROMs of their own titles.

In the past, Sega has offered standalone apps to emulate individual games, like Sonic the Hedgehog. So while you might not see any retro titles from Nintendo emulated on an iPhone anytime soon, Sega could be the first major player to launch a single app to download and launch its vast library of popular retro games.