An emulation box is a device built for the specific purpose of running emulators. While it can technically be any small computer, the emulation boxes we list here are primarily single-purpose embedded devices intended to capitalize on nostalgia despite a multitude of better alternatives being readily available (like computers, mobile devices, and game consoles). There are generally two types of boxes:
- First-party boxes
- Use the official branding of a console, with the support of the company who made it. More often than not, modern console manufacturers are not the ones who come up with the idea, and are usually approached by some other company who offloads some or all of the work of getting it running.
- Third-party boxes
- Use their own branding because they don't have a license to use the actual companies' trademarks. A legal ruling for emulators has allowed them to use the name of the console in marketing (such as advertising the ability to play games from a specific console on the packaging), but not as the name for the box itself.
Emulation boxes are frowned upon because, aside from a first party box's value as a collector's item, the hardware in an emulation box is often nothing more than a cheap, locked-down, ARM-based system-on-a-chip, and the price you pay for obtaining it is marked up by the designer in order to make easy money. To make matters worse, numerous boxes have been found using emulators illegally, due to a prohibition in the emulator's license (like commercial distribution or locked down hardware), resulting in many controversies unfolding over the matter.
|NES Classic Edition / Famicom Classic Mini||Nintendo||Nintendo Entertainment System||$59.99||Kachikachi||Official Nintendo product designed to only emulate the NES. Includes 30 games.|
|SNES Classic Edition / Super Famicom Mini||Nintendo||Nintendo SNES||$79.99||Canoe||Official Nintendo product designed to only emulate the SNES. Includes 21 games. Uses the exact same hardware (motherboard, SoC and all) as the NES Classic, but with a different firmware.|
|Sega Genesis Mini||Sega||Sega Genesis||$79.99||m2engage||Official SEGA product designed to only emulate the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. Includes 42 games. Interestingly, it has the same specs as the (S)NESC. The emulator used was developed by M2, who are best known for handling emulation of various re-releases of games including several Sega ports and the Genesis Virtual Console on the Wii.|
|PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 Mini||Konami||PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16||$99.99||?||Official Konami product. Includes 57 games (58 in Japan) and has about an equal mix of American and Japanese exclusives. The casing and branding has the same regional differences as the original (Japan is the original white PC Engine, Europe is the Core Grafx revision, and the USA is the TurboGrafx-16). The emulator used was developed by M2, the same company that did the Sega Genesis Mini and other console ports.|
|PlayStation Classic||Sony||Sony PlayStation||PCSX-ReARMed||Official Sony product designed to only emulate the PS1. Includes 20 games.|
|NEOGEO Mini||SNK||Neo Geo||modified version of NJEMU||Offical SNK product designed to only emulate the NEOGEO. Includes 40 games.|
|CAPCOM Home Arcade||Capcom||CPS1 & CPS2||~$254||FinalBurn Alpha||Offical CAPCOM product designed to emulate CPS1 and CPS2 arcade games. Includes 16 games.|
|Polymega||Playmaji||Multi-system||$299.99-$499.99 (Deluxe bundle)||Mednafen, Mesen, Kega Fusion, and MAME||Modular system. First emulation box with CD support and one of the few to run on a Intel processor instead of ARM. Emulates PS1, Saturn, Genesis, Sega CD, 32X, TG-16/CD, Neo Geo CD, NES, SNES (only disc-based systems are supported out of the box, cartridge-based systems requires a separate add-on for each system).|
|Retron5||Hyperkin||Multi-system||$159.99||RetroArch, Snes9x, and Genesis Plus GX||Emulates NES/GBC/GBA/Genesis/SNES and includes cart readers for those systems.|
|Sega Genesis Flashback||AtGames||Sega Genesis||$79.99||?||Produced under license from Sega. Emulates the Master System and the Sega Genesis. It also has a cartridge port that can load original cartridges to some degree. Very disappointing and the ensuing outcry has led Sega to drop their planned further partnership with AtGames for their actual Sega Genesis Mini.|
|Arcade1Up Home Arcade||Arcade1Up||Arcade||$200-$500 (Depends on the game)||MAME, FinalBurn Alpha, RetroArch, and MOO (their own commercial emulator)||Officially licensed recreations of selected arcade cabinets. Emulates whatever arcade cabinet they can get the license for. Many have criticized its short height (about 3/4 the size of a normal cabinet), lack of a CRT monitor nor any filters for it, and minor inaccuracies compared to the original. Many hobbyist have even went as far as to replace the main motherboard with a Raspberry Pi just to use MAME instead.|
A first party box may prove to be lacking due to its game catalog missing some essential title. This is often the result of messy licensing issues that continue to plague consoles today, as many games are a nightmare to relicense due to some external factor. It doesn't help that first-party boxes often lack the ability to load games externally. This is done to prevent the manufacturer from having to admit support for cartridge and disc formats that the emulation community uses, as it would by extension imply support for unofficial emulation.
These limitations have caused many to modify their systems just to be able to get more use out of it.
Some of the products have attracted the ire of parts of the emulation community over issues not necessarily related to the product's quality, but ones related to open source emulators. In some cases, it's because negotiations with open source emulator and/or frontend developers fell through and the company used a "lesser" option as a replacement. In others, an arrangement was reached, contracts and money were exchanged only for the project maintainers to turn out not to have gathered the complete consent of all contributors, some parts are licensed as a strictly non-commercial license, and similar issues. Sometimes, it might have to do with an incomplete source code release from companies that have to abide by GPLv3 obligations. And of course, the company might be acting malicious towards emulator developers.
Since the problem with these is primarily meta, and is controversial within emulator developer circles, they may not affect the experience that the box itself provides. Some examples where this has happened:
- Retron5: Its problems are explained at its page.
- Capcom Home Arcade: Koch Media (under license from Capcom) announced that they would use FinalBurn Alpha as the backend for games on the Capcom Home Arcade. This is despite the fact that FinalBurn Alpha was developed and released under a license that forbids commercial use (which was taken from versions of MAME before they had relicensed in 2015). When other FBA developers were questioned on the issue, they were completely unaware that this happened, resulting in the the project maintainer revealing that he had greenlit its use. The resulting fallout led to the creation of FinalBurn Neo.
If you don't want to be limited by any consumer product, but still have something you can technically call an "emulation box," you can make one yourself! These single-board computers tend to be cheaper and offer more than a first party box will:
- Nvidia Shield TV
- An Android TV box fast enough for 2D and 3D emulation of many consoles.
- A Windows 10 computer with integrated Arduino. Fast enough for Saturn emulation.
- Has decent speeds for Saturn emulation.
- Raspberry Pi
- A very popular single-board computer that can run projects like Lakka off an SD card. You'll want to use a Raspberry Pi 3 or newer for decent performance.
For more convenience, a frontend is recommended with these devices.
- FPGA - Devices that make use of programmable chips instead of ARM processors.
- Game Console Clones (TheGameConsole.com)