I’m an old guy, so I remember when the original Game Boy first came out. A dynamic, cartridge-based gaming system with console-quality titles? And what, it’s produced by the most beloved video game console producer of its day!? AND IT’S HANDHELD! The Game Boy, and later the GameBoy Advance (GBA) was a real game changer (no pun intended). But of course, both systems are now more or less extinct. While later and later versions of GameBoy systems boasted total backwards compatibility, eventually that went away as well. So if you wanted to load up the original Kirby’s Dream-Land on a current system, you’re out of luck. Enter emulation
We’ve covered Android emulators extensively on this site. However, most of the time, what we’ve meant was a program that allowed you to emulate an Android device. Now, we’re completely switching gears to mean an emulator you can run on your Android device. Below, we’re going to talk about some of the most promising GBA emulators that are available on Google Play, just as we’ve given you a round up of the best Facetime alternatives or the best Siri alternatives. But first, a few comments about emulation…
Every age has its storytelling form, and video gaming is a huge part of our culture. You can ignore or embrace video games and imbue them with the best artistic quality. People are enthralled with video games in the same way as other people love the cinema or theatre. — Andy Serkis
5 Best GameBoy Advance (GBA) Emulators for Android
When cell phones (not smart phones) first started to include games, the overwhelming reaction from the phone using populace was… “Meh.” Not only were the games underwhelming (a glitchy Tetris, or Mastermind using only the icons already in your Motorola’s very limited graphics library), but it wasn’t immediately seen what the benefit of games on the phone was. Some referred to them as “toilet games,” not necessarily because of their quality, but because that was pretty much their only purpose: giving you something to do while sitting on the toilet, or waiting in line at the post office.
But once the hardware and software for phones got better, there came to be a push for phones to have more and more functions. It’s unclear whether the push for games on a smart phone was a result of the improving technical capabilities, or whether the improving technical capabilities were driven by a desire for another viable gaming platform, but either way, handheld gaming was solidified in a major way. Yes, there had previously been numerous handheld systems… but that’s just the thing: not only did every company use different formats, but each company would change platforms every few years in order to keep up with improving technical demands. This is to say that prior to phone-based mobile gaming, gamers were extremely limited in what titles they had access to, unless they had every relevant system.
In the new technical landscape, while there are still a huge variety of hardware specifications out there (particularly on Android devices), there are only a couple of major markets. Games from the App Store work on every device. Same with Google Play. Upgrading your hardware doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning your game library, and getting a new game doesn’t always mean having to track down some competing hardware model.
Of course, there are still a lot of great old games. And while some of the more popular games out on the old consoles are being ported over to mobile platforms, this isn’t always the case. This is where emulation comes in. And while Apple users are a bit out of luck when it comes to emulating (without jailbreaking), Android users are fortunate that not only are there emulators readily available on Google Play — there are a lot of them.
Quick Note: Legality
Emulators are perfectly legal, which is why Google Play is comfortable in allowing them for sale in their market. But having the emulator is only half of the necessary components. You also have to have a ROM for each game that you want to play. And this is where things get tricky. The long and the short of it is that in the current legal framework, ROMs are considered illegal copies of copyright-protected IPs. In the past, some have maintained that it is legal to use a ROM if you own a physical copy of the game and delete the ROM after twenty-four hours. Others have held that coding or downloading ROMs isn’t actionable from properties that have been out of sale for a significant amount of time (sometimes referred to as Abandonware.)
However, according to the Legal section of their website, Nintendo is taking a hard line on this: All ROMs are illegal. That is their official position, and since all of these emulators are for Nintendo’s GBA system, it’s important to know their position. Now, how likely is it that Nintendo will discover and prosecute your ROM library? Not very. But the inherent illegality opens you up to other problems. You see, since the ROMs are illegal, malicious hackers know that you don’t have a leg to stand on if a ROM jacks up your system. Reporting anything you get from a virus hidden in a ROM is only going to reveal the illegality of your actions, and open you up to possible fines. Coders of trojans and ransomware know they have you over a barrel.
Now, I’m not saying that that’s always going to happen. But it is something you need to be aware of going in. That much being said, if you have a reliable source of ROMs that you trust, here are five of the top GBA emulators for Android devices. Note that not all ROMs will play on all emulators, which is why I’ve included so many free ones. The paid ones are pretty good, but it’ll be nice to have a backup option available to you should you come across a game your slick paid emulator won’t play.
My Boy (Free/$4.99)
I’m going to go ahead and start with the most popular one. My Boy is a pretty lush emulator with a load of features. The free version, while a perfectly serviceable emulator, is by no means bare bones. In addition to being able to play most GBA games, you can also adjust the speed of the game. Speeding up a game can be very handy for getting through text-heavy RPGs, whereas slowing it down (which some may consider cheating) can get you through one or two tricky spots where timing is everything. One thing that’s really nice about this is that you can set up the layout of the controls yourself, so you can always be playing at your best.
The paid version adds a few handy features: higher fast forward speeds, the ability to save the game at any time, and (most interestingly) the ability to save multiple profiles for screen arrangements. I think this last feature is quite neat, because they button layout that helps me out most for an RPG might not be the best for a racing game, so you can reconfigure in a flash depending on your needs.
GBA.Emu ($4.99/Free from a different developer)
This is another good one which not only includes many of the features listed in the previous emulator, but this one can also work in either portrait or landscape orientation on your phone. Something the space conscious may be glad of: this emulator will not only play .gba files, it will also play them in their unextracted .zip state. So you can load up more ROMs on your Android without necessarily killing your hard drive space so quickly.
Unlike all of the other ones on this list, this one actually comes with a free (public domain) ROM: Motocross Challenge.
While the version that I’m talking about here (produced by Robert Broglia) costs $4.99, there’s a free version produced by a completely different development term (V Android), which describes itself as “functionally the same but free.” Your mileage may vary, though.
Another perfectly fine emulator, only this one is free. It’s built on the open source Gameboid emulator, and it has a pretty big following of its own. And while it’s fairly reliable, it lacks some of the other features that are pretty common on these emulators, such as speed controls and a cheat menu. Granted, you may not care about entering old Game Genie codes or anything like that, but for old, old games, playing around with them can add a bit of replayability.
You can download MyGBA for free here.
Emulator for GBA (Free)
This is another no-frill (but also, no-cost) GBA emulator. It doesn’t have the bells and whistles of some of the others, but it does allow you save the game at any point.
Download this emulator here.
This one is so robust, I can’t believe it’s free. Not only can you edit your controls, and not only does this support external joysticks and the like, but this also emulates more than just GBA. With it you can also play ROMs for PS1, N64, NES, Genesis… and several other classic systems.
You can download ClassicBoy here.
Well, how did we do? Are there any big ones that we missed? If there are any GBA emulators for Android that you’re particularly fond of, feel free to mention them down in the comments. We do ask, however, that you not use the comments as a means to exchange illegal ROMs or links to illegal ROMs. With that aside, though, we look forward to hearing your experiences with GBA emulation.