Apple’s emulation change might not be as big as we think

There are legal problems, and a lot more besides

Apple’s emulation change might not be as big as we think
  • Apple has recently announced that game emulators may now offer downloads
  • It’s seen as a tacit endorsement of emulators
  • But is it really going to change everything? Probably not…

You might’ve missed it, but over the past few days, one of the big news stories was once again Apple-related. It was found that in the company’s latest App Guidelines which are essentially briefings about changes to policies, game emulators were now allowed to offer downloads. This is seen by many, including original reporters of the news The Verge, as a tacit endorsement and indication that these systems were coming to iPhone.

But is it really so cut-and-dry? We’re not so sure.

What is an emulator?

There’s probably a more technical definition, but for the sake of argument, an emulator is basically any program that ‘emulates’ an existing console. For example, DOS-Box is an official emulator that emulates the old DOS interface to run programs built for that system. This allows them to run games in files called ROMs which is often used for the purposes of media preservation.

However, more often than not these emulators also run into major problems from the publishers. Even if a game is out of print and decades old, with no real way for a company to profit from it, many see it as a circumspect way for people to pirate their catalogue.

The legal issues

You might notice Apple are very careful to point out in their App Review Guidelines that, “[For downloads offered] you are responsible for all such software offered in your app, including ensuring that such software complies with these Guidelines and all applicable laws.” And that’s because the main issue isn’t necessarily the emulation of the platform, but the ROMs themselves.

See, while emulators themselves are legal, the ROMs where the games actually come from are not. At least not unless they’re acquired legally themselves. Confusing? Yeah, not surprising.

The fact is that for many the legality is questionable because many see emulation as a means of media preservation. While you may be able to access most of the classic NES catalogue through modern ports and collections, for example, there are many more where rights-holders are unwilling or even unknown entirely. So the only way to ensure a title persists is either to hold onto cartridges (which can of course be sold for exorbitant prices) or circulate the ROMs.

The Yuzu issue

But many would point out that this shouldn’t be a concern, after all, plenty of emulators have continued working on Android! But that’s missing the fact that Android has seen a recent crackdown on emulators, seen by many as caving to pressure from giants like Nintendo. So while emulators may now be able to operate freely on iOS there’s no guarantee that they’ll be sticking around.

Remember, emulators themselves? Totally fine. But ROMs? No, absolutely not. And with Apple still slow on the uptake for sideloading, downloading a file from an outside source and slotting it into an emulator may not be a method that’s available to the casual iPhone user.

So Apple could very well be allowing emulators, only to start yanking them from the App Store in a few weeks after a couple of angry emails from the House of the Hedgehog and the Mansion of Mario.

Then why do it?

But then why is Apple making this change if it potentially puts them in legal trouble? Well, the DMA and changing legislation are most likely. These new rules mean that third-party storefronts, side-loading and more are now going to come to iOS, whether Apple likes it or not.

Meanwhile, The Verge speculated that Apple was doing so to draw consumers away from taking up these third-party storefronts when, or if, they do arrive to access emulators. But given Apple’s huge focus on user security and privacy as the supposed draw to the App Store, this seems unlikely.

It could be that it’s intended as a gesture, an olive branch of sorts. It’s a way of saying “Hey, we’re doing something good, emulate to your heart’s content!” Or maybe they’re hoping people will emulate 25-year-old email software or something.

But ultimately, we aren’t entirely sure. It could very well be in a few weeks or months we’ll find out why as Apple continues to roll with the punches and implement legislation-enforced changes, however slowly.


So, what have we learned? Well, emulation is very legally sticky and Apple’s move seems a little strange from the standpoint of a company so protective of its ecosystem.

But seriously, one of the reasons why emulators are so popular is because many retro games lack proper accessibility and protection. Not all of them can be like DOOM and be available on everything from modern desktops to a fridge. So maybe it’s time for companies to see which way the wind blows and look at being more friendly to emulators, like Apple is seemingly being?

Probably not. Let’s wait and see.

Iwan Morris
Iwan Morris
Iwan is a Cardiff-based freelance writer, who joined the Pocket Gamer Biz site fresh-faced from University before moving to the Pocketgamer.com editorial team in November of 2023.