There’s no denying that Pokemon GO has given Nintendo’s franchise a new lease of life, bringing new fans on board and rekindling a love many once had for the Game Boy smash hit first released in 1996. Luckily it’s not the only way you can play Pokemon on your iPhone.
Nintendo hasn’t released any classic or recent Pokemon games on the App Store, so you’ll have to turn to emulation to get the job done. With one exception, the easiest way to do this is to pay a small fee and install apps from a service called Build Store.
Best of all you don’t need to jailbreak your device to do this. Using Android? You can play Pokemon too!
Play Game Boy/Color Games with Safari
Here’s how to install and use GamePlay:
- Open the GamePlay website in Safari on your iPhone or iPad, tap the Share button then Add to Home Screen.
- Unzip and upload your ROMs to a folder in Google Drive, then launch GamePlay and tap the Connect to Google Drive button.
- Once you’ve provided GamePlay with access, copy and paste the access code you receive into the web app you installed.
- GamePlay will scan your Google Drive for ROMs (compressed archives aren’t supported), tapping a ROM will download and store it within GamePlay’s local storage.
Before you get too excited, there are a few limitations with this method of emulation. While the emulator supports saving, it doesn’t support save states (where the emulator takes its own snapshot) — you’ll have to rely on built-in save options in the games you’re playing.
There’s also no way for web apps to suspend themselves when you press the home button. This means the game will reload if you minimize it, losing any progress you have made since you last saved. Web apps can’t use external controllers, so you’ll be stuck with the on-screen controls, and older devices may suffer particularly when it comes to sound emulation.
With all those considerations in mind, GamePlay is a fantastic emulator. I tested it on an iPhone 6 and found it responsive, easy to use, and I couldn’t have asked for better performance. Pokemon Blue and Crystal editions ran like a charm, saving works, and you can even add artwork by uploading a .JPEG file that matches the exact name of the ROM file.
The developers have revealed plans to add link cable support for trading Pokemon, and they even hope to provide GameBoy Advance and Nintendo DS support at some point in the future. If you want a free and basic web-based emulator, and you don’t mind living with the limitations and in-game saving, turn to GamePlay.
Install Emulators from Build Store
Apple doesn’t allow emulators on the App Store, and one quick glance at the number of retro games that have seen an iOS re-release will tell you why. You can’t technically side-load apps on an iPhone or iPad like you can with Android, but you can install apps from sources other than the App Store if the developer is a part of the Apple Developer Enterprise Program, and your device is enrolled.
This service allows developers to roll-out apps to iOS devices without having to use the App Store. It uses your device’s unique identification number (UDID) to check that you should indeed be installing the app, and you’ll need to maintain a certified device for as long as you plan on using the app. The guys behind Build Store have taken to using this service as a means of installing emulators and other apps that Apple has banned from its storefront, for a fee.
The emulators themselves are mostly open source, some are even available for free on iEmulators — but they have a tendency to stop working, are hosted on unreliable storage space, and generally aren’t worth the bother. If you pay $9.99 per device, per year, you can add your iPhone or iPad to the Build Store program and have access to them all. Whether you’re planning on playing Pokemon or not, it’s the best way to emulate old home and handheld consoles on your iOS device.
The apps don’t go through Apple’s vetting process, and therefore aren’t subject to the same level of scrutiny as most iOS apps are, but the way that sandboxing works on (non-jailbroken) iOS means that the apps cannot damage your iPhone. You might want to hold off providing them with access to your contacts, photos, location, and granting other permissions, though. Be wary of putting login information into these apps, because there’s no way of telling whether your credentials are being sent elsewhere, or who is using the access token and for what.
How to Install Build Store Emulators & Apps
- Join Build Store by visiting http://builds.io from the iOS device you want to enroll. Sign up with an email, and provide a password.
- Add your device and install the iOS profile when prompted, which will provide Build Store access to your device’s UDID.
- Pay your $9.99 — you can use PayPal to pay via credit or debit card for almost-instant access (eCheck takes longer).
- After 5 or 10 minutes (in my experience) your device will be activated. You can now head to http://builds.io/apps on your device and select some apps to install.
- iOS will ask you whether you want to install an app or not (sometimes you need to hit the button a few times). To accept, hit Install when the notification appears.
If all goes well, your app should install like any other. You’ll find it on your home screen, complete with an icon, and you can access its local storage through iTunes File Sharing by connecting your device to a Mac or Windows computer, launching iTunes, selecting your device, then heading to Apps and clicking the app in question. You can then add ROMs to each emulator using this interface.
Sometimes things stop working, emulators won’t launch, or the app in question has its certificate revoked. These disruptions are generally brief, but you can head to the Built Store Twitter account to find out the latest news.
Console, Handheld, & Arcade Emulators
Emulator apps provide more functionality than web apps like GamePlay. They can use the iOS frameworks put in place by Apple, like any other app you’d download from the App Store. Most support suspending apps, so you can switch to another app and return to it later without interruption (provided it hasn’t fallen out of memory). Apps are stored locally and accessible via iTunes, and some even include support for cloud services. Since gamepad support was added to iOS 7, many of these emulators can be played with accessories like the GameVice or PXN Speedy.
Stability can be a mixed bag, though it’s generally better than web-based alternatives. Performance will pretty much entirely depend on the age of your hardware — the newer your device, the better performance, and the more you’ll be able to play. As we’ve mentioned in our previous post covering emulators on iOS, you can build many of these emulators yourself from source if you have the time and know-how. In my experience, taking care of all the dependencies can be a real pain, which is one good reason to pay the $9.99 instead.
Game Boy / Color / Advance: GBA4iOS
For everything Game Boy — whether it’s the original monochrome masterpiece, Color edition, or the later Game Boy Advance — look no further than GBA4iOS. There are three versions of GBA4iOS on the Build Store, with one maintained exclusively by Build Store themselves which adds support for screen recording.
This is personally my favorite iOS emulator. Three generations of Nintendo handheld games perfectly lend themselves to the iPhone form factor, performance (on my iPhone 6) is excellent, and the emulator itself is jam-packed with features. Among them is support for save states, external gamepads, AirPlay for remote displays, the ability to fast forward ROMs, custom controller skins, and cheat codes.
You can also connect your Dropbox account to access your ROMs, and though wireless link support is a bit unstable and slow, it’s there if you want to trade Pokemon or play multiplayer games. GBA4iOS and Pokemon FireRed might just be the best Pokemon experience you can have on iOS.
See also: GearBoy — a simple Game Boy/Color emulator that focuses on readability of source code and accurate emulation. Supports gamepads and compressed ROMs, but lacks features like Game Boy Advance support or save states as seen in GBA4iOS.
Nintendo DS: iNDS
This is an emulator where the age of your device will start to come into play in terms of performance or getting games to run at all. You’ll need a device with at least 256MB RAM, which means the iPod Touch 4G, iPad 1 and iPhone 3GS are out. After playing Pokemon Platinum on my iPhone 6, I wasn’t exactly impressed with the performance. Things moved slowly, controls felt a little sluggish, and I couldn’t get the Start button to work.
However, developers say you can get up to 60 frames per second in some games with the right hardware. The app supports save states and auto save features, customizable on-screen controls, compressed ROMs, over 100,000 cheats, and use of the microphone in games that support or require it.
Dual-screen emulation isn’t terrible, but controls tend to get in the way and the experience left me thinking that I’d rather just dust off the old DS and carry that around with me if I felt the need to play.
Okay, guys. What about the most epic battle ever?)
NDS4iOS vs iNDS – choose your destiny!
— Build Store (@builds_io) June 27, 2016
See also: NDS4iOS — active development ceased in 2014, and NDS4iOS has a few known issues with Pokemon Black and White, but it has a lot of interesting features including auto-saves, Dropbox support, and customizable controller positioning — so it might be worth a try.
For non-Pokémon gamers, there are a variety of other emulators that are worth a look:
- Gearsystem emulates Master System and GameGear games, with accurate emulation, and support for external RAM and compressed ROMs. Performance is good on account of the platform’s age and simple controls.
- MeSNEmu formerly known as SIOS, this SNES emulator provides great performance and features like save states, but feels like it needs a physical controller to really make the most of it. Fortunately there is support for external gamepads, though only a few are listed in the app’s settings.
- PPSSPP is the platform’s only Sony PSP emulator. It has support for many games, but performance will entirely depend on the age of your device (and non-jailbroken performance takes a tumble due to Apple’s restrictions).
- MAME4iOS provides arcade emulation, and it works surprisingly well. Newer games will definitely struggle on account of their high system requirements, and your mileage will vary accordingly.
Other Build Store Apps
You won’t just find games on Build Store, but many apps that Apple forbids on the App Store end up there too. At the time of writing here’s a selection of other apps and games available:
- Flappy Bird — since removed from the App Store and been turned into an code-building exercise for kids.
- Air Shou — a screen recorder for iOS that doesn’t depend on QuickTime and a lightning cable.
- Cinemabox/MovieBox — rememember Popcorn Time? It’s that for your iPhone.
- Kodi — remember XBMC? It’s that for your iPhone.
- LiveWire — streaming TV, with 15 free channels (more available via subscription)
- CartoonHD — watch cartoons online, for free.
- iNoCydia — install some Cydia apps without jailbreaking.
- BarMagnet — a remote control for torrent clients including Transmission, uTorrent, Vuze, and qBittorrent.
- iTransmission — an actual torrent client for iOS, based on the Transmission Mac client.
- VK — an app for the Russian Facebook-like social networking app.
- SnapChat++ — a dodgy-sounding Snapchat client.
No, we can’t help you find ROMs. While backing up your cartridges and other games media is perfectly legal, downloading ROMs for games that you do not own is piracy, and thus illegal. There’s nothing inherently illegal about emulators, and nor is there anything wrong with installing iOS apps from a source like Build Store. Apple might not like it, but you’re not breaking any laws.
Making your own backups of ROMs is costly and time-consuming, so we suggest you search the Internet for games you already own.
You can also play classic titles without dealing with ROMs at all. Nintendo isn’t yet keen on porting its collection, but Sega has revived many old games for iOS. And if you just want to have some fun, try these iPhone party games.