Last updated: 06APR2023 (see Changelog for details)
Macs have always been considered terrible for gaming, but recent advances in Apple silicon chips have paved the way for some spectacular retro game emulation. In this guide we’re going to focus on the cheapest Mac available, which is the lowest-spec Mac Mini (which retails at $599). I’ll walk you through the setup process and do game testing for all your favorite systems: classic retro content like GBA, NES, and SNES, all the way to more powerful systems like Dreamcast, N64, Saturn, PS1, PSP, GameCube, Wii, Wii U, Switch, PS2, PS3, and more.
Table of Contents Where to buy Recommended accessories OpenEmu Recommended emulators EmulationStation-DE Changelog
Where to buy
The most direct way to purchase a Mac Mini is through the Apple store. If you are a military veteran (or active duty), be sure to use their Veteran store for 10% off. Additionally, if you are in college, have a child in college, are an education faculty member, or a homeschooler, you can use their Education store for $100 off the Mac Mini, too.
You can also find the Mac Mini on Amazon or other resellers like Best Buy or Costco, often at a discount.
You won’t need much to get started with a Mac Mini, besides a keyboard and a mouse (and monitor/TV to connect it to). Note that it won’t come with an HDMI cable either, so you may want to pick one of those up.
For retro gaming, I recommend two accessories:
Controller. I think the Xbox controller is a great fit for the Mac Mini, because the inputs all map correctly and it’s extremely comfortable. Recent updates to MacOS means the OS will accommodate a wide variety of Bluetooth controllers, so you may have one already that works. If you are going to focus on classic gaming on your Mac, then the 8bitDo SN30 Pro is a great fit, too.
External SSD. The low-tier Mac Mini only comes with 256GB onboard storage, so the cheapest way to add fast storage to the device is to invest in a USB-C solid state drive. I recommend one of these, and while 2TB is more expensive, it will provide you with a lot of storage space for retro game and other media.
1TB USB-C SSD: SanDisk Extreme Portable Samsung T7 Samsung T7 Shield (more rugged) 2TB USB-C SSD: SanDisk Extreme Portable Samsung T7 Samsung T7 Shield (more rugged)
Aside from using standalone emulators, OpenEmu is an excellent project that compiles a lot of emulator solutions into one clean, neat app. To get started, simply download the app, install it, and then drag your ROM files into the app’s main window. It will take care of the rest, including organizing the game and providing box art.
OpenEmu is limited to lighter/older systems, it basically caps out at GameCube. But if you want to just play some classic Pokemon, this is an easy way to accomplish that task.
For everyone else, I recommend downloading and installing standalone emulators. I personally use RetroArch for all my classic systems up to and including PSP, and then standalones for everything beyond that. The underlined emulators are the ones I use for my own setup.
RetroArch: head to their Downloads page, find the Mac section, and download the latest ARM/x64 version. From there, I recommend checking out my RetroArch Starter Guide to get acquainted with the platform. Some Mac-specific notes:
- RetroArch user folders are automatically stored in the Mac’s Documents folder. If you need to adjust your saves/states, that is where you will go. BIOS files are also set to go into the Documents > RetroArch > System folder, but you can adjust its location within the RA settings.
- RetroArch system folders are found within Library > Application Support > RetroArch. Here is a guide on how to find the Library folder if you are unfamiliar with the process.
- In my testing, I found that the N64 core (Mupen64 Plus) doesn’t allow for graphical upscaling, for some reason. It will cause the core to crash, and you will be stuck with a “cannot load core” error. If this happens, go into the RetroArch system folder within Library > Application Support > RetroArch, find the Mupen folder, and delete it to remove the core option file and return the system to its defaults.
PPSSPP (PSP): While the RetroArch core for PSP works great, if you prefer the standalone version you can download it here.
DuckStation (PS1): The RetroArch Swanstation core works well, but there is also a standalone Duckstation emulator which you can find here.
Flycast (Dreamcst): I prefer the RetroArch core for universal hotkeys and controls, but here is the standalone option if you’d like to try it.
Dolphin (GameCube/Wii): I recommend the latest development build. Here is a link to the Dolphin guides, and you can also check compatibility to see if your favorite game will work correctly (most do).
Cemu (Wii U): You will need to use the latest experimental version of 2.0 to get the best performance, which you can find on this page. Handy links include the Cemu wiki as well as compatibility list.
Ryujinx (Switch): This emulator has Mac support, which you can find on their downloads page. Be sure to consult their configuration guide to get started, and their compatibility page to see if your favorite game is working.
AetherSX2 (PS2): I tested this emulator after making the video above, and performance is excellent. I recommend this as the default PS2 emulator thanks to improved performance over PCSX2. However, bear in mind that development on this emulator has halted and so it may become outdated over time. Download it here and installation instructions are available on that same download page.
PCSX2 (PS2): I recommend the latest nightly build. Their compatibility page can also be helpful, as well as their setup guide.
RPCS3 (PS3): You can find the MacOS version of this app on their downloads page. Be sure to consult their quickstart guide, and note that you will need the official PS3 firmware installed in order to run games. Compatibility varies greatly on this emulator, so check your game on their compatibility page.
Xemu (Xbox): This emulator has MacOS support, and will require some system files (detailed here) in order to work. Generally, compatibility is hit or miss with this emulator, and you can check it here.
Citra (3DS): There is an experimental build for Citra if you would like to try it, but your results may be mixed on Apple silicone machines.
This frontend can unify your browsing and launching experience. Download the app here, and be sure to thoroughly read their user guide. There are some Mac-specific notes that are very helpful as well.
If you would like, you can set up your device to auto-boot into ES-DE. To do so, first go to System Preferences > Users & Groups > Login Options and set Automatic Login as ON. Next, right-click on the EmulationStation-DE app on your Dock, and select Options > Open at Login. From there, when you boot the Mac it will automatically start up ES-DE.
Note that for this setup, you will need to configure each of the emulators individually to quit via controller hotkeys, otherwise you will need a mouse and keyboard to navigate out of the emulator menu. Some apps, like Cemu, don’t appear to support a controller hotkey.
– published guide
– added AetherSX2
– added experimental Citra link
– added other standalone options, and underlined my recommendations
One thought on “Retro Gaming on a Mac”
Please make a guide for m1 iPads too if possible