Apple now allows retro game emulators on its App Store—but with big caveats

Apple now allows retro game emulators on its App Store—but with big caveats

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A screenshot of Sonic the Hedgehog on an iPhone
Enlarge / The classic Sega Genesis game Sonic the Hedgehog running on an iPhone—in this case, as a standalone app.

Samuel Axon

When Apple posted its latest update to the App Store’s app review and submission policies for developers, it included language that appears to explicitly allow a new kind of app for emulating retro console games.

Apple has long forbidden apps that run code from an external source, but today’s announced changes now allow “software that is not embedded in the binary” in certain cases, with “retro game console emulator apps can offer to download games” specifically listed as one of those cases.

Here’s the exact wording:

4.7 Mini apps, mini games, streaming games, chatbots, plug-ins, and game emulators

Apps may offer certain software that is not embedded in the binary, specifically HTML5 mini apps and mini games, streaming games, chatbots, and plug-ins. Additionally, retro game console emulator apps can offer to download games. You are responsible for all such software offered in your app, including ensuring that such software complies with these Guidelines and all applicable laws. Software that does not comply with one or more guidelines will lead to the rejection of your app. You must also ensure that the software adheres to the additional rules that follow in 4.7.1 and 4.7.5. These additional rules are important to preserve the experience that App Store customers expect, and to help ensure user safety.

It’s a little fuzzy how this will play out, but it may not allow the kind of emulators you see on Android and desktop, which let you play retro games from any outside source.

Retro game emulators run what are colloquially called ROM files, which are more or less images of the game cartridges or discs that played on console hardware. By now, it’s well-established that the emulators themselves are completely legal, but the legality of the ROM files downloaded from ROM sites on the Internet depends on the specific files and circumstances.

There are ROMs that are entirely public domain or in some license where the creator allows distribution; there are ROMs that are technically copyrighted intellectual property but where the original owner no longer exists, and the current ownership is unknown or unenforced; and there are some ROMs (like many games made by Nintendo) where the owner still has an interest in controlling distribution and often takes action to try to curb illegal sharing and use of the files.

Additionally, many game publishers use emulators to run ROMs of their own retro games, which they sell to consumers either as standalone games or in collections for modern platforms.

It’s not completely clear from Apple’s wording, but our interpretation of Apple’s new rules is that it’s likely only the last of those examples will be possible; companies that own the intellectual property could launch emulator apps for downloading ROMs of their (and only their) games. So, for example, Sega could offer a Sega app that would allow users to download an ever-expanding library of Sega games, either as part of a subscription, for free, or as in-app purchases. Sega has offered its retro games on the iPhone before in emulation but with a standalone app for each game.

“You are responsible for all such software offered in your app, including ensuring that such software complies with these Guidelines and all applicable laws,” Apple writes. And it specifically says “retro game console emulator apps can offer to download games” in the list of exceptions to the rules against “software that is not embedded inside the binary”—but it doesn’t list any other method for retro game console emulator apps.

Whatever the case, this update is not limited to the European Union. Apple has been subjected to regulatory scrutiny in both the EU and the United States regarding its App Store rules. It’s likely the company is making this change to preempt criticism in this area, though it did not name its reasons when announcing the change other than to say it has been made to “support updated policies, upcoming features, and to provide clarification.”

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