Home / News / Delta’s Makers Want iPhone Emulation To Blow Up Retro Gaming

Delta’s Makers Want iPhone Emulation To Blow Up Retro Gaming

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Screenshots show the Delta layout on iPhone.

Riley Testut was about to hop on a rollercoaster in Copenhagen, Denmark when he got the news that Apple would finally be letting a retro emulator he’d been working on for 10 years onto its App Store. It was aboard The Demon in Tivoli Gardens, at 50 miles per hour across three loops, that he started processing the consequences of how Delta, his app for playing old Nintendo games on iPhone, could transform not just Apple’s mobile marketplace but the entire way people think about playing classic games.

“On the roller coaster I’m like, ‘What just happened?’” he told Kotaku, thinking back to that moment over a month ago. “Just so much shock because it wasn’t something we expected.”

Delta might not be the best retro emulator, but it’s user friendly, can play games from the NES, SNES, Nintendo 64, Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo DS, and is now easily downloaded on iOS. It’s like Nintendo Switch Online except it’s on your smartphone and free. All you need are the original physical versions of the games themselves and a tool to dump the ROMs from them onto your device. And it’s all approved by Apple.

A killer iPhone app 10-years in the making

Testut and his colleague, Shane Gill, point out that emulation has always been a part of Apple’s history. Steve Jobs pitched the ability to emulate PS1 hit Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped as a selling point of the Mac back in 1999. Sony eventually took the makers of the emulator to court, leading to the legal codification of certain protections for emulation, before the PlayStation maker later bought the company outright and dismantled it.

The duo, who met years back at a Super Smash Bros. meetup, had been working last month to launch the AltStore in Europe, a rival storefront for sideloading apps onto iOS that had previously only been available on Windows and MacOS. Traditionally a walled-garden, new regulations by the European Union are blowing Apples’ grip on the iPhone ecosystem wide open, and the gaming emulator Delta was going to be a focal point on the AltStore. Then, in a surprise twist, Apple decided to uproot its longtime ban on emulators in the App Store just in time for Delta’s launch.

Screenshot: Delta / Apple / Kotaku

“They never reached out to us to talk about any of this,” Testut said. He and Gill have taken some credit for the historic rules change and attributed it to increased competition in Europe from things like the AltStore. “I think we’re gonna see a lot of this stuff where there’s a cool new type of app that exists only in Europe, and then Apple will change the rules to allow it in the App Store.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the overnight revolution in retro gaming on iPhones in the U.S. Delta, which is open source and funded via Patreon subscribers who get early access to new features, became the top app, dethroned only weeks later after Krispy Kreme promised users free donuts. Testut and Gill said they were getting millions of downloads, their community blowing up with new users, and players were making memes on TikTok and swapping their favorite gaming memories.

Moving from Napster to iTunes for ROMs

People have been emulating games on PC and smartphones forever, but Testut and Gill see Apple’s embrace of Delta and other emulators as a potential watershed moment, one that could make it go mainstream and upend the current broken marketplace for retro gaming. Everyone who played Animal Crossing on the GameCube remembers the first time they booted up Super Mario Bros. on a virtual NES inside their virtual house. Five years later, the shop channel on the Wii allowed players to download other classics from Nintendo’s back catalog. Ever since, console manufacturers have kept tight control over how digital copies of their old games were sold and distributed, making them exclusive to their own hardware platforms.

“No one’s created the market for ROMs and that’s why we say this is just the Napster moment,” Gill said, citing the briefly ascendant file sharing app that completely changed the music industry. “We’re here with the player, somebody just needs to now make the iTunes store and just be like, ‘Hey, it’s 99 cents to get like every game you’ve ever had in your life.’”

A screenshot shows a Delta user playing with AirPlay on a TV.

Except that we know at least some companies would want to charge much more. While Nintendo hasn’t ported its retro library to smartphones, a publisher like Square Enix has. On iPhone you can buy Secret of Mana for $8, Chrono Trigger for $10, and Final Fantasy VI for $18, each with varying levels of upgraded features and graphics. Testut and Gill think a more reasonable ceiling might be $5 for SNES games and $10 for Nintendo 64 games (that’s how much The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was on the Wii U eShop).

“We’re in just this weird phase right now,” Testut said. “It’s kind of like the pre-iTunes era [where] having these games is legal, just no one’s taking it upon themselves to make a storefront that people can just buy ROMs from and then play on anything. The moment one company does that, just sells their old games, then all of a sudden the question goes away and it’s like, ‘Oh, you can just sell old games and you can just play them on things that can play games, what a concept, just like other forms of media.’”

It’s unclear if game publishers will ever agree. Calling this the “Napster moment” implies that companies may not have a choice. It’s not clear how Nintendo itself will react. The Mario maker currently charges players a monthly subscription to access old games on Switch, and has been on the offensive more than ever against emulators and ROM sharing sites in recent years.

Will Nintendo come after Delta too?

Nintendo won a lawsuit against RomUniverse in 2021 and the site was ordered to pay $2.1 million and destroy all of its games. Earlier this year, the company reached a settlement with Switch emulator Yuzu in which the group agreed to hand over all code related to the app and pay $2.4 million. Gary Bowser, a man convicted for his association with a hacking group that enabled piracy on the 3DS, was sent to prison and will be paying off fines and legal fees for the rest of his life.

Testut said they haven’t heard from Nintendo at all and that in his years of working on emulation he knows what to avoid. He blames Yuzu getting targeted in part on the group’s promoting a paid Patreon, where users could access a version needed to play The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom early when it leaked prior to release. “Just don’t promote piracy and just really say, ‘Hey, this is a tool that can be used to play games you have.’”

Delta for them is a celebration of gaming from their childhoods. For Testut that’s playing Super Mario Bros. 1 and 3 with his dad. For Gill it’s playing Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Tennis with his cousins. Having traded in lots of games to GameStop over the years like so many of us, he’s been building back up his retro collection beginning with SNES games, and was lucky to snag things like Chrono Trigger for just $50-60 prior to the explosion in vintage game prices. The beloved Square Enix RPG now goes for over $200 for the cartridge alone.

While Chrono Trigger is available on modern platforms, lots of lesser-known retro games aren’t. Testut and Gill said preservation is a big part of why they hope emulation on the iPhone takes off. “There’s all these old games that just get lost to time because no one’s bothered to find a way to bring them up to date,” Gill said. “They’re just in deep IP disputes and who even owns the rights to this game from the early ‘90s and stuff. There’s all these little things that should exist and be held on to because people worked really hard on them, and then they just kind of get lost to time. I’m sure if I was working on those games, I would want to see them still be played if people wanted to play them.”

DS games are the perfect case study. Reliant on dual screen displays and touch screen mechanics, only a handful have been ported to the Switch. Smartphones offer the ideal substitute, with tablets like the iPad offering an even better experience thanks to the extra screen real estate. Testut recently finished all of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days on his Apple TV using AirPlay to stream it from his phone to make it feel like he was playing on the Wii U. The pair are working on reducing latency and adding other features as well, like remote peer-to-peer multiplayer.

Retro gaming without DRM

Where will it end? Testut said that although Apple doesn’t define what it means by “retro” in its new rules on emulators, additional programs needed to run more advanced games like from the PS2 era remain banned. Thus, while a PS1 emulator was added to the store just this week, it’s unlikely retro gaming enthusiasts on the platform will be able to move to Grand Theft Auto 3 or Halo: Combat Evolved anytime soon. Maybe in five years Apple’s definitions of retro will broaden to include them as well.

The barriers to a full-blown ROM marketplace remain more challenging. That idea of selling files that are easily copied and given-away has historically led to draconian Digital Rights Management (DRM). Recently, game preservation proponents like former PlayStation executive Shawn Layden have suggested blockchain technology could be used to streamline those requirements. Testut disagrees.

“I really think that the actual solution here is a DRM-free thing to say, ‘Hey, this is just an mp3 file, it’s just a JPEG, it’s just a bigger file that you can consume,’” he said, physically recoiling when I mention crypto currency and distributed ledgers. “And then maybe beyond that, we could figure something else out, but we’ve got to start there or else we’re just gonna lock it down before it’s ever real I think.”

       

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