Apple now allows emulators of older games on its App Store, but with big caveats

Zoom in / Classic Sega Genesis game Sonic the Hedgehog It works on the iPhone — in this case, as a standalone app.

Samuel Exon

When Apple published its latest update to its app review and developer submission policies in the App Store, it included language that appeared to explicitly allow a new type of app to emulate old console games.

Apple has long banned apps that run code from an external source, but changes announced today now allow “non-binary software” in certain cases, with “legacy game console emulator apps for downloading games” listed on Specifically as one of the applications. Of those cases.

here Precise wording:

4.7 Widgets, mini-games, live streaming games, chatbots, plug-ins and game emulators

Apps may offer certain software that is not included in the binary, namely HTML5 widgets, mini-games, streaming games, chatbots, and plugins. In addition, old game console emulator apps can provide game downloads. You are responsible for all such software provided in your Application, including ensuring that such software complies with these Guidelines and all applicable laws. Programs that do not meet one or more of the guidelines will result in your application being rejected. You must also ensure that the Software complies with the following additional rules in 4.7.1 and 4.7.5. These additional rules are important to maintain the experience App Store customers expect, and to help ensure user safety.

How this is implemented is a bit mysterious, but it may not allow for the kind of emulators you see on Android and desktop, which let you play old games from any external source.

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Older game emulators run what are colloquially called ROM files, which are images of game cartridges or discs that run on console hardware. It is now established that the emulators themselves are completely legal, but the legality of ROM files downloaded from online ROM sites depends on the specific files and circumstances.

There are ROMs that are entirely in the public domain or under some license whose creator allows them to be distributed; There is a ROM that is technically copyrighted but the original owner no longer exists, and current ownership is unknown or not enforced; There are some CDs (such as many games made by Nintendo) where the owner is still interested in controlling distribution and will often take measures to try to limit illegal file sharing and use.

In addition, many game publishers use emulators to run ROMs for their older games, which they sell to consumers either as standalone games or in compilations for modern platforms.

It's not entirely clear from Apple's wording, but our interpretation of Apple's new rules is that only the last of these examples is likely to be possible; Companies that own the intellectual property can release emulators to download ROMs of their (and only their) games. So, for example, Sega could offer a Sega app that allows 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 old iPhone games before for emulation but with a standalone app for each game.

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“You are responsible for all such software provided in your app, including ensuring that such software complies with these Guidelines and all applicable laws,” Apple writes. It specifically says “legacy game console emulator applications can offer game downloads” in the list of exceptions to the rules against “software not contained within the binary” – but it does not list any other way to emulate legacy game console applications.

Whatever the case, this modernization is not limited to the European Union. Apple has come under regulatory scrutiny in both the European Union and the United States regarding its App Store rules. It is likely that the company is making this change to anticipate criticism in this area, although it did not mention its reasons when announcing the change. Other than saying It is designed to “support updated policies and upcoming features and to provide clarification.”

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