Grab a ROM and start playing
The Game Boy Advance was one of Nintendo’s most successful handheld consoles. With graphics more advanced than the celebrated SNES and marquee titles like Pokemon FireRed, the GBA became the fastest-selling gaming console upon release.
But like all console devices, it was ultimately supplanted by newer options, leaving your old game cartridges gathering dust in the attic. Even if you copy the ROM files to your computer’s memory, it cannot play the games, as the GBA’s hardware works in a completely different manner.
You need an emulator. A GBA emulator is an application that can create a virtual Game Boy Advance device on your PC, allowing you to play GBA games using your keyboard as a joystick. There are other options for games like Pokemon, but the official games only work using this method. Here’s a list of the best GBA emulators for PCs to get you started.
1. mGBA – Best Overall
Not that long ago, the title of best GBA emulator would go to Visual Boy Advance or perhaps No$GBA. After all, those emulators have been around for a long time and can run most games out there.
But their very age also poses a problem. Over time, development on those projects has either stalled or slowed down considerably. While any game run on them will probably work, you might get minor fidelity issues or even graphical glitches. To say nothing about not being optimized for modern processors.
That’s where mGBA shines. A relative newcomer to GBA emulation, it has quickly become popular due to its incredible performance and beautiful reproduction of the handheld console. It’s also easy to use and is in active development, with new features being added every few months.
2. No$GBA – Best Easy-to-use
No$GBA is as simple as emulators come. There is no need for tinkering with the settings too much, and there are no fancy options you have to enable. Just fire up the app and start gaming.
A great feature of No$GBA is its multiplayer functionality. You can even run multiple instances of the same game on your PC, assigning different controls to play it alongside a friend (or trade Pokemon with yourself). While other leading emulators have also replicated this feature, No$GBA’s implementation remains one of the easiest to use.
In addition, it’s one of the few GBA emulators capable of running even Nintendo DS games. Yes, you can play NDS games on the same emulator you use to play your GBA ROMs without changing your control scheme or finding a new emulator.
3. Visual Boy Advance – Best Features
Visual Boy Advance is one of the most well-known and oldest GBA emulators. Many will recommend it as the best GBA emulator on the market, and for a good reason: its list of features is second to none.
Its long development life cycle has allowed the emulator to add advanced features not found in other alternatives – joystick support, GameShark cheat codes, etc. There’s also an incredible level of customization offered. From DirectSound to various graphical filters, there are a surprisingly large number of advanced settings available.
The only problem is that development on Visual Boy Advance halted in 2004. This means there’s no up-to-date official version anymore. Many forks of the source code have emerged, with the most prominent being Visual Boy Advance-M, but it is known to run into issues on some systems.
4. Boycott Advance – Best MacOS
Mac users always get the short end of the stick when it comes to gaming. PC games do not launch for the system, but even most emulators do not support the macOS.
Fortunately, GBA emulation has enough options that you can find one for Mac as well. Boycott Advance is a streamlined emulator for GBA games that works well on the macOS, allowing you to play your favorite titles on your Macbook.
Even though the emulator is somewhat new to the scene, its list of features is quite comprehensive. Joystick support, audio effects, optimization for modern processors – you’ll find everything you expect from a GBA emulator.
5. BizHawk – Best TAS
Tool-Assisted Speedruns (TAS) are among the most common reasons for playing old GBA games on a PC. After all, these games are often designed for kids and are too easy to play. Speedrunning adds an element of challenge to these retro titles, and tool-assisted speedruns are a fun puzzle-solving exercise.
And Bizhawk is the emulator of choice for speedrunners. This is because, in addition to simply emulating the games, it also offers useful features like rewinding and input recording. With Bizhawk, speedrunners can create tool-assisted speed runs that blaze through a game using pre-recorded inputs. You can even write Lua or C# scripts that play a game through code.
Interestingly enough, Bizhawk isn’t just a GBA emulator. It emulates many retro gaming systems, using “cores” of other emulation projects. For example, Bizhawk uses mGBA as the core for emulating GBA games, which gives it a similar level of accuracy and reliability.
6. RetroArch – Best Multi-Platform
If you’re a retro gaming enthusiast, chances are that you will not be content with GBA titles alone. There are plenty of other consoles with iconic games that defined the era. It is possible to play all of them on your PC with emulators.
Usually, this would involve installing a bunch of different emulators for the various consoles and learning their respective interfaces. But with a universal frontend like Retroarch, you can make this way easier.
Retroarch uses cores adopted from other emulators to run the games, packing it all up in a streamlined interface that is a breeze to navigate. Constantly updated and packed with features, Retroarch is the best way to emulate multiple retro consoles on your PC.
And the best part? It not only runs on Windows but also on Mac and even Linux.
7. Higan – Best Accuracy
Handheld consoles like the Game Boy Advance have completely different hardware than a PC. This is precisely why you can’t just copy the games to your computer and play them.
Emulators work by creating a virtual version of the console, which can then run the ROM files normally. However, this emulation process isn’t wholly accurate.
While most emulators will run the games just fine, they won’t give you the authentic experience. For example, the colors will appear a bit different, the sounds are a bit odd, and that sort of thing.
That is where Higan comes in. It is a multi-system emulator developed to accurately recreate the original experience instead of just making it playable. Be it GBA or SNES, you won’t get a more correct emulation than with Higan.
On the flip side, it can be complicated to use, so it isn’t recommended for beginners to the emulation scene.
Which GBA Emulator Should You Play On?
All of the emulators on this list can run most GBA games smoothly. They differ only in their feature set and user interfaces.
If you want a no-frills emulator that plays smoothly and accurately, mGBA is your app. For those looking for a bevy of advanced features developed over the years, try Visual Boy Advance Instead.
Then there are the multi-system emulators. No$GBA, RetroArch, Higan, and BizHawk are all capable of emulating multiple consoles, including GBA. Which one to go with depends on your familiarity with emulators and the user interface you prefer.
So what are you waiting for? Go grab a ROM, choose an emulator, and start playing those childhood favorites on your PC.