Microsoft shut down classic game emulation on the Xbox Series X/S on April 6 and a small but passionate community of retro enthusiasts, preservationists, and homebrew devs are up in arms. They’re calling on the console maker to reverse course and make legal emulation easy again, even if it means potentially antagonizing competitors like Sony and Nintendo.
The Xbox Series X/S is unprecedented among consoles in letting users easily emulate older games. When it launched in 2020, new owners discovered the ability to install emulators that could play classic PlayStation 2 and GameCube games on it. That’s still possible with paid access to the console’s developer mode, but Microsoft has now locked down that feature in standard retail mode. Where users were previously able to download and run emulators for dozens of old consoles, they’re now greeted with an error code telling them such programs violate Microsoft Store policy.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been a good run,” tweeted gamr13, who helps distribute the Xbox retail version of the RetroArch emulator frontend, which includes emulation cores for everything from the NES to the Wii. They said they now had no choice but to tag Xbox and Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer on Twitter with a #LetUsEmulate hashtag.
Although emulation is often associated with piracy, it’s also a legal way to play copies of games you already own on newer hardware with modern conveniences.
In the consoles’ earlier days, Xbox Series X/S owners could install various emulators and emulator frontends, like RetroArch, PPSPP, and DuckStation, using links on gamr13’s Github page to install Universal Windows Platform (UWP) versions of these apps via the consoles’ Microsoft store. But as the tech giant began to take notice, it began to remove emulation apps from the store more and more quickly.
“Essentially Microsoft would crack down on my uploads where they used to last months, to weeks, to days, until now,” gamr13 told Kotaku. “So I would simply re-upload the apps whenever they were taken down, to get newcomers and everyone back up and running.”
Xbox Series X/S was “like the Steam Deck” for emulation
One way to get the emulators to last longer on Microsoft’s store was to mark them as private and then “whitelist” specific users to be able to download them. A Patreon helped coordinate and fund this activity.
“The crackdown started to ramp up around the end of summer going into autumn, where we dealt with daily takedowns for a while, so the day after they went up, they’d be taken down,” gamr13 said. “We managed to find a way to get them to last up to three days since then by not naming them ‘RetroArch’ and instead [using] randomized names.”
As long as you had already downloaded the emulators, however, you were fine. Until now. Some users on Twitter shared stories of losing access to collections of hundreds and hundreds of classic games they could no longer play on the Xbox Series X/S as a result of the change.
Running emulators in the consoles’ developer mode remains an option, but access to that feature requires a $20 fee and isn’t always available to owners in regions where online payment systems are harder to access. The timing of the crackdown also has many wondering why Microsoft decided to change its stance toward the emulation community. Emulating other platforms’ games has always been technically against the store’s terms of service, the homebrew devs say, but up until now Xbox emulation enthusiasts felt like the company was content to mostly look the other way.
The timing has raised some suspicions about whether outside pressure may be forcing Microsoft to get more aggressive. Nintendo has historically been extremely anti-emulation, and while a version of the Dolphin emulator for GameCube and Wii has been available on Xbox Series X/S for a while, a special port specifically for the console went into beta only a few months ago. Nintendo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a statement to Kotaku, a Microsoft spokesperson said, “We continually evolve our mechanisms for reviewing and taking enforcement actions on content distributed to the Store to ensure alignment with our Microsoft Store Policies. Per 10.13.10, Products that emulate a game system or game platform are not allowed on any device family.”
Unfortunately, it seems Microsoft’s new level of policy enforcement will leave a fair few Xbox owners who’d previously enjoyed emulating their old games on Microsoft’s consoles out in the cold. Dev mode remains an option, but adds another layer of complexity and doesn’t always play nice with console updates pushed out early by those enrolled in Microsoft Xbox Insider preview program.
“[Emulation] was the entire reason that I, and many others, bought an Xbox,” gamr13 said. “PlayStation and Nintendo platforms do require some modifications to run this kind of stuff, but Xbox until now has been a really open and welcoming platform for anyone, be it indie devs [or] gaming preservationists. It was like the Steam Deck of consoles.”
Correction 4/06/2023 7:12 p.m. ET: Clarified gamr13's role as distributor of the Xbox Series S/X RetroArch app.