The First Nintendo 3DS Emulator Hits the App Store — But There’s a Catch

Nintendo 3DS games Credit: Branden Skeli
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It would have seemed unthinkable only a few months ago, but 2024 is shaping up to be a golden age of retro game emulators for iPhone users, thanks to a significant relaxing of the rules that once kept these fun toys out of most folks’ hands.

Strictly speaking, game console emulators aren’t new to the iPhone. There have been various emulators that have been floating around the jailbreaking community since the first iPhone models came along over 15 years ago, and some developers have even managed to get theirs temporarily onto the App Store before facing the wrath of Apple’s ban-hammer.

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Those early versions somehow slipped past a rather strict and all-encompassing App Store rule that prohibited apps that ran code that wasn’t self-contained. Emulator apps were technically allowed, but only if all the games were already included. In other words, emulator apps were fine as long as all the games were built into the app.

That was fine for game companies that wanted to release their own emulators — such as Atari’s 100 Greatest Hits in 2012, but far less useful for folks who wanted to enjoy their favorite Nintendo or PSP titles on an iPhone. Unlike Atari, these companies had no interest in letting iPhone users relive their intellectual property, and third-party developers trying to include it would quickly find themselves shut down by a battalion of combat lawyers.

So, it was welcome news when Apple announced earlier this year that retro game console emulator apps would be allowed on the App Store, and developers wasted no time getting their apps ready. The popular Delta app, which had made a name for itself in the grassroots sideloading community, quickly showed up to let any iPhone user easily enjoy NES, SNES, and GameBoy titles — as long as they supplied the ROMs themselves.

This was followed by Provenance, which added Sega Dreamcast and PS2 games to the mix, and then RetroArch, covering those and almost every other retro platform you can think of.

Enter Folium…

However, one portable gaming platform that’s still something of a Holy Grail for iPhone users is the Nintendo 3DS. The games for that console are more resource-intensive, to the point where many aren’t sure an iPhone can handle them.

It’s not that the iPhone isn’t powerful enough, but rather that even with its relaxed rules, Apple still draws the line at apps using Just in Time (JIT) compilation — a capability that would allow 3DS code to be properly optimized for the iPhone’s A-series chips.

Nevertheless, one developer has decided to make the attempt. As reported by MobileSyrup, a recently released emulator named Folium can handle 3DS titles smoothly enough as long as you’re running it on some serious iPhone hardware

It’s probably no surprise that this runs fine on the iPhone 15 Pro. After all, that model has an A17 Pro chip capable of handling the full console versions of Resident Evil Village and Assassin’s Creed Mirage. Your mileage may vary on older devices, though, and folks have reported that even devices as recent as the iPhone 13 Pro struggle with some of the more demanding games.

The other catch is that Folium is the first paid emulator on the App Store, so you’ll need to shell out five bucks just to try it, and it feels pretty unfinished right now, according to Brad Bennet at MobileSyrup, who put it through its paces on his iPhone 15 Pro.

That price tag could be worth it if you want to try some 3DS games on your iPhone and don’t mind living on the bleeding edge. Still, it might also be worth waiting to see if the app improves or if another free emulator like RetroArch decides to add 3DS support to its long list of supported platforms at no extra charge.

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