Let us begin with a moment of silence for the recently discontinued (namely, in September 2020) Nintendo 3DS, the last of the great lineage of Nintendo’s dedicated handheld gaming consoles: website information was quietly removed, leaving only scarce support documentation, which is expected to be gone soon, too. It’s most likely this console is the last ever handheld device from Nintendo, as they haven’t announced its successor, redirecting their focus instead on its hybrid, somewhat handheld, device, Switch. This marks the end of a 31-years-long era of supreme domination of Nintendo in the handheld gaming market and gives all the more reasons to turn to emulate the experience it provided, especially if you don’t own the actual console.
While there aren’t exactly too many functional Nintendo 3DS emulators for Windows that can play a wide range of games, we’ll try to list out a few that deserve attention and focus on some of the better, more complete ones. The general rule is that, unlike other consoles’ emulators, these do not require high-end machines and do not eat away 90% of all the available resources, which is good news for us with midrange gear. It might be worth noting that 3DS emulators thrive on Androids, probably due to the portable nature of the original console and the nature of its games, too, but that’s a topic for another time and place.
First and foremost, we’ll start with the best emulator currently available, and that is Citra, an open-source program made for emulating Nintendo 3DS games on PC (and Android, too, in more recent news). It exists since 2014 and has come a long way in these 6 years. It offers a pretty good imitation of 3DS’s original local Wi-Fi network feature, but it does not allow classic online multiplayer – you are only able to play with other Citra users anywhere, but it won’t connect you to official Nintendo servers. It’s available in whopping 21 languages. Since April 2020 it finally had support for save states implemented, as well as compatibility with a spinoff console New Nintendo 3DS.
The requirements are pretty low – it only requires support for OpenGL 3.3 or higher from your GPU. Citra’s also got support for controllers, which can be configured directly from the GUI, instead of having to bother with files and settings outside of the actual emulator software. It’s available on Windows from 7 onwards, macOS High Sierra and higher, and various Linux iterations. It’s also got automatic updates, something that helps some of the less tech-savvy users out there.
It’s got a rather large community of contributors working on it; in the last “Mega Progress Report” which spanned from the first quarter of 2019 to the second quarter of 2020, (due to lack of writers, not updates), they announced the above-mentioned New Nintendo 3DS compatibility and save states, as well as some core synchronization; although it did cause some stuttering in some games, it also made some other previously unplayable games (especially those from New 3DS) become playable. Even though there are frame rate settings that can somewhat dictate the speed at which the game is running (mostly to slow down games that are too fast), some games will still suffer from slow emulation syndrome. Nevertheless, Citra has a huge pool of playable games, compared to most other emulators.
It’s also being updated very regularly, which is a good criterion for picking an emulator – no one would want to pick and stick with an emulator in hopes of getting their favorite game emulated just to discover the project is partly or completely discontinued. The latest update for both the Canary and the Nightly build was released six hours before the time of writing this article, with the previous ones having been released every couple of weeks or even sooner, in some cases. The difference between these two is that Nightly features only the tested and approved stuff, while Canary includes features that still require some testing. All in all, Citra is probably your best bet if you want to pay homage and revisit the soon-to-be-gone Nintendo 3DS gaming experience.
This one is not particularly a 3DS emulator, but it can certainly emulate 3DS, among other consoles and systems. We’ve already talked about RetroArch is the all-in-one open-source emulator for PC that can emulate pretty much every console there is, including old computers, such as Commodore 64 and NEC-PC98, and super old consoles, such as Vectrex. It’s available on a wide variety of devices – PCs, consoles, smartphones, anything goes with RetroArch; since we’re focusing on Windows here, it’s worth mentioning it works on all versions from Windows 95 onward. It’s developed by Libretro Team in C++ language in 2010, with the latest update in August 2020.
RetroArch has a designated core for emulating every console or system and, guess what? Citra is its designated 3DS core! There might not be much sense to go over the same things twice, but there are some differences, particularly related to performance, as the two programs work in different ways, but also because the standalone version of Citra is being updated much more regularly than the RetroArch core. Also, not all cores on RetroArch have the same requirements, but the 3DS/Citra one works well on similar configurations as its standalone counterpart. Although not all the games that are playable on Citra work on RetroArch, it still has a pretty wide variety of titles to choose from.
This one also exists for both PC and mobile phones (a recurring subject in here, it seems), and it seems to be working pretty well on both platforms. It works on fairly old Windows versions – ranging from XP to Windows 10, in both 32-bit and 64-bit setups. Another interesting fact is that it can also be used to show how it would look like to run Nintendo DS games on R4 3DS cards. It’s based on the DS emulator No$GBA and, as such, it mimics the working process of R4 cards, hence its name. While it’s not open-source, like the former two, it is freeware, which means it’s completely free of any charge.
It offers a pretty authentic Nintendo 3DS experience, as it emulates graphics and gameplay exactly as it is on the original console, and it presents exactly as it would on the original, with top and bottom screen and such. However, if one would like a more convenient, modern approach, key bindings are customizable. The game pool is pretty solid, as it includes all the major classics, such as Super Mario, some Legends of Zelda, and some Pokémon games, as well as some hidden gems you might not have previously known about. Unfortunately, it seems like R4 doesn’t support any newer titles; its last update was also more than a year ago, in March 2019.
From what we’ve seen, it would be safe to say Citra is the best choice if you want to play Nintendo 3DS games on your Windows PC – it’s just unparalleled right now. However, if you already own RetroArch and prefer the idea of having your whole vintage game collection under one roof, you should give it a try or, if you like supporting and helping smaller projects, maybe R4 is your go-to option.