How to Play Retro Games on a Wii
Nintendo recently announced that it will shut down the Wii U eShop and, with it, the last place fans could legally purchase retro games on any Nintendo system. Sure, you can subscribe to Nintendo Online for access to a few dozen older games, but they can disappear at any moment.
It is therefore natural that some Nintendo fans take matters into their own hands, for example by setting up a Raspberry Pi to run emulators. There is, however, a simpler alternative: the Nintendo Wii.
The Wii is readily available, compatible with thousands of games, and can be quickly hacked to run emulators for the NES, SNES, and even the Nintendo 64. It just might be the best way to play retro Nintendo titles, as long as you know how get emulators working.
How to play Wii and GameCube games without emulators
But before we get into that, let’s talk about the easiest way to play retro titles on Wii. The Wii can, of course, launch Wii games, which are firmly in the “classic” category at this point. As of 2022, the console will be 16 years old – the same age as the Super Nintendo was when the Wii was launched in 2006. Time sure flies.
Almost every Wii can also play GameCube games, provided you have a GameCube controller and a memory card. This gives you access to classic games such as Super Mario Sunshine, Luigi’s Mansion and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
This isn’t emulation, and you don’t need mods: it’s basically an entire GameCube built into the Wii, meaning it can play these games natively. Now there are advantages to playing Wii and GameCube games using an emulator on a powerful modern PC. For example, you can upscale the graphics and save the game without using in-game save points. But there’s something satisfying about playing games on the hardware they were designed for, and with the Wii you can do that for the complete catalog of the two classic systems from the 2000s.
Just note that the Wii U cannot play GameCube games from a disc. Neither can the Wii Mini or Wii Family Edition, which do not have plugs for GameCube controllers. The quickest way to tell if your Wii can load GameCube games is to look for the controller plugs on the top of the unit – they’re hidden under a flap.
Installing emulators is quick and (relatively) painless
OK, we’ve traveled back to 2001, when the GameCube was released, but we can go back further. Back in the day, Wii owners could buy Virtual Console games, which meant you could buy games originally released for the NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, and N64 systems.
These games are no longer for sale, but they are fairly easy to obtain thanks to the still-active Wii homebrew scene. This is a community of people who have gotten all kinds of software working on the Wii, including emulators for just about any system you can think of. Of course, emulators only work if you have digital copies of the games (ROMs), and are legally questionable if you don’t own the original game. Remember that. And note that these steps are for the Wii, not the Wii U. The best guide for running homebrew on the Wii U is at wiiuhacks.guide.
[Related: How to run Android apps and games on your computer]
With your Wii ready, the easiest way to get started is to go to Wii.guide and click on Start here link above. It’s the best guide on the internet at this point, and (crucially) is kept up to date. But here’s a quick overview of the LetterBomb hack, which is by far the most common way to set up homebrew and install an emulator on the Wii:
- Go to please.hackmii.com on your computer and enter the MAC address of your Wii, which you can find by opening the Wii settings under Internet > Console information. You will end up with a ZIP file.
- Extract the ZIP file onto an SD card.
- Insert the SD card into your Wii. Open the Wii message board by clicking on the envelope at the bottom right. You will see an envelope with a bomb icon. Click on the envelope. Note that if the date on your Wii is wrong, you may have trouble finding the bomb. If that happens, fix the date on your Wii in the settings.
- Follow the on-screen instructions to install the Homebrew Channel and BootMii.
It’s a good idea to back up your Wii at this point – Wii.guide has excellent instructions. Once that is done, you can install some emulators. Again, here’s a quick overview:
- Load the Homebrew Channel, just to make sure it works. Remove the SD card from the Wii and connect it to the computer.
- Download Homebrew Browser to your computer. Extract the ZIP and copy the folder homebrew_browser to /apps directory on your SD card and unmount it.
- Connect the SD card to the Wii and load the Homebrew Channel. You should see the Homebrew Browser, which you can use to install software.
You now have everything you need to get your hands on some emulators. Here are a few you’ll want to pick up from the Homebrew Channel:
- FCE Ultra GX for NES
- SNES 9x GX for SNES
- VBA GX for Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance
- Genesis Plus GX for Sega Genesis, Sega CD, Sega Master System and Sega Game Gear
- Not 64 for N64
- DOS box for old PC games (but make sure you plug in a USB keyboard or you won’t get very far)
There’s a lot of retro gaming built into a system you probably forgot about!
There are many controls available
A nice thing about the Wii is that all types of controllers work with it, which means you have a lot of options for playing classic games. Here’s a quick summary:
- The Wii Classic controller works well for most games you can emulate and is fairly easy to find on the used market.
- The WiiMote works pretty well for NES games – just hold it sideways.
- GameCube controllers work with most emulators and are a great layout for the N64 in particular.
- The controllers that came with the NES and SNES Classic work on the Wii – just connect them to a WiiMote.
With all these options, you should have a controller that works for just about any game you can load, and most emulators make it easy to customize the button mapping.
The Wii connects easily to CRT TVs
Old games just look better on old cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs, because they were designed with those screens in mind. The Wii uses an RGB connection which is easy to connect to these TVs. It also supports the 4:3 aspect ratio, meaning you don’t need a widescreen TV to play games. This is essential if you want to fully recreate the retro experience.
Emulators are just the beginning
You can do a lot more with the Wii if you’re willing to learn. There is the WiiMC, which is a media player that can also play DVDs. There are a number of homebrew games. Enthusiasts have built replacements for the discontinued online services. And more advanced users can even set up their Wii to play backup Wii and Gamecube games from an external hard drive.
It’s remarkable how useful the Wii is all these years later, and I hope this guide gives you a starting point. If you have an old Wii, or have access to one, dig it up. It has a lot of potential.
Correction, 13 April 2022: An earlier version of this story stated that the Wii Mini does not have a disk drive, and that many of the same steps listed here can be used on the Wii U. The Wii Mini does have a disk drive, and you must use a different process to install emulators on a Wii U