Console emulation has been around since the days of Sonic the Hedgehog designer Yuji Naka’s NES emulator, which was developed internally for Sega’s Mega Drive (Genesis in the U.S.) and never released publicly, of course; but it was not long before rapidly advancing personal computer hardware provided an ideal environment for emulation. Software solutions on PC are commonplace now, but as we entered the 1990s the landscape was far different than today, with only sub-100 MHz processors available for consumers to attempt to replicate console hardware. (Indeed, Intel’s highest clocked 486 was just 50 MHz when Genesis hit North America in 1989.) We now live in a time of cheap compute power, with sub-$100 multi-core processors that are able to easily crunch the numbers needed to get most early (non-3D) games working as close to perfectly as can be done in software. Other options exist for 3D system emulation, with very good results from PlayStation (and even PlayStation 2) emulation, Nintendo 64 emulation, and the fantastic Dolphin emulator for GameCube and Wii titles. These newer emulators can offload graphics duties to a dedicated graphics card, allowing for excellent performance that can outshine the original console by virtue of the ability to actually render the games internally at higher resolutions, which in some cases allows the home tinkerer to create their own “HD remaster” of existing games. (I have, as mentioned in a previous editorial, and it is awesome.)
So, brief foray into emulation history aside, what does the emulation landscape have to offer today? Thanks to the archival nature of the internet many of the old solutions are still around from my earliest days of experimenting with emulation (the early 2000s), and some of those actually repurposed existing console hardware for emulation, rather than using a PC. My first experiments in this area were in the world of Sega Dreamcast emulation (rather fitting considering the origin of console emulation, right?); and by this I mean using a Dreamcast to emulate a Super Nintendo. A program called DreamSNES (which is still available though it has not been updated since 2003), was loaded onto a CD-R along with whatever games one wished to play (up to 1024 on a single disc), allowing one to transform their otherwise largely useless Dreamcast into a much more sensible SNES; and game saves even used the (horrible) VMU on the Dreamcast! Sega’s failed console was based on Windows CE (‘compact edition’) – complete with DirectX – and would run custom software easily. Fast-forward to [current year] where Dreamcast games can now be emulated on modern PC hardware, for the few games that might justify the effort. I was unable to find any in active development, but nullDC is a more recent example of a Dreamcast emulator for Windows. Of course a far more popular emulation-via-repurposed-console solution is based on the original Microsoft Xbox, which can be “soft-modded” to allow for convenient multi-platform emulation.
Moving on to the PC, by which I mean personal computer and not necessarily a Windows (or Ubuntu!) box, I will cover my experience with one of the all-inclusive software solutions that now exist. Yes, I am very aware of the Raspberry Pi-powered emulation that is supported by a large community, thanks to the low cost of the hardware and its extensible nature; but my favorite solution as a frequent Macintosh computer user is called OpenEMU. The interface reminds me a lot of an older program called Delicious Library, which was a nice way of cataloging one’s personal collections of things onto virtual shelves (and actually took advantage of your webcam to scan in the items), but OpenEMU is not just a way to organize and virtually display a game collection; it is a complete emulation solution for virtually every game console ever made. Oh, and it is free. If Apple has a ‘killer app’ for someone like me, to make them want an iMac (or Mac mini) in addition to their Windows-powered ‘gaming rig’, it is this. Everything about OpenEMU is simple and intuitive, and the end result of importing a folder of random titles is a virtual shelf filled with original box art. Sorting is automated, as one need only drop files over the ‘Consoles’ area for them to be placed into the correct folders. Box art is automatically added, as well (for most games). The emulation cores for the various systems will be familiar to anyone who has been emulating consoles in recent years, with the likes of SNES9x, etc., and there is support for just about every system – including handheld. I have only used the program for NES and SNES, along with original PlayStation emulation (which works very well), and a bit of Nintendo DS tinkering, and it is easily the best experience I have had.
As much as I might sing the praises of OpenEMU, there is another program – and a multi-platform one, at that – which I consider indispensable for emulation: Dolphin. I mentioned Dolphin earlier in this editorial, and it is a brilliant piece of software that allows for more than just 1:1 emulation of disc-based (GameCube and Wii) Nintendo games. Not only can the quality of these games be improved significantly – as I keep repeating every day, to anyone who will still listen to me – but the overall experience is really good, right down to fantastic controller support. If you are a purist, and still want to use your original Nintendo-branded GameCube controller to play GameCube games on your computer, worry not! Dolphin supports the official Nintendo Wii U GameCube Controller Adapter, which is a $20 accessory that connects via USB. You will be playing with power on your Windows/Mac/Linux system in no time with Dolphin, which is quite stable in its 5th major version. But there is more to life than replaying old Nintendo favorites, though that seems to be among the most popular pursuits among the gaming public at large (NES Classic, anyone?), regardless of terrible controller experiences. But what about Sony consoles, with their libraries of outstanding games – especially in the JRPG genre? I mentioned the PlayStation capabilities of OpenEMU, and for those running Windows the standard has been ePSXe for some time. For PlayStation 2 emulation, which is more relevant these days as the ever-affordable PlayStation 3 can play PlayStation games on any modern TV, there is a solution beyond looking for a launch PS3: PCSX2. I have also mentioned this emulator before, showcasing its high-resolution rendering prowess with Final Fantasy XII in a prior editorial, and, though PS2 emulation is a bit more involved than PSX, there are resources aplenty online to get many of the best games working splendidly.
Be it a repurposed console or a PC running any modern operating system (with at least fairly modern hardware), emulation is alive and well today. I did not even mention Nintendo’s authorized emulator, which is called the “Virtual Console”, and that is an extremely convenient way of obtaining not only the classic games one may not own, but for playing them with a proper controller (Wii U Pro Controller, of course) on the living room TV. The Virtual Console (VC) is available on the Wii, Wii U, and even the 3DS, with the ‘new’ 3DS your only option for enjoying SNES games on your handheld; though some other means… (custom firmware…Sony PSP…) are out there as well. However you choose to do it, there is probably a solution. Even on a smartphone. But that is just gross.