State of the Emu 2005
For anyone who owns a PC not much older than 2-3 years with a semi-decent video card, emulation gaming can be a really fun way to collect and play virtually any game in gaming history that is not a current-generation game. But you don't know what the hell emulation is? Well, this article should give you a good brief on the status of emulation gaming as-is. Most of these emulators have a few things in common - easy-to-access save states, internal screenshots or video captures devices, online gameplay, versatile gamepad support (you should be able to play all these emulators with the same controller), and a variety of cheat functions (like built-in Game Genies). Frugal buyers can get the appropriate setup for this with only $300, or even cheaper if you got a good deal. Starting to build the ideal emulation game machine from scratch should only set you back $500-$700 (anything higher and you're pushing envelopes not yet really developed by the emulation community). Of course, if you already got a worthy machine, you're hooked up. Throw on a simple TV-out and you could be doing this...
Pimpin' Zelda on 4 screens in the living room
(yeah, the little screen in the far background, you're right, that's out in the damn kitchen!)
So I'm going to cover the status of emulation gaming for each of the respective platforms. By end of this article I hope I've motivated at least some of you to try your hand at starting your own game collections.
Good ol' Nintendo. The NES is pretty much perfectly emulated by a variety of programs, two of note are Nesticle and FCE Ultra. Cool thing is that NES is so perfectly emulated that it runs smoothly on virtually any system, you could get a machine older than dirt and run this. The newest NES emulator, JNes, requires a Pentium 133 processor.
Yes, even this old piece of shit could run the heaviest NES emulator.
Since NES predates the rise of the internet, it's ROMs are long-established. In fact, you should be able to find torrents to download virtually every NES game in a single download. So when it comes to emulators here, it's just personal preference. I wanted to resize my window and I like FCE Ultra in windowed form, so that's what I play. The emulators are so small you should just download them all and figure out which one you like the most. No graphic card is required for this one. There are so many emulators that play NES that I probably could spend the whole article listing them, NESticle and FCE Ultra are two of the more popular ones. As of yet I have not heard of a single commercial game that doesn't run right with these emulators.
Games like Castlevania, hard due to their inability to save, can be mastered using emulator save states.
Sega Genesis (including Genesis 32X and MegaCD):
No one cares about the Genesis, but the same situation as with the NES, as it's about the same level. Since fewer people care, there are fewer emulators, Gens and Fusion seem to be the favorites. I'm sure all you Genesis fans can now go find Sword of Sodan out there somewhere and fight some peasants poking you with white surrender flags.
Again at this phase you should be fine with a fairly old machine with no notable graphics card.
By far, ZSNES is the best Super Nintendo emulator out there. It accurately emulates all commercial SNES games I know of, and is again not very resource-consuming. It's available for Windows, DOS and Linux. ZSNES requires DirectX 8.0 to run, but most people who have a machine that isn't older than 4 years should be up to spec for running ZSNES fine. Again a worthwhile video card is not mandatory. Netplay also means that you can go online and face a friend in a game of Mario Kart (the original)... of course most of these emulators do have the netplay feature, the NES emulation community had somewhat popular Tecmo Super Bowl online tournaments.
Playstation emulation is good, however it's components are harder to locate due to Sony cracking down on the emulation. You not only need a PSX emulator, but a PSX bios file (copyrighted property and unable to be packaged with the emu), as well as .iso cd-disk images of the games you want to play. The great thing about PSX emulation is that it has CD-ROM support, so you can actually take old PSX games and put them in your CD tray and fire them up.
Right now ePSXe is the best PSX emulator out there. Since this is a generation up, getting new plugins for the emulator will allow you to customize it more for your system to tweak performance. That means there are a variety of video and sound plugins to better manage the game's frame rates and overall gameplay speed. You should have a respectable video card for this emulator, however a cheap ATI Radeon or NVIDIA Geforce with the right emulator plugin to match it should fit your needs. Even then there may be moments where a particular style of rendering makes your game move a little slower than usual. Tweaking is necessary here. Since emulators of the ePSXe class (and higher) are plugin-based, that means there are also a variety of better and cool plugins to go out and find to tweak performance, and different games may require different plugins to run smoothly, but that's fairly easy to change. It's really a matter of trial and error. PSX was a game system that relied heavily on it's memory cards for game saving, so ePSXe provides a virtual memory card management system allowing you to use your hard drive's space to manage PSX saves... which for anyone with a modern hard drive means that you have virtually endless saves.
Again, a 2-3 year old computer with a moderate graphics card and you should be playing most commercial PSX games (if not all) at good speeds with ePSXe, whether they are the real CD's or .iso images of games. Games for the PSX are a bit larger and harder to find than ROMs, so you may find yourself investing more time to build a good PSX collection.
Nintendo 64 is one of the newest emulation systems that is finally entering the phase of "pretty much done", and it's actually improving old games by providing ways to emulate above-quality. There are a still a few N64 games with bugs, but the majority of them play smoothly under the right environment. Obviously the more popular games (Conker's Bad Fur Day, Mario 64, Super Mario Kart 64, Super Smash Brothers, the two Zelda games) are the games the emulators are benchmarked against, so the rule may go that the more popular the game is, the better it'll be emulated. Still there may be a few visual distortions here and there. The two prevailing N64 emulators are 1964 (recommended as it is still in development) and PJ64 (stopped development in 2002 but is widely considered the most compatible emulator). There are some other up-and-comers, but these two are the best for conventional gameplay. I will focus on 1964 for reasons that will become really obvious here in a minute.
With emulators being very plugin-based, development on the actual emulator slows down while development of plugins advances the emulation quality. Rice, who heads the 1964 project, has an excellent series of graphics plugins that very accurately emulate many games. His newest plugin, 6.1.0c, not only emulates most games but also adds a new feature - high resolution texture support. To explain that more fully, take a look at this below,
Super Mario 64 emulated at perfect quality, as you would see it if you played the real deal.
The same Super Mario 64 ROM with enhanced super-rich grass, tree, sand and castle textures.
Rice's plugin dumps all N64 game textures, which can be reworked and replaced. Once you know which texture you want to change, you can edit it and save it into a special texture loading directory. With the right setting checked, the emulator will search the loading directory and try to replace each in-game texture with the textures you've saved. Which can turn...
... into ...
Another quick example...
These are before and after shots where the blank texture of the moon is replaced with a real moon image in Zelda: Ocarina of Time. With grass, land and object textures these modifications totally revamp the feel of the game.
The applications are obvious. This recent release is already backed by a small crew starting with Mario 64 (some of the textures above are from Cloudscape's Mario 64 texture pack). Check out the Emutalk.net forums for 1964 for more info on how that works (the forums are a good place to go in general for emulator support). This feature is relatively new so there are not a lot of textures created yet, although I did see some idiot put George W. Bush's face on Link so understand that there is a certain level of artistic discretion you must show with using this feature.
Another interesting effect of N64 emulation is that any tweak to your 3D graphics engine can alter the capacity of the emulator to render objects. Smart Shading (an Open GL/ATI graphics card feature) allows you to alter the entire 3D graphics engine with a simple script. A small sample...
If you want to play Zelda: Majora's Mask or any N64 game in this kind of super-cel-shaded fantastico, make sure you got a powerful system to support it. This lags on mine (I am currently running an overclocked AMD Sempron 3100+, 512MB RAM, ATI Radeon 9800).
Besides this, the N64 emulator also features options to toggle on/off virtual memory packs and rumble packs. Due to the original controllers only having one slot, you must use the input options to switch between each pack. Yes, the rumble pack feature uses conventional PC joystick rumble features, so you can set up your N64 ROMs to make your rumble-capable computer joystick rumble. The emulator is built in with the N64 expansion pack indicator on, so playing Perfect Dark is no problem. This also lets you save multiple controller profiles for different ranges of games.
Also, for true nostalgics, there are N64 controller-to-pc adapters being sold, so you could not only download and run a ton of N64 games, you could also do it with a spare original controller.
The Dreamcast is still in the area of heavy development. The only emulator to actually play commercial games is called Chankast. It's still in alpha testing, which is considered lower than "beta", so many games will only boot partially or not play at all. I have yet to acquire games for it because of the difficult methods you must use to boot the games (you must download a self-bootable backup of a Dreamcast game and make a virtual drive pointing to it, then tell the emulator to use the virtual drive to boot the disk)... however judging from feedback it is running some games at playable speeds. Games like Shenmue and Soul Caliber seem to be the testing grounds for this emulator, so expect those to become the first truly playable games. Like PSX, the bios is illegal to distribute, so you must acquire a version for yourself. Expect to invest a lot more time to play a lot fewer games if you decide to do Dreamcast emulation, and make sure you got a somewhat modern gaming machine. I've loaded the Dreamcast bios screen, where you can do things like edit your memory card info and set the Dreamcast internal clock... and that seemed to work right, as I remember it from playing my old Dreamcast. Conventional CD-ROM drives can't read Dreamcast games properly, so booting from the CD like the PSX emulator isn't going to happen.
Gameboy Advance (and old Gameboy games):
Gameboy Advance is a newer system that games are still coming out on (although the DS seems to be pushing the regular Gameboy games to the side) that has a game quality somewhere inbetween Super Nintendo and the N64. The emulator I use for Gameboy Advance is Visual Boy Advance. One thing I find particular about this emulator is it's settings, it will slow down quickly if you increase the screen resolution, but for more recent machines finding good settings should not be a problem.
There are several great games on this platform, Mario & Luigi's Superstar Saga, the many Gameboy Advance Castlevania games and the Metroid: Fusion games come to mind, and the games are all very fun in fullscreen. The real Gameboy Advance is backwards compatible with old-old Gameboy games, so the emulator is likewise backwards-compatible with the same old-old Gameboy ROMs. Finding ROMs for the Gameboy Advance is easy due to the small game sizes. The one unfortunate thing about Visual Boy Advance is that the authors seem to feel that adding netplay to it will disrespect Nintendo... so system-linking Gameboy Advance emulators online does not seem like it's going to happen any day soon. Very lame.
Arcade Games (MAME):
The Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME) project is one of the emulator community's most famous projects. It supports full blown chipsets for standup arcade machines, and emulates arcade game features (all the way down to actually having to digitally insert quarters to make it work). MAME32 is what you want if you have Windows, as the other versions are command-line. Burger Time, Centipede, Dig Dug, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Ms. Pac-Man, Robotron, hell, Altered Beast, the excellent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle arcade games and even the old Simpsons game (I configured one controller to function for all 4 Simpsons members and moved the whole group around as a 4-player mass!). Shit, I couldn't list the hundreds of games I have for this that I never played and I only took a very minute fraction of time to get my collection. The ROM images for these games are typically very small and all seem to run fast, of course it depends on which game you are trying to play. There is even a version of MAME for mobile devices (that run Windows CE) called MAME CE.
Random Others & Extra Notes:
If you can think of the console, it's been not only emulated but the vast majority of it's games have been ripped and are available online. Sega Master System, Sega Saturn, Atari 2600, Atari Jaguar, 3DO, Intellivision, Nintendo's Virtual Boy (not that we actually have VR helmets to play it), old shit like Amiga, Wonderswan and MSX... kinda too much to list in one sitting. Most of these games are now extinct and out of circulation except in collector's hands, so emulation may be your only chance to play these games again.
With recent hacking of game consoles (in particular, the X-Box) extra emulation tools have been made to play any emulated games in the console environment. You can download utilities and the necessary files to play a variety of old emulated games on the X-Box console, and that's fairly easy to find resources for. A little searching and you'll find all the resources you could ever need.
Current Generation Consoles (X-Box, Gamecube, PS2):
Despite a few fake emulator/virus hoaxes, the current generation of consoles emulation is underway. Due to the sophisticated features of the chipsets on these consoles, we may have to bit to wait before the PC's capable of running these emulators well are within reasonable price ranges. Dolphin is a Gamecube emulator that seems to be running a few games but to what level of actual playability is uncertain (it appears they are ditching the project but it will probably be picked back up soon as they release the source code for it). X-Box emulation is so far off you might as well consider any X-Box emulator a hoax, the only confirmed "real" X-Box emulators as of this writing are Xeon and Cxbx, and neither play commercial games, one does boot demos though. PS2 looks a little more promising since it's not far removed from the old PSX, the leading emulator of that platform is PCSX2, which is underway in development but development seems to be aiming at Capcom re-released games instead of standard titles like the Grand Theft Auto series.
As for finding BIOS files (for PSX/Dreamcast), ROMs (cartridge-based game rips, mainly Nintendo), self-bootable backups (cdi files - Dreamcast), and disk images (.iso - PSX), you can find excellent packages if you search bittorrent links or P2P. Of course, always beware of viruses and other bullshit, as they are prolific. If you find .zip files full of entire histories of games, believe it - especially those NES packages with the thousands of games and an emulator bundled together. Just requires a little time and work and you should get the majority of these emulation projects working. Yes, there are emulators for Mac as well, but you will probably have to search Google to find most of the details out about them. Most of the Windows projects also have Linux ports if you need that.
There, and now you know how to collect and play every Castlevania game in history on your PC. Super Smash Brothers tournaments for all!