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Late to the Game(s): Let’s talk about emulators

Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times

I’ve mentioned emulators here before. They’ve come up when we’ve talked about mobile gaming, retro gaming, and my love of the OUYA micro-console. But what exactly is emulation? 

Put simply, emulation is a process that mimics – emulates – the source hardware and/or software used to run certain game files. Emulators, by design, are meant to be run on hardware other than the original hardware designed to run the game files they set out to run. 

The most common emulators replicate arcade cabinets or older systems, like the original Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Nintendo, Sega, and original PlayStation, among others. There are emulators for newer systems as well, including the popular Dolphin emulator for Wii and emulators for the PlayStation 2 and even the PlayStation 3. These emulators for newer systems, though, obviously require faster processors and more memory than the emulators for older systems. Because most laptops and desktop PCs also run other tasks in the background, and have to run virtual instances of some hardware settings in their software, even newer computers can have some issues running games beyond the PS1 era. 

For instance, while the PlayStation 2 system is now 20 years old, emulators for running the system’s games will sometimes load games, then exhibit severe latency issues, or lag, between the controller inputs and in game actions even on newer computer systems. The Nintendo 64 is another system that is notoriously finnicky to emulate. While some games will run marvelously in emulators, others will hiccup, skip, and exhibit graphic errors like framerate drops and the display of splines – or otherwise “invisible” lines connecting character models to their environment.

The previously mentioned Dolphin emulator is a fantastic piece of software. But, like with other Nintendo systems, getting your game software copied onto a hard drive is an issue. Unlike other cartridge based Nintendo systems that require special hardware to read the cartridges so the game files – known as ROMS – can be ripped to the hard disc, the discs for Wii and Nintendo Game Cube can be read by some standard DVD drives. Some, but not all. If you want to be able to read a Nintendo DVD disc you need either special software programs that can translate the disc contents and/or a specific brand of DVD drive that is able to read Nintendo’s proprietary coding format. 

This is not a problem with PlayStation or PS2 discs, which can be easily read and copied using any DVD drive attached to a computer. But, despite this issue – or perhaps because of it – the Nintendo games tend to be the most popular among emulator enthusiasts. They are also the most likely to be pirated and illegally distributed because of this, and sites hosting those files are regularly targeted by Nintendo with cease and desist orders. 

It can all get terribly complicated and technical, requiring trial-and-error and regular troubleshooting in order to get games to run and controllers to respond as they should on the various configurations of modern PCs. Despite all this, running games in emulators can be terrifically rewarding. Especially with options to save progress whenever you like, or to “rewind” games after making a mistake, that weren’t generally included in the original releases. 

A good entry to emulation for those interested in trying it out, with minimal investment and good chances of success, is the Raspberry Pi micro PC. The Raspberry Pi, which can be purchased for as little as $15 for a Raspberry Pi Zero W, is available in various configurations, but the Pi Zero W, Pi 3, and Pi 4 all have wireless Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities, making it easy to push files to your Pi over a network or to connect a wireless controller. 

The RetroPie system is the premier front-end for running these games, but it isn’t an emulator itself. Rather it’s an interface that allows you to download, install, and run various emulators for all of your games. It can be a bit of a challenge in its own right, and to set up the system from scratch does require some modest tech experience. If you’ve ever used a Linux based system, you’ll understand the interface right away. If not, you might want to check out some tutorials first. 

Or, you can find files to download with the entire system already configured. You just burn it to your micro SD card, plug it into the Pi, and get started. Some of them even already have game files included. Depending on the games included some of these files may technically break copyright laws though, especially if they are being sold as already loaded cards by a third-party, so be aware of what you are purchasing or downloading. But don’t be discouraged. 

While it sounds like it can be complicated (and it can) running emulators can also be a lot of fun, and a great way to re-experience those classic games of your youth, as well as new games created in homebrew programs to run on these older systems. So, get yourself a cheap Raspberry Pi, or an old laptop, do some Googling, and see what you can come up with. It’s a great way to spend a rainy weekend afternoon or a relaxed evening, and a great way to share your classic games collection with your family. 

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com

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