If you were a gamer as a child, then surely you remember playing games on consoles such as the Nintendo 64 or PlayStation 2. Maybe you played on an Xbox as a child. For me, I remember playing games such as The Simpsons: Hit and Run and Burnout 3: Takedown on the PlayStation 2. However, these games and other games released for the aforementioned consoles do not have remastered versions for current generation consoles (Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S). How can nostalgic gamers play these games again on current hardware? This can be done with video game emulation.
What is video game emulation?
Video game emulation is when you use a computing device such as a smartphone, a modern game console or PC, to simulate a video game console’s hardware on the computing device. This is done by reverse-engineering the original video game console, where the developer researches the hardware and software of the original console and decrypts the original operating system of the console so they know exactly how it works. Once they know how it works, they start doing the work to emulate the original console.
An example of this is Dolphin Emulator, which emulates Nintendo GameCube and Wii games and runs on PC (Windows, Mac, Linux) and Android. There are also forks available so it can run on additional devices such as DolphiniOS which allows Dolphin to be run on iOS devices. The difference between running a GameCube game on the original console and on the emulator is that games can be run at a higher resolution (1080p, 4K) on the emulator while on the original GameCube, games can only be run at 480p.
Another example of an emulator is PPSSPP, which emulates PlayStation Portable games and runs on PC, Android, iOS, Nintendo Switch and Xbox Series X|S. Like Dolphin Emulator, you can run games at a higher resolution than you can on the original PSP. Another benefit to running games on the emulator as opposed to the original console is that you do not have to worry about the games becoming inaccessible on the platform as last year, Sony almost shut down the PS3 and Vita digital store, but did not due to backlash.
RetroArch – emulation made easy
To mainstream gamers, installing emulators may seem a little complicated to do. There is a solution that makes this process more simple and it is called RetroArch. RetroArch is an emulation frontend that streamlines the process by having the user install a program and they can load as many emulators that are available (they are referred to as cores). For example, if a user wants to play PSP games, they can load the PPSSPP core and import their PSP game and start playing their PSP games on RetroArch.
RetroArch can be installed on its website or on Steam (this version has fewer cores and only seems to work well on Windows). This emulator frontend can be installed on a variety of platforms, including consoles like Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X|S, and the Nintendo 3DS/2DS. While there are other ways to download standalone emulators to these consoles, those methods are a lot more difficult to achieve so most people install RetroArch to simplify the process. On the Xbox Series consoles, this is done by activating Dev Mode which can be downloaded from the Xbox Store. On the Nintendo and PlayStation consoles, this is done by jailbreaking them so custom firmware can be installed.
The most recent console that can be emulated with RetroArch is the Nintendo 3DS with Citra. The developers of the frontend, Libretro have made a comprehensive list and guide of all the emulators the frontend has available and how it can be installed to play the emulated games.
In the emulation community however, RetroArch is very controversial because emulator developers believe that it is easier to install standalone emulators than to use a frontend and there have been allegations of harassment from developers of RetroArch towards individual emulator developers. However, there are comprehensive guides on installing standalone emulators for mainstream gamers that makes the process easy and does not involve a front end.
One of these guides is the Emulation General Wiki, which contains every major emulator for every game console (except for current-generation consoles like PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S). It also shows a comparison table of different emulators for each console and shows which emulator works the best along with video guides on how to set them up.
What are Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo’s attitudes to backwards compatibility?
Backwards compatibility is when a current generation console can natively play games that were released during previous generations. An example of this is playing an Xbox 360 game on an Xbox One or Xbox Series X|S. Backwards compatibility is done through emulation and helps preservation by extending a game’s lifecycle so multiple generations can have the opportunity to play it. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all have different views and implementations of backwards compatibility on their respective consoles.
With Sony’s PlayStation 5, it has backwards compatibility for one generation meaning most PS4 games can be natively played on the PS5. However, earlier generation games that were released on PS2 and PS3 cannot be emulated and can only be streamed via PlayStation Now, a cloud gaming streaming subscription service (that is slowly being phased out for their other gaming subscription service, PlayStation Plus).
Streaming games is very different from emulating games as you have to rely on the strength of your router’s bandwidth to play the game comfortably without any lag. Last month, Bloomberg reported that Sony is creating a new service called Project Spartacus, that combines PlayStation Plus with PlayStation Now and offers three tiers. The first tier offers PlayStation Plus benefits (two free games every month), the second tier offers a variety of PS4 games and the third tier offers a library of classic PS1, PS2 and PS3 games. This is very similar to what Microsoft offers with Game Pass.
With Microsoft’s Xbox Series X|S, it has backwards compatibility for multiple generations (original Xbox, Xbox 360 and Xbox One) meaning some original Xbox games, Xbox 360 games and Xbox One games can be natively played on the Xbox Series X|S. Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox, has advocated for video game preservation by saying, “My hope (and I think I have to present it that way as of now) is as an industry we’d work on legal emulation that allowed modern hardware to run any older executable allowing someone to play any game”. Here is a comprehensive list of backwards compatible games that can be played on the Xbox Series X|S.
With Nintendo’s Switch, it does not have backwards compatibility with any previous generation Nintendo console. Like Sony, they have implemented an online subscription service called Nintendo Switch Online that allows players to access a library of NES games, SNES games, Nintendo 64 games and Sega Genesis games. However, compared to the amount of games available on PlayStation Now and PlayStation Plus, there aren’t as many games available on Nintendo Switch Online.
Out of the three console manufacturers, Microsoft is by far the best when it comes to preserving their games through backwards compatibility. This is because Phil Spencer believes video game emulation is important in preserving games. Whereas Jim Ryan, the current head of PlayStation believes backwards compatibility was not a necessary feature of the PlayStation 5, “What is important to recognize when considering this question about designing a new platform, is that time, engineering resources, and money are all finite, and that important trade-offs have to be made in terms of what’s included and what’s not.”
“My hope (and I think I have to present it that way as of now) is as an industry we’d work on legal emulation that allowed modern hardware to run any older executable allowing someone to play any game.”Phil Spencer
Emulation and backwards compatibility are important for video game preservation because they extend the lifecycle of a game and is often the only way to play a game that was made for old consoles. In my previous article, I talked about how Jerry Lawson’s games made for the Atari 2600 have been archived and can be played on an Atari emulator thanks to video game archivists.
Video Game History Foundation is a non-profit organisation that preserves, celebrates and teaches the history of video games. Its director, Frank Cifaldi, who has done a Games Developer Conference talk on emulation, has said, “Emulation is the path of least resistance for re-releasing games originally written for dead platforms. There just isn’t a better way that’s commercially viable.” I agree with Cifaldi’s quote and believe that developers should do more to save video game history before it’s too late.