The Best of Emulation: The .EMU Apps

I am a passionate classic gamer. I grew up during the golden years of the arcade, console and home computer markets. For me, there is something about these retro gaming platforms that not only speaks to my childhood nostalgia but to an era where gaming wasn’t controlled by marketing agencies – where chances could be taken on new, fresh ideas … where one guy locked in his closet for four months could churn out the next great Atari 2600 game and NOT be concerned with the sales department being concerned it wasn’t another rehash, sequel or knock off.

Yep, there was a time gaming was actually kind of pure.

To young eyes, these games are considered boring.  Dull.  Drab.  The kids’ vacant eyes stare back at you  as you try to teach them how to play Pac-Man or Yar’s Revenge.  That’s okay – because, my fellow old school players; emulation of classic systems is for us – not for them.  Being able to accurately relive your glory days of the Atari 2600, NES, Colecovision, TG-16 or even that ugly smeared gray Gameboy screen is just a Google Play visit away from coming alive on your Shield devices.

Why Emulation?

There are tons of “remakes” of classic games out there; they pop up every single day on the Google Play store.  Why shouldn’t you pick one of those – with better graphics and sound – instead of emulation?  That’s easy – they aren’t real.

For those not familiar with emulation – let me give you a quick run down why “the real thing” is better than those horrid remakes.

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This isn’t real Pac-Man….

When discussing a classic game – like say, Pac-Man, an early 80’s arcade game – you will find tons of Pac-Man simulations.  You’ve probably seen those Pac-Man controllers that play 5 in 1 games where you plug it into your TV.  They have tons of them; Pac-Man, Frogger, Ms. Pac-Man – no cartridges required – just plug it in and play.  These are SIMULATIONS of the original arcade game, Pac-Man.  It LOOKS like Pac-Man and SOUNDS like Pac-Man … it even kinda PLAYS like Pac-Man.  But as any die hard Pac-Man arcade player will tell you – it isn’t the original Pac-Man.  The ghosts don’t behave the same.  The screen is laid out different.  Maybe some of the sound effects or artwork is a little off.  That’s because there isn’t real arcade hardware in that little controller plugged into your TV.  It’s an interpretation of the original game.

Emulation is different.  Inside all those arcade games, consoles and computers from the 70s, 80s and 90s were CPUs, memory, software – all waiting for you to play a game on it by plugging in a cartridge, loading a disk or typing in some code.  Emulation is about EMULATING all that hardware perfectly – as a software program – so you can run the emulator on OTHER hardware – like your PC or your Shield device.

Because most of the old game consoles and computers run on similar hardware inside, once you make a program that EMULATES a chip – like say a 6502 CPU or Z80 processor – developers can REUSE that ‘core’ program in other emulators that need it.

Of course, emulation does have a drawback.  Since it is emulating tons of hardware, it can take a pretty beefy machine to run the emulators.  Even something as old as a Commodore 64 that ran at 1mhz can require tens to hundreds of times more powerful of a system to run the software accurately.  This is why there are spot on emulators for older hardware while emulation for newer, more complex hardware (like a PS1 or N64) requires a more powerful device to run them at full speed – if at all.

Emulation Has A Gray Side

Old consoles and computers weren’t just a bunch of chips thrown in a box.  They were driven by a core software called an Operating System, much like Windows or Android – hardware without at least SOME software isn’t much use to anyone.  On consoles and old computers, this core OS was called the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) and it had enough code to get the game running.

The code in the BIOS is copyrighted – even to this day.  There are ways to hook your old devices up to your computer and “dump” the BIOS code out (which is mostly legal) – but very few people have the expertise or drive to do this – so most people turn to Google and emulation sites to download these BIOS files for use with emulators.  While you can morally say “Well, I own an NES, so I can legally download that BIOS file” – a court of law might disagree with you.  In some countries, it is totally legal.  Some emulators have custom BIOS code – written by the emulator author themselves, created through reverse engineering – and often runs BETTER than the original.  For these emulators, you won’t need a BIOS file.  But for many emulators, you will.

The other legally gray side are the games files themselves; also known as ROMS or images.  While a quick Google search will turn up all your favorite old games in ROM format, ready to play on emulators – most of them are still copyrighted by their original owners.  Companies like Nintendo, Atari and Sega are VERY protective over their classic gaming library (after all, they want to repackage and resell them to you again later) – so be careful about how you go about obtaining these ROM files.

Again, laws vary from country to country – and you’re completely on your own legally and morally when dealing with emulation.  Just don’t expect emulation authors to tell you where to get BIOS and ROM files from – they legally cannot do that.

What Makes A Good Emulator?

Emulators are EVERYWHERE … available for every computer, phone and tablet.  There are emulators for almost every classic computer and console system on the planet, too.  With so many to choose from, you have to understand what makes one emulator better than another and why you should actually PAY for emulation.

You can sum up great emulation with three words; speed, compatibility and features.

PCE.emu

PCE.emu

As mentioned earlier, even older than dirt game systems can and do require a good amount of modern hardware to run them properly.  With some emulators, the authors expect you to throw lots of hardware at the emulator to make it fast.  After all, even poor code runs FASTER on better hardware.  Some emulation authors port over Windows or Linux emulators – making just enough changes so that it runs on Android, but the rest is up to you.  Not fast enough?  Game drops frames?  Sound is choppy?  Sorry, buy a better tablet.  For other emulation authors, their goal is to hand optimize their own emulation to ensure maximum speed with the lowest amount of hardware.  Two emulators running on the same hardware can run DRASTICALLY different with regards to speed.

In the old Atari 2600 days, there wasn’t much under the hood.  A single CPU, a little memory … not much needed to emulate; but take something like the Commodore Amiga with not only a CPU and several types of memory – but also several sub-processors.  The more complex it is under the hood, the more likely you are to run into issues of compatibility.  Simply put, some games that harness “tricks of the hardware” or maybe used something special in the cartridge may not work right with an emulator.  They may have graphic defects, sound issues – they may not even play at all.  Good emulation is hand tuned and optimized to ensure greater compatibility – or offer settings or switches to try to “trade off” something like speed for compatibility.  These are the emulators you’re looking for.

Finally, features.  Sloppy ports of emulation from Windows or Linux may not support a touch screen, or properly play sound – maybe not even support a real controller.  Maybe you want to use a USB Gamepad with your Atari 2600 emulator.  Perhaps you want to be able to save the state of the game while you’re playing and come back later.  Some emulators even have “rewind” features that allow you to ‘roll back’ a few seconds and save yourself from a bad jump or miscalculated attack.  Emulators can be feature-rich – while others can simply be “this is what you get”.

The Broglia .EMU Emulator Series

Alright, enough talking about what emulation is and what makes one emulator better than the others.  I’m about to make your emulation life a LOT easier by introducing you to a series of classic emulators known as .EMU, created by a great developer named Robert Broglia.

Currently, Broglia has Android app emulators for the following consoles:

  • Atari 2600
  • Commodore 64
  • Nintendo NES
  • Nintendo Gameboy/Gameboy Color
  • Nintendo SNES
  • Nintendo GameBoy Advance
  • NEC Turbo Graphix 16 (PCEngine)
  • Sega Genesis (Megadrive; partial SegaCD support)
  • SMK Neo-Geo
  • SMK Neo-Geo Pocket
  • MSX Computer / Colecovision

As you can see, the author is very busy working on some of the most venerable systems out there.  But how do his emulators stand up to our three watch words of emulation; speed, compatibility and features?

Ladybug on Atari 2600

Ladybug on Atari 2600

One of the best parts about Broglia’s emulators is the fact that they all look, act and feel the same.  There is a ubiquitous UI and feature set across all emulators (when possible).  You’ll feel right at home in any of them once you’re comfortable with one of them.

Regular features include pre-configuration for use with popular Bluetooth controllers (Wii remote, iCade, iCP, USB Gamepads, etc), save states, cheat code access and much more.  There are also emulator specific features – like Zapper support on NES.emu that allows you to play Duck Hunt and other lightgun games … CD emulation for TG-16 … paddle emulation on Atari 2600 … extra support for multiple players on many emus … and more.

Compatibility is excellent across the entire line of emulators.  What’s more, Broglia is always accepting compatibility issues and fixing them promptly.  That’s a HUGE plus for any product.  The biggest compatibility issues you’ll find are on SNES and SegaCD emulation; both of which are noted for issues on other emulators as well.  SegaCD emulation is considered beta already – but it works remarkably well.

Overall, speed across the line is exceptional.  Even lower end Android devices will find absolutely usable emulation with most consoles.   SNES, Neo-Geo and SegaCD are the most demanding and will definitely benefit from a higher-class Android device.

Most emulators work without BIOS files, but there are a couple of emulators you’ll need to provide them.

The Dark Side

All my reviews come with a Dark Side – since no app (including emulators) are perfect.

The Dark Side for most users will be the price.  Broglia’s emulators are top notch – and as such, he expects to get paid.  Emulators run anywhere from Free to  $7.99 – and there are no “demo” versions to try out (unless you download the knock-offs built from his source code).  Of course, the bottom line is – every emulator is worth the price of admission; except possibly MSX/Colecovision – at $7.99 that’s one pricey emu for a computer system that few Americans even know about … and Colecovision.

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Ouch … A bit spendy …

One of the greatest selling points of Broglia’s emulators is built in support for the cheap, easily accessible Wii controller.  A lot of us have them laying around – and since so many classic systems only have a couple of buttons – the Wii controller on its side is a lot like a classic NES pad.  Unfortunately, if you have Android 4.2+ – Wii controller support is broken – thanks to Google changing out the Bluetooth stack in the operating system.  iCade devices still work, so if you have an iCade device like an 8Bitty Controller, Nyko Gamepad or other iCade compatible device – you’re still good to go.

My own personal issue with Broglia’s emulators revolve around a very niche SegaCD game called Night Trap; technically any of the Digital Pictures games (Double Switch, et al).  While most people would probably be HAPPY it didn’t emulate these FMV CD games, it’s part of my nostalgia and I’d really love to see it working.

Finally, as a computer guy growing up – I didn’t have nearly as many consoles as I had computers.  Computer emulation of the Vic-20, Atari 400/800, Amiga, Atari ST and other popular home computers are oddly missing from the .EMU line up.  I really need Amiga emulation with the “Broglia Touch” to complete my childhood.  Hopefully, it’s coming soon.

Summary

You get what you pay for – and Broglia’s for-pay emulators are worth every penny he asks for them.  The constant support, compatibility increases and ever-evolving emulators make any of the .EMU series a sure bet – whether you want to play Adventure on the 2600, Galaga 88 on the TG-16 or Beavis & Butthead on the Sega Genesis – there is a .EMU app for you.

You’ll love the ubiquitous features and UI, the speed and the flexibility of carrying most of your video game childhood in your pocket.

Find Robert’s .EMU line on Google Play.

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