How does game emulation work?

Emulators are software programs that allow you to play console or arcade games on other devices such as your home PC, tablet or mobile phone.  These software programs essentially act like the original console hardware and enable you to play games like Double Dragon from the arcades on your laptop.








Generally speaking, software emulators require ten times the computing power of the original hardware they are emulating and often some very clever programming.  Think about it for a moment, in the eighties game manufacturer Atari developed a chipset called POKEY, the Pot Keyboard Integrated Circuit was a digital IO chip for the 8 bit Atari consoles and in part was responsible for sound.  This was a patented IO chipset designed and manufactured by Atari for Atari. 

















Anyone playing games like Star Raiders, Centipede or Missile Command in the eighties was hearing sounds generated by this unique chip.  You can play Centipede one the MAME emulator but your Windows 10 laptop obviously doesn’t have the POKEY chip !   This is where emulators step in and why it’s so important that they do; the preservation of these classic video games, that defined a generation, is so important so many people and emulators allow us too easily do that.


In our example above the MAME emulator uses software to emulate that original Atari audio chip and produces the exact same sound - clever hey?  But that is just the tip of the iceberg.  Emulation allows us to apply modern tech to retro games.  For example the Playstation emulator, code named ‘Duck Station’ can use anti aliasing, which was technology not available on the original console, to average our those jagged edges on the original Playstation's graphics and make them look nice and smooth.   In fact many modern emulators, like Dolphin, a well established emulator for the Nintendo Gamecube and Wii, can upscale the original graphics from 480p to 4k !  Yes its actually possible to play Mario Kart Double Dash on the Gamecube in 4K.  But of course remember you need a system that is roughly speaking ten times more powerful than the original hardware.  So whilst you can enjoy many retro games on a basic Windows computer, having more grunt under the hood can allow you to do some really cool things to older games.  








One really cool feature of emulation is rom hacking.  Rom hacking is where someone has taken the original rom (game) and modified it.  Take Super Mario Kart on the SNES, it was one of the best racing games at that time and doesn’t need ‘improving’, however some chap hacked the original rom and released Hyper Street Kart which plays on the SNES emulator and changes all the Mario characters for Street Fighter characters!  AWESOME 


Another important feature of emulation is save states.  Save states are like a system snapshot that allow you to essentially save a game that may not have originally allowed saves. Like arcade games, like Tomb Raider on the Playstation, which although did have saves, they were always at the end of a terribly difficult stand off with a tiger or tough temple wall climb - if only I could have saved just before attempting the climb..... DAMN YOU LARA !!!


Emulators allow us to preserve both classic video games that just cannot be played any longer because they are so rare and some more recent games.   Preserve recent games you ask?  Yes think about the closure of the PS3 or XBOX 360 digital game stores.  There were plenty of titles that never made it to disc and the closure of the digital stores means the games are, in theory, lost forever, unless you have the original console and the digital game already downloaded, but if you don’t then emulation is here to preserve those great video games and will allow you to play the digital only games on a windows computer using modern chipsets, CPU’s and graphics cards.


Emulators don’t just emulate games, they can also emulate hardware too, usual control systems like the Nintendo Wiimotes can be emulated by the Dolphin emulator we talked about earlier.  MAME can emulate the original Yoke stick flight control of the classic Star Wars arcade game made by Atari. 


The machines that Retro Play build use emulators, we have spent years perfecting the advanced settings of all the different emulators and all their features so that gamers get the best experience.

Playing a classic game like Double Dragon on one of our arcade machines is just like playing it back in the day.

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