Archive for August 11th, 2011


What do you really need from a gaming console emulator?

A couple of weeks ago I purchased a new netbook.  Nothing unusual about that, and as I had said at length in a previous post, my old 701 model EeePC was in the long drawn out process of dying an agonised death, due to a profound loss of smoke containment.  So having saved what little I could  each week over the course of a couple of months, and having borrowed the 60 Euros I was short, I stepped into PCWorld and got a good deal on a new Acer Aspire One 522.

I quite simply love my new netbook.  Three simple comparisons will show even the least technologically savvy of my readers why.

1: Screen Size.

EeePC 701         – 7 inches

Aspire One 522 – 10.1 inches

2: Hard Drive.

EeePC 701          – a 4 gigabyte solid state memory hard drive.

Aspire One 522 – 250 gigabyte SATA hard drive.

3: Operating System.

EeePC 701          – a now unsupported, largely extinct distribution of Linux.

Aspire One 522 – Windows 7 Starter .

In every way my new netbook is a huge leap forward for my day-to-day  computing life.  Everything from surfing the internet to wordprocessing has been simplified by the larger storage capacity, the significantly larger screen, and an operating system, for which it is easy to find up to date, stable and above all else simple to install software.  Which brings me nicely to emulators for now extinct games consoles.

One of the numberous reasons why I wanted to update my netbook, was to have a machine capable of running emulators.  I travel reasonably often to visit my mom and friends in Cork.  But like most hardcore gamers, I hate to be without access to some form of computer gaming.  Now unlike, what seems to be the vast majority of current gamers, I have a great fondness for what I suppose must be described as classic games.  Regular readers will have no doubt come across my reviews for games such as Elite and Starflight.

But playing those classic games on modern PC’s usually requires an emulator, unless of course you can find and afford to buy one of the few surviving, functioning examples of the original machines.  Well I can’t, and even if I could afford a collection of old consoles, many of the original cartridges, or CD’s containing the games I am most interested in playing often go for almost obscenely astronomical prices online.  So that leaves me with emulators and Roms.

Now, up until my recent Acer purchase, only my main PC was capable of running emulators.  Well, to be more accurate, I was only able to get them running on my PC.  My little Asus may have been a nice machine to type on, but it was an outright nightmare to run anything Windows-based on.  And yes I know there are usually Linux conversions of the most popular emulators, but in the 701 EeePC, we are speaking of a machine which had to be beaten repeatedly with a digital stick just to get it to run the programs it came installed with. So today I have two machines more than capable of running any emulator I wish.  But since I don’t like running emulators on my PC. my netbook is now doubling up as both my word processor and gaming time machine.

But regardless of which computer I, or indeed you use where we run into problems is which emulators to use?

Which machines to emulate is a simple enough decision for me.  After all I was a child of the 80’s and a teen of the 90’s so that means the Nes, Snes, Megadrive/Genesis and of course the big daddy of the 90’s the Playstation 1.

But there are multiple emulators for all of them, and to put it simply not all emulators are created equal.  To be frank some of them suck, some are incredible works of programming, while others are over engineered to the point of insanity.  And while the former ones are easy to discover, they simply won’t run many Roms successfully, the great and over-engineered  ones can be a much tougher creatures to identify.  So since the worlds geeks have had a lot less time to make its emulators run well, let’s take the Playstation 1 (PS1) as our example.

If like me you were a teen in the earlyish 90’s, you probably had, or at one point or another played on a PS1.  At one point, next to hydrogen, they seemed to be the most common arrangement of matter in the known universe.  But they were for my generation a wake up call, gaming we discovered could be a far more eye and ear pleasing affair.  The PS1 today is essentially extinct, and while many of the games have been ported to the newer Playstation Portable, the original machine, being 3 generations out of date, is no longer developed for.  But its success wound up leaving behind a huge legacy of games, many of which still cry out to be played.

But on which emulator? There are after all, shedloads of the things. It can be hard to believe but strangely most PS1 emulators tend to be very different, which seems crazy when you stop and realise that they’re all intended for precisely the same purpose.  But they all vary widely in terms of how stable they are when they’re running, how well they run any given game rom, how much in the way of system resources they use, how well they make use of the computers graphic processing capabilities, and not least in how user-friendly they are.  It’s rather like comparing the many different breeds of dogs.  They’re all dogs, but some are more fit for a given purpose than others.

So after a great deal of experimentation, and the invention of several new swear words, I finally settled on either the PSX or ePSXe emulators.  The first because it is incredibly user-friendly, the latter because it seems to run just a touch smoother, but that smoothness I found, comes at a cost.

While PSX just runs your Roms reasonably well, the ePSXe runs them slightly better but gives the user options to change a truly vast array of settings.  While I’m sure this sets the sort of person who could have gotten my EeePc to run any program drooling.  I find that it increases hugely, the possibility of someone less adept completely screwing something up, and thus at the very least losing any progress they may have made in their games.

It really comes down to a question of what you personally need from an emulator.  The ability to use cheat codes, monkey around with display settings (I mean beyond the necessity of fixing resolutions and screen frequency), and even changing what sub-program is used to generate the sounds or graphics, is I’m sure, a great addition for those with that sort of mind.  But to those who just want a program with the minimum of clutter, that will simply play their games, save their progress properly and leave the player with a happy glow, those overly complex emulators are just a recipe for future problems.

After all even if the user doesn’t accidentally drop a spanner in the works, we all know little kids who will scream to be let play their game, and then screw something up while trying to turn up the sound.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now I went in the end with the PSX.  I am techie, at least where hardware and Windows XP is concerned, but in an emulator I just want something to play my damn games with.  That’s all.  What you will decide is of course up to you, but I would like to make a few suggestions.

1: Try as many emulators as you can, for whatever games console you want to use.  They really are not all the same.

2: Read the documentation for each.  Yes I agree it’s annoying and time-consuming, but often emulators have unique quirks which can be a pain in the ass when you try to use them at first.  Forewarned is after all forearmed.

3: When you find the emulator you want to use, save constantly, and make a back up of your save files as often as you can stand to.  Even the best emulators are prone to instability and it’s not uncommon to have to completely uninstall and then reinstall them.  Which can be a real pain if you forget to back up all your progress to date.  Especially if like me you adore that type of 60 hour plus role playing game.

4: Buy a joypad to use with your emulators.  Yes I know you can use your keyboard, but you’re playing games which were created with a joypad in mind.  Fighting games like the Tekken series are virtually unplayable with a keyboard.  Look, it is simply a more enjoyable and less wrist destroying way to play you favourite games.

5: Finally whether you go the uber-techie route or stick with the simplest to use emulator, remember why you wanted to one in the first place.  To play the games of your youth, to play the games you couldn’t afford or find when you were younger.  But mostly to just have fun.

So now with those thoughts firmly in mind, I find myself still remembering but also now reliving just how wonderful the opening movie of Soulblade was to watch, and the treat of the game itself being supremely playable. I still personally rank it as the best two player fighting game of that era.  Tenchu: Stealth Assassins was mindblowing, an action game where stealth, carefully thought out movements, and flawless executed, brutal attacks were the only way to progress through the game.  Breath of Fire 3 and 4, took the classic Megadrive style of role playing games to their zenith, and opened the door for the rightly lauded Final Fantasy 7.

Yes just like their Nes, Snes and Megadrive precursors they are old games, often with graphics which compare poorly to modern games. But those old machines and their huge back catalogues of games now played on emulators play host to so many wonderous games from a golden age of gaming.  The age when games often told an occasionally decent story.  Games which offered huge challenges to even the very best of gamers.  Games which are still true classics in their own genres.  But most of all they offer huge doses of fun, an aspect of computer games which too often seems to have been forgotten by many modern games developers in their mutual headlong race to the zenith of mediocrity.

I say long live emulation and the classic game rom.  So slap some Led Zeppelin on the media play, crank up Immigrants Song and cry out Kings Field I am coming!

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