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August 10, 2011

The Difficulties of Old Console Emulation

Posted by on Aug 10, 2011

If anyone has previously played old Nintendo or Super Nintendo games via an emulator, you know how dodgy it can be to get a game to work properly or even at all. The N64 is nearly impossible. Yet these consoles are well over 15 years old at this point, so what gives?

The ArsTechnica Opposable Thumbs blog has an interesting read on some of the problems encountered in emulating games, and why it’s so difficult to get things right. It’s a pretty technical writeup from the developer of a SNES emulator, especially on the second two pages, but educational nonetheless. Many of the issues with emulation come from the fact that console video games stress the outside boundaries of what is possible on the hardware, especially late in the console’s lifecycle. They use unusual boundary conditions and edge cases to eke out a tiny sliver more power – and don’t think that was just because those 15 year old consoles were much less powerful than the ones of today.  I have no doubt that these same techniques are used today on the Xbox360 and Playstation 3.

It’s interesting to consider that a full, 100% accurate software emulation of a Super Nintendo stresses the boundaries of a modern computer. The same feat may not be possible in our lifetime for a Nintendo 64. Not to worry: one of my favorite games of all time is a SNES game, so go get ZSNES and play Secret of Mana. [Editor’s Note: Don’t forget Chrono Trigger while you’re at it]