Monday, 28 April 2014

Emulation – The PC Alternatives

   The PC is still the dominant platform for emulation, it offers far more in the way of variety and choice, and 99.99% of the time offers a more competent and a superior experience (depending on who you speak to that is.) Things have only got better and better as the years have rolled by: emulators are improving year-on-year, laptops and desktops can now be hooked up to the TV via HDMI, and the last half a decade or more has seen the Xbox 360 and PS3 controllers become the de facto PC method of controller supported input. More recently there has even been an influx of USB adaptors that enable you to plug old console controllers into the PC for use with emulators to create an even better and closer console experience.

   But what if you don’t want to do emulation on the PC? What if you want a simpler console style experience? What if you want emulation on the move? Well fear not, as emulation on other systems other than the PC has a long history, and there is a wealth of choice out there these days. My Amiga 2000 for example has a Dos 2088 PC emulation expansion board and there is also a version of the Vice C64 emulator available for the Amiga platform. Old consoles such as Sega’s Dreamcast now have plenty of emulators created for it that can be burned onto a CD-R and booted up, so even retro machines are capable of emulating earlier retro machines especially these days. 

   In this article I will be focusing on two different systems and one platform which I am very familiar with and have been experiencing emulation on for some time now. The two systems are the original Xbox and the Nintendo Wii, the other is the Android platform as I have been using a tablet which is what most people will generally use. Why focus on Android instead of other mobile devices such as the PSP or DS? Well it’s simply because I use my Android tablet for emulation and have never experienced emulation on the PSP or DS. Also the Android platform and the tablet market have exploded over the last 4 years, these days most people have a tablet and if it isn’t an iPad then it’s an Android tablet. It must be noted however that because of the wide variety in manufacturers and specs on the platform, not everyone will have the same cohesive experience of emulation on it, and that experience will come down to your specific device. 

Ease of Setup

Original Xbox – To run emulation on the original Xbox it will first have to be modded, this requires it to be either hard modded using a chip or softmodded. The latter uses exploits in software to replace the old firmware with a new custom built one and does not require any additional hardware to be installed. While I can’t speak about how easy or not the hard mod route is, I can however tell you that the softmod method is pretty strait forward to do and I’d say can be easily accomplished by anyone, no matter what your skill level in these areas are. You will have to acquire a few extras off eBay to accomplish the softmod, but it’s pretty strait forward from there on in.

   Two of the most challenging aspects of softmodding the original Xbox comes later after the new firmware has been installed. The first is using an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) program on your PC to send emulators over to the Xbox; the other is installing a larger hdd to house all the emulators you might want to install. The original Xbox comes with an 8gb hdd, once softmodded, 4gb will be used by the firmware while the other 4gb will be free to use as you see fit, but you might find that this small amount might fill up rather quickly. The former is easy enough once you know how to use an FTP program, but the latter is the most challenging technically and is a pain to be honest. There is a compatibility list out there for anyone trying to find a compatible IDE drive right off the bat, these are the best to go for especially if you manage to find a new one for sale as they are easily installed and have the best chance of working even if they are not on the compatibility list. The downside to using an IDE hdd is that they are now really expensive as they are being phased out, now they can cost double the price of a SATA drive with significantly less memory in comparison. Don’t worry though as you can use a SATA drive in conjunction with a SATA to IDE converter, but be warned that there is more of a chance a SATA drive wont work compared to an IDE drive due to incompatibility issues. 

Wii – I didn’t have to buy anything more than an 8gb SD card to softmod the Wii, but the initial installation of the custom firmware was more involved and a drawn out process than it was with the original Xbox. This puts the Wii ahead of the Xbox because although the initial setup is more complex, once its complete there are no more additional steps to be taken afterwards. The SD card is essential as this is where the new firmware and emulators will reside, you will need at least an 8gb SD Card, but if you find yourself needing a bigger card later on then everything can be copy and pasted over to the new card. Installing emulators is made easy by plugging the SD card into a PC and putting them in the correct folder, this is far easier and less time consuming than the FTP method employed by the Xbox. 

Android – Out of all three the Android platform is the easiest to get emulators installed on. It’s as easy as downloading free or paid for emulators off the Google Play store, install them and away you go. If there are certain emulators you want but can’t find on the store, but have found elsewhere, then the APK file can be downloaded or side-loaded onto your Android device, it’s that simple, and for that reason the Android platform wins in this category hands down. 

Plug & Play Experience

Xbox – As the original Xbox is a console, my hopes always were that in softmodding the system it would bring a console type experience to emulation that I couldn’t get from the PC at the time, and sure enough it didn’t disappoint. I have found that most of the emulators, although made or ported by different developers, seem to work to the same basic design and principles as one another, and in doing so have brought some uniformity across the board to the emulation experience on the machine. All emulators I have used are plug & play: once installed they require no further setup or configuration, they are ready to go from installation, they just require you to hit play and this is very much in tune with a console style experience. You can of course mess with options and configuration if you wish, but it’s not mandatory or necessary. Controller integration here is flawless as you would expect it to be, and for anyone wondering, the d-pad works really well for older 8/16-bit games. 

Wii – As with the Xbox, I was hoping that the Wii would deliver a similar experience with emulation, and as development on the Xbox was to such a high standard, I was also expecting the same standards on the Wii. Unfortunately things turned out to be a mixed bag, which is a shame as well as a missed opportunity. I don’t know whether this is due to the fact that the Xbox has had a far longer gestation period in comparison, but the emulation experience is somewhat lacking on the Wii and often far from the plug and play experience that should be on offer. The most common 8/16-bit emulators (Nes, SNES, SMS, Mega Drive) are fine and do offer a good plug and play experience with the added advantage of plenty of different control options via Wii Remote, Classic Controller (Pro) and the Game Cube pad. But I have found that for everything else there always seems to be something getting in the way, be it screen adjustment, setting configurations before play or an emulator just being plain fussy about where stuff is placed or what it can and can’t play. Stick to the most common core of 8/16-bit consoles and you will be fine and have a pleasant enough console type experience, but stray any further and emulation on the Wii will leave you considering better alternatives. 

Android – Hot on the heals of the original Xbox is the Android platform, and you would think that this platform would be the furthest away from a plug and play experience, but from my hands-on it does a far more competent job as a whole than anything offered on the Wii. Just like the Xbox it’s as simple as loading up an emulator and hitting play, with touchscreen controls already mapped out onto the screen. I have yet to come across any emulator that didn’t offer a ready to go plug and play experience, even all the emulators mimicking old computers are ready to go.

   There are a few hoops you will have to jump through to get a more console type experience, such as connecting a controller (Moga, PS3, 360) and connecting to a TV via a HDMI cable, but these will only seek to make a ready and accessible experience more complete. Syncing a controller up to a tablet will mean you will have to first dive into an emulators options to set it up and map the button layout before diving into a game, but once done you shouldn’t have to do it again when booting up the same emulator. 

Emulator Settings & Options

Xbox – In this area the original Xbox once again rules supreme over the competition as the sheer wealth of settings and options that are on offer that can be tweaked in each emulator is mind bending. You can tweak and change just about anything, not that you will necessarily want to, but there are plenty of easy pickings worth having a mess about with such as graphical and texture filters, audio filters, frame rate etc. Its to the credit of all involved with bringing the emulators to the Xbox that you can dive straight into playing games with no need to go anywhere near the settings whatsoever, but if you did wish to change or tweak options even further for whatever reason, then the user is certainly well catered for. 

Wii – For most of the emulators bar a few the choice and scope of settings on the Wii’s range is positively anaemic compared to those on the Xbox with less than a tenth of the choice on offer to the user in comparison. Once again the main 8/16-bit console emulators are reasonably catered for with some good and worth while settings on offer to users, but its still a lot less than what you will find on the Xbox. While it can be said that choice is not everything, it can also be argued that the more options and settings available to the user to tweak, the more they can adjust and cater to their particular experience, taste and variables in HDTVs. When it comes to settings in emulators I am an advocate that more is better as it allows for more freedom and flexibility and in the end will only add to the gaming experience overall. Sadly though this is an area that is underdeveloped in many emulators on the Wii so don’t expect the earth to breath fire here. 

Android – Emulators on the Android platform are slightly ahead of the Wii in the amount of settings and options open to users, but only by a small margin. In some emulators choosing certain graphical options or plugins will either open or restrict the amount of settings available in relevant fields. There are also a wide range of input settings on emulators on this platform as there are quite a lot of Android Bluetooth gaming pads to choose from these days, and that’s on top of the options given for tweaking touchscreen controls. You will also find that most emulators will give you options as to how they handle the frame rate and GPU; this comes in quite handy with the wide ranging hardware that has adopted the Android platform.

   The biggest difference and advantage emulators have in this category over the Wii is that development is very much on-going as opposed to the Wii where development seems all but dead. Emulation on Android is moving forward and fast catching up to Xbox levels of quality, and six months from now there will undoubtedly be newer versions of emulators available with a wider range of settings on offer that will be implemented to a greater degree. 

Overall Quality and Experience

Xbox – From my experience the original Xbox has given the best overall experience, and is outstanding in the quality of emulation on offer. While it lacks the option of a physical keyboard and mouse for the old micro computer emulators, developers have still managed to find the best logical workarounds and produce or port emulators that outperform what’s on offer on other platforms. What you can find on the Xbox is a wealth of choice where the quality of emulation on offer can only truly be rivalled by what is on the PC, no surprise there then as the Xbox is basically a consolized PC. The Xbox has always been synonymous with modding, emulation and homebrew which began no sooner had the console been launched, a factor that also contributed to its success no less. This inevitably gives the original Xbox a leg-up when compared with any other platform as development is so far ahead: at present I feel there is a generational gap between what is on Xbox and what’s offered on the Wii, and perhaps three years gap capered to Android. The Android platform will soon catch up, but I feel the Wii will always lag far behind.

   I cant say that I have encountered any problems with emulators, the usual suspects are still fussy about certain games as is the case on the PC, and on the whole I can say I have had a flawless and enjoyable experience overall. Another great part of emulation on the system is that as far as emulating old consoles go, the Xbox gives as close to a console style experience as you can get, even beating the PC with its USB controller adaptors.

   There is a barrier to all this however as the extra steps you’ll have to take in the modding and setup process to get the best possible experience will be a problematic and sticky experience for some, a complete barrier to others. Having to FTP everything you want over to the system is a pain in the backside as it’s a cumbersome process by todays standards and a time consuming one at that, but these headaches are well worth suffering as the results speak for themselves. 

Wii – I find that I can’t really recommend the Wii for emulation, not when there are better options available. But having said that if you don’t have any other options open to you, and you just want the basics, then the Wii route is one worth taking. It does a competent job with the main 8/16-bit consoles as these emulators are great: frame rate is smooth with accurate and reliable emulation, there are a reasonable amount of basic options and the controls are flawless, although I do find the picture rather hemmed in when compared with other systems. But venture outside of these core emulators and towards anything more exotic or computer based then problems and reliability issues will abound, not to mention emulator specific quirks.

   I can’t help but be very disappointed with the state of emulation on the Wii; it should be a lot closer to where the original Xbox is even with a generational gap between development. It has advantages in its varied controller options, and that a mouse and keyboard can be hooked up via the USB ports for computer based emulators, but sadly only to then be let down by poor emulation and GUI implementation.

   What’s worse is that the Wii seems to be all but abandoned, or at least things have stalled and there has been little movement or development. After a year or more I would expect to see some updates and progression, with newer versions of emulators on offer, but that’s sadly not the case as nothing seems to have moved forward. Its seems as if the Wii cant shake off the dust that always seems to want to cover it and keep it tied down. 

Android – From my experience I have found emulation on Android to be fantastic, especially for such a small portable device I can take with me on my travels. Its not the complete experience on its own because lets face it, touchscreen controls are quite honestly shit, shit is what they are and will always be as they will never be good enough to replace real buttons, d-pads and analog sticks. So investing in a wireless Bluetooth controller, whether it is Moga, Xbox 360, PS3 or one of the many others on the market at the moment is simply a must to complete and round off the emulation experience.

   Emulation is of a high standard, it’s easy to obtain, install and there are plenty to choose from as well as numerous different ones available for any given system. But while most of the emulators are of a high standard, just how well they run will more than likely depend on your specific tablet. More Ram, GPU and graphical grunt the better, but that does not necessarily mean a specific emulator will always run smoothly, it also depends on how much other stuff is running in the background. I have found I got better frame rates and next to no lockups when shutting everything down that I could before running an emulator. You might also find on rooted tablets that squeezing them for more ram and GPU power might help a lot with this, so this is something to bear in mind.

   The portable market is a very fast moving one, and with so many different devices on the market it’s always best to search the web and do your research to make sure you pick the right device for you to save yourself from disappointment. With the Android sphere being so fragmented with different tech specs there will always be problems, but emulation development seems to be keeping up pace and improving all the time, and as a result it looks set to overtake the original Xbox sometime in the very near future.


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