The Best New Emulation Device may be in Your Pocket.
When the Raspberry Pi foundation released the new Raspberry Pi 4 earlier this summer, emulation enthusiast quickly dissected the technical specs of the new affordable board and started to speculate what this tiny little computer would be capable of playing. I was excited when I saw people who seemed to know what they were talking about, guessing that it would be able to play some Dreamcast games, and provide a better shot at stable N64 performance. Inquiries asking for more advanced systems from well-meaning redditors were met with harsh condemnation though. The new Pi would not possibly push a GameCube emulator. That would require a high powered PC right? Once the idea of emulating Dreamcast and GameCube worked itself into my head, I could not shake the desire to figure a way out to play those classic games that really make up more of my “nostalgia zone” than NES or SNES do. So I did what any good millennial would do and immediately turned to the all-knowing YouTube community to see what options are out there for emulation past the PS1 or iffy N64 emulation that the Raspberry Pi offers. What I found surprised me and changed the way I play some retro games.
I had recently picked up a Samsung Galaxy S10+ and have been really happy with it. I had downloaded the ole standby GBA emulator when I got it, but every phone can run that in its sleep, so I did not think much of my new phone in regard to emulating anything other than Pokémon Fire Red for the 100th time... What got me intrigued was YouTuber ETA Prime’s video on the S10 running Dreamcast and GameCube emulators, and actually running them well. I decided this was going to be the path I set out on to emulate Dreamcast and GameCube games and who knows what else was possible.
The first system that I set out to emulate was the criminally underrated Sega Dreamcast. I have always had a soft spot for this system, and I actually was close to buying one off my local Facebook marketplace to mod, or just burn games for it, but the prices have crept up over the years and I knew I could figure out a better way than going through the hell that Rory outlined on the show when he was burning Dreamcast games. I had messed around with the stock Dreamcast emulator in Retropie “Reicast” but have never had much success with that particular core. YouTuber “ETA Prime” made a great video featuring a newer emulator that is still actively being worked on by a team of talented developers called “Redream”. There is a free and a paid version available for Android so I downloaded the free version from the Google Play store and set to loading as many ROMs as I could get my hands on. I was pleasantly surprised when I loaded up “Soul Calibur” and it played at a smooth 60 frames per second, and after I was confident in the app, I purchased the full version that allowed to me to play the games in HD. I have tried a lot of games from the fast paced “Sonic Adventure 2” to the graphically intense “Gauntlet Legends” and I did not notice any slowdowns or dips in performance. The biggest test for me was “Marvel vs Capcom 2”, not because its a particular taxing game for a system to run, but it is just one of my favorites and it passes the “feel” test. I could pull off combos with the same confidence as I would on my modded OG Xbox or at the arcade. Some other notables that run great are “Jet Set Radio” and “Tony Hawk 1 and 2”.
The next step was to see if my phone could seriously run GameCube games at anything close to a playable level. I downloaded the popular “Dolphin” emulator app and loaded up “Soul Calibur 2” as my first test of the app. It blew me away. Again, it was pushing 60fps and in 720p HD. I spastically tested out a bunch of games and really only saw unplayable slowdown from one game (Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance). This is not a huge blow to me since I had a copy of it that plays great on the old Xbox but could be a bummer for some. The most important test was loading up “Super Smash Brothers Melee” and I was impressed that I was able to play through it perfectly fine. Unlike my Pi playing the N64 version, there was no noticeable slowdowns when there was a lot going on and it kept the frame rate up in the 50's/60's through whatever chaos was going on in the game. The rest of the Mario stable was just as smooth, I forgot how many awesome games are on the GameCube. I can’t wait to get into some of the classics that I never got around to playing, especially since Nintendo refuses to release them for the Switch.
The only game that falls into the “Playable, but not perfect” category would be the “Metroid Prime” games. They run well when there is not a lot of enemies on screen, but can chug a bit when the action picks up. Adjusting the resolution back down to “native” can help with these slowdowns, but they will always be there. The sound on most games is not perfect as well. There are skips and pops that would not be there with real hardware, but to me its a compromise I can live with.
I also loaded a dedicated N64 emulator app “Mupen 64” that runs well. I have not played it extensively, but I was able to get through the first 2 levels of “Goldeneye 007” running at 1080p/60fps. That was even using the on-screen controller abomination which can actually work ok for some games with some practice. They seem to have figured out N64 emulation and it is glorious. Although let's be honest, as fun as some games are, most N64 games still look like blurry garbage. Retroarch also runs fantastic on Android so you could have all of your games on your phone, however I did keep the Pi around for Atari- 16 bit/MAME ROMs. I recently picked up a PS1 classic for $25 and modded it to hold my full PS1 library. I love having a tiny PS1 sitting next to a tiny SNES (Pi case)! Lastly, I tried a Nintendo DS emulator “Drastic” and it handled everything I threw at it from “Mario Kart” to “Pokémon Black and white”.
I can guess by now if you are still reading this you may be thinking “that's great it runs on your phone, but there is no way in hell I’m staring at my cell phone to play through “Zelda Twilight Princess” or “Shenmue”. I had the same thoughts, so I ordered a “USB-C to HDMI” adapter that not only allowed me to play the emulators on my TV, but launched my phone in a desktop environment called “Samsung Dex”. This works very well, and it even uses your phone as a mouse touchpad so you can easily select the app you want to launch. I am using my favorite Bluetooth controller with all of these emulators, my trusty 8bitdo SN30 Pro, but any Bluetooth controller should work with Android. The last couple tips I would tell anyone looking to get into Android emulation is to download a good file manager software as you will need to find the right folders to drop your ROMs in, and to buy a decent sized micro SD card to hold your games. I filled a 128gb card between GameCube, N64 and Dreamcast. Your phone will not like you if you fill its internal memory to the brim then expect it to do all of the things that you ask of it running on no free memory to store cache etc.