Friday, 11 May 2018

Saturn Emulation 101: Part 1 - What Emulation is All About

noun em·u·la·tor \ ˈem-yə-ˌlā-tər \

1 : one that emulates
2 : hardware or software that permits programs written for one computer to be run on another computer
[Source: Merriam-Webster]

Aside from piracy, emulation has to be one of the most hotly debated topics among gamers. Most swear by their original consoles, disparaging emulators as the inferior choice, only suited for people who don’t really care about games and take the easy, dirty way to play them. I’ve seen all kinds of arguments throughout the years, ranging from “emulators are always full of glitches” (they’re not), to “they add input lag” (only half-true, depends on setup), and the last resort of someone who’s out of arguments, the “it doesn’t feel the same”.

If you’ve been following my content for the Yard, by now you know I’m an enthusiast for everything related to emulation. Having said that, I’m not an apologist for it. I think good things stand for themselves and don’t need anyone praising them and trying to convert the masses, so that is definitely not what this article will be about. I’m not going to try to convince anyone to leave their consoles gathering dust (as if you can’t use both).
Instead, this article is aimed at anyone who’s already into emulators and wants to know more about the Saturn scene in particular, or those who are curious but have yet to dip their toes in this gigantic pool and are looking for some guidance to get started.

What is an emulator?

The basic definition is in the dictionary entry that started this article, but to expand on that a bit, it’s basically a program/software (please don’t call it “app”) that allows code (i.e., games) from one system to run on another. It’s not just between computers, a console can emulate another, like in the prolific Xbox (the original), Wii and PSP scenes, where the most popular use for a modded/hacked console, after playing pirated games, was to emulate older systems like the SNES or Mega Drive.

Chances are you’ve actually played on emulators, even if you didn’t realize it at the time. Compilations like the Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection and downloadable games like those on the Nintendo eShop or the PlayStation Store, all run on emulators. And just because they’re “official” doesn’t mean they’re any better than fan made ones. Actually 9 times out of 10 they’re worse, simply because the big companies don’t care much about accuracy as long as the differences aren’t overly noticeable for the average consumer, while emulation fans can – and will – obsess over minute things that no average mortal can spot. Look into technical analyses of the SNES mini, for example, and how it stacks up to hardcore emulators like Higan to see what I mean.

(Virtual-On running at 4K in YabaSanshiro)

This is just one of the reasons why it’s so disheartening to see some very antiquated notions about emulators still cropping up in [the current year]. I’ve been writing articles and making videos about this subject for some time and while the general response has been positive, I’ve seen some unfortunate comments from people who seem to have some kind of irrational hate against these harmless pieces of software.

It’s sad to see that the old idea that emulators are, and will always be, plagued with bugs and glitches is still alive and well. This probably stems from the fact that several emulators gain widespread appeal while still at an early stage. People who have never tried one go into them expecting a perfect 1:1 experience and are left severely disappointed when their favourite game is a mess. Others just want a plug and play solution, to select the game and press play much like with the original hardware, and don’t take the time to properly configure the emulator.

This is particularly prevalent with the Saturn since, for the longest time, the only emulators available were either painfully hard to set up and operate, suffered from poor compatibility, or both.
Rest assured that this is not the case anymore. Don’t listen to the naysayers, Saturn emulation has never been better or more on par with other, more established consoles. This is not to say it’s a walk in the park either, so let me try to help you decide whether this is worth your time or not.

 (Sega Rally running in widescreen in SSF - HUD is stretched but the actual game is being rendered in16:9)

Is emulation right for me?

If you:
  • want an original experience (playing on real hardware)
  • aren’t technically savvy or patient enough to spend anything from 10 minutes  up to an hour setting everything up for the first time and looking up solutions for any potential problem you may encounter
  • don’t have the appropriate hardware (powerful enough computer, PC gamepad, connection to the TV in case you don’t like sitting at your desk)
  • just want to play games the easiest and quickest way
...this is probably not for you.

On the other hand if you want to:
  • bring together all your gaming needs on a single platform
  • play backups without modding your console/getting a pseudo saturn/ode
  • mess with the look of your games in ways that are impractical/impossible to do on original hardware, like using shaders to simulate different screen types, increasing the internal resolution to get a high definition look, or using emulator-exclusive widescreen hacks
  • use ease-of-life features like save states, fast forward or rewind
  • easily capture footage/screenshots without a capture device
  • have the best picture quality without investing in solutions like the xrgbmini/ossc
...then this is definitely what you’ve been looking for!

 I want in! What next?

There are three main Saturn emulators that you can use. In the following articles we'll go in-depth into each one, telling their history, weighing their pros and cons and offering some help setting them up for the first time.

In the meantime, and to whet your appetite, take a look at our Killing Pixels series where we showcase examples of how you can improve your Saturn gaming experience.

Part 1: Shaders in Retroarch

Part 2: Saturn Games in HD

Part 3: Widescreen Hacks

1 comment:

Daniel Turner said...

awesome stuff Nuno! definitely wet my appetite. my only real experience with emulation is MAME and coinops. looking forward to part 2!