It’s probably a snow day for many of you, so what better way to kill a few hours than to fire up an emulator? “But Nicholas,” you interrupt, “there are so many emulators out there, and so much conflicting information. I wouldn’t know how to start if my life depended on it!” Don’t throw away your life—there’s so much beauty in the world! With this handy guide you should be well on your way to understanding the wonderfully exciting world of emulators. Fingers crossed.
PS2 emulator for the PC
An open source project, PCSX2 is the PS2 emulator out there. It’s in active development, and it’s compatible with pretty much every game I’ve thrown at it. What you see here is a screenshot of Final Fantasy XII running at three times its native resolution. That’s the beauty of emulation: not only can you play these games on your PC, but there’s a very good chance they’ll look better than they did on their original console.
PCSX2 isn’t too difficult to set up, particularly if you have any emulator experience under your belt. You download the latest version from the official site (or you can go with an unofficial SVN build, which is newer but not guaranteed to work as well), then you configure the application. Nothing too hard here: map your keyboard or controller (I use a wired Xbox 360 controller for all my emulator needs), configure the graphics plugin, and off you go. I’d go into greater detail, but if you can’t figure out how to point the emulator to a folder containing the PS2 bios then perhaps you should stick to Angry Birds.
Games, games, games. Luckily it’s pretty easy to create ISOs of your PS2 discs. (You could also procure PS2 games by using “other means,” but that’s none of my business.) I tend to use ImgBurn, primarily because it’s free and it’s fast. Throw your disc in your drive, launch ImgBurn, click “Create image file from disc,” wait a few minutes, and then you have a nice, shiny ISO to feed PCSX2.
Now, to emulate PS2 games, particularly if you’re keen on running the games at high internal resolutions, you’ll need a bit of horsepower; don’t expect to be able to play Final Fantasy XII on your three-year-old laptop with an Intel integrated graphics processor. But the beauty is that GPUs are so inexpensive these days, particularly the new 6000 series, that for $200-ish you’ll be sitting pretty. Then you’ll also be able to play PC games at modern resolutions, something that can’t really be said about something like the Xbox 360.
Wii and GameCube emulator for the PC
Ah, Dolphin, a delightful little application that I’ve mentioned before. Given that the Wii is basically a GameCube that took its vitamins, said its prayers, and drank its milk, Dolphin runs Wii and GameCube games equally well. You can even stick a Bluetooth adapter in your PC and use an actual Wii controller to play games. (Or you can be a normal person and just buy a Wii!)
Like PCSX2, it’s plugin-based, so you download the latest version (or, again, an unofficial SVN build) then set up your controller, sound settings, your graphics settings, etc. Again, like PCSX2, you can set up Dolphin to run games at higher resolutions than you’ll find on their actual consoles. ImgBurn can again be used to rip your Wii ISOs. (I’ve actually no idea how to rip GameCube games, but I still have a GameCube kicking around, so if I ever have an urge to play Metroid Prime again I’ll just play that the old fashioned way.)
Embedded above is a video of me playing the Wii version of Resident Evil 4 (I own all versions of Resident Evil 4 because I’m a dork like that). It ran closer to 60 frames per second, but Fraps maxes video recording out at 30 frames per second.
Dolphin also runs most games out there, judging by its official forums. Like with every emulator out there you’ll run into some glitches here and there, but games are totally playable. I know I played the first level of Donkey Kong Country returns using Dolphin just fine, but then I stopped. What usually happens is that I spend hours and hours setting up these emulators, then play the games for 15 minutes just for the satisfaction of seeing them work. Then I’ll turn off my computer and read a book.
All the rest
Pretty much every system for every operating system
There are plenty of other emulators out there, of course, but I don’t have 800 hours to enumerate them all here; I suggest you tool around EmuCR and see what tickles your fancy. There’s emulators for the Dreamcast, Saturn, N64, PS1, SNES, Genesis, NES, Mega Drive, you name it. Older consoles can even be emulated on your phone, provided you have Android or a jailbroken iPhone. Clearly this is a gray area at best when it comes to obtaining the ROMs for these emulators, but I’m not here to judge you nor am I here to tell you where to find them. Your business is your business; the big CPU in the sky will judge you when the time comes.