[Retro] Emulating the GameCube

Dolphins Really Are the Cleverest Animals

I’ve long had a passion for retro gaming, and regularly play emulated Amiga and Mega Drive games to relive my misspent youth. Recently though, advances in the graphical capabilities of PCs and the hard work of dedicated and incredibly talented coders have mode it possible to recreate very recent systems, including some from the last (the sixth) generation of console hardware.

While it’s almost impossible to run PlayStation 2, GameCube and Dreamcast games in true emulation, in the style of purist arcade project MAME, it is entirely possible to co-opt the innate graphically trickery of Microsoft’s Direct X engine to substitute for the custom graphics hardware and APIs of the original machines. In basic terms, a clever coder can use the grunt of modern graphics cards to throw around some incredibly complex last-gen polygonal games. That means Mario Kart Double Dash, Metroid Prime and Resident Evil 4 are all perfectly playable on perfectly normal PCs – even laptops.

Perhaps the best, and certainly the most user-friendly, of the recent console emulators is the fantastic Dolphin – which is named after the original designation of the machine it emulates, Nintendo’s GameCube. After a slow start back in 2003 the project trickled along, with most games too slow or glitchy to play. In 2004 the developers quit the project, and it was left to rot. They went back to it a couple of years later though, and by 2007 Dolphin had reached version 1.03 and had added features like sound, and some speed optimisation.

Dolphin includes a frontend better than almost every other modern emulator

Dolphin includes a frontend better than almost every other modern emulator

In July 2008 the developers decided to release the source code of their project, and Dolphin became officially open source. Development leapt forward, and by 2009 the Wii (which runs off basically the same internal architecture as the GameCube) was also fully emulated.

Today new builds are regularly released and Dolphin is at Version 2.0. The vast majority of games are playable, though some have performance issues and the odd glitch.

Unlike many other high-end emulators, Dolphin isn’t too fussy about system spec – it has a native 64 bit and 32 bit version, and copes well with most recent versions of Windows and DirectX – there are even MacOS and Linux variants. It’s also remarkable easy to set up. The built in GUI automatically pulls local disc image files into a convenient list of games, with each being given a rating for compatibility with the emulator. It has full support not only for standard USB controllers (I use a wireless Xbox 360 pad), but on machines with Bluetooth support, it’s even possible to pair and use a Wii remote, right out of the box.

Installation is as simple as extracting a zip archive into a directory. There’s no need to grab extra BIOS files or dependencies once you’re done. All the necessary plugins are already included, and on initial installation all you have to do is point the software to your folder of disc images, map the controller buttons and choose your graphics options. There are plenty of settings to tinker with under the hood (more on those in a later post), but by and large you just need to chose your resolution (anything from a native 640 x 480 up to full 1080p HD) and double click on a game to get playing.

Gamecube ISOs are available online (naughty, naughty – remember downloading an image if you don’t own the original is illegal) and there are ways and means of ripping your original GC discs to your PC.

Considering the complex emulation jiggery-pokery going on under the hood, the results are phenomenal. My laptop (core i7, 4GB RAM, Radeon Mobility HD 4650) is by no means bleeding edge (especially the GPU), but it runs most GameCube titles at 60fps, and there are corners that can be cut to wring out more performance should it be needed. It’s worth noting here that Dolphin makes full use of multiple cores, and the 64-bit build actually runs significantly faster than its 32-bit stablemate.

It’s an odd feeling, using a laptop to play titles that were only published six or seven years ago on a completely alien system. The technological achievement alone is mind-blowing, and the games themselves are, of course, fantastic. There’s none of the retro charm of 8 bit emulation, nor can completists quickly download entire ROM sets containing hundreds of titles, however if, like me, you were forced by space and marital pressures to give up your precious console collection, its great to know you can still dip into GameCube gaming with your PC from time to time.

Yup, Zelda on your laptop. Awesome.

Yup, Zelda on your laptop. Awesome.

The Wii side of things I find more murky. Emulating current-gen machines while they’re still on sale is technically impressive, but is perhaps straying on to the wrong side of the emulation vs piracy debate. It’s not something with which I intend to dabble, as I already own a Wii, but I am slightly uncomfortable with the idea of people seeing Dolphin as an alternative to investing in Nintendo’s console.

Still, the team working on Dolphin should be heartiy commended. Not only have they built an emulator as technically impressive as anything this side of MAME, they’ve baked in wonderfully user-friendly features and limited the amount of back-end tinkering players have to go through to get games up and running. It’s a model that should serve as a shining example to the rest of the emulation community, which could do with spending as much time on the user experience as it does with the back-end coding.

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Categories: Retro

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