M1 and M2 Macs Are Emulation Powerhouses

M1 and M2 Macs Are Emulation Powerhouses

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Whether you have an Apple Silicon Mac or are thinking of buying one, you should know that Apple’s new processors are great for emulation purposes. Whether it’s modern 3D consoles or 2D classics, the sheer quantity of native Apple Silicon emulators is something to be celebrated.

Why Bother With Emulation?

The Mac is not seen traditionally as a gaming platform. Despite efforts to turn that around with support for Apple Arcade, iPhone and iPad apps on the desktop, and a handful of third-party publishers releasing games on Steam and the Mac App Store, the Mac still misses out on the vast majority of games.

With the arrival of Apple Silicon in 2020, the Mac hopped from the 64-bit x86 architecture used by Intel chips to an ARM-based in-house solution in the form of the M1. Apple provided a “transpiler” which converts most apps written for Intel Macs into a format that can be used on the ARM-based processors, called Rosetta 2.

While Rosetta 2 works remarkably well most of the time, it’s not a perfect solution. There’s a performance penalty for converting an app, and not everything works. Some apps (and games) simply won’t run, and there’s nothing you can do about it except hope that the publisher will see fit to update the app in time. For most, this will never happen.

M1 and M2 Macs Are Emulation Powerhouses

Despite huge performance gains over Intel chips and better-than-ever 3D performance as Apple iterates on the Metal hardware-acceleration API, gaming on Apple Silicon has been slow to get off the ground. This is precisely why you might want to look at games that have already been released for different systems.

Emulators let you play games written for different hardware using software emulation. On a Mac, this opens up a world of gaming to you that is simply not available natively. It’s ideal if you missed out on consoles or gaming platforms when they were first released since stable emulators tend to lag the generation they’re emulating by a decade or more.

The Usual Legal Caveats Apply

Of course, no article about emulation would be complete without making it clear that emulators are not illegal but downloading copyrighted material that you don’t own certainly is.

Many of these emulators require BIOS files that will need to be dumped from the original hardware, so make sure you understand the legal repercussions of using ROMs before you proceed.

Native Apple Silicon Emulators Are Now Available

When the M1 chip first launched in 2020, very few emulators had native Apple Silicon versions available. Most used Apple’s Rosetta 2 transpiler, with varying degrees of success. Fast forward to the release of the M2, and there are plenty of emulators available with native Apple Silicon support.

With a native app, the full power of the M1, M2, and similar chips can now be used by the emulator and many even include support for Metal. More efficient native apps deliver improved power efficiency, which makes gaming on a battery using a MacBook even more attractive.

Emulators that require more power to emulate more recent platforms like the Xbox and PlayStation 2 can now run with better-than-native graphics. Many of these emulators include the ability to run games are far higher internal resolutions than they were ever intended for, with support for local and online multiplayer.

Nintendo Wii (2006) and GameCube (2001): Dolphin

Dolphin is a Nintendo Wii and GameCube emulator with Mac, Windows, and Linux versions available. Developers first demonstrated Apple Silicon support in May 2021, noting that “M1 hardware is fantastic … what we have is already efficient, powerful … the only big downside is the proprietary graphics API present in macOS that prevents us from using the latest versions of OpenGL.”

At the time of writing, Dolphin boasts 36.6% “perfect” and 60.4% “playable” ratings for all games tested. Check out the compatibility list to see how each game fares, with ratings and reports from across the Dolphin community. You can use the Dolphin performance guide to get the most out of the emulator, but you’ll likely have enough performance in the bag to make use of some of Dolphin’s enhancements.

This includes an internal resolution bump to render games in a crisp resolution that exceeds the 480p Wii baseline, anisotropic filtering to make textures look better, and options for anti-aliasing to get rid of jagged lines. You can use a real Wiimote and GameCube controllers, or emulate Nintendo’s controllers using alternative hardware instead.

Xbox (2005): xemu

Microsoft has put in a lot of work to get many original Xbox games running on the latest Xbox Series hardware, but the catalog still falls short. While games like Psychonauts and BLACK work well on the latest consoles, many games do not run at all. If you don’t own a recent Xbox, your options for playing many of these classics are sorely limited.

Step in xemu, an original Xbox emulator for Mac, Windows, and Linux. At the time of testing, xemu deems 72% of tested titles as “playable” with only 3% clearing the “perfect” barrier (with 20% of titles managing to start and around 5% not working at all). Thankfully, the vast majority of the best Xbox titles are perfectly playable with only minor glitches.

This includes Jet Set Radio Future (which looks stunning when you bump up the internal resolution thanks to its cel-shaded graphics), Halo: Combat Evolved and its sequel, and Knights of the Old Republic. The emulator even supports automatic controller mapping for supported joypads, further simplifying the setup process.

PlayStation 2 (2000): AetherSX2

PCSX2 is a PlayStation 2 emulator that’s been in development for at least two decades, and AestherSX2 is a fork of that same emulator for Apple Silicon machines. Since one is based on the other, the game compatibility list is almost identical between them. PCSX2 has since started including Mac builds among its nightly releases, but these still use Rosetta 2 and don’t run natively on Apple Silicon (yet).

With AetherSX2, you can play one of the most celebrated and jam-packed libraries of games ever released. PCSX2 boasts a 97.96% playable rate for all tested games at the time of writing, and you should expect very similar results from AetherSX2 since it’s based on the same code.

The two emulators look remarkably similar in terms of UI, from the graphical options (that include internal resolution scaling and bilinear filtering) to the controller setup and system tweaks. The main difference you can expect is better performance in the native AestherSX2 build.

Dreamcast (1998): Flycast

The Dreamcast is one of the most-celebrated consoles ever, yet its failure to grab a large chunk of the market (and the dismal performance of its predecessor, the Saturn) saw Sega exit the world of video game hardware for good. The Dreamcast’s legacy is its games library, which includes some of Sega’s best originals and a hearty helping of arcade ports.

Flycast is a fork of the successful but since discontinued Reicast project, with builds made especially for Apple Silicon machines. In addition to original Dreamcast games, Flycast can also be used to play Sega NAOMI (including GD-ROM versions) and Sammy Atomiswave arcade board ROMs.

Once configured the emulator runs many games flawlessly, including Jet Set Radio, Power Stone, and Sonic Adventure. The emulator picked up our Xbox Series X controller first time, with no configuration required. The emulator is pre-configured to use Dreamcast Live servers for online games.

MS-DOS: DOSBox with Boxer

DOS is nowhere near as resource-intensive as many of the other systems on this list, but native Apple Silicon support is still nice. A more efficient build that runs natively means better power consumption and longer battery life if you’re looking to play games on the go.

You can grab a native build of DOSBox and configure it yourself, or you can make things much easier by downloading the Boxer front-end. This makes installing and managing your MS-DOS game collection easier than doing it manually with the DOS command prompt, with an attractive “game shelf” front-end being the main draw.

The original Boxer project ceased development in 2016 but has since been revived with native Apple Silicon support. You can grab early builds from the project releases page, but expect some wonky behavior while the project is still in beta.

Commodore Amiga: FS-UAE

Just like MS-DOS, the Commodore Amiga platform is hardly a resource-hog. Native Apple Silicon support here doesn’t solve massive performance bottlenecks, but it’s nice to have native versions available for efficiency purposes. FS-UAE is a fork of the WinUAE project and lets you emulate a huge range of Commodore hardware, provided you have the Kickstart ROMs.

You can use modern gamepads, create custom Amiga machines based on your configuration, and use aspect ratio correction to display games on modern displays, with advanced shaders. There’s even support for online play!

Multiplatform: RetroArch

RetroArch is a multiplatform emulator with support for a huge number of systems (known as cores). Many of the projects listed above can be used from within RetroArch, alongside many more for platforms like the SNES, Sega Genesis, Nintendo 3DS, Atari Lynx, and many more.

If you need an emulator that does it all, grab yourself a copy of RetroArch and spend some time setting it up.

Other Projects Should Work With Rosetta

Just because an emulator doesn’t have a native Apple Silicon version available, that doesn’t mean that older builds designed for Intel processors won’t work. In particular, older systems should run just fine under Rosetta 2, with no visible performance penalty to speak of.

Use Your Existing Controllers

macOS supports all major console controllers including Microsoft’s Xbox Series, Xbox One, and Xbox 360 wired. You can also use Sony’s DualSense PS5 controller and the DualShock 4 PS4 controller, and the DualShock 3 PS3 controller. You can also use the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, or pair each Joy-Con separately. It’s not currently possible to use two Joy-Con as a single controller as is possible on the Switch console.

M1 and M2 Macs Are Emulation Powerhouses

Many of these emulators automatically detect your controller and map the buttons accordingly, so you don’t need to do anything beyond connecting them via USB or Bluetooth.

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