M1 and M2 Mac are emulation power plants

M1 and M2 Mac are emulation power plants

Hands holding an Xbox Series X wireless controller over a MacBook Pro M1.
Hopix Art / Shutterstock.com

Whether you have an Apple Silicon Mac or are considering buying one, you should know that Apple’s new processors are excellent for emulation purposes. Whether it is modern 3D consoles or 2D classics, the large number of domestic Apple Silicon emulators is something to celebrate.

Why care about emulation?

Macs are not traditionally seen as a gaming platform. Despite trying to turn it around support for Apple ArcadeiPhone and iPad apps on the deskand a handful of third-party publishers releasing games on Steam and the Mac App Store, Macs still miss out on the vast majority of games.

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

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

Jet Set Radio Future runs on macOS via xemu

Despite huge performance gains compared to Intel chips and better than ever 3D performance when Apple iterates on metal hardware acceleration API, games on Apple Silicon have been slow to get started. This is exactly why you may want to watch games that have already been released for different systems.

Emulators allow you to play games written for different hardware with software emulation. On a Mac, this opens up a world of games for you that is simply not available built-in. This is ideal if you missed consoles or gaming platforms when they were first released because stable emulators tend to lag behind the generation they mimic by a decade or more.

The usual legal warnings apply

Of course, no article on emulation would be complete without making it clear that emulators are not illegal, but downloading copyrighted material that you do not own really is.

Many of these emulators require BIOS files that must be dumped from the original hardware, so make sure you understand the legal implications of using ROM before continuing.

RELATED: Is it ever legal to download retro video game ROM?

Native Apple Silicon Emulators are now available

When the M1 chip was first launched in 2020, very few emulators had built-in Apple Silicon versions available. Most used Apple Rosetta 2 trans arrows, with varying degrees of success. Fast forward to drop off M2and there are plenty of emulators available with built-in Apple Silicon support.

With a built-in app, the full power of M1, M2 and similar chips can now be used by the emulator and many even include support for Metal. More efficient built-in apps provide improved energy efficiency, making battery gaming with a MacBook even more attractive.

Emulators that require more power to emulate newer platforms such as Xbox and PlayStation 2 can now run with better graphics than the original. Many of these emulators include the ability to run games with much 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 showed Apple Silicon support in May 2021and notes that “M1 hardware is amazing … what we have is already efficient, powerful … the only major drawback is the proprietary graphics API found in macOS that prevents us from using the latest versions of OpenGL.”

At the time of writing, Dolphin has 36.6% “perfect” and 60.4% “playable” ratings for all games tested. Check out compatibility list to see how each game is doing, with ratings and reports from the entire Dolphin community. You can use Dolphin performance guide to get the most out of the emulator, but you’ll probably have enough performance in your luggage to be able to use some of Dolphin’s improvements.

This includes an internal resolution bump to reproduce games in sharp resolution exceeding the 480p Wii baseline, anisotropic filtering to make textures look better, and anti-aliasing options to get rid of uneven lines. You can use a real Wiimote and GameCube controlsor emulate Nintendo’s controls with alternative hardware instead.

RELATED: How to use a real GameCube Controller or Wiimote in Dolphin

Xbox (2005): xemu

Microsoft has put a lot of work into getting many original games for the Xbox running on the latest Xbox Series hardware, but the directory still fails. While games like Psychonauts and BLACK works well on the latest consoles, many games do not run at all. If you do not own a new Xbox, your chances of playing many of these classics are extremely limited.

Step in xemu, an original Xbox emulator for Mac, Windows and Linux. At the time of testing, xemu considers 72% of the titles tested to be “playable” with only 3% clearing the “perfect” barrier (with 20% of titles succeeding and about 5% not working at all). Thankfully, most of the best Xbox titles are perfectly playable with only minor flaws.

This includes Jet Set Radio Future (which looks great when you increase 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, which further simplifies the installation process.

PlayStation 2 (2000): AetherSX2

PCSX2 is a PlayStation 2 emulator that has been under development for at least two decades, and the AestherSX2 is a fork of the same emulator for Apple Silicon machines. Because one is based on the other, the game compatibility list is almost identical between them. PCSX2 has since started to include Mac builds among its own nocturnal releasesbut these still use Rosetta 2 and do not run on Apple Silicon (yet).

With AetherSX2, you can play one of the most acclaimed and packed gaming libraries ever released. PCSX2 has a playable speed of 97.96% for all games tested at the time of writing, and you should expect very similar results from AetherSX2 as it is based on the same code.

The two emulators look remarkably similar in terms of user interfaces, from the graphical options (which include internal resolution scaling and bilinary filtering) to the controller setting and system adjustments. The biggest difference you can expect is better performance in the built-in AestherSX2 build.

Dreamcast (1998): Flycast

Dreamcast is one of the most acclaimed consoles ever, but its failure to capture a large share of the market (and the dismal performance of its predecessor, Saturn) caused Sega to leave the world of video game hardware for good. Dreamcast’s legacy is its game library, which includes some of Sega’s best originals and a hefty portion of arcade gates.

Flycast is a fork for the successful but since then discontinued Recast projects, with designs made specifically for Apple Silicon machines. In addition to original Dreamcast games, Flycast can also be used to play Sega NAOMI (including DG-ROM versions) and Sammy Atomiswave arcade card ROM.

Once configured, the emulator runs many games flawlessly, including Jet Set radio, Power Stoneand Sonic Adventure. The emulator picked up our Xbox Series X controllers for the first time, without any configuration required. The emulator is preconfigured to use Dreamcast Live online gaming servers.

MS-DOS: DOSBox with Boxer

DOS is nowhere near as resource-intensive as many of the other systems on this list, but built-in Apple Silicon support is still good. A more efficient design that runs built-in means better power consumption and longer battery life if you want to play games on the go.

You can take a built-in version of DOSBox and configure it yourself, or you can make things much easier by downloading the Boxer front-end. This makes it easier to install and manage your MS-DOS game collection than to do it manually with the DOS command prompt, with an attractive “game shelf” frontend as the main feature.

The original Boxer project ceased development in 2016 but has since been revived with built-in Apple Silicon support. You can take early construction from the project releases pagebut expect some quirky behavior while the project is still in beta.

Commodore Amiga: FS-UAE

Like MS-DOS, the Commodore Amiga platform is hardly a resource hog. Native Apple Silicon support here does not solve big performance bottlenecks, but it’s nice to have built-in versions available for efficiency purposes. FS-UAE is a fork of the WinUAE project and allows you to emulate a wide range of Commodore hardware, provided you have Kickstart ROM.

You can use the mother game controls, create custom Amiga machines based on your configuration and use aspect ratio correction to display games on modern screens, with advanced shading. There is even support for online games!

Multiplatform: RetroArch

RetroArch is a multi-platform emulator that supports a large number of systems (known as cores). Many of the projects listed above can be used from within RetroArch, along with many more for platforms such as SNES, Sega Genesis, Nintendo 3DS, Atari Lynx and many more.

If you need an emulator that can handle everything, take it yourself a copy of RetroArch and spend some time setting it up.

RELATED: How to set up RetroArch, the ultimate all-in-one retro game simulator

Other projects should work with Rosetta

Just because an emulator does not have a built-in Apple Silicon version available does not mean that older versions designed for Intel processors do not work. In particular, older systems should work well during Rosetta 2, with no visible performance penalty to speak of.

Use your existing controls

macOS supports all major console controls including Microsoft’s Xbox Series, Xbox One and Xbox 360 wired. You can also use Sony’s DualSense PS5 controllers 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 is currently not possible to use two Joy-Cons as a single controller possible on the Switch console.

An Xbox wireless controller with a USB Type-C cable

Many of these emulators automatically detect your controls and map the buttons accordingly, so you do not have to do anything beyond connect them via USB or Bluetooth.

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