Whether you own an Apple Silicon Mac or are considering buying one, you should know that Apple’s new processors are great for emulation purposes. Be it modern 3D consoles or 2D classics, the abundance of native Apple Silicon emulators is something to note.
Why bother with emulation?
The Mac is not traditionally seen as a gaming platform. Despite efforts to change that, with Apple Arcade on the desktop, support for iPhone and iPad apps, and several third-party publishers releasing games on Steam and the Mac App Store, the Mac still misses out on the vast majority of games.
In 2020, with the arrival of Apple Silicon, the Mac switched from the 64-bit x86 architecture used by Intel chips to an ARM-based internal solution in the form of the M1. Apple introduced a “transmitter” that converts most programs written for Intel Macs into a format that can be used on ARM-based processors called Rosetta 2.
While Rosetta 2 works pretty well most of the time, it’s not a perfect solution. There is a performance penalty for converting the program and not everything works. Some apps (and games) just won’t work, and there’s nothing you can do about it except hope that the publisher sees fit to update the app in time. For many, this will never happen.
Despite huge performance gains on Intel chips and better-than-ever 3D performance thanks to Apple’s iteration of the Metal hardware acceleration API, the game on Apple Silicon has slowly taken off. That’s why you might want to look at games that have already been released for different systems.
Emulators allow you to play games written for different hardware using software emulation. On a Mac, this opens up a world of gaming to you that isn’t available natively. Since fixed emulators are a decade or more behind the generation they emulate, this is ideal if you missed out on consoles or gaming platforms when they were first released.
Usual Legal Notices Apply
Of course, no emulation article would be complete without making it clear that emulators are not illegal, but downloading copyrighted material is not your business.
Many of these emulators require BIOS files that must be removed from the original hardware, so make sure you understand the legal ramifications of using ROMs before proceeding.
RELATED: Is It Ever Legal To Download Retro Video Game ROMs?
Native Apple Silicon Emulators Now Available
When the M1 chip first launched in 2020, very few emulators had native Apple Silicon versions. The most commonly used is 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 native software, the full power of M1, M2 and similar chips can now be used by the emulator, and many even include Metal support. More efficient native apps provide improved power efficiency, which makes gaming on battery using a MacBook even more attractive.
Emulators that require more power to emulate newer platforms like the Xbox and PlayStation 2 can now run better than native graphics. Many of these emulators include the ability to run games with higher native resolutions than previously thought, 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. The developers first revealed Apple Silicon support in May 2021, noting that “The M1 hardware is fantastic… what we have is already efficient, powerful… the only big downside is the dedicated graphics API available in macOS and It prevents us from using the latest versions of OpenGL. “
At the time of writing, Dolphin has 36.6% “excellent” and 60.4% “playable” ratings for all games tested. Check out the matchup list to see how each game is doing with ratings and reports from the Dolphin community. You can use the Dolphin performance guide to get the most out of the emulator, but you’ll have enough performance in the bag to take advantage of some Dolphin enhancements.
This includes built-in resolution bumping to render games at a sharper resolution that surpasses the base Wii’s 480p, anisotropic filtering to make textures look better, and anti-aliasing options to get rid of jagged lines. You can use real Wiimote and GameCube controllers or emulate Nintendo controllers using alternative hardware instead.
RELATED: How to use a Real GameCube Controller or Wiimote in Dolphin
Xbox (2005): Xemu
Microsoft has worked hard to get many original Xbox games running on the latest Xbox Series hardware, but the catalog is still lacking. Like games Psychonauts and BLACK works fine on recent consoles, many games don’t work at all. Unless you’re a new Xbox owner, your options for playing many of these classics are very limited.
Enter xemu, the original Xbox emulator for Mac, Windows and Linux. During testing, the game considered 72% of the titles tested “playable”, only 3% cleared the “perfect” hurdle (20% of the titles managed to start and about 5% did not work at all). Fortunately, the vast majority of the best Xbox games are perfectly playable with only minor flaws.
This includes Jet Set Radio is the Future (Looks amazing when you increase the internal resolution thanks to the cel-shaded graphics), Halo: Combat Evolved and its continuation, and Knights of the Old Republic. The emulator even supports automatic controller mapping for supported joypads, making the installation process even easier.
PlayStation 2 (2000): AetherSX2
PCSX2 is a PlayStation 2 emulator that has been in development for at least twenty years, and AestherSX2 is a fork of the 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 builders in 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 popular and jam-packed game libraries ever released. PCSX2 has a 97.96% playability rate for all tested games at the time of writing, and since it’s based on the same code, you should expect very similar results from AetherSX2.
The two emulators look remarkably similar in terms of UI, from graphics options (which include built-in resolution scaling and bilinear filtering) to controller setup and system settings. The main difference you can expect is better performance on a native AestherSX2 build.
Dreamcast (1998): Flycast
The Dreamcast is one of the most celebrated consoles of all time, but its failure to capture a large share of the market (and the dismal performance of its predecessor, the Saturn) led to Sega’s exit from the world of video game hardware for good. The Dreamcast’s legacy is a library of games that helped support some of Sega’s best originals and arcade ports.
Flycast is a fork of the successful but discontinued Reicast project, specifically designed for Apple Silicon machines. In addition to original Dreamcast games, the Flycast can also be used to play Sega NAOMI (including GD-ROM versions) and Sammy Atomiswave arcade board ROMs.
Once configured, the emulator works flawlessly, including many games Jet Set Radio, Stone of Powerand Sonic adventure. The emulator took our Xbox Series X controller for the first time with no configuration required. The emulator is pre-configured to use Dreamcast Live servers for online gaming.
MS-DOS: DOSBox with Boxer
DOS isn’t as resource intensive as many of the other systems on this list, but native Apple Silicon support is still nice. A more efficient build running locally means better power consumption and longer battery life if you want to game on the go.
You can take a native build of DOSBox and configure it yourself, or you can make things a lot easier by downloading the Boxer front-end. This makes installing and managing your MS-DOS game collection much easier than doing it manually with a DOS command prompt, the attractive “game shelf” front end being the main attraction.
The original Boxer project ceased development in 2016, but has since been revived with local Apple Silicon support. You can get the initial builds from the project releases page, but expect some erratic 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 doesn’t solve the big performance bottlenecks here, but it’s nice to have native versions 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 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 is even support for online play!
RetroArch is a multi-platform emulator with support for a large number of systems (known as kernels). Many of the projects listed above can be used within RetroArch for SNES, Sega Genesis, Nintendo 3DS, Atari Lynx, and many other platforms.
If you need an emulator that does all that, grab yourself a copy of RetroArch and spend some time setting it up.
RELATED: How to install RetroArch, the Ultimate All-In-One Retro Games Emulator
Other Projects Should Work with Rosetta
Just because the emulator doesn’t have a native Apple Silicon version, it doesn’t mean that older devices designed for Intel processors won’t work. In particular, older systems should run fine under Rosetta 2, with no apparent performance penalty to speak of.
Use 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 DualShock 4 PS4 controller and DualShock 3 PS3 controller. You can also use the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller or pair each Joy-Con separately. Currently, it is not possible to use two Joy-Cons as a single controller, as is possible on the Switch console.
Many of these emulators automatically detect your controllers and map the buttons accordingly, so you don’t need to do anything other than connect them via USB or Bluetooth.