Nintendo’s sloppy N64 emulation proves how amazing fan emulators are


Nintendo may have access to 25-year-old source code, documentation, and developers who have worked on classic games like Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but none of this guarantees that Nintendo is really good at emulating his. Games. Sounds counterintuitive, right? Nintendo made the N64; surely he should be able to figure out a way to run those old games on a new console in the blink of an eye. But this week’s messy launch of the new Switch Online expansion pack and its much criticized N64 emulation is a reminder that Nintendo is not, and never will be, the best steward of its own games.

Even with its perks, Nintendo will never be able to do in a few months – with realistic development time and budget – what fans working for free can do in years, if not decades.

“If I’m honest, aside from them trying to netplay it’s minimal effort on Nintendo’s part. the best, and the netplay sucks, ”said JMC4789, who contributes to the GameCube / Wii Dolphin emulator. I spoke to JMC about the reaction to the Switch Expansion Pack launch and some of its more obvious issues. For him, online gambling in particular stands out.

It’s easy to find videos online right now about implementing the lagging Mario Kart 64 netplay on the Switch (although who knows if these people have solid connections or are using GoGo wifi at one? kilometer over the Atlantic). Either way, it’s good that Nintendo made online play a part of games like Mario Kart 64 that obviously didn’t have it on the original console.

But as JMC4789 pointed out to me, it is especially frustrating to see these performance issues when other emulators can already and do it better.

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“For someone like me, setting up Dolphin netplay is easy,” he said. “But, to get to this, I’ve been using the emulator for almost a decade. I know every little thing I have to do and every little thing I have to avoid. For Nintendo Switch Online, no one has to be familiar with emulation. Anyone who owns the service can invite a friend to play online. This opens up N64 netplay to many more people. It Is does not matter that something like that exists. It’s just disappointing that it’s so bad at launch. “

On PC, several Nintendo 64 emulators have supported netplay for many years, some of the earliest emulation software designed for online gaming dates back to 2001. With the popular Project 64 emulator, for example, many gamers use a plugin called AQZ and game-specific hacks to get netplay to work. It’s not straightforward to set up, so Nintendo had the opportunity to win easily – this is absolutely an area where it can improve over fan-made emulators. And although it technically was, its implementation highlights how much better its emulator should be.

Programmer OatmealDome, who also contributes to Dolphin, datamined the Switch Online emulator and learned a few things about it, including its “lockstep” netcode which requires every player to be perfectly in sync at all times. Add a single questionable wifi connection, well …

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Lockstep is essentially the easiest way to implement online gambling which makes it ripe for trouble. Poor internet connection might not be the only culprit: if the emulator drops below 100% speed for a single player, it will cause problems for everyone as well. Fighting game player Ricky Pusch does a great job in this article fix common issues with lockstep code and restore netcode benefits, which has become so popular with fighting games that it is now fixed in decades-old games like King of Fighters ’98. Restoration isn’t necessarily suitable for all games – the point is that Nintendo ditched the barebones option here, despite having the resources to create something more robust.

Nintendo’s emulator is handy, but it awkwardly fails to be better than decades-old fan emulators when it comes to game preservation – representing games accurately when they ran on original hardware –Where by improving them so that they are much better on modern equipment.

Here’s perhaps the most viral review of the Switch expansion pack: the comparison of Ocarina of Time’s Zfg1 streamer running on Nintendo 64, Switch, and the 2007 Wii Virtual Console release. water, tree and misty background in each frame.

The Switch version lacks the fog and reflection of the tree; Nintendo has, in a way, made its Switch emulator less accurate than the one it built for the Wii almost 15 years ago. Or it’s not a flaw in the emulation itself, but a deliberate decision a programmer made to turn off fog believing that it was no longer necessary to maintain a stable framerate.

In both cases: “Something has gone really wrong “, says JMC4789.

“It’s a failure on a huge level, and shows that they haven’t tested the game, or more likely, the person testing the game wasn’t familiar with the original. emulators are the people who love the original games. They see things we would never see, because they know the original game so exactly that they see the smallest of differences that the average person wouldn’t even see as a bug… If you haven’t played OoT in 20 years, you probably wouldn’t realize that this piece looks so bad. “

The missing glint is the kind of little thing that fan emulator developers would absolutely catch, since they’re not working under the time constraints of Nintendo developers trying to ship a product. JMC4789 gave me a great example: in 2014 developer Dolphin delroth fixed a notorious heat effect bug in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker which has tormented gamers for years.

Nintendo may well fix the most obvious bugs in its Switch emulator, but it will never have that kind of dedication to tackling tricky issues years after their discovery. Last year, the developers of Libretro fans made a breakthrough in low-level N64 emulation, allowing you to emulate the original hardware much more precisely without a super powerful processor. (The more faithfully you reproduce the original material, the more work it takes for your computer, which is why the famous Super Nintendo Bsnes emulator required a 3 GHz processor in 2011.)

Even if you don’t care about the little details of preserving the game, like if an emulator accurately displays the shadow of a tree like it did on the original material, the work fans put in. emulator projects like the one above can have much more obvious benefits. This low-level N64 emulation is the first to properly reproduce the original console video interface, including “basic dithering, divot filtering, and anti-aliasing” without brutally straining even high-end processors.

The point to remember is that while Nintendo’s own emulator converts N64 games to (what looks like) 720p, it does not reproduce the anti-aliasing techniques used by the original console. No fan emulator did this correctly and effectively until last year! But now you can run games as they originally appeared and then boost them up to 8 times their original resolution.

The other point to remember, I guess, is that N64 emulation is difficult. Any emulation is difficult!

Nintendo is never going to be the kind of company to play 4K versions of their old games, and I don’t think anyone is expecting that. But Nintendo generally takes the to feel of its games very seriously, which makes the poor performance of its N64 emulation – which it charges $ 50 a year for an online service – particularly disappointing. Tests already show that the Switch emulator introduces around two frames of latency compared to the original hardware, which is much more noticeable in some games like Ocarina of Time. Since Ocarina of Time only runs at 20 frames per second, only two frames of input lag equates to 100 milliseconds (at 60 fps, that would be only ~ 33 ms).

JMC4789 said that many PC emulators also introduce this latency, but there are also some excellent ones that have worked very hard to eliminate it. “In general, most emulators will have an additional frame of latency compared to the real console,” he said. “But smart developers have long found ways to minimize, reduce and even get below true console latency in some cases! “

Even if Nintendo takes performance to an acceptable level and fixes the obvious bugs of the online expansion pack, it still won’t deliver the one thing Nintendo could offer that no fan emulator possibly can: the context from the company that created these classic games.

As Frank Cifaldi perfectly explained in his GDC 2019 emulation talk, when you’re competing with free, you need to offer gamers something better, like a carefully curated experience and behind-the-scenes material that they can’t get anywhere else. Until now, Nintendo has only offered one way to pay for something fans have been doing better for years.

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