iOS emulation kicks the heck off: What's here now and what's next

A deep dive into what is suddenly the hottest scene in mobile emulation.

iOS emulation kicks the heck off: What's here now and what's next

Well this has been a fun week!

No sarcasm: it's been great watching the whole games and tech space buzzing about emulation on Apple devices. As you may have picked up by what I tend to focus on in this here newsletter, mobile isn't a huge interest for me — I'm much more interested in the high-end emulation experience on PC and on more dedicated gaming devices like the Steam Deck. But hey, you wanna play games on your phone, I'm not gonna stop you. And this week has been a reminder that a few people out there have iPhones and kinda like the idea of playing games on them.

It's also exciting to see Apple continuing to loosen up, just a little bit, in terms of what folks can do with their devices. Almost tempting enough to get me to buy a MacBook for the first time since... 2011? (But the nerdier upgradeable Framework is also calling my name).

It's busy busy around here, but you can look forward to hearing me on an upcoming episode of Retronauts before too long! Meanwhile, if you wouldn't mind going around knocking on doors asking your neighbors if they're familiar with the good word on, we're closing in on 1,500 readers, a pretty dang cool number. We passed 1,469 in the past week, and I think based on that milestone we can all agree: Nice.

This issue of ROM contains a whole lot of iOS business, but also some surprise ingredients including Vanilla Essence, Singstar, and Blues Brothers 2000, the first film I ever saw in a movie theater to make me realize some great things should remain ensconced in the past. Except today we're talking about emulating the N64 game and not watching the movie...

And yet the lesson remains the same. Huh. Well, we'll always have Four Fried Chickens and a Coke.

The Big Two

Now: Roms? On YOUR iPhone? It's more likely than you think

Not to be all "Dreamworks animated character with one overactive eyebrow" about things, but: So THAT just happened.

A mere two weeks ago I was big brain overanalyzing the legalese of Apple's new App Store rules on emulators, which made it sound like developers might only be able to upload software that came with games preinstalled, which would more or less limit us to (still cool!) bundles of games from, like, Sega or Capcom or whoever wants to plop a retro collection onto iPhones and iPads. Turns out: Noooooope. File browser access? No problem. Go for it. All good. Brave new world. Or, well, maybe brave old world.

The first emulator I saw pop up on iOS last week was unfortunately a bit of stolen valor, taking the open source code of decade-old emulator GBA4iOS (which has only ever been offered on unofficial stores) and slapping some ads on top. Not long after GBA4iOS developer Riley Testut complained it was gone, Apple citing iGBA was removed for "violating the company's App Review Guidelines related to spam and copyright." (Folks on Threads began pointing out that since the code was published under the GNU General Public License, Testut couldn't restrict it being used in this way and thus had nothing to complain about. But apparently he and the iGBA submitter already hashed things out over email and are chill so let's just sidestep that gaping manhole of a debate and move on).

Most importantly, this little kerfuffle prompted two things: Apple confirmed to MacRumors that emulator apps "are permitted to load ROMs downloaded from the web," and Testut released his own emulator — the much more recent Delta — on the App Store. Overnight it shot up to the #1 app on the store. Not in games, but period. Boo hoo, Temu.

‎Delta - Game Emulator
‎Delta is an all-in-one emulator for iOS. Delta builds upon the strengths of its predecessor, GBA4iOS, while expanding to include support for more game systems such as NES, SNES, N64, and DS. FEATURES Supported Game Systems • Nintendo Entertainment System • Super Nintendo Entertainment System • Nin…

Delta is not a brand new app — the 1.0 version came out in 2019. But its availability on the official App Store is a big, big moment for emulation, opening an audience of hundreds of millions to incredibly easy access to emulated retro games who may not have bothered with them before. As of this writing it has more than 6,300 reviews, and it supports a striking number of systems:

I'm naturally a little skeptical of multi-system emulators offering a great experience; even when developing ares, for example, Near (RIP) was open about which systems had pretty limited implementations and which were much more accurate, like the SNES core based on their years of work on bsnes. So how good is Delta? Well, pretty dang good, because similar to Libretro it takes a use-existing-cores approach to these systems rather than being a from-scratch implementation, as noted for each above.

That's not to undersell the work involved: Delta still has a custom, slick iOS UI and customizable skins, the ability to make a shortcut to launch a game directly, support for many controllers, even a cloud saving implementation. While the above cores aren't necessarily the be-all end-all for each system – I believe mGBA would be the more advanced pick for the GBA these days, for example – it's still up to a quality bar that should serve the vast majority of players very well in most cases. MelonDS is still very much in development, but most of the older consoles should more or less be 👌.

If you'd like a fairly detailed (with timecodes so so you can skip around) and not-at-all-shouty overview of how different systems look in Delta, here's a good one:

Wirecutter voice: There are a few flaws but not dealbreakers: there's no way to account for overscan so you can get some pixel garbage around the edges, no aspect ratio/scaling options or scanline filters, etc.

In the EU, you won't find Delta on the official App Store. That's because Apple's rules around alternative app stores are still a bit restrictive, and Testut chose to launch Delta on his own alternative AltStore. Delta can't be on both AltStore and the App Store, so EU folks have to jump through an extra hoop there. But it's still a really exciting time for mobile nerds in my opinion — we've got Apple being more open than it's been in the history of iOS, enabling the dev community to roll its own way while simultaneously giving emulation a welcome shot of tacit support in the wake of the Yuzu fiasco.

For Android users, nothing going on in Apple land is particularly new or exciting here — we've had retro and even modern platform emulation on Android phones for years now, including Yuzu until very recently. So while it's not quite as impressive to be able to play a 1993 Game Boy game on your phone as it was a 2023 Switch games... it's a start, right? I'm going to stick with this topic for the second bit of the Big Two this week and talk a bit about what we'll likely see from emulation on iOS in the future. But let's look at what else is available outside Delta, eh?

  • Emu64 XL is a Commodore 64 emulator, but the reviews make it pretty clear: steer clear of this one.
  • Multi-system emulator Folium is currently in a TestFlight beta which means it should be out before too long; it includes the DS and 3DS but not the newer systems like the Switch supported by Folium elsewhere. Developer Jarrod Norwell plans to add a PS1 core as well. The 3DS, at least, will likely require the latest iPhone to run at playable speeds.
  • NES emulator Bimmy was pulled by its developer quickly. And please avoid AD Boy.

That's about where we're at right now... but what about next week or next month? 🔮

2. Soon: More emulators making their way to the App store, and the JIT problem

If Delta isn't enough to keep you busy, you might be wondering about all them other emulators out there that could show up on your iPhone now that the floodgates are open. Let's run through a few of 'em:

PPSSPP – Expect it "later this year."

About the Apple announcement - PPSSPP

Retroarch – On its way, according to a dev on Reddit. Should offer a comparable approach to Delta but with more image processing options and more system cores.

by u/JumpyDirector8008 from discussion
in RetroArch

Yaba Sanshiro (Sega Saturn) – Submitted to the App Store, so likely coming soon.

Yaba Sanshiro Applies to Apple’s App Store
Saturn emulation may be coming to iOS devices after Apple changed their policy on emulators. Apple updated its App Store submission guidelines Friday to include rules for “game emulators&#822…

Provenance – Yet another emulator front-end (aren't there enough of these??) is available on the AltStore, also coming to the App Store.

Provenance coming to the App Store with PlayStation emulation
Apple surprised everyone earlier this month with a change to the App Store guidelines that now allows retro game console…

Dolphin (GameCube/Wii) – Not happening unless Apple changes its policy on JIT. What the heck's JIT? Dolphin contributor OatmealDome breaks it down for us:

Why Dolphin Isn’t Coming to the App Store -
Two weeks ago, Apple modified their App Store guidelines to allow retro game emulators in the App Store. This week, Delta, a multi-system emulator that was previously only available via AltStore, was released on the App Store. Since these events happened, we’ve been asked many times if we will submit…
 "If we want to run a GameCube or Wii game on an iPhone, it is necessary to translate the game’s PowerPC code to ARM so that the CPU can understand it. Dolphin uses something called a Just-in-Time (JIT) recompiler to achieve this... Unfortunately, Apple generally does not allow apps to use JIT recompilers on iOS. The only exceptions are Safari and alternative web browsers in Europe.

"We submitted a DMA interoperability request to Apple for JIT support, but Apple denied the request a few weeks ago. It’s hard to tell exactly why Apple is so hesitant to open up JIT support. It’s possible that they consider it to be a security risk."

If you want to see what Dolphin looks like running with an interpreter, rather than the just-in-time recompiler, here's a video from an iPhone 15 Pro Max that's like watching nails on a chalkboard.

Without JIT support, Dolphin probably wouldn't be playable on an iPhone for many more hardware generations. The same will unfortunately apply to pretty much every other home console since the 2000s I believe — but those with ARM processors should be exempt. If Switch emulation wasn't currently the world's hottest potato, we might see that pop up. As it is, even though Sudachi is actually available via Folium on the Alt store, I have to imagine Nintendo would not take a prominent App Store release sitting down. But performance-wise? Yep, the iPhone can already play Switch games. Rad.

Move over to a beefier iPad and things will presumably get even better. Apple remains well ahead of the pack on its ARM chip designs as far as I'm aware, which is perhaps the most notable thing about this mini emulation revolution. That performance gain won't matter for '90s consoles, but things change fast once we get into the 3D era. Android's been the only game in town for mobile emulation for years unless you were part of the very small contingent of people willing to figure out how to sideload iPhone apps, but the go-to device may well be an iPad a year from now, especially if Apple can find a way around its security concerns to allow for apps like Dolphin to implement JIT.

Considering the raw deal Dolphin got from Steam this time last year, it'd be real real cool, imho, to see Apple allow the emulator on its own store.

Patching In

Fresh squeezed Lime3DS – Citra lives on! This fork of the project, which shut down alongside Yuzu after Nintendo's lawsuit, is already seeing improvements. Its latest release includes an "improved rasterizer cache validation heuristic" promising "extreme performance improvements" in several games. Basically the emulator was being tripped up by the weird ways some games cached textures, and this helps! Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, Kid Icarus Uprising, and Spider-Man Edge of Time all get a boost.

PCSX2 gets its first charcoal suit – PCSX2's 22 years old, which feels like about the right age to be buying a grey suit! More specifically, the emulator has a new skin called Grey Matter and it looks nice.

RPCS3 was the Masked Singer – The fake PS3 used to show up as "Unknown" in the PlayLink Singstar Mic app. Now the app will show a name unique to your system like "RPCS3-141." Best bugfix of all time?

  • RPCS3 also recently fixed a geometry bug in Resident Evil: Code Veronica, an explosion bug in Infamous, and an issue affecting savestates in a recent build.

Flycast Balls, Boxes, Shos Down and Initializes D – I haven't been keeping tabs on Dreamcast/Naomi emulator Flycast, but I am now! Last month it happened to release version 2.3 with fixes for 27 games! It also now boasts "Battle Cable support" which I assume means the Dreamcast Taisen cable. Head-to-head Virtual On, anybody?

Core Report

MiSTer Framework updates abound – There have been a number of "updated framework posts" from MiSTer boss Sorgelig and tbh I don't really know what they entail! But the affected systems include NES, SNES, Mega Drive, Mega CD, PSX, GBA, WonderSwan, Atari Lynx, Chess, and arcade games Joust 2, Inferno, Mystic Marathon, Turkey Shoot, and Tropical Angel. So... check 'em out?

Forum guy lists N64 games with MiSTer core compatibility issues – Here's a list compiling all the games that have known issues on the finished (for now) N64 core. The poster included review scores for all of them for some reason — I feel like it was supposed to be a dig, but it just made me laugh that someone thinks we should give a shit that Famitsu gave Banjo-Tooie a 33/40 or that Nintendo Power gave Blues Brothers 2000 a 6.8 out of 10.

I think we might be okay without this one, guy.

Translation Station

Jung Rhythm doesn't charge by the hour – Sega specialist Derek Pascarella is back with another fan translation, hot on the heels of his latest project. This one is Jung Rhythm, which is either a "colorful, bizarre 32-bit song-and-dance-adventure or a profound commentary on our great collective unconscious — I'll leave it to you to guess which. Two immediately sick things I learned about Jung Rhythm I didn't know until today (not including "it exists"):

  • You play as a character named Vanilla Essence
  • Developer Altron also made Waku Waku Monster, one of the odder Sega Saturn games I've personally played

I'm not gonna say this is one of the finer-looking Saturn games, but I do wonder how the songs would've gone over in the west back in the Parappa days.

Yarudora Series Vol. 3 Sampaguita – EsperKnight and Cargodin (the duo behind Linda Cube Again) strike once more! This time it's a visual novel, third in a series, for PSP. (Here's another they translated previously, but there's no story continuity). If you want a longer description, check out TVTropes. My main interest here is that it's actually an animated novel rather than the usual still image visual novel, and the anime scenes were done by Production I.G., makers of the masterpiece Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and everyone's favorite volleyball series Haikyu!!

So yeah, sure, I'd play a good looking anime movie, why not? Here's the English patch in action:

A reminder that Sakura Wars 2 is coming – A fan translation of this cult fave is in development; here's a recent thread from hacker NSteam digging into some of the assembly hacking. If you love the combination of the words "Sega Saturn" and "sprites" This one's for you.

Good pixels

Hooray for Bluesky having an embed code now! Let's look at some quality pixel posts before we get outta here. 💽

Bay City Elegy (横浜エレジィ) // Cocktail Soft // PC-98

[image or embed]

— PC-98 Bot ( Apr 14, 2024 at 9:00 AM

#pixelart #ドット絵 #indie_anime 玄関

[image or embed]

— モトクロス斉藤/Thankass/UPC ( Feb 7, 2024 at 9:55 PM

Animal Village - my piece (of heart) for Koholint Redrawn! On the right you can see the original location from Link's Awakening DX (gameboy color, 1998) #pixelart #ドット絵 #zelda This piece is also animated! Be sure to check it here:

[image or embed]

— Zaebucca ( Apr 13, 2024 at 8:56 AM

Power Dolls 2 // Kogado Studio // PC-98

[image or embed]

— PC-98 Bot ( Apr 10, 2024 at 9:00 PM