Sony's new PS2 classics on PS5 are the latest in a long line of official emulation getting it wrong

Plus: Emulating the Skylanders Portal of Power on Cemu, no toys required.

Sony's new PS2 classics on PS5 are the latest in a long line of official emulation getting it wrong

The Bear is back, and what a disappointing return this season is β€” not once in the six episodes I've watched so far does Carmy have a flashback about Mikey beating his ass in Super Mario Kart. There's not a single Analogue Pocket or other retro handheld in sight. And they call this prestige TV!! We can only hope season 4 rights the ship by getting these great characters out of the kitchen (boring!) and into a Ballbreaker tournament where they all belong.

So anyway, where's your head at this week? Mine's split between relishing the return of The Bear, recovering from the doozy of Shadow of the Erdtree's launch and thinking about this specific minidisc.

Image via @ObsoleteSony

Goddammit, it's beautiful.

With something like 30% of my brain power dedicated to that thing I don't have much juice left to dedicate to much of anything else, but it's been the first slow week for emulation news in a minute. Is everyone too busy playing Elden Ring? Well, I don't mind the breather β€” I expect we'll be back to major MiSTer events in no time. In fact, that's pretty much guaranteed, as Taki Udon's back to tweeting about his budget board, with the news that it's dropping the barrel jack power connector for USB-C Power Delivery. (There's still a 2-pin power connector if you wanna wire up a custom solution).

I checked in on other recent events with Wiseguy, the developed behind N64 Recompiled as featured in mid-May. No big updates there yet β€” he's still working on the modding framework that will (hopefully!) be a big deal and open up future recomps to all sorts of enhancements. But we may be waiting awhile for the finished framework and thorough documentation that encourages more folks to tackle their own recomp projects.

So this week we're having some fun with Spyro and having a different sort of fun with Sony. Their emulation efforts unfortunately aren't up to the standards of their '90s / '00s industrial design. But then, what is?

Before we get into it, a longread recommendation for y'all: Baxter from Tsundoku Diving just republished his great feature on the history of strip Mahjong games. It's NSFW but tasteful β€” exhaustively researched and fascinating insight into an area of gaming that sees precious little scholarship.

Talking games - The NSFW History of Strip Mahjong Games
A story of sex, politics, and the games that once ruled arcades

Settle into a comfy chair with a cup of tea and enjoy! After all this juicy emulation talk, of course.


The Big Two

1. Sony's latest PS2 emulation is yet another swing and a miss

It is 2021. I am emulating a Nintendo 64 game on the Nintendo Switch. It is missing graphical effects that the company itself designed for the game 23 years before.

It is 2022. I am emulating a PlayStation 1 game on a PlayStation 5. The video options are barren, and I have been made to play Ape Escape with a juddery 50Hz PAL game running inside a 60Hz container.

It is 2024. I am emulating a PlayStation 2 game on a PlayStation 5. It offers a "modern" video filter that seemingly only makes the picture darker. Despite running at higher than native resolution, its upscaler to 4K both stretches the image and makes it blurrier than it would be on original hardware.

I am tired of official emulation. These people. I'm tired of being given the option of buying a classic game, only to find the experience of playing it worse than it would be on my PC. They claim their labors are to build a heaven, yet their heaven is populated with horrors.

So yeah β€” there's a new round of official classic PlayStation emulation happening, and turns out: it's bad! Not apocalyptically bad or anything, as my lil' tongue-in-cheek borrowed monologue there may make it seem, but bad in that disappointingly familiar sigh of a way. The inevitability of it! That when you compare the output of a company with billions of dollars, unfettered access to technical documentation, source code, and every other possible resource to the product of fan grunt and passion, the fans will do a better job 99 times out of 100. It has to be this way because of deadlines and budgets and blah blah blah. But also: Does it?

Digital Foundry's got the story this time around, calling the PS2 emulation of Tomb Raider Legend, Sly Cooper and Star Wars: The Clone Wars "another disappointing effort."

"The core of the issue seems to be a distinct lack of care when it comes to emulation, with some of the same issues we noted with the PS4 version of the emulator remaining unsolved two years later β€” and some new problems too," writes Will Judd.

John Linneman goes more in-depth in this video, citing the disappointing CRT filters, upscaling issues and a particularly egregious case of a music track in one Sly Cooper level being totally absent.

It's the first level, by the way. That seems like a bug you should probably find in testing?

Back when Nintendo first added N64 games to the Switch, members of the community did some comparisons and found missing graphical effects in Ocarina of Time that were actually rendered correctly on the Wii's Virtual Console. Which means Nintendo had actually gone backwards on emulation quality 15 years later, despite, again, having all the institutional knowledge and resources needed to do the job right.

Even if you don't take a granular view on those sorts of details, I think the way Nintendo and Sony continue to present emulated releases of their classic games reflects a big problem in how the companies view them. Both are shoving these releases into their subscription services as token goodies (though in Sony's case you can buy them separately too). They're essentially treated as little freebies you get for shelling out too much money to them every month just to use their online services. Why would they invest lots of money in a freebie? And how upset can players get if the freebie is just, y'know, okay, because it's not like you're paying much for it anyway. Whatever! Play it for a few minutes and move on, et cetera.

I pray for the day Nintendo or Sony actually treat their incredible back catalogs to the Digital Eclipse "playable documentary" format with historical art and docs and behind-the-scenes photos plucked from the archives alongside interviews and beta roms and all that stuff. Will it ever happen? Probably not! But it could be so incredible. And in a package like that, the emulation would all but have to be up to snuff β€” Konami learned that one the hard way with the Metal Gear collection and has been polishing it up for the past year. It'll still be hard to measure up to the flexibility and enhancements offered by fan emulators, but the opportunity for so much better is right there for the taking.

Ah well β€” poor PS2 emulation on PS5 is a shame, but at least Sony didn't make an absolute mess of things. It's not like they were working to replicate a notoriously complex piece of hardware or anything. Can you imagine how badly that would probably go? Glad nothing like that's on the horizon πŸ˜‚

[Rumor] Jeff Grubb says he heard that PS3 emulation is in the works at Sony Rumor
Credit to salromano https://www.youtube.com/live/d7VhpUERtTk?t=3578s

Moving on...


2. Cemu gets virtual Skylanders thanks to an emulated Portal of Power

Skylanders and Amiibo would've been absolutely my shit if I was 10 or so years younger. As it is I had a mild infatuation period with the Nintendo e-Reader β€” I thought it was very cool that scanning paper could materialize a whole-ass video game, even if the actual scanning process was a real pain. Some of my favorite writing about emulation is Shonumi's chronicle of reverse-engineering the Game Boy's many esoteric accessories, but I'm glad he's not alone on that quest. Over the past year and change software engineer Joshua de Reeper has been on a quest to bring the Skylanders scanny base station "Portal of Power" to both Dolphin and Cemu, so that anyone can emulate the series' half-dozen games even without access to the original hardware.

"I loved the games when I was growing up, many fond memories of playing with my brother on our old PS3," Josh says. "I think initially getting it to work on Dolphin was more of a challenge my Dad set me: I had a few conversations with him when I first started researching for the Dolphin ... he had been a fan of the Dolphin project for a while, and then I think it was at the end of 2020ish when I started getting back in to Skylanders and I remember buying quite a few figures to use on Dolphin just to get some nostalgia going, but was very quickly frustrated by the game needing basically one of every type of Skylander to access all of the content."

Josh's dad, clearly a wise man as a fan of Dolphin, may have also experienced some holiday shopping PTSD when he saw his son buying up Skylanders figures. As an apparent Skylanders expert he also knew that there was already an existing emulated portal for RPCS3, so he suggested that Josh could replicate it for Dolphin and thus stop trawling Ebay for gently used Spyros. That was how it all started.

" I set about trying to get it working on Dolphin from there," Josh says. "I didn't have the intention to get it working on Cemu for a while, but then the Skylander Discord server that I am in started asking me more questions about whether or not it would be possible, just because the Skylanders games on the Wii weren't very good after Giants (just because of the Wii's limitations) and RPCS3 requires a bit of a beefier PC than Cemu to run well, and that was motivation enough for me to try get it working there too."

With permission Josh started with the code from RPCS3, bringing over the basic implementation of the portal of power. It shows up in Dolphin's menu and brings up a simple window with allows you to load up multiple Skylander files straight from a file explorer. There are ways to dump actual Skylanders figures for those who want to carry on their adventures with their old toys, but you can also generate new blank ones via the emulator easily enough. Josh makes the process of getting everything working sound surprisingly simple.

"Initially to replicate how it worked, I found some examples online of the commands that were sent to the portal, and starting logging the requests and responses using a real portal, just to get a gauge of how the commands I found online mapped to real requests, then started creating pseudocode based on the emulators' already existing USB device code, and then based on what commands were sent return the expected response... The big challenge was just understanding each emulator’s code base and where to plug all the code in really!"

After getting the basic functionality up and running in Dolphin, Josh added a significant set of features beyond just loading up a Skylander. You can see them in the video below: the portal interface now lets you filter all possible creatures by game, elemental abilities, and figurine type (there were apparently vehicles, trophies, minis and more beyond the standard Skylanders) and either pick one from your collection or create a new one that matches your needs. He sourced the information on all the variants from a member of the community.

The Cemu implementation required some code changes from Dolphin, but it's now live in the latest build, giving Nintendo players access to the last couple Skylanders games that weren't on the Wii. With the feature added, Josh now has plans to bring the similar Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions toys to Cemu as well. He also doesn't consider the Skylanders portal implementation completely finished. "I can envisage a UI where you can actually drag and drop some of the Skylanders you have created on to a portal, and even maybe get it lighting up like how the physical portal does would be something I want to do in the future!" he says.

Pure software emulation can never replicate the experience of interacting with a physical object like the Skylanders toys, but endeavors like this ensure the games remain playable even if the figurines themselves end up hard to come by or their tiny NFC chips rot out.

"Having all the figures and the physical portal is so fun, the way it lights up and with the Trap Team game where the villains in the game actually talk to you through it is hard to beat," Josh says. "But I believe emulating anything is super important just for the purposes of knowledge sharing more than anything. Getting more people access to a portal emulator where they can use any figure from the games opens up a lot more content from the games that they also may not have been able to play before."

Activision sold millions of the things, but then suddenly they were gone. The company was like "eh, dead now" and ports to future platforms will probably never happen. Bobby K said you can't be friends with Spyro anymore, but thankfully Dolphin, RPCS3 and Cemu say: Yes you can.


Patching In

MartyPC 0.2.2 adds IBM Game Port and more – Cycle-accurate IBM PC emulator MartyPC is the pick if you want some crazy accuracy to an old 8088 system, and its new release includes some goodies:

  • Emulation of the LoTech 2MB EMS card. Mega memory!!
  • "Emulation of the IBM game port card, and basic keyboard-based joystick emulation"
  • The PCJr now supports cartridge slots in JRipCart format
  • I love the granularity of this sort of patch note: "HERCULES: Increased the size of the Hercules' display field to accommodate some CGA emulators that drive the MDA monitor slightly out of sync"

If you aren't familiar with MartyPC, check out this super intense scene demo running in the emulator.

Get your Geist on – Dolphin fixed crashes in Geist by disabling dual-core, which apparently ghosts don't like. Unfortunately I'm not sure that this will be enough to make Geist good.

Wonder(Swan) what's up with Ares v139 – The latest release of multi-system emulator ares (the more performance-focused spin-off of higan) "improves EEPROM emulation accuracy" for the WonderSwan and WonderSwan Color, which I assume means 'gaem run gooder.'

  • ares also now supports a number of additional NES mappers, un-headered roms, and squashed its "last known rendering bug," some missing scanlines in Burai Fighter.

Lime3DS gives some window options – Citra fork Lime3DS now offers the option to split the dual screens between separate windows or keep 'em in one window. It also recently added better controller support on Android and a turbo setting for Adreno GPUs.


Core Report

New Analog Pocket core: Atari System 1 – Ported over from the MiSTer, you can now enjoy a whopping five System 1 games (because that's all that exist): Marble Madness, Roadblasters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Peter Pack-Rat. Did you know Mark Cerny designed Marble Madness as a 17-year-old? Sheesh.

PlayStation? For Wheel – The latest unstable build of the MiSTer PS1 core now supports rumble on Logitech racing wheels so you can feel that force feedback.


Translation Station

Nothing new the last couple weeks!? Let's cast our eyes to the horizon, then...

PS1 RPG Ancient Roman: Power of Dark Side has had an English translation in the works for some time, and release is now imminent:


Good pixels

This week our PC-98 theme is: Food! Eat up.

Don't forget to snack. πŸ’½