I love video games. I love video games so much, I spent $500 on November 10th to play a bunch of old games. Sounds strange, but consider the following: Besides your backwards compatible Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Original Xbox titles, you now have access to a vast array of emulators that let you get back to games that are likely older than you.
Yes, you have read that right. For a few years now the Xbox One has been capable of running emulators. But the few that have made it to the Microsoft Store have been pulled down ever since the company made changes into their Terms of Service, banning the ability for developers to sell emulators via their storefront. But on Xbox consoles, you can get around the Store and install your own applications via the Developer Mode function available. And so game emulation has persisted there since—with very little interest as the Xbox One console was and is not capable of running CPU-intensive applications that emulators tend to be.
Now before I get into the tidbits of what all this is, let me talk a bit about emulators. If you do not know, an emulator is essentially a solution built to “emulate” a software or hardware on another device that was not intentionally built for it. You might have seen folks running GameBoy Advance games on an Android or iOS device—that would be considered emulation.
I would also like to tell you, the reader, that emulation is not illegal, and we can thank a number of failed attempts by console manufacturers like SEGA and Sony for that (I would say that SCEA v. Bleem! is the well-known suit, but the SEGA v. Accolade case is much more interesting). To put it in the best words I can, the act of emulation is legal so long as the emulation solution does not involve copyrighted code of the hardware being emulated. Yes, that means you can emulate just about anything so long as you do not provide the code that needs to be executed (like BIOS firmware, operating system, and other copyrighted software—stuff the end user would have to provide themselves).
But I digress. It is entirely legal and not only is pretty friggin’ cool to see, it is also incredibly important to the preservation of game software and hardware. It is one thing to have Doom run on anything with a screen (still pretty impressive, mind you) but it is another thing to watch your Xbox Series console run 6th generation console software almost perfectly. I have had the chance to run a number of my personal copies of games such as Klonoa: Door to Phantomile on PlayStation One, The Last Story and F-Zero GX on Wii and GameCube respectively, and Magna Carta: Tears of Blood on the PlayStation 2. Almost all these games shocked me with how well they were running on my Xbox Series X. And though I would love to describe my time with these games in detail, I think a video is better suited for the subject.
Now mind you, the Series X is a strong kit. It should run these emulators without any problems, and it does do that to an extent. Emulation is awesome, but it is as good as your emulation solution is. Software like PCSX2 and Dolphin, emulators that target PS2 and GameCube and Wii software have been around for years; even today they are not 100% perfect—you can still run games that will have issues like broken graphical effects, warped sound, inaccuracies, etcetera. Emulation of video game software in particular is very demanding as well, so you will need a decent bit of hardware to get even the most innocuous-looking game to run properly.
But that does not mean they stink, on the contrary they have come a long way since the early 2000s and I have finished many a title of mine on these two respective emulators. To put simply, I want to point out that emulation is not perfect and it will have issues, but they will be ironed out by the talented individuals that build these solutions.
And as for how these emulators run on Xbox consoles? They are built into a frontend for emulators that is called RetroArch. RetroArch is essentially an all-in-one solution that allows a range of emulators to work on a single platform. I am not doing the frontend nor the work put into it any justice, so I do recommend looking up videos on how RetroArch works and the number of platforms it is available on. It is through RetroArch that one would be able to begin their emulation journey on Xbox One and Xbox Series consoles should they choose to do so. It is how I ran the games I mentioned previously (with set up work involved, of course) and it is also teaching me a little more about how these console tick (and how easy it is to trigger a hard crash of the console, likely related to its security functions).
As I mentioned before, this was available on Xbox One, but the reason it is worth a look now is because the Xbox Series X and S are just so much more capable. The Xbox One struggles to run a PlayStation Portable game. The Xbox Series X? You can make adjustments to the internal software that bumps up the resolution of the game to near 4k and still hit the intentional full-speed that the developers intended the game to run at. Remember that emulating game software as it was intended to look and run is very heavy, so you can imagine the additional strain brought on by bumping up options like resolution and upscaling textures. But yet the Xbox Series consoles do it, even with a RetroArch application that is not all too suited for the Xbox, and that is awesome.
It is still early days for RetroArch on Xbox, but considering how it has blown up thanks to the viewership of channels like Modern Vintage Gamer and sites like Ars Technica, you can expect work to be put into this port of RetroArch. Who knows, maybe we will see RPCS3, a PlayStation 3 emulator, running on an Xbox console. Talk about blown minds and a path for future generations to be able to have access to software that could easily be lost to time.