A Look at OpenEmu 1.0

OpenEmu Chrome LogoRight before Christmas, retro gamers on the Mac were given an early present with the much anticipated release of OpenEmu 1.0. This release is one of the most significant developments in game console emulation on the Mac to happen in many years. Only hours after its release, the project went viral and was covered on several prominent tech blogs. This project also represents one of the first true mainstream emulators released since the days of Bleem!

What is OpenEmu? From a tech perspective, it’s essentially the combination of a powerful front-end and a multiple-machine emulator. OpenEmu works on a plugin-based model so additional consoles can be easily added in the form of additional “cores” that share common resources such as the user interface, graphics engine and more. The goal of the project, as stated by its developers, is to “bring game emulation to OS X as a first class citizen, leveraging modern OS X technologies…”

Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 4.14.19 AMMy first impression of OpenEmu was the initial setup which only consisted of a few quick screens choosing which consoles to include in the game library as well as scanning for ROMs for the first time. OpenEmu didn’t detect the ROMs on my mounted network share but they were easily added via a simple drag-and-drop, similar to iTunes. To my surprise, it only took a few minutes to add a little over 350 games to my game library and accurately downloaded boxart for many of those titles. Adding boxart for any games that were missed was as easy as simply dragging the image directly from my web browser to the game’s entry in the game library.

Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 4.11.50 AMFrom the start, I could clearly see the amount of work and polish that went into developing OpenEmu’s interface. The interface is simple, elegant and consistent of what I would expect from any modern Mac app. One area that particularly impressed me was OpenEmu’s controller configuration dialog. OpenEmu automatically recognizes many common (and some not so common) controllers and provides optimal button mappings right from the start. If you you would like to customize your controller, the dialog provides a live map of the original controller so you can see exactly how the original controller for that system was laid out.

Although most of the current consoles supported by OpenEmu are of the 16-bit and earlier vintage, I was impressed at the modest system requirements. OpenEmu will run on most modern Macs running OS X 10.7 or higher with Intel X3100 graphics or better. Common emulator features such as save states and a variety of graphics filters are available on all of the supported consoles. Several systems also have the option of using more than one core, such as Super Nintendo, which can be emulated using SNES9x or Higan. This is useful in the event of rare compatibility issues that can crop up with more obscure games.

Screen Shot 2014-01-03 at 11.28.23 AMWhile OpenEmu’s 1.0 release is impressive and well-polished, one noticeable shortfall is the lack of platform-specific options. For example, Virtual Boy games by default are displayed with both the left and right screen combined to create a single image; the option to display in stereoscopic red and cyan isn’t available. I suspect platform specific options as well as others such as the option to specify specific cores for individual games will likely be added in later releases as the project progresses. Considering OpenEmu’s modern approach to development, I‘m also curious to see what features might follow future releases – social media integration, netplay, screen recording, anyone?

Being an observer of the emulation scene, something I find particularly interesting is the political implications that OpenEmu may have on the scene. This project touches on what I consider to be the “third rail” in the scene, it aims to bring emulation fully into the mainstream through its ease of use and accessibility. The problem is that emulation has always been a legal gray area, while emulators don’t infringe on any copyrights or intellectual property, the games they run generally do. Due to the emulation scene’s somewhat underground nature and limited distribution, legal action from game publishers and developers thus far has been limited. With more companies now selling older titles combined OpenEmu’s potential of bursting into mainstream use, I could see this project becoming a lightning rod for legal action in the not-so-distant future.

Regardless of what the future may hold, OpenEmu 1.0 stands as a well-polished release and the start of a project that has great potential. In the short term, the project has achieved its goal of filling the emulation gap on the Mac. I look forward to watching this project mature and to seeing how the OpenEmu team tackles the challenges ahead.

Download at: OpenEmu.org

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