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Dolphin emulator: why it's still a challenge to run GameCube, Wii games on Android

Between graphics driver support and aggressive throttling, the Dolphin emulator still has a few challenges on Android.

Published onAugust 15, 2018

This is the featured image for Android Apps Weekly 08-10-2018
  • The team behind the Dolphin emulator for Android has revealed a few challenges that still remain.
  • It revealed that the NVIDIA Shield TV out-performs Snapdragon 835 phones in a key scenario, despite the NVIDIA device using three-year-old silicon.
  • GPU driver support and aggressive performance management have been cited as two obstacles in the way of better performance on Android phones.

The Dolphin emulator has become the preferred choice for gamers hoping to play Nintendo GameCube and Wii titles on their PC or Android devices. The emulator finally returned to the Play Store after a two-year absence last week, and the team has detailed some of the challenges that still remain.

In a post on the Dolphin website, the team started by explaining their reason for pulling the emulator from the Play Store two years ago. They cited an “endless stream of poor ratings and angry comments,” despite warning users that many games wouldn’t be playable.

With the emulator now returning to the Play Store, the team has revealed improvements to the Android version made possible by the changing landscape of smartphone hardware. For one, the 64-bit AArch64 architecture is now more commonplace on phones, which is important because Dolphin doesn’t support 32-bit devices. It adds that most top-end devices now offer OpenGL ES 3.0 graphics drivers too, which are key to delivering better performance in the emulator.

GPU driver support is still lacking on Android

The Dolphin team says that if you buy a modern Android flagship, chances are good that it’ll run the emulator. The big problem with Android phones, however, is that driver support still leaves much to be desired.

“Most new Mali and Adreno chipsets at least attempt to support GLES3 and some even manage to support Vulkan to a good enough degree to run Dolphin. The problem is that their drivers are incredibly spotty, with regressions and fixes varying from release to release.”

Nevertheless, the team says graphics drivers on Android have improved “tremendously” in the last few years, but adds that they’re not perfect yet.

A graph comparing performance in Dolphin.

In fact, the team points to the NVIDIA Shield TV and its “full NVIDIA drivers” as being a prime example of what’s possible when GPU manufacturers deliver the required level of support. Many games require a Dolphin feature called “store EFB to RAM” in order to run properly, and the three-year-old Shield TV out-performs last year’s Snapdragon 835 flagship silicon when this feature is enabled (see graph above).

When the “store EFB to RAM” feature is disabled, Snapdragon silicon manages to pull ahead when paired with Vulkan. The team hasn’t shown a comparison of Snapdragon 845 silicon versus the NVIDIA Shield TV, but the fact that the 2015 NVIDIA device is able to pull ahead of last year’s silicon — even though the Shield TV is an Android TV device with no battery considerations — shows us that more comprehensive GPU driver support is needed on Android phones.

Should you root your phone?

Dolphin on Android.

The Dolphin team notes that it’s certainly possible to play many GameCube or Wii games at full speed on Android. However, another big issue on some phones is the governor, which controls the clock speed of the processor. The team notes that some phones with an aggressive governor (i.e. frequently scaling back clock speed in the name of battery life) require users to root their phones to adjust said governor for higher performance.

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The team has cautioned against rooting your phone due to associated risks, but the results can be eye-opening, as the OnePlus 5 proves (see above graph). The team behind the emulator notes that the Pixel 2 doesn’t suffer from the same throttling issues as the OnePlus 5 (despite using the same silicon) but adds that the Google phone’s new Adreno GPU drivers have introduced serious issues in some games.

Truth be told, if you’re hoping to play GameCube and Wii games via emulator, you’re better off trying to run Dolphin on your PC. In fact, the team gave us this advice last year in the wake of the Galaxy S8’s release, saying it was wiser to spend $750 on a PC instead of a smartphone if emulation is a top priority.

Are you using the Dolphin emulator on Android? What kind of performance are you getting? Let us know in the comments!

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