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Tested: Is the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra the best Android phone for emulation?

Few emulators tax the system more than Dolphin and Citra, so how does the highest-spec Android phone handle them?

Published onMay 2, 2020

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra GameCube Emulation with Xbox Controller in One Hand

In the world of console emulation on Android phones and tablets, few emulators tax the system more than Dolphin (GameCube/Wii) and Citra (Nintendo 3DS). Since the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is one of the most powerful phones on the market today, I wanted to know how it would handle GameCube and Nintendo 3DS emulation.

Inside the Galaxy S20 Ultra is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor paired with the Adreno 650 GPU and an absurd amount of RAM. Theoretically, you shouldn’t be able to get faster gaming performance on an Android phone with anything other than these components.

So, can the most powerful Android phone to date run the two most demanding retro gaming emulators for Android without any issues? Let’s find out!

Related: 15 best emulators for Android to play old favorites

My setups for GameCube and Nintendo 3DS emulation

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Nintendo 3DS Emulation Super Mario 3D Land

Before I got the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, I did all my emulation on my OnePlus 7 Pro. For this article, I installed all my games onto the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra and also updated all my emulators to the latest versions. This way I could play one game on the OnePlus 7 Pro and then the same game on the Galaxy S20 Ultra and get a decent idea of how much better the Galaxy S20 Ultra is in comparison.

For the sake of disclosure, here’s what that means specifically:

  • Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra & OnePlus 7 Pro
    • Citra (Nintendo 3DS emulation)
      • Version: aac77142b, sourced from here
      • No settings tweaked aside from physical controller setup and turning FPS counter on
    • Dolphin (GameCube emulation)
      • Version: 5.0-11824, sourced from here
      • No settings tweaked aside from physical controller setup and turning FPS counter on

Obviously, I could very likely get better performance from both systems by tweaking lots of settings, even going so far as to tweak settings for each game. However, the purpose of this is to see if the Galaxy S20 Ultra hardware is really much better than that of the OnePlus 7 Pro’s (or any other sub-Snapdragon 865 device), so I didn’t add any tweaks to keep things fair, at least at first.

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I used an Xbox One Wireless Controller connected to a mobile phone holder clip on both systems as I absolutely cannot stand on-screen controls. Since the controller was the same for both system tests, it’s not a variable.

Are you using an Android device for console emulation?

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As a final note, I thought I’d throw it out there that I use the amazing app OneSync to sync all of my ROMs, emulators, and save files across all my systems via OneDrive. This enables me, for example, to play a GameCube game on my phone, save it, and then pick up that same save file on my PC or Steam Link. I’m super happy with this (and it was incredibly helpful for this article) so give it a shot if you are interested!

With all that out of the way, let’s get to the testing and my experience with the two emulators.

GameCube emulation: Galaxy S20 Ultra wins, but not by much

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra GameCube Emulation with Xbox Controller In Hand

There are a few GameCube games that are difficult for Dolphin to render well, even when you’re running the PC version of the emulator on a high-end system. Granted, if you have a $6,000 gaming rig, you’re not going to face too many issues playing nearly any GameCube game, but your system will still need to work harder for some games in comparison to others.

For this test, I started by playing The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures on each phone. This is a relatively simple game to emulate — it has a five-star compatibility rating on the Dolphin Wiki, indicating that it can be played from beginning to end without any issues. Both the OnePlus 7 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra had steady 60fps speeds during all gameplay for this title, indicating that each phone had no problem.

Emulators for Android: Can your phone handle these consoles?
Dolphin is one of many emulators on Android.

I next moved on to a more taxing game: Metroid Prime. This game has a four-star compatibility rating but is well-known as being a tough game to emulate on low-tier or even some mid-tier PCs. The OnePlus 7 Pro ran the game fine, but there were definitely noticeable drops in framerate as well as some audio distortions, especially when moving from room to room in the opening five minutes of the game. This also happened with Super Smash Bros. Melee, another difficult-to-emulate game.

Even on some hard-to-emulate GameCube games, both phones did very well.

Meanwhile, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra rendered both Metroid and Smash slightly smoother. There was still some lag and framerate drops in Smash moving from the title screen to the actual fight, for example, but it wasn’t as glitchy as the OnePlus 7 Pro.

Finally, I ran a notoriously tricky game to emulate: The Simpsons: Hit and Run. Interestingly, my OnePlus 7 Pro wouldn’t even start this game. The splash screen showed up when I first started it and then Dolphin immediately shut it down. The S20 Ultra, though, ran the game just fine, albeit with some audio crackling and some notable framerate drops when moving from title screens to gameplay. Still, I could actually play the game without much issue on the S20 Ultra, which I definitely could not do with the OnePlus 7 Pro.

Ultimately, there wasn’t a GameCube game I tried that I couldn’t play and have a minimum of a “good enough” experience with the Galaxy S20 Ultra, while the OnePlus 7 Pro had trouble with just a few.

Nintendo 3DS emulation: S20 Ultra is better, but far from perfect

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Nintendo 3DS Emulation Zelda Link Between Worlds

For Nintendo 3DS emulation, things get murkier. Even the highest-end gaming rig faces issues with the PC version of Citra when playing certain games, so I couldn’t expect smooth gameplay from either the OnePlus 7 Pro or the Galaxy S20 Ultra.

However, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t some notable differences. For example, Super Mario 3D Land boots up on the OnePlus 7 Pro but has framerates stuck in the 20s. This makes the game essentially unplayable as a hit of the jump button causes Mario to very slowly ascend hundreds of milliseconds later.

The Galaxy S20 Ultra, in comparison, ran the game much more smoothly, but still wasn’t adequately playable. I could move Mario around in a comfortable way at certain points, but then the framerates would drop and everything would get stuttery. Then, it would kick back into gear and be playable again.

Even the mighty Galaxy S20 Ultra couldn't play some high-profile 3DS games.

In other words, there was no way I could complete the game in the state it was in on either device, even if the Galaxy S20 Ultra did a better job. I saw the same thing with Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, in that the OnePlus 7 Pro was completely unplayable while the Galaxy S20 Ultra was better, but still bad.

Conversely, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and Poochy & Yoshi’s Woolly World played very well on both systems. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to say that the S20 Ultra was better since they seemed to play about the same.

The bottom line here is that Nintendo 3DS emulation is going to be better on the Galaxy S20 Ultra than any system without that Snapdragon 865 processor, and maybe even better than other phones with the same chipset. Ultimately, though, it still won’t be the perfect 3DS emulation machine.

Two final experiments with Nintendo 3DS emulation

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Nintendo 3DS Emulation Super Mario 3D Land FPS

It’s clear that Nintendo 3DS emulation is where the two systems struggled the most. I decided to run two more tests to see how the phones fared within a different testing state. The first test was how each system would play The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds with maxed-out settings. The second test would be to see how each phone played Super Mario 3D Land with settings tweaked to optimize performance.

The Zelda test would prove whether or not the Galaxy S20 Ultra could handle upscaled Nintendo 3DS emulation better than the OnePlus 7 Pro on a game they both can run well with out-of-the-box settings. The Mario test would see if it’s possible to tweak enough settings in order to make an unplayable game work on either phone.

The Zelda test

I’ve already established that both the Galaxy S20 Ultra and the OnePlus 7 Pro can play The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds well enough. The Citra Android emulator, though, features a few settings tweaks that could make playing a higher-quality experience. What happens when I crank that up?

To be specific, these are the settings changes I made on both phones:

  • Turned the FMV Hack on.
  • Turned the Skip Slow Draw setting on.
  • Turned the Texture Load Hack on.
  • Increased resolution to the max setting (4x).

On the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, those settings caused so many dropped frames and so much slowdown that the game became completely unplayable. The graphics looked amazingly crisp, but that doesn’t mean anything if you can’t play the game.

Related: The best exclusive games for the Nintendo Switch

I dropped the resolution down to 3x and that made things much better, but everything slowed to a crawl if there was too much going on in the game at one time (being around water was particularly bad). Then I lowered it down to 2x and things were back to normal, and the game played like a dream.

On the OnePlus 7 Pro, I saw even worse results with the resolution at 4x. It was horrible. Lowering things down to 2x gave me playable results, but being around water caused a painful level of slowdown. It was only when I brought the resolution back down to 1x did things play well.

Once again, this proves that the Galaxy S20 Ultra can do better with Nintendo 3DS emulation than the OnePlus 7 Pro, but that a $1,400 phone still can’t handle things when pushed to the max.

The Mario test

Unfortunately, I found that Super Mario 3D Land was unplayable with out-of-the-box settings on both the OnePlus 7 Pro and the Galaxy S20 Ultra. With some settings tweaks, though, could I make the Nintendo 3DS emulation perform faster and salvage the title?

For this test, I performed these settings tweaks:

  • Turned the FMV Hack on.
  • Turned the Skip Slow Draw setting on.
  • Turned the Texture Load Hack on.
  • Left the resolution at just 1x.

Thankfully, on the Galaxy S20 Ultra, these settings changes made the game playable. It still wasn’t great as there were a lot of choppy graphics and audio glitches, and Mario’s actions would slow down considerably at certain points. But I was able to at least complete the first and second level without much frustration.

Unfortunately, on the third level, things became so slow that they were unplayable again, likely due to how many moving images and obstacles are present in that level. Oh well!

On the OnePlus 7 Pro, all those settings tweaks resulted in no change at all: the game was still completely unplayable even on the levels I had comfortably completed on the S20 Ultra.

Final verdict: We still have a ways to go

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Nintendo 3DS Emulation Zelda Link Between Worlds FPS

All of these tests I’ve performed prove that if you spend a ton of cash on your Android smartphone, you can get the best experience possible when it comes to system-taxing actions like Nintendo 3DS emulation. However, even a $1,400 phone with the very best SoC can’t give you a flawless experience.

When it comes to GameCube emulation, though, you don’t need to spend those big bucks. The OnePlus 7 Pro or likely many other phones with the Snapdragon 855 (or especially the Snapdragon 855 Plus with its boosted GPU) will play most games very well.

Also keep in mind that emulating older systems (Nintendo 64, PlayStation, Super Nintendo, Sega CD, etc.) works flawlessly on even older flagships or phones with 700- or 600-series processors. In other words, you don’t need to buy a top-tier flagship to be able to indulge most of your retro gaming desires. You just need one if you want to play the most modern of consoles, and even then it’s still a mixed bag.

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