How to Play Retro Games on Your Modern Mac With OpenEmu
The Legend of Zelda and Megaman 2 on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). F-Zero and Street Fighter II: Turbo on the Super NES. Altered Beast and Strider on the Sega Genesis.
If you have a Mac and fond memories of game consoles past, read on. The vintage emulator scene—going on 20 years now, by a rough estimation—is constantly evolving. Programs and ROMs that worked several years ago may no longer load now. The Web is littered with emulators that aren’t compatible with current operating systems, or ROMs that don’t run in their corresponding emulators.
The thing is, it’s all in good faith. Dedicated volunteer programmers develop better emulators in an effort to improve accuracy and add features. Sometimes that requires new ROMs. Other emulators fall out of favor as developers move on to different projects. Then Windows or Mac OS updates render languishing emulators unstable or otherwise unusable.
Don’t despair, though. Four years ago, I wrote a lengthy story for our sister site ExtremeTech about how to play retro video games on a modern PC. When researching that article, I ran into the aforementioned problem pretty often. This time around, I wanted to touch on the Mac side, primarily because of a huge development that has changed the vintage console gaming scene for the better: OpenEmu.
OpenEmu to the Rescue
Originally released in 2013, OpenEmu is not actually an emulator in and of itself. Instead, it’s a robust front end for other console emulators. On its own, that’s nothing new; front ends have existed for a long time. What makes OpenEmu different is that it works a lot like a streamlined iTunes—that is, if iTunes were smooth and fast, and not sluggish and confusing.
For example, OpenEmu shows you actual box art for each of your games, and sorts them automatically by platform. It lets you make playlists of your favorite games by category across platforms, and universalizes controller schemes for each emulated system—all with easy-to-understand and attractive graphics. OpenEmu doesn’t work for computer platforms—you’ll still need separate emulators for, say, the Atari 800 or 1040ST. But for game consoles, it’s outstanding. And for once, it’s a Mac exclusive, instead of something that only works on PCs.
The best part: OpenEmu takes care of the core emulation engines behind each platform. When I think of a front end, normally I think of a program I’ll have to install alongside a base emulator. But OpenEmu does all that work for you, and comes packaged with integrated cores for popular systems—again with an iTunes-like, or even App Store-like interface. All you’ll need to do is download the cores you want, each one with a single click from within OpenEmu.
ROMs and Setup
Before we go further, as with every article on game system emulation over the past two decades, I have to issue the standard disclaimer: It’s generally illegal to own ROMs of a given arcade machine, cartridge, or CD-ROM unless you own the actual item in question. In reality, though, it’s a gray area—especially for titles that aren’t available by any other means. I can’t link directly to any ROM sites here. But I can tell you they’re pretty easy to find if you know how to use The Google. Protip: At the time of this writing, there’s a really good site that rhymes with Pool Toms.
With all that out of the way, let’s get started playing games. The version of OpenEmu you want is the Experimental one. That sounds dangerous, but in this case, it just means you’ll have vastly extended platform compatibility. Head to OpenEmu.org and click the arrow to the right of Download Now. Choose OpenEmu Experimental. The app will begin downloading.
Once the main download’s done, open the DMG archive and drag OpenEmu to your Mac’s Applications folder. Next, go to the App Store and download The Unarchiver, which is free; you’ll need this to open up ROM packs.
To add games to OpenEmu, simply drag over each ROM you have into the main window on the right side of OpenEmu’s interface. OpenEmu will search the Web for box art, but if it can’t find it, you can use Google Image Search to locate your own; download it to your desktop first, and then drag the art over to the multicolor-banded image above the ROM, and it will replace it.
To get playing, first choose a console from the left-hand side of OpenEmu. Then select the game you want to play and double-click on the box art. You’ll find that within OpenEmu’s standard emulators, replication accuracy is superb.
The one major hoop I encountered was getting original Sony PlayStation (PS1) games to work. This required a special ROM download in my tests, but with some fiddling, I figured it out. You need to download and drag over several BIOS files, including scph5500.bin, scph5501.bin, and scph5502.bin, and the last one can also be renamed from scph5552.bin if you can’t find it directly. I also had to drag this specific file into ~/Library/Application Support/OpenEmu/BIOS, and not just rely on OpenEmu finding it on its own, before PS1 games would play on my test machine.
One other thing you’ll want to do is add scan lines. You’re going to want some kind of screen emulation that makes the game look like it’s being displayed on a cathode-ray tube with much less resolution. Otherwise, it’s screamingly obvious on a 1080p monitor just how low-res all of these games were. To enable this feature, head to File > Preferences > Library, and under Filter, choose Scanlines. I like this one, but there are numerous other options in the submenu you may find more accurate or visually pleasing.
This is all well and good, but why play these great games using your Mac’s keyboard, when you can do it the right way and get the proper controllers? I tested a number of third-party, USB-compatible models for this story, all of which are available now on Amazon.com.
If you have a USB controller, configure it by clicking on Preferences, and then clicking on the Controllers tab. From there, you’ll see a wood background image with a drop-down menu for choosing systems. Choose the right system, and you’ll see a matching stock controller image on the left.
Next, plug in your USB controller, and click the menu below the keyboard shortcut list to choose the USB controller. Now click in each field for moving the D-pad and various buttons, and make the corresponding movement on the controller. That will map the controller’s input properly. To see if it works, fire up a game of your choice.
The controllers mentioned below worked straight up with my MacBook Pro on the first try in each case, with no extra drivers needed; all I had to do is set each one up within OpenEmu. Here are my favorites:
Classic NES USB Controller ($9.99): As its namesake implies, this model copies the standard NES controller from 1985. It looks and feels great—maybe lighter than the original, but otherwise identical, and button feel is fine. I played several rounds of Super Mario Bros., the original Castlevania, Excitebike, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, Contra, and Ice Climber. All of them were dead-on.
Buffalo Classic USB Gamepad ($13): This controller looks just like the stock Super Nintendo controller from 1991 except for two additional buttons, labeled Turbo and Clear, which you won’t need for most games. I set this one up and had no problem playing F-Zero, Street Fighter II Turbo, Super Castlevania IV, and Super R-Type. Verdict: It’s not quite as tight as a brand new Nintendo-brand SNES controller, but it’s much better than a worn-out one, and certainly better than the one you have in the closet with the broken L button on top.
Logitech Gamepad F310 ($24.99): Similar to what you’d find on a PlayStation 2 or PlayStation 3, this model is also good for emulating the original PlayStation with the dual analog sticks added. It’s a little lightweight, just like the others. But it’s accurate enough; you won’t wish for a different model with this one. I used this joystick to play Soul Blade and Ridge Racer on the PS1.
X-Arcade Tankstick + Trackball ($169.99): This giant, expensive, venerable controller works great with any MAME emulator, including the one included with the experimental version of OpenEmu. It consists of two joysticks—which you’ll need for proper Robotron: 2084, Space Dungeon, and Smash TV play—as well as a center-mounted trackball that nails it for Centipede, and does a fine job as a stand-in for the larger Missile Command trackball seen on those machines.
NOTE: For Atari 2600 games, I ran into some trouble. Over the years, I’ve had perfect results with a genuine Atari CX-40 controller connected to an old (and unfortunately discontinued) Stelladaptor, which converts the original nine-pin connector to USB. This continued to work really well in OpenEmu. But I had no luck with the currently available Retrolink USB Atari 2600 joystick ($21.95). Using this would have been a cleaner wire setup, but it just didn’t work in my tests, at least on a Mac. If you got this one working in OS X, or have a better alternative, please let me know in the comments.