Hail to the King of SNES Emulators: The Virtues of ZSNES
; edited by: M.S. Smith
; updated: 4/17/2012
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SNES emulation can be a complicated subject, with the issue of what emulator to use lying at the center. While many emulators vie for attention, however, ZSNES comes out on top due to its compatibility, speed and functionality, focusing first and foremost on the game experience.
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The King of Console Emulators for the King of Consoles
Nintendo's Super Nintendo Entertainment System is, without a doubt, the most influential game console in the history of the electronic gaming industry. One look at its title roster and it's easy to see why: featuring some of the most highly-acclaimed titles from the most well-known developers, the SNES is a gaming powerhouse that lends credence to the adage of gameplay over graphics. Though the physical console earned a great deal of this prestige on its own, later recognition came with the emergence of the emulation scene as gamers suddenly gained access to the entire SNES library, including a host of titles never released outside of Japan. At the forefront of this emulation scene was ZSNES, an SNES emulator that has become permanently ingrained in both SNES emulation and emulation as a whole, and for reasons well justified.
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Why ZSNES? Excellent Compatibility and an Extensive History
Given the incredible popularity and influence of the SNES, it's only natural that there should be a multitude of emulators trying to vie for attention and dominance on the SNES emulation field. Though Sturgeon's Revelation will weed out 90% of contenders by virtue of them being terrible for one reason or another, that still leaves a few legitimate SNES emulators to fight for the throne. So why go with ZSNES versus SNES9X and BSNES? As an avid gamer that's been watching the emulation scene and ZSNES in particular since the inception of emulation in the late 90s, I've seen how ZSNES fares in a variety of important aspects:
Compatibility: ZSNES is second to none when it comes to the matter of finding and playing SNES game files: if the file hasn't been mangled from one end to the other, ZSNES will be able to play it. ZSNES also has the ability to read game data from .zip and .rar archive files while ignoring .7z batch archives, and can read game files in a variety of formats, including .smc, .sfc, .swc and .fic, and even game files that have been split into several sequential files due to various circumstances. BSNES can only read uncompressed .smc files, while SNES9X suffers from compatibility issues when dealing with certain titles and doesn't auto-filter .7z archives from the game selection system, which can cause SNES9X to crash and burn if accidentally loaded.
History: Very few carry the history and pedigree that makes ZSNES so attractive. Launched in the hazy days of 1997, ZSNES was developed over the better part of a decade, steadily improving compatibility and introducing new features with every major release. In addition to the base development team, many players and programmers have also contributed to the ZSNES development process, and the end result is one of the most effective and comprehensive emulators in gaming history. SNES9X shares a similar history, starting in the same year as ZSNES and making similar developments at similar times as ZSNES, hence the intense rivalry between the two programs; BSNES, on the other hand, is relatively young with its birth in 2004.
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Why ZSNES? A No-Nonsense Interface, Excellent Speed and Ease of Use
Interface: ZSNES is as old-school as SNES emulators come in regards to its user interface, still favoring the basic and blocky setup from its days as a DOS-based emulator, even when using the Windows-compatible version. SNES9X and BSNES favor more modern windows-based interfaces, though SNES9X does the better job of the pair (BSNES makes the critical error of hard-coding certain color values for text and window backgrounds, rendering options screens unreadable in High Contrast Black and similar vision-friendly color schemes). SNES9X's more modern interface isn't necessarily an advantage versus ZSNES, however. Though ZSNES is quite basic in its interface design, it is much more direct, and it's easy to go right where you want.
Speed: Being written largely in old-school x86 assembly, ZSNES is simply unbeatable when it comes to emulation speed, pushing games to their absolute limit when engaged in turbo mode - a trait most important for RPG players who appreciate the detail of the genre but hate the glacial pace. SNES9X is also nippy when in fast-forward mode, but can't quite compare to ZSNES in the pure speed department, and BSNES lags considerably behind due to a preference of emulation accuracy over functionality.
Ease of Use: The ability to dive right into a game is an important factor for some gamers, and ZSNES is king when it comes to pick-up SNES emulation. No hoops, no hurdles, no shameless and pointless self-promotion when performing certain functions.
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The great legacy of game emulation lies not just in the proliferation of games to an audience of millions, but in the proliferation of games that gamers would never know existed were it not for emulation. Online translation groups have spent years breaking the language barriers and making some of the most ambitious and prestigious games available to those not considered by original localization efforts, and it's through the efforts of these translators that we now know some names we take for granted.
Clock Tower: Like many games released prior to the game globalization period, the Clock Tower introduced to Western audiences was actually the sequel to the original Clock Tower released in Japan. While Resident Evil, Silent Hill and other survival horror franchises give you at least a fighting chance to fend off enemies, Clock Tower's use of total helplessness against the antagonist creates an unnerving and frantic experience that needs to be experienced by any survival horror fan. Also available for the Playstation as Clock Tower: The First Fear and on the Japanese Wii store.
Front Mission: Gun Hazard: Abandoning the turn-based strategy aspects of its progenitor title, Gun hazard shifts gears to a mech-scale side-scroller that stands completely on its own merits, featuring some of the best action and music of the SNES roster. Also available through the Japanese Wii store.
Live-A-Live: A Tactical RPG developed by Squaresoft, Live-A-Live is a complete departure from the mechanics familiar in Square's Final Fantasy franchise, exchanging the long-form epic for a strong and focused narrative that's sure to leave a lasting impact.
Super Robot Wars 3: While the first two SRW titles for the Game Boy and Nintendo Entertainment Systems did well enough on their own, SRW3 is where the franchise began to adopt many of the features that would shape the franchise into the form recognized by players today and is a necessary playthrough for fans who want to see the series' evolution over the years. Also available on the Playstation as part of the Super Robot Wars Complete Box.
Treasure of the Rudras: Developed by Squaresoft, Treasure of the Rudras follows more traditional RPG themes as compared to Live-A-Live, following four adventurers and their companions as they work to prevent the destruction of the world. What distinguishes Treasure of the Rudras from other titles is its unconventional spellcasting system, generating spells from unique words and word combinations supplied by you.
Ys IV and V: The Ys series never saw much Western support outside of the botched Wanderers from Ys, but that and the language barrier shouldn't stop you from enjoying Falcom's flagship franchise. Ys V in particular is noteworthy for its excellent soundtrack, making use of every bit of power the SNES could muster to deliver an orchestral-style masterpiece few other SNES titles can match. Also available on the Playstation 2 as Ys IV: Mask of the Sun: A New Theory and Ys V: Lost Kefin, City of Sand.
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All information in this article is based on the author's own experiences, observations and opinions.