Emulating consoles on PC is by nature hit or miss, and as such has historically not been depended on by gamers seeking a reliable experience. That all changed with Dolphin, the well-known Wii and GameCube emulator that's made a name for itself bringing the feasibility of emulation as a go-to gaming method to reality (for 3D anyway; 2D emulators have been great for years now). Dolphin's version 5.0 trailer flaunts impressive accomplishments with little reservation or concern for ego, and the truth is I can hardly blame them. The software has become an accomplished, full-featured product, open-sourced at that, and deserves any and all kudos it gets. Even in it's own promotional materials.
Still, it’s undeniable that GameCube and Wii are now both quite old, and we're beginning to reach a point of datedness that no amount of emulation tricks, massive native resolution boosts, or fan-made texture packs can remedy. The time is now for a new emulation frontier, a bold new champion, and we may very well have one in a little piece of software called Cemu.
Cemu is Wii U emulation, plain and simple, and while far less mature and feature-rich than Dolphin in its current state, that’s only fair; it's also far younger. The emulator’s FAQ page is upfront about shortcomings (sound in many games isn’t quite right, performance in certain cases leaves much to be desired), but the fact that we’re even tinkering with Wii U games at 4K mere months after the console’s official demise is leaps and bounds ahead of what you might expect. This regardless of dips to 15 frames per second in some games, which at the moment admittedly do still occur.
If GameCube and Wii titles were beginning to look long in the tooth even emulated at ultra-HD resolutions, Cemu is here to remedy that. Seeing the likes of Xenoblade Chronicles X at true unfettered display quality (the Wii U version is locked to 720p maximum, with some dynamic scaling) is jaw-dropping even in its current imperfect state, and reminds just how much work and clever tweaking goes into making console titles sing even at their often lower-than-PC resolutions.
The advantage of Wii U compared to Wii or GameCube is that as an HD console, many game assets and textures exist on-disc at full 1080p resolutions (or higher theoretically, though this is not confirmed or proven, and there would be little practical reason for it). The point is, it takes a sizeable television to fully appreciate the advantages of 4K as it is, and as such awarding Wii U games with vast resolution hikes provides many of the benefits of added crispness and ultra-clarity, without textures becoming essentially blurry wallpaper for in-game polygonal structures.
Some games of course fare better than others, and while the likes of XCX and Zelda: Breath of the Wild are going to require serious long-term tweaking before they’re perfect, titles like Super Mario 3D World aren’t just already quite playable, but look absolutely phenomenal in ultra HD. 3D World is to the point, I’d argue, where it’s difficult to imagine even the upcoming Super Mario Odyssey looking as good as emulated 3D World does already. Of course, I’d be glad to be proven wrong, and it wouldn’t be the first time Nintendo worked wonders with limited hardware. Regardless, it’s no secret native Nintendo hardware isn’t going the 4K route anytime soon (especially now that handheld hybrids are the way of the future), and as such the appeal of software like Cemu grows with every release, and with every passing year.
A new kid on the block relative to Dolphin, Cemu appears to have adopted a more modern support method as well, garnering to date a whopping $42,280 per month on Patreon. The beauty of this approach is that, with funds of that magnitude, progress is expedited in ways not previously thought even remotely possible (essentially a handful of full-time salaries provided), and patrons are awarded with small but substantial perks along the way. With the current funding system, $5 patrons or higher are granted access to new builds a week in advance, but thankfully Cemu as a whole is still open to the public and not gated behind paywalls of any kind. It’s a testament to the recurring crowdfunding model that this is so achievable, and I’m intrigued to see how quickly Cemu can evolve over time vs. Dolphin as a result.
Remember, Cemu isn’t yet perfect, but it’s well worth tinkering with if you’ve got the PC and time on-hand to do so. Dumping your existing Wii U saves requires a Wii U homebrew setup (Google it), though it may make more sense for the time being to just experiment and see where that gets you. The emulator’s reddit community is vibrant, with “megathreads” for top games detailing optimal settings, as well as general discussion for newbies and enthusiasts alike. It goes without saying that the holy grail of an emulator like Cemu would be something like Breath of the Wild at 4K and 60 fps (the latter is doable, believe it or not), and there’s little doubt that years down the road both it and Xenoblade Chronicles X will very likely achieve just that. It’s just as fun to be along for the ride in the meantime though, and with continued support perhaps Cemu can catch up with its big brother Dolphin in the long run.