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How does an emulator work?

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Answered 2014-03-21 15:03:05

An emulator is a program that basically reproduces the behaviour of the hardware of an old machine (ex : video cards, CPU, mainboard, RAM). People that program emulators have to first obtain some information about the console they want to emulate; for example : what are the operations performed by the CPU. How is the RAM divided ?

Emulation is a very a complicated process of an application (emulator) acting like (emulating) another platform/processor/computer/etc.

One commonly emulated platform is the video game console, including systems like the Nintendo Game Boy, Nintendo Entertainment System, Sony Playstation, Sega Genesis, NeoGeo Pocket Color to name a few, although, just about anything can be emulated, from computers, to calculators, to video game consoles. Even the computer used in the spacecraft for the Apollo space missions has been emulated.

The basic process of emulation looks something like this:

  1. Fetch the current instruction from memory (RAM).
  2. Interpret that instruction. (Interpreting is taking an instruction that is supposed to run on another platform and executing or doing the equivalent instruction(s) on the machine that is doing the emulating/running the emulator program.)
  3. Increment the emulated PC (program counter; a register that points to the currently executing instruction) the appropriate amount.
  4. (OPTIONAL) Allow the machine running the emulator program to sleep/rest or stop execution of the emulator for a certain amount of time to regulate frame rate (FPS; Frame Per Second) or the emulated platform's processor speed.
  5. (OPTIONAL) Do any other things that need to be done. (Draw an emulated screen, process emulated audio, etc.)
  6. Repeat the process.

Hopefully that makes some sense to the person who asked this question. Emulation is not the sort of thing that can be explained in detail to a non-programmer or non-techie.

If you want to write an emulator yourself, and feel you know enough to get started, then do the following:

  1. Get as much info on the system you're looking to emulate AS POSSIBLE! This is EXTREMELY important, otherwise you'll have no idea what to do in the next steps.
  2. Pick an appropriate programming language to use. Using a scripting language or a language/tool that is interpreted is probably not the best idea if you're looking to emulate a fast platform.
  3. Figure out how you're going to emulate registers, RAM, etc. One of the simplest ways of emulating RAM is creating a large array to put all the emulated RAM's contents in. Registers can be done in multiple ways, but my WIP GB emulator simply uses char variables, since one char is 8 bits (1 byte) in size, which is the size of most of the GB's registers. (The GB's 16-bit registers are emulated using shorts.)
  4. Start coding! Take it easy though. Make sure you're not making too many mistakes. Assuming you're emulating some kind of "complete" platform (a platform with everything need to run and function), emulation of the CPU and RAM is what you should focus on first. (Remember! Focus on accuracy and proper emulation first. You can speed things up later, when your emulator actually does something!)
  5. Debug. This is what's gonna make you want to shoot yourself. Emulators are going to require a ton of debugging.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 many, many, many, many, many times.

As far as info, you should have several resources available to compare with and get info from. I use Google and Wikipedia to get my info. You might have to search for info for quite a while to get what you want. (I took about two days to find and bookmark enough info that I think I will need.)

You probably want to code your emulator in C/C++ or ASM. I know some people even code emulator in Java, although, don't expect an emulator in Java to run as fast as one in C/C++ or ASM.

If you want, you can look at a very basic version of my code for my WIP GameBoy emulator below (use as you please):

//This is all done in C++ using MinGW and Code::Blocks IDE

//Define our RAM, VRAM, registers, etc:

int InterpretInstruction();

char gb_a, gb_f; //Emulated registers A and F. Sometimes paired as one 16-bit register

char gb_b, gb_c; //More registers. Sometimes paired as one 16-bit register

char gb_d, gb_e; //...

char gb_h, gb_l; //...

short gb_pc; //Emulated Program Counter register (16-bit)

short gb_sp; //Emulated Stack Pointer register

char* gb_ram_main; //Emulated RAM

char* gb_ram_video; //Emulated Video RAM

char* gb_cart_rom; //Emulated contents of the ROM

char* gb_cart_ram; //Emulated RAM in some cartridges

int main ()



gb_pc = 0x0100;

gb_pc_ = 0x0099;

gb_sp = 0x0000;

gb_ram_main = new char[ 8192 ];

gb_ram_video = new char[ 8192 ];


while( true )


if( InterpretInstruction() == 0 ) //My interpreting function returns 0 on OK


//Nothing. PC incrementing is handled in InterpretInstruction()




exit(1); //Abort if there's an error.



return 0;


int InterpretInstruction()



It is said that switch statements are inefficient for a matter like this, but it seems to depend. According to some sources, this only holds true for switches with a small number of cases, which will compile into a chain of if() ... else if() ... statements - whereas with larger numbers of conditions [100-200+] a switch will compile into a jump table, and thus be more efficient than avoiding switch statements.


switch( gb_ram_main[ gb_pc ] )


case 0x00: //NOP instruction



return 0; //Everything went OK



case 0xc3: //JMP instruction Jump to the 16-bit address following this instruction


gb_pc = Form_16_Bit_Address_Using_Two_Bytes_Ahead_Of_This_Instruction();

return 0;



default: //ERROR!


return 1;





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