AetherSX2 is a newly released PS2 emulator (which is still in Alpha) that can emulate PS2 games even on the base M1 Macbook Air at full speed. If you like the idea of loading up your favorite PS2 games on your shiny Apple Silicon computer, we’ll show you how it’s done.
What Is Emulation?
The Playstation 2 is a very different kind of computer than an Apple computer. Especially one with a CPU like the M1 in it. They don’t speak the same “language” at all and the arrangement of physical processors doesn’t align with each other.
AetherSX2 uses a technique known as “emulation” to make the PS2 game think that it’s running on original console hardware. Therefore, emulation requires more processing power than the original system offered.
That’s because you’re creating a computer within a computer in a sense. However, emulation methods have become quite efficient over the years. There’s no such thing as perfect emulation, but the results are often more than good enough for most players.
Why the M1 Is Perfect for Emulating Games
Apple’s M1 processor is actually a gaming powerhouse. Its CPUs perform just as well as much larger laptops, and it has more GPU power than a PlayStation 4.
This doesn’t just mean you can play impressive macOS versions of games on thin and light computers like an M1 MacBook Air. It also means that the emulation of older consoles has become a reality for Apple’s entry-level system. It’s got just the right amount of punch to emulate PS2 games perfectly.
Native M1 Emulators Are Scarce
There are quite a few emulators for various console systems for macOS. OpenEmu contains numerous “cores” that can emulate consoles like the PS1 or Atari 2600. There’s also PCSX2, which is perhaps the best-known PS2 emulator. PCSX2 has a macOS version, sort of. At the time of writing it’s an unofficial offshoot by a coder known as Tellowkrinkle.
What these macOS emulators have in common is that they are written to run on Intel Macs, and not the new generation of Apple Silicon machines. In other words, they have to run through the Rosetta 2 translation layer, which itself has a performance cost and occasional compatibility issues. In our tests with PCSX2, we could never emulate PS2 games at full speed.
AetherSX2 is the first PS2 emulator on macOS that runs native ARM code, which is the “language” that Apple Silicon processors understand. This means it can run many games at much faster performance levels than PCSX2 and it requires less CPU power and battery consumption to do it.
Legal Considerations When Emulating
Depending on where you live, emulation may be legal, in a gray area, or against the law. It’s your responsibility to determine which is the case in your region. In general, it’s legal to make backups of video games that you have paid for and then use them with an emulator, but if you download games from the internet without paying for them, it’s tantamount to piracy. So let your own moral compass be your guide.
AetherSX2 is actually a port of an Android application. Amazingly, the creators who ported it don’t even own a Mac! So the only requirement to run the emulator is an Apple Silicon Mac starting with the M1 and including anything faster, such as the M1 Pro, Max, Ultra, or M2. AetherSX will not run on any Intel Mac.
Although you can use your keyboard to play games, we do recommend using a gamepad. We tested AetherSX2 with a PlayStation 4 controller, but you can use an Xbox controller by enabling Xinput support under “Settings-> Controllers”.
You need to connect the controller via USB or Bluetooth the same way you would for any game. There’s official support for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series controllers in macOS.
How to Set Up AetherSX
To get AetherSX2 running on your Apple Silicon Mac, the first thing you need to do is download the software archive. Then unzip it, if your browser hasn’t already done it for you. You may want to copy the app to your “Applications” folder, but that’s up to you!
- To open it, hold down Control on the keyboard and then click on the app.
- Choose “Open” from the menu.
- Confirm any prompts asking you if you’re sure you want to run the software.
- You’ll get a warning that settings don’t exist the first time you run AetherSX2, you can ignore this and just click “OK”.
- Now, search on Google (or the engine of your choice) for “PS2 BIOS files”. We won’t link to them directly here, but they shouldn’t be hard to find. Do scan the files for viruses just to be safe. The contents of the folder should look something like this.
- Either copy the BIOS files to “[Home directory]/Library/Application Support/AetherSX2/Bios”.
- Alternatively you can change the BIOS path in AetherSX2 to a folder target of your choice. Go to “Settings-> BIOS” in AetherSX2 and click “Browse” to open the default BIOS folder.
- You can drag your BIOS files here, though you’ll have to give AetherSX2 file access permissions to complete the process.
- Next, copy your game disc image files to a dedicated directory. We’ve created a disc image of our physical copy of Valkyrie Profile 2. You’ll need a DVD drive to create such a folder along with an application to make disc images.
Note: You may also choose to simply download an image from the internet of the game that someone else has made, which would be identical to an image you’ve made yourself. However, this may have legal implications depending on where in the world you live, so you do so at your own risk.
- Although AetherSX2 has a “Start From Disc” option in its menus, we weren’t able to play our game directly from its DVD. Hopefully, this will work properly in a future version. Fortunately, whenever you put new game images into this folder, the software will automatically list it.
- Select “Add Game Directory” and pick the folder you’ve copied your games to.
- Your games should now be listed.
- Pick the game you wish to try from the list and double-click it to launch it.
- You can also use “System-> Start File” to browse a specific game that’s not in your selected game folder.
- The game should now be running easily!
Additional AetherSX Settings When Emulating
Getting a game running is only the first step. You’ll almost certainly want to explore the settings menu to adjust aspects of how the game runs.
For example, you may want to increase the game’s rendering resolution beyond the original settings and configure your attached gamepad. To reach the graphics options, go to “Settings-> Graphics” and you’ll see this screen.
The only immediate change we’d recommend is changing the internal resolution to either 1080p or 1440p, which will dramatically improve the clarity of the game. Although this comes with a performance hit that may be too heavy depending on the specific game. Only change other settings after researching what each one does.
To get to the controller options, head to “Settings-> Controller” and then select “Controller Port 1” from the left-hand sidebar.
Different games may need different tweaks and settings to run correctly. So it’s a good idea to check out the community compatibility list to see how well various games run and if they need any specific tweaking.
AetherSX2 Still Has Problems
AetherSX2 has amazing performance, running most of the games we’ve tried with it at full speed. However, it’s still a very early version of the emulator for macOS. This means that some games aren’t going to work perfectly and some might not be playable at all.
If you like what AetherSX2 has achieved on Apple Silicon Macs so far, you can support the developers on their Patreon so they can get the right test equipment to improve the software.
Like all console emulators, there’s always a little bit of work, you have to do to emulate PS2 games way you like, or to deal with minor visual bugs. Still, when AetherSX2 is firing on all cylinders it’s a sight to behold.
Image credit: Pexels All screenshots by Sydney Butler
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