Today you can find hundreds of emulators for dozens of old systems for multiple platforms. However, Dolphin manages to stand out from the crowd by achieving something almost impossible: combining advanced features and a high degree of compatibility with ease of use.
With Dolphin, which is available for Windows, macOS, Linux, and Android, you gain access to the vast majority of titles for Nintendo’s GameCube and Wii consoles. Theoretically, since it’s easy to use, you only have to run it, add some games, and play. Practically, though, it’s worth investing some time to customize and configure Dolphin to your liking. This way, you’ll be able to take advantage of its advanced features and play your games better than you would on the actual hardware.
Install Dolphin Emulator on Your PC
For this guide we will be using the latest developer version of Dolphin, which at the time of writing is 5.0–13056 on Windows 10. If you are on Linux, check our guide on how to install Dolphin on Ubuntu.
It’s worth noting that in mere hours the version will have changed, since nowadays Dolphin is developing at an even more rapid pace than before, with multiple developer versions released every day. If you don’t like those frenetic update rhythms, go for the beta version, which you can update every other month or so. It is best to avoid the stable branch. Years may pass between two releases, and you will be missing the latest and greatest features in the meantime.
You can find all of Dolphin’s versions here. Choose the one you prefer, download it to your PC, and extract the 7Z archive to a folder.
Dolphin doesn’t come with an installer, and the folder you extracted is the actual program’s location. If you keep everything gaming-related on a specific folder or a dedicated partition or hard disk drive, you may want to move it there. You may want to create a shortcut on your desktop to Dolphin’s executable to avoid having to pay a visit to this folder every time you want to run it.
To run Dolphin, double-click on the “Dolphin.exe” file in its folder.
If you have your games as DVD backups, you can boot them directly by choosing “File -> Boot from DVD Backup” and then selecting the drive with your game disc. Do note that we are talking about backups, not original GameCube and Wii discs. Many PC DVD drives are incompatible with those.
Discs are old-school, though, and most people today keep their game backups as files on their hard disk drives. Dolphin is compatible with GameCube and Wii backups in the following formats: elf, dol, gcr, iso, tgc, wbfs, ciso, gcz, wia, rvz, wad, dff, and m3u. You can load games in any of those formats by choosing “File -> Open” and then selecting their file. Alternatively, you can drag and drop them from your favorite file manager on Dolphin’s window.
Dolphin will remember and add to its list every game you load. If you have more than a handful of titles, though, you may prefer to add them all at once to have them accessible from Dolphin’s game list. To do that, click on “Config,” move to the Paths tab, click on “Add … ” and choose the folder where you keep your backups.
To start any game that already exists in Dolphin’s game list, double-click on its entry or select it and click on the Play button.
If you tried a game and it didn’t work, or the experience was sub-optimal, it’s time you paid a visit to Dolphin’s Settings. Those are quickly accessible from the Config, Graphics, and Controllers buttons in Dolphin’s main toolbar. Let’s see the essential spots that are worth your attention.
Start in the General tab where you can safely enable every option. If you don’t want to tell the world how you’re spending your time, disable “Show Current Game on Discord.” Leave the Speed Limit at 100% (Normal Speed).
Move to the Interface tab where you should have enabled:
- Use Built-In Database of Game Names
- Download Game Covers from GameTDB.com for Use in Grid Mode
The first option allows Dolphin to recognize the games you’re loading, thanks to a built-in database, and present user-friendly names instead of strange filenames. The second improves the look of Dolphin’s game list with thumbnails for each title, downloaded automatically from GameTDB.com.
You can leave the Audio tab options as they are, but keep in mind that this is where you can “Enable Audio Stretching” and set a buffer for this option. If the sound in a game is choppy, you may want to enable this option. It will add some delay on the audio, but it won’t sound like a broken radio.
The same way you can connect different peripherals to a console, you can also use virtual peripherals in their emulated versions. You can do that through the GameCube and Wii tabs for each respective console.
As far as GameCube goes, you can leave most options as they are. If you fall on one of the rare games that support microphone input, you may want to enable it in one of the controller slots. Also, note that the SP1 menu offers connectivity options that you can use for unofficial online gaming support.
To play Wii games, you should pay a visit to the Options tab. If using actual Wiimotes, which remain the best way to play this console’s games, you are also using a sensor bar placed on or under your monitor or TV. Make sure to choose the correct placement from the “Wii Remote Settings -> Sensor Bar Position” pull-down menu, or your controller’s position will be way off. Just as when playing on an actual Wii, you can also control the Wiimote’s speaker volume and enable rumble.
Most people probably won’t need to change the rest of the options. Like the actual Wii, Dolphin supports a 4:3 aspect ratio. Still, all of the console’s games were designed with a 16:9 ratio in mind, which also matches the monitors most of us use today. If using headphones, though, you may want to try Dolphin’s sound in Surround instead of Stereo mode.
The Advanced tab contains options that can significantly improve the emulated titles’ speed and fluidity or outright break compatibility. Thus, it’s suggested you leave all of them as they are and tweak them on a case-by-case basis.
In the General tab of the Graphics settings, you will find the option to change Dolphin’s graphics backend. It’s worth trying them all, since some will work better on your particular GPU. Also, note that some games may work with one but display glitches with another.
If you’re using Dolphin on your TV or a media center setup, you may want to enable the “Use Full-Screen” option. This way, when a game starts, it will take up the whole screen and cover every other window. If you have a high-end PC and aren’t anxious about Dolphin’s performance, you can disable the “Show FPS” option.
If you have a relatively modern PC, set the “Shader Compilation” option to Asynchronous (Ubershaders). This option tells Dolphin to use multiple threads for creating and storing shaders. The shaders are algorithms that run on the GPU, affecting how graphics look. Try out the other options if Dolphin is slow on your PC. They may add some delays before a game starts or produce some mini-pauses during gameplay while leading to an altogether smoother experience.
The Enhancements tab options are the most interesting since they allow us to upgrade the games over what the original consoles could present. Choose an Internal Resolution that’s appropriate for your monitor and add some anti-aliasing to remove jaggies from diagonal lines and curves.
Set Anisotropic Filtering to 16x for better perspective rendering and cleaner textures. Choose a Post-Processing Effect to improve the graphics further or add interesting effects that can radically change a game’s look – like acidtrip or sketchy. Leave all other options at the default settings.
You can skip the Hacks and Advanced tabs since their defaults are the optimal settings for most games. They can break compatibility, so they should only be used when needed for particular titles.
Dolphin is compatible with many different types of controllers, from typical joypads to actual Wiimotes (for which your PC must have Bluetooth support). You can choose and configure the controller you’d prefer to use with the emulator from the Controllers settings.
We won’t dive into those settings since they are mostly self-explanatory. It’s worth noting, though, that if you don’t have an actual Wiimote, which many games for the Wii demand, you can use an emulated version. This option allows you to map some motion controls to other inputs. Those can range from keyboard keys to gestures on another motion control device – like a Move controller or a paired smartphone.
Today’s two most popular types of joypads are the ones also used by the two dominant console families, Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s Playstation. Xbox-compatible joypads work as XInput controllers and are easily recognized by Windows. They will probably be directly selectable In Dolphin. For PlayStation controllers, you will probably have to use ScpToolkit. Check out this article for help in choosing a new gamepad for your PC.
You can also use an original GameCube controller with the Wii U Controller Adapter and some of the more exotic controllers for which Nintendo’s consoles are known, too. Dolphin has entries even for controllers like Dance Mats, Bongos, or the Wii Balance Board.
Unfortunately, if you want to play Wii games with actual Wiimotes, the controllers themselves won’t cut it. They are designed to use a sensor bar as a reference point for their position in space. An extra problem is that this bar uses a custom connector, so you can’t just disconnect it from your Wii and plug it into your PC to use it.
You can bring your actual Wii console next to your PC and power it on for the sensor bar to work, but that largely defeats the purpose of using an emulator.
If you are skilled with a soldering iron, you can modify it to work with a USB connector. You don’t have to worry about drivers or whether your PC will recognize the device. You see, it isn’t an actual device! Nintendo’s little secret is that this “sensor bar” is only a plastic housing for four LEDs, which the Wiimotes themselves detect through an infrared sensor. Its cable isn’t for exchanging any data – only for powering the sensor bar’s LEDs.
Compatibility and Hacks
To get help on playing a game, right-click on a title in Dolphin’s list, select Wiki, and the appropriate page in the emulator’s official Wiki will open in your browser. There you’ll find details about the chosen game as well as information on whether it needs any tweaks and how to apply them.
Nowadays, Dolphin by default comes with an internal database of many such hacks, so you don’t have to hunt them down online. Using the ever-popular Super Smash Bros. Mêlée for the GameCube as our example, by right-clicking on the title and selecting Properties, we can move to the AR Codes and Gecko Codes tabs to find many cheats and hacks for the title. From there, we can enable or disable cheat codes like Infinite Lives and tweaks that can force the game to Boot to Character Select Screen, Unlock All Characters and Stages, or add Proper 16:9 Widescreen Support.
That’s all there is to it, and if you haven’t disabled the support for cheats in Dolphin’s main Config options, they’ll be applied the next time you boot the particular game.
Save States and Game Upgrades
There are two ways to save your progress in a game. In PC gaming, most games allow users to save any time they wish by selecting such an option. Console games usually go for automatic saves between checkpoints. Savestates bring those worlds together.
With savestates, the emulator can dump all the memory used by the emulated system into a disk file. It can then restore the emulator’s state from a savestate and resume the emulation from that point onward. Thus, they’re a great way to sidestep saving limitations in console games to save your progress whenever you wish.
Saving and restoring savestates is instant, and you can do it by either using the “Emulation -> Load State and Emulation -> Save State” menu options or a hotkey.
The default hotkeys are F1 to F8 for loading savestates from the first eight save slots, and Shift and F1 to F8 for saving to them. To reconfigure them – as well as all other hotkeys – pay a visit to “Options -> Hotkey Settings.” You can find the savestate hotkeys in the Save and Load State tab, with some useful extras in the Other State Management tab.
Modern emulation has reached a point where the emulators not only try to replicate the experience of gaming on an actual console but also improve it in any way possible. One of those allows it by replacing textures or other game resources, which can radically modernize a title or modify it in useful or interesting ways. Dolphin supports both Texture Packs and Resource Packs. Their difference is that Texture Packs come as folders with images, which you must install yourself. On the other hand, Resource Packs are larger, compressed, and managed through Dolphin’s interface.
To add a Texture Pack:
- Download it.
- Decompress it into a folder
- Make sure the folder contains new textures for the game as images.
- Ensure the folder’s name is the same as the Game ID for the title you’re trying to upgrade graphically.
- Move that folder to Dolphin’s “Load\Textures” sub-directory.
As an extra step, you have to enable the support for external textures that aren’t part of a game. To do that, visit the Graphics options, move to the Advanced tab, and enable “Load Custom Textures.”
Resource Packs are a new feature for Dolphin and not yet widely supported. In the rare case you find an upgrade for a game in that format instead of a texture pack, you can install it through “Tools -> Resource Pack Manager.”
That’s all you need to know to play almost all of Gamecube’s and Wii’s titles with Dolphin on your PC. If you prefer to play SNES games instead, check out our tutorials for SNES emulation and N64 emulation on Retroarch.