How do Emulators work? A Deep-dive into emulator design

Edit on Github | Updated: 9th October 2022

Have you ever wondered how emulators work? This post aims to go through the technical details for how most open source and commercial emulators work.

Introduction to Emulators

Emulators are computer programs that run on one system such as a PC or games console but pretend to be another system such as retro console like the NES or GameBoy.

But how do they work? How would you implement an Emulator? Where should you start if you are interested in Emulator development? This post attempts to answer all those questions.

What can be emulated?

Normally emulators are pretending to be a physical system so we need to simulate all the connections between physical components such as different electronic chips.

However there are also many emulators that are pretending to be systems that never existed in a physical form such as fantasy consoles like the PICO-8.

So in this post we are just going to call the thing we want to pretend to be: the system.

What is a System made of?

Normally when we are talking about a system such as a games console or PC they have a few common components that we will need to simulate on our host system such as:

  • A CPU Chip - e.g Z80, 6502, SH-2, x86, ARM etc
  • ROM - Read-Only Memory such as a Game Cartridge (or ISO for CD based systems which are also Read-Only)
  • RAM - A bunch of memory modules to store the current state of the system
  • Input Interface - Such as controllers for game consoles or keyboard/mouse of PC-like systems
  • Display/Output Interface - Normally a screen such as a monitor or TV but could also be an more physical output like printing on paper
  • Audio Output Interface - Some systems such as games consoles have Audio processing chips which need to be simulated

What types of emulation are there?

There are two main categories of emulators: High Level Emulators (HLE) and Low Level Emulators (LLE).

Emulating The CPU

You can think of a CPU as an infinite loop, it does the same thing over and over until it has no more electricity and switches off. So a CPU should be easy to emulate on another system right? Just create a while loop that runs forever and does everything a CPU would do each cycle. Well sort of.. its not quite that easy but we are on the right track.

Fetch-Decode-Execute Cycle

Every iteration of the loop (known as a clock cycle in CPU terms) the CPU goes through a process known as the fetch–decode–execute cycle.

At a very high level this would be:

  • Fetch - find where the next instruction I should execute is located
  • Decode - understand what the instruction is asking me to do
  • Execute - actually do what the instruction wants

Thats what CPUs do from the moment they are started until the end of time (or when they are powered off).

So imagine you are a baker with an endless list of tasks to do to make cakes and every time you have finished one of those tasks you just move on to the next one, forever. The task in this case is what a CPU calls an instruction, for example put in flour to the bowl would be an instruction.

Fetching would be the Baker moving on from the previous step and finding the next step of the recipe (it might be on the next line of the recipe book or on another page). Decoding the instruction would be the Baker reading that step of the recipe and executing would be physically putting the flour in the bowl.

Program Counter & Registers

In this analogy how does the Baker remember what step of the recipe he is on? Let’s say the recipe steps are numbered, they need to use their brain to remember the step number they are on. Then every time they move to the next step they increases the number they are remembering by 1. This is exactly what a CPU needs to do, but since a CPU doesn’t have a human brain the CPU instead has what are called Registers.

Registers are small pieces of memory that can only store a small amount of information at once (lets say just one number). So in this example the CPU needs a register to remember what line of the recipe (program) it is executing. This little piece of memory (register) for keeping track of the location it is at has a special name called the Program Counter or PC for short. It is exactly the same as the Baker keeping track of which step number of the recipe they are on, they are counting up just like the Program Counter.

Binary & Hex Representations

So we now know that CPUs store the step they are on in the Program Counter but what do those steps look like? Computers don’t understand human language, only 1/On and 0/Off (Binary numbers).

The steps of the recipe/program are called Instructions and they are indeed a series of 1s and 0s, but Humans are not good at reading long lines of 1s and 0s and Humans need to be able to program and understand computer Instructions so although they are 1s and 0s to the CPU us Humans represent them as Hex Values split up into Bytes instead.

A Byte is just eight 1s and 0s in a row and could look like this to a CPU: 00000011, but us humans find it easier to represent a single Byte as a Hex Value instead which would look like this 0x03. The 0x at the start just tells us that its a Hex value so we know its not a decimal value but is also sometimes written with a Dollar sign instead like this: $03, but we will be using the 0x throughout this site.

Instructions & Opcodes

Now that we know we can represent CPU Instructions as Hex values we can look at some real CPU instructions used by a number of common processors:

  • 0x04 - In a Z80 CPU this Hex increments the B Register think of the B register as similar to the Program Counter but doesn’t just store where we are in the program it can store whatever number you would like
  • 0xEA - In a 6502 CPU this Hex is called a No-Operation or NOP for short, yes doing nothing is a valid thing for a CPU to do, CPUs need time to relax too you know!

These are two examples of different CPUs from real Nintendo games consoles, the Z80 CPU was used in the GameBoy and the 6502 was used in the NES.

Note that in these two examples the Instruction was only one Byte long, as you can imagine one Byte is not very much information with only 256 possible values. So Instructions can be many bytes long, the limit depends on which CPU we are talking about.

But in all CPUs the 1st byte is known as the Opcode and is used to determine how many bytes long this instruction will be.

Also just incase you start to panic and think you need to learn all sorts of different Hex values and what they do, you don’t, emulator developers always have a reference form this nearby and there is a much simpler way to write instructions known as Assembly Language. Most emulators however use the Hex value in the CPU emulation loop to decode which instruction it should now execute.

Opcode Mnemonics & Assembly language

Most Humans find it easier to remember patterns of letters (Mnemonics) that a set of Hex values such as 0x45 0xFF 0xEA. The Mnemonics used to represent Opcodes is called Assembly Language and they are normally just shorthand of what the operation does e.g:

  • MUL - Multiplies two numbers
  • ADD - Adds two numbers
  • SUB - Subtracts two numbers
  • BEQ - Branch (Change location of Program Counter) if numbers are equal to each other

Opcode Categories

Not all opcodes are created equal, some are for modifying RAM, others are for changing the location of the Program Counter (Branching).

For the 6502 CPU the reddit user mysticreddit suggests breaking the 56 instruction set down into categories 1:

  • Load/Store - LDA, LDX, LDY, STA, STX, STY, TAX, TAY, TXA, TYA
  • Arithmetic - ADC, SBC, CLC, SEC, INC, DEC, INX, INY, DEX, DEY, CMP, CPY, CPX
  • Branching - BCC, BCS, BEQ, BNE, BMI, BPL, BVC, BVS
  • Logic - AND, ORA, EOR
  • Bit manipulation - ASL, LSR, ROL, ROR, BIT, CLC, SEC
  • Misc - NOP
  • Modes - CLD, SED, CLI, SEI, CLV
  • Stack - PHA, PLA, PHP, PLP
  • Flow Control - JSR, JMP, RTS, RTI, BRK
  • Undocumented instructions - The CPU Vendor has never told anyone what these do

Putting it all together

Here is some pseudo code to piece together that we have talked about so far:

var instructions = [0xEA, 0xEA, 0xEA,...]; // All the steps that make up our recipe/program
var programCounter = 0; // start at... well the start of the instructions array

while(true) { // loop forever and ever
    fetchedInstruction = instructions[programCounter]; // get the instruction from the array at the current step we are on (program counter)
    switch(fetchedInstruction) {
      // Now decode the instruction
      case 0xEA: // lets check if the opcode is 0xEA
	 // Lets do nothing as this is a NOP (No-operation instruction)
    programCounter = programCounter + 1; // go to the next instruction in the loop

Of course this pseudo code would fail after we get to the end of the instructions array but CPUs just keep going on.

Now that you understand the Pseudo code, you can look at how real emulators are implemented:


We have covered CPU emulation at a very high level, simplifying the details to make it easier to understand, but note that CPU emulation is far from a trivial problem to solve. One of the reasons for complexity is that we are trying to simulate physical hardware, hardware with multiple chips working in parallel with each other. Whenever you have multiple tasks in parallel you get issue with timing, such as the Audio Processor being out of sync with the CPU so the sound doesn’t match what would play on the real hardware.

Cycle-accurate Timings

Timing units in emulators are referred to as cycles, so Cycle-accurate timing is the gold standard in emulation and matches what the physical hardware would do.

Most emulators don’t have cycle-accurate timing and rely on estimated timings which are good-enough to run most software created for the hardware. The reason for this is to get real cycle-accurate timing you need to effectively emulate all sorts of very low level hardware details which requires both a lot of knowledge on the developers part and a lot of CPU time on the host machine running the emulator.

For most emulators this is fine as users won’t notice such subtle timing differences and would rather the emulator doesn’t take up either entire CPU in the process. However for true preservation of the original experience cycle-accurate emulation is very important.

Un-documented Opcodes/Instructions

CPUs are complex pieces for hardware and not all Opcodes have been formally documented for use by programmers. However this doesn’t stop programmers using instructions that have not been documented by the CPU vendor.

This raises a question for emulator developers, what do all those un-documented instructions do? How many bytes to the instructions take up? How many Clock Cycles? To get a true answer you need to try them on real hardware and inspect what the physical chips do at a low level, this is a non-trivial task.

Most software written for a specific CPU do not use un-documented instructions as the programmers probably don’t know what they do either. But there are a few retails games and software that use them for specific purposes such as anti-emulation/anti-piracy.

Emulating the Memory

All systems you would want to emulate have a certain amount of RAM/memory where they store values that impact the running of the program, variables such as the player’s score would be saved in this memory.

A really simple way to emulate a system’s memory would be to have a big array of bytes and whenever you need to read or write to a memory location you just go to that specific index in the byte array.

For example here is some pseudo code for that:

var systemMemory = [0x06, 0x01...];

var playerScorePointer = 0; // store the location in memory where the player score is stored

// Lets read the value at position 0 (value of playerScorePointer) of the emulated system's memory
var playerScore = systemMemory[playerScorePointer];

// Now lets write a new score for the player, just add 1 because they got 1 more point
systemMemory[playerScorePointer] = systemMemory[playerScorePointer] + 1;

However it is not quite this simple as many systems use something called Memory Mapped registers/variables. What these are are certain addresses of memory that when either read from or written to they interact with some sort of Input/Output device such as a game controller.

So the CPU can be dumb and just write to a certain address, but the Memory management Unit needs to be able to tell where that write should occur, should it write to:

  • High RAM
  • Low RAM
  • Save RAM (SRAM)
  • Audio/Graphics RAM

These will all be different chips on the board but will all just be referenced by an address. So how does the MMU know which addresses point to which memory chips? This is where the Memory Map comes in handy.

Memory Maps

A Memory Map is a piece of documentation that is used to say which address ranges are used for what purpose. Here are some example Memory Maps for various consoles:

You will notice that for many games consoles and other systems there are tons of memory addresses that are mapped to nothing at all. It seems like a huge waste of memory to emulate these unused addresses in a big byte array.

So instead of a simple array for all of RAM, it might be better to have smaller arrays, one for each type of memory and have specific read and write functions that handle going to the correct memory array.

Here is some pseudo code after taking into account what was have said above:

var HighRAM = [0x00,0x12, ...];
var LowRAM = [0x00,0x12, ...];

function read(addressLocation) {
  if (addressLocation > 0 && addressLocation <= 0xFF) {
    // Read from LowRAM
	return LowRAM[addressLocation];

// other if statements for HighRam and other pieces of memory such as SaveRAM, Cartridge ROM or controller input would go here


function write(addressLocation, valueToWrite) {
  if (addressLocation > 0 && addressLocation <= 0xFF) {
    // Write to LowRAM
	LowRAM[addressLocation] = valueToWrite;

// other if statements for HighRam and other pieces of memory such as SaveRAM or writing pixels to a screen would go here

Now that you understand the Pseudo code, you can look at how real emulators are implemented:

Emulating Graphics/Video

Many systems that you will want to emulate have some sort of graphical output, whether that is to a TV Screen such as a CRT or a more permanent physical form via a device such as a printer.

Every system handles graphical output in a very different way so this section will only cover things that they have in common, specifically when talking about a CRT or other TV-like display.

So just like in the other sections where we had the Central Processing Unit (CPU) to process the system instructions and the Memory Management Unit (MMU) to handle the system memory, for graphics we normally refer to the managment interface as the Picture Processing Unit or PPU for short.

The PPU normally renders a pixel at a time, but how do you know the colour of that pixel? Well you need to take into account all the background tiles, sprites etc that intersect at that pixel.

PPU Timing

But what about timing? There is a risk that your emulated PPU will get out of sync with the emulated CPU resulting in all sorts of weird behaviour.

The simplist way to solve this issue is to run both the PPU and CPU in the same thread and find out how many pixels are drawn to the screen per cpu-cycle. That means you can run 1 cpu-cycle then call the PPU to draw that number of pixels and so on in a infinite loop. The problem with this is that if the system you are emulating is more recent/powerful it you won’t have enough GHz on your host machine to emulate that system.

Videos on Emulator Development

What better way to learn how to write your own emulator that watching people write one themselves. This section will link to video tutorials on emulator development, some are follow-along-at-home type and others are just mentioning the core concepts, but all are worth a watch if you are serious about emulator development.

Apple II Emulator in React and Typescript

Chris Torrence has put together an excellent series of videos in which he writes an Apple II emulator from scratch that will run in any modern web browser!

Unlike our for loop in the CPU pseudo code we listed above his system uses the Javascript setTimeout series of functions instead but it is equivalent, it is better to do setTimeout when running inside a web-browser so the browser can handle other actions instead of waiting forever for the emulator to finish the loop.

Also instead of using a switch statement like we did above it is a table lookup based on the opcode, but it is functionally equivalent.

A very cool feature of his emulator is it has en embedded 6502 assembler inside it, so he can easily write tests with 6502 assembly code and run them straight inside his emulator!

NES Emulator from Scratch by javidx9

javidx9 has created an excellent series where he dives into the world of NES emulator development.

Commodore 64 Emulation in JavaScript - Imran Nazar - NDC London 2022

Imran Nazar goes over how and why he created a Commodore 64 emulator in Javascript. It is a very good introduction to the concepts of emulators such as the CPU loop, MMU and PPU but doesn’t go into the specifics for how his emulator works in terms of code.

Creating a NES emulator in C++11

Bisqwit holds a live coding session where he writes a NES emulator using features new to C++11. Make sure to enable subtitles for this video as that is where all the description is, there is no narration for this video. It is split into two 30 minute videos and can be a little hard to follow reading the subtitles and watching the code editing at the same time but it has a charm to it.