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Development versions are released every time a developer makes a change to Dolphin, several times every day! Using development versions enables you to use the latest and greatest improvements to the project. They are however less tested than beta versions of the emulator.
Dolphin is a Gamecube and Wii emulator. Most games run perfectly or with minor bugs. Games are playable at HD quality, up to 1080p. This is a remarkable feature the actual Gamecube and Wii consoles are not capable of.
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It had its inaugural release in 2003 as freeware for Windows. Dolphin was the first GameCube emulator that could successfully run commercial games. After troubled development in the first years, Dolphin became free and open-source software and subsequently gained support for Wii emulation. Soon after, the emulator was ported to Linux and macOS. As mobile hardware got more powerful over the years, running Dolphin on Android became a viable option.
Dolphin was first released in September 2003 by Henrik Rydgård (ector) and FRES as an experimental GameCube emulator that could boot up and run commercial games. Audio was not yet emulated, and the overall performance quality was very poor. Many games crashed on start up or barely ran at all; average speed was from 2 to 20 frames per second (FPS). Its name refers to the development code name for the GameCube.
Dolphin was officially discontinued temporarily in December 2004, with the developers releasing version 1.01 as the final version of the emulator. The developers later revived the project in October 2005.
Dolphin became an open-source project on 13 May 2007 when the developers released the source code publicly on a SVN repository on Google Code under the GPL-2.0-only license. At this point, the emulator had basic Wii emulation implemented, limited Linux compatibility and a new GUI using wxWidgets. The preview builds and unofficial SVN builds were released with their revision number (e.g., RXXXX) rather than version numbers (e.g., 1.03). As with previous builds, differences between consecutive builds are typically minor.
By April 2009, most commercial games, GameCube and Wii alike, could be fully played, albeit with minor problems and errors, with a large number of games running with few or no defects. Adjustments to the emulator had allowed users to play select games at full speed for the first time, audio was dramatically improved, and the graphical capabilities were made more consistent aside from minor problems.
By late October 2009, several new features were incorporated into the emulator, such as automatic frame-skipping, which increased the performance of the emulator, as well as increased stability of the emulator overall. Also improved was the Netplay feature of the emulator, which allowed players to play multiplayer GameCube and Wii games online with friends, as long as the game did not require a Wii Remote. The emulator's GUI was also reworked to make it more user-friendly, and the Direct3D plug-in received further work.
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Throughout 2014, several features were implemented into Dolphin, including disc loading emulation, native support for GameCube controllers, perfect audio emulation, and bug fixes for problems which had been present since the emulator's earliest days. Memory management unit (MMU) improvements allowed many games to boot and work properly for the first time. Improvements towards the emulator also allowed for it to run well on Android using the Nvidia Tegra processor, albeit with minor difficulties.
In September 2016, Dolphin's developers announced the emulator was now able to boot all official GameCube titles. The last title to be supported for boot-up, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, had been particularly difficult to emulate due to the game's use of the memory management unit. Triforce emulation was removed due to lack of maintenance.
18 August 2017 marks the culmination of work started in late 2016 when the cross-platform MMORPG Dragon Quest X was added to the list of playable games just two months before support for the online functionality of the Wii version was dropped. The addition relied on a number of features that had been previously added to the emulator simply for the sake of accuracy, such as support for the Wii Shop Channel. Support for Wii File System, an encrypted file system that was originally designed for the Wii U, was also added after a rigorous amount of reverse engineering.
In the December 2020 and January 2021 Progress Report, the Dolphin team reported that support had been added for emulating Nintendo DS Connectivity with various Wii titles. The article stated that this development would not lead to Dolphin and DS interoperability, either with physical hardware or with another emulator. This new emulation fixed a crash present in Driver: San Francisco and other games that attempt to initiate DS communications.
In May 2021, Dolphin added support for macOS on ARM64, which had been a heavily requested feature following the announcement of the Mac transition to Apple Silicon. In July 2021, the Dolphin team announced the integration of the mGBA emulator into Dolphin, allowing a Game Boy Advance emulator to run within Dolphin simultaneously to simulate GameCube-GBA connectivity. In addition to supporting transfer of data to and from emulated GBA titles, up to four Game Boy Advance instances can be simultaneously active in Dolphin at once, making multiplayer in games that require the GBA such as The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles viable within Dolphin locally and via netplay.
In June 2022, the Dolphin developers announced that subsequent versions would not run on Windows 7, Windows 8 and Windows 8.1, citing that less than 2% of users and none of the developers still used these operating systems, making developing and testing on them difficult, and that the newest versions of the emulator's dependencies such as Qt no longer supported them. In July 2022, Dolphin developers released a graphics mod infrastructure, allowing users to make graphical changes while a game's images are being rendered. In September 2022, the macOS version added a native Metal graphics backend, which featured improved performance over the Vulkan backend running via MoltenVK.
In March 2023, the Dolphin developers announced that they would be releasing a version of the emulator on the Steam platform, in "early access", by Q2 2023. On the Steam page there were no depictions of officially licensed Wii or GameCube games, no specific mention of Nintendo by the Dolphin developers and a statement that "this app does not come with games". The Dolphin developers touted that the Steam version would have better integration into Steam UI which followed the Dolphin developers receiving a Steam Deck ahead of its release. In May 2023, they announced that the Steam release would be indefinitely postponed due to a cease and desist citing the DMCA from Nintendo sent to Valve. Project treasurer Pierre Bourdon, who was named in the email, stated that the presence of an AES-128 key used to encrypt Wii game discs in the emulator's source code may have allowed Nintendo to take down the Steam release. A spokesperson for Nintendo stated to Kotaku that Dolphin "illegally circumvents Nintendo's protection measures" and that "illegal emulators or illegal copies of games harms development and ultimately stifles innovation". YouTuber and video game developer Dimitris Giannakis stated in his Modern Vintage Gamer channel that he found evidence, in 2020, of a user named "Littlemac123" warning about the presence of the keys in the RetroArch Core source code.
Features of Dolphin include the ability to start games regardless of region, record tool-assisted speedruns, and the use of cheat codes with Action Replay and Gecko. Functions of the original GameCube controllers and Wii Remotes can be mapped to PC controllers. The emulator allows for the use of real GameCube controllers through the use of a USB adapter and Wii Remotes through Bluetooth connection. Controller expansions are also supported, including the Wii MotionPlus adapter, Wii Nunchuk, Classic controller, Guitar, Drums, and Turntable.
Dolphin can load customized texture maps. These can also be of higher resolution than the original textures. The emulator also has the ability to export a game's textures in order for graphic artists to modify them.
The Dolphin emulator has been well received by the gaming community, with the program's ability to run games at a higher resolution than the GameCube and Wii's native 480p resolution receiving particular praise from the gaming community. PC Gamer editor Wes Fenlon called it "one of the only emulators to make many games better" and praised it for continually "making major, sometimes huge improvements to compatibility and performance". Wololo.net praised the system's high compatibility.
Dolphin has been used by some people as a tool to mitigate certain shortcomings for gamers; in 2012, business owner and father Mike Hoye, who had been playing The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker with his daughter and realized that the game referred to the main character as a male individual regardless of the inputted name, changed all of the game's cutscene dialogue text to refer to a girl instead of a boy by editing it through a hex editor, testing out the game's ISO using Dolphin. The emulator's Netplay feature has been described by ArsTechnica to be serving as an alternative to the discontinued Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection.