Emulation on .NET

Please check out my GameBoy emulator written in .NET Core; Retro.Net. Yes, a GameBoy emulator written in .NET Core. Why? Why not. I plan to do a few write-ups about my experience with this project. Firstly: why it was a bad idea.

  1. Emulation on .NET
  2. Emulating the GameBoy CPU on .NET


Retro.Net started as a programming exercise for me many years ago. I wanted a goal to work towards and wasn’t happy with the boring examples that accompanied tutorials. Instead, I started a project that I knew would encourage me to continue writing code in my spare time whilst also including some electronics and retro gaming; a couple of personal interests. It has been re-written multiple times over the years and evolved into a successful product that actually plays Tetris at full speed. The CPU core is dynamically re-compiled into .NET with the help of the expression tree API and cached for speed. User interface is currently handled by ASP.NET Core, communicating over web sockets to a client written in Angular that’s geared towards a crowd gaming style of input.

Let’s cut to it.

.NET is not an ideal platform for emulating legacy hardware.

.NET vs low level languages

Languages conforming to the common language infrastructure (CLI) that run on the .NET platform such as C# are high level, meaning that they do not compile directly to machine code. Instead they are initially compiled into intermediate language (IL), a sort of object orientated, stack based assembly language written for a hypothetical .NET virtual machine. Software compiled to IL is run with the common language runtime (CLR), which uses just in time (JIT) compilation to convert IL into the native machine code on which the CLR is running. For server, enterprise and productivity software this has a load of advantages over software written with low level languages such as C.

  • Compiling to IL is significantly faster than compiling to machine code as the .NET compiler does not have to worry about header files, linking, (heavy) optimizations and has some tools such as generics that low level languages lack but have slower-to-compile alternatives such as templates.
  • There are obvious exceptions such as P/Invoke and COM Interop but generally software compiled to IL bytecode can be executed on any platform that has a CLR written for it. In low level languages such as C, software must be carefully written to be portable and be concerned with bare metal concepts such as integer sizes, floating point number formats, file system differences and endianness. Also a lot of C code is written for the GNU C library so will only run on POSIX compliant operating systems such as Linux. This software would require significant work to port to other platforms such as Microsoft C++.
  • C# and other CLI languages are easier to learn and have richer features that speed up development time such as reflection, LINQ, generics and the task-based asynchronous pattern (TAP).
  • As long as you stick to writing code for the CLI API, memory management in .NET is automatic. Garbage collection will take care of dereferenced data and the convenient disposable pattern, which has syntactic sugar available in the form of “using” blocks, encourages developers to take care of unmanaged data or data that cannot be automatically cleaned up. Memory management in low level languages is a manual process where stack pointers must be cleared up to avoid leaking memory.
  • Since code written for CLI languages is run within the context of the CLR, it can easily be sandboxed to provide security for the host system. Then if the .NET application were to become compromised, an operating system can restrict the attack to the permissions granted to the CLR itself. Low level software is more susceptible to attacks caused by sloppy development such as use after free and buffer overflow.

For all of these trade-offs, low level languages get some features that directly benefit emulating legacy systems:

  • Due to the extra step of JIT compilation and consequently the lack of time to properly optimize the emitted machine code, .NET is more likely to perform poorly.
  • .NET will periodically pause the entire application to perform garbage collection and these pauses can be in the order of 10’s or even 100’s of milliseconds. This is fine for traditional desktop or web applications as very few people will be able to tell that their application froze for 10 milliseconds or their last page load took 10 milliseconds longer than usual. However, it’s not ok for emulators as a long pause can span multiple rendering frames, resulting in a stuttered feel to the presentation.
  • Timing again… Due to .NET software being at the mercy of the CLR to provide native timing facilities, of which the API lacks, the high precision timing required to emulate legacy platforms is difficult and expensive. Low level languages have direct access to system peripherals providing high precision timing, such as that on the very common ACPI bus. Alternatively, since arbitrary machine code can be assembled, they can resort to using the native timing features of the CPU directly.

Timing is the number one issue then.

To emphasise the timing issue

The GameBoy GPU drives the LCD at 60Hz whilst incrementing a register at 3 distinct phases of drawing each of it’s 144 lines. Some GameBoy software relies heavily on watching this register for timing. So to achieve an accurate real-time simulation without graphical glitches or crashes, we must update it at the correct rate. This requires a timer implementation having a resolution of at least 1/20th of a millisecond. Task.Delay is not suitable at this level of precision as it’s maximum resolution is variable and can be in the order of 10’s of milliseconds. We must instead resort to inefficient thread blocking techniques such as spin waiting. We can’t even rely on the high resolution stopwatch for accurate blocking as some platforms don’t provide an implementation. It gets worse - on some platforms, the Stopwatch.IsHighResolution property can be true but the stopwatch does not run in high resolution mode. Docker for Windows 10 suffers from this - probably due to a mixture of it’s Moby Linux kernel and the limitations of the desktop version of Hyper-V.

What this means for emulation on .NET

For these reasons software emulating legacy platforms has traditionally been written in low level languages. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible - just difficult to be accurate whilst also maintaining an acceptable level of efficiency.

However, there are use cases for emulators other than playing games where cycle accurate timing is not essential and in fact running the simulation as fast as possible would be beneficial. A great example of this would be in training a machine learning algorithm to play software written for the emulated platform. In this case we would prefer to run multiple platform instances, training multiple agents concurrently and each as fast as possible. Another example would be in the user interface of Retro.Net. This employs a crowd gaming concept, where all connected clients can vote on the next input. Cycle accurate timing is not essential as HTTP latency and the voting period length can be many orders of magnitude longer than the timing resolution required.

Next time I’ll have a look at the core of the emulator behind Retro.Net, which uses a high level form of dynamic recompilation to emulate the Z80 derived GameBoy CPU.