Last week, publisher City Connection released new versions of the arcade / Sega Saturn shmups Cotton 2, Cotton Boomerang, and Guardian Force for both PS4 and Switch. It wasn’t long before Switch tinkerers over on GBAtemp realized they could inject other Saturn games into City Connection’s emulator, which turned out to be very capable indeed.
A little background. City Connection gave each game a separate $18 release, but also collected them together in one $45 package called Cotton Guardian Force Saturn Tribute. The company calls its emulation technology ZebraEngine. While each game looks great in action, they reportedly have a very serious problem with input lag, even on PS4. The publisher is aware of the issue and promises updates to hopefully address it.
In the meantime, Switch enthusiasts have figured out how to exploit the emulator that runs the three late-‘90s games. Based on various clues, ZebraEngine is almost certainly a variant of SSF, a closed-source Saturn emulator that started development over 20 years ago. SSF has pretty good compatibility and performance, traits which have been borne out by GBAtemp members putting ZebraEngine through its paces.
So far they’ve figured out how to inject arbitrary Sega Saturn ROM images into the emulator, with results that are good to great. Some games don’t work, others suffer noticeable input lag akin to City Connection’s official Cotton and Guardian Force emulations. But a surprising number just run fantastically with zero issues and better performance than any prior Switch-based Saturn emulators, such as Yaba Sanshiro and RetroArch’s Yabause core, have managed to muster.
The GBAtemp enthusiasts have been busy putting the newfound emulator through its paces, and so far report that top games including NiGHTS Into Dreams, Radiant Silvergun, Panzer Dragoon / Zwei, Guardian Heroes, Burning Rangers, Dark Savior, Clockwork Knight, Astal, Dragon Force, and Elevator Action Returns run perfectly or just about perfectly. The emulator has some level of support for 4MB RAM-expansion games too, as Dungeons & Dragons: Shadows Over Mystara and Final Fight Revenge are working fine.
The community is now trying to figure out how to fully extract the ZebraEngine emulator from the Cotton / Guardian Force assets wrapped around it, with an eye toward being able to make standalone Sega Saturn games appear on and launch from the Switch’s main menu just like any other official releases. Similar game loaders are a common phenomenon on hacked systems like 3DS and PS Vita, making it convenient to jump into emulated favorites with a minimum of fuss.
The catch is that playing with the newly uncovered emulator requires either a launch-era Switch capable of running custom firmware or a hardware-modded Switch that can do the same, both of which are a little tricky to come by. Even so, it’s super cool to see Sega Saturn, an underappreciated, tricky-to-emulate system, unexpectedly running so darn well on Nintendo’s relatively low-powered portable. Makes you wonder what other feats might be possible.