I finally wrestled the S20 Ultra out of Ray’s hands now that our camera comparison is up — we’re still waiting for that autofocus update, by the way — and I decided to do a few different tests. After all, the S20 Ultra is the first phone with a Snapdragon 865 I’ve had my hands on. When Qualcomm announced it, a lot of ink was spilled on the 5G aspects of the chip: that it would essentially be the first “real” 5G chip, and also that Qualcomm broke the modem out to a separate chip, but made it mandatory.
That’s all fine and good, but here’s the real question: can the Snapdragon 865 in the S20 Ultra emulate 3DS games at full speed? Because last year’s chip, the 855, is so frustratingly close — most of the time performance is acceptable, but sometimes it really chokes, especially with more demanding games. So I asked the team which games they wanted to try and we got down to work.
If you’re new to emulation on Android, here’s what’s up: if you’ve got a mid-to-high end Android phone running recent 600, 700, and 800 series processors, you’re in pretty good shape to emulate all the classic stuff: NES, SNES, Gameboy, Gameboy Advanced, etc. But if you want to emulate later consoles like the Gamecube, Wii, and the 3DS, you’ll probably need an 845 or better.
You’ll also want to make sure you’re using the latest emulator. I ran my tests using the unofficial build of Citra from February 28, though if you’re interested in the project you should check out the official Citra emulator on Patreon. There isn’t an official Android version of Citra, hence the unofficial one, but the team is working on it. It should be noted that improvements to Citra have yielded great performance gains over the past year; I was actually surprised by how much frame rates improved on my 855 device, the ZenFone 6, just with the latest update.
So how does the S20 Ultra fare?
Pokemon Ultra Moon — This is the latest and most graphically demanding Pokemon game for the 3DS, and it runs decently depending on the situation. The screen recorder really drags the performance down, but when you’re walking around the overworld and in battles it’s smooth enough to play and maybe even enjoy? But the title screen, scene changes, and the beginnings of battles still choke.
Mario Kart 7 — Mario Kart 7 performs pretty darn well on the Snapdragon 865. Even with the screen recorder running the frame rate stays close to 60, and even the menus are pretty snappy. It’s true that there’s not that much going on, graphically speaking, but the game looks great nonetheless.
Super Smash Bros — Though much improved with the new processor, Super Smash Bros still stutters in more complex stages. It's an interesting test case, but without friends to play Super Smash Bros in Citra probably won't be the most compelling experience.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds — This remix of a Zelda classic runs very well on the S20 Ultra. There’s a bit of stutter on the load screen, but most of the time it runs between 55 and 60 fps. You could really play this!
Xenoblade Chronicles 3D — The most demanding game we could think of. Xenoblade is another title that improved dramatically between generations, but I still wouldn't call it playable.
Versus the Snapdragon 855 — The results were definitely mixed: games like Xenoblade made huge improvements from the Snapdragon 855 to the 865 in the S20 Ultra. On my ZenFone 6 and its older processor, the game runs at about 16-22 fps (see the video below) and there's a brutal audio stutter in-game. On the S20 Ultra there's occasional stutter and periods of sluggish performance, but the game feels more like a game and less like psychological torture.
Super Smash Bros also sees a noticeable performance bump from 40-55 fps on the Starfox stage on the older 855 to a much more reliable 50-60 fps on the 865, which is far closer to playable. On the other hand, Pokemon Ultra Moon has very similar performance on both the 855 and the 865. There's a lot of stuttering in the intro, scene transitions, and Pokemon battles on both, but they are less intense on the S20 Ultra.
Conclusion — So are the S20 Ultra's monster specs enough to make every game play without stuttering? Not quite, unfortunately, but some of these popular games are getting awfully close. Plus Citra isn't even official yet, and given how much it's improved in the last year, that might push some of these more demanding games closer to being fully playable. Until then we'll be on the lookout for a game controller that fits the S20's gigantic frame.