There was a period of time when the release of a new gaming system meant that older games became a thing of the past, accessible only to those that held on to antiquated hardware. When the Super Nintendo was released, many users sold their original NES systems to upgrade to the newer 16-bit format. After that, nostalgia kicked in and, along with it, came the used video game store to fill the demand. FuncoLand, EB and a wealth of privately-owned shops found life buying and selling previous generation systems and software. This arguably led to an increase in retro-gaming collector groups like Racketboy, who worked to complete original libraries from systems like the NES, or scarce Sega CD titles.As with most things the World Wide Web stepped in and modified the hobby, creating a means to share ghost copies of these games. Although this type of sharing is legally and morally questionable, it has allowed for the birth of an entire sub culture related to emulation. Home brew programmers, as well as those studying computer science have embraced “emu” to the point that the concept has become a component of modern gaming culture.
Emulation is a concept that is easy enough to grasp, even for those who aren’t programmers. Dictionary.com states that an emulator imitates a computer system through the use of a software system. For example, playing Super Mario World requires that program (the Super Mario World SNES cartridge) and the proper computer system to play it on (in this case, the SNES system). However, with an emulator a gamer would have the ability to play Super Mario World using only a digitized ROM of the game (such as a copy of the Super Mario World program perhaps stored on their hard drive), and an emulator (a program on their computer that would make the computer think like the SNES system).
Of course, there are pros and cons to running video games via emulation. On one hand there is something to be said about owning and operating an original game system that has been tested, and largely free of bugs. Emulators have a tendency to do unpredictable things while running ROMS. Sometimes colors aren’t processed correctly, or some ROMS simply won’t run at all. On the other hand, emulation saves on media costs allowing for a library of games to reach a much wider audience. For example, many original PS3 units featured backwards compatibility with the PS2 by actually adding that systems processor, the “emotion engine” to the PS3 board. This allowed for faithful reproduction of PS2 games played on the PS3. However, this additional chip was not cost effective, and later PS3 units relied on a clever emulation program to run PS2 software. Some PS2 games experience problems running on these PS3s, but ultimately emulation allowed Sony to maintain the system’s value and price point for buyers – until they decided to cash-in on re-releases.
It may be that the charm of emulation is found in the buggy nature of these programs! The emu sub-culture that has arisen in gaming has widely embraced emulation not only as a means to play aging titles, but also as an outlet for creativity. Home brew emu may indeed be the video game guy’s answer to the car guy’s custom hot rod. Programming emu software is a matter of pride for customizers everywhere. Many of these programmers are simply hobbyists who create their emulation software, and in turn, that software is scrutinized through online communities such as The Emulator Zone for ingenuity and design. Emu hobbyists don’t simply download ROMs, but also thoroughly explore the value and capability of each emulator program produced. Users in the know not only rate emulator software on compatibility, but also the success with which it reproduces games. Frame rate, controller response, and processing speed are just a few of the facets to measuring the success of an emulator.
Some creative programmers also work on “manips,” or versions of a classic game that have been modified in some way. Zophar.net is one site that focuses on emulation as well as game hacks and manips. Sticking with our Mario Brothers theme, one user there recently remixed the original Super Mario Brothers so that the game’s original levels are now featured in an entirely new and unique color scheme.
Of course, none of this should undermine the legal or moral implications of the use of home brew emulators by gaming enthusiasts. There are intellectual property dilemmas at play, although they tend to relate more closely to the ROM downloads rather than the emulator program downloads. For example, that aforementioned ROM of Super Mario World still belongs to Nintendo, regardless of whether or not it’s been reproduced for modern gamers any time recently. Many companies have sought to combat emulation by keeping their titles in production with the releases of collections of a game series. The trend goes as far back as the arcade machine loaded with six games, through the SNES collection of Super Mario Bros. games. More recently, large publishers such as Capcom have collected and re-released aging titles (the Mega Man Anniversary Collection for example), and other companies have followed suit as well (Sega will be releasing a Sonic Classics Collection on the Nintendo DS in 2010).
Video game publishers face as great a challenge in controlling dissemination of their intellectual property as the current emu culture does in validating their hobby. Video game publishers have every right to defend and regulate release of their own material. Meanwhile, the current state of emulation culture might actually be a grassroots movement towards eventually making these programs widely available for free for posterity — arguably a goal of the entire internet concept. Both publishers and home brew programmers also stand to gain from their emulation relationships as well. Publishers may be looking at the next generation of clever programmers as employees, while these programmers spent time refining their skills through their emu hobby. In either case, neither the release of collected editions or budding IP law is putting a significant dent in modern enthusiast’s NES — Nintendo Emulation Systems.
What do you think of emulation programs? Do you ever play emulated games?