I remember my first emulator, it was for the Gameboy Advance and as far as I can remember it was mainly used to play an unhealthy amount of Chu Chu Rocket. In retrospect I was playing a bad emulation of a bad port, but at the time I was doing two things, firstly keeping the scene alive and secondly breaking the law.
At this stage in my life when I have things to lose, i.e. time and money, I don’t feel as inclined to use emulators. But when thinking about my long time arcade machine project a few days ago I wondered where I stood legally and morally when it comes to emulators.
For the uninitiated Emulators are essentially Virtual Consoles. On your PC or Mac you can run a piece of software that will play, for example, Super Nintendo games on your monitor. The whole thing is legally justified by websites by saying “It’s for backup purposes only”. In the case of a few that has to be true, but then for the majority it is surely like any form of piracy, it’s the people who can’t, or don’t want to pay.
The real issue that’s been my justification and quandary is how else can I pick up a copy of Cool Spot Goes To Hollywood on the Mega Drive these days? A quick look on Ebay shows me (at time of writing) a copy for the Saturn for £35. Firstly this is more than the original RRP, secondly none of this money goes to Sega or the production team involved. I can see the logic of current developers and publishers taking a stand against Pre-Owned games, but when it’s 20 years later and someone who wasn’t even born when the game was released is trying to find your back catalogue or even just learn about what it used to be like they won’t be able to.
All of this can be seen as a justification for Digital Releases, which is something we’re seeing more and more these days, but price should be something that is dictated by age of software, not the publisher just money grabbing, for example Good Old Games Vs Microsoft Games on Demand. For Microsoft to be asking £20 for games that are launch titles like Dead Rising is horrendous practice and one of the main reasons gamers are still weary of Digital Only releases.
In terms of playing old NES games we have two legal options, we as gamers can either hope for an HD remake or re-release by Nintendo, neither of which is really the same. It’s an odd thing that often the emulation done by fans/nerds is of the same quality released by a studio.
For me I am a collector. I enjoy having the physical cartridge or console on my shelf like a pretentious nerd museum. My collection may not be particularly original or rare but some of the items I own are special to me or will start a conversation for anyone running a finger along the cartridge edges. Emulation served a great purpose for me, one I will always look back on with a smile, playing NES and Mega Drive games when I was 14. I was without a job and without money, the generation had died and the fewer and fewer shelves were being filled with games in shops. The only way I got the chance to play the original Mario or Friday the 13th game was to emulate it on software like Nestopia.
One area that in particular is a minefield is arcade gaming. You cannot get hold of a lot of these games for consoles, apart from ports like X-men or Magic Sword, so surely there is a self justification to break the law and give these games an opportunity to be played. Using Mame is not an easy thing to do, thankfully front ends like HyperSpin allow even the most inept retro fan have a chance at playing these games.
Owning an iPad is a great way to keep arcade gaming alive legally, companies like Namco and Atari have released a vast majority of their early back catalogue as downloads for iOS. With the ports being good quality and once you have gotten use to the “stick” controls the games play like old. The issue however comes with cost, Atari recently released all their games for free to celebrate their 40th birthday, usually however you need to pay big money and buy the games individually. The best company in my opinion is Midway, with a classic back catalogue of great games you can buy them in packs, basically meaning that for around £3 you can own all the games. It’s missing obvious games like Mortal Kombat, which has its own app, but for the selection you get I rate Midway highly.
Obviously as a cynical writer I cannot tell you how to feel about this ethical and legal issue of emulation. For me it’s whether I can get hold of a copy of the game, not an HD Remake, not a sequel of sorts, I want the original version as I would have played in the 70′s or 80′s had I been alive or had a proper grasp of hand eye coordination. For some games I’ve had to pay big on sites like eBay, and sometimes you have to just bite the bullet and pay £3 for just one game on the App Store, other times though, you just want to play the original Track and Field on your laptop with a buddy and break some buttons.
What we need to remember with physical copies of games is the history of our chosen hobby. Libraries hold old and new books for people to rent and experience despite the original release being potentially a century old. Books get reprinted all the time and so do films, but re-releasing games is something that is a rarity, especially in it’s original format. When Star Wars was put out again in HD with new CGI fans threw a fit, but Halo gets put out in HD and everyone is all over it. As gamers we need to decide what we want and hope that a uniform nature compromise can be met. I just hope that 20 years down the line there is a legal or even legal grey area that means I can show my kids what Street Fighter II was like and how it effected the entire fighting genre as they know it then.