Emulation... thoughts?

I have been a big hobbyist of video gaming for as long as I can remember and as I get older, and systems age and get discarded by the industry and a good deal of players I am assuming, I have found emulation to be a huge asset in my being able to enjoy games that are hard to come by or impossible without a huge wallet or dedication to finding them in general.

I am looking at the concept of emulation of course through my ability to enjoy such games, but also through the ability to archive the games as well, as I feel that gaming has become a very profitable industry but also one that is severely lacking in archival and the importance of maintaining the products in a form that can be enjoyed as compared to other mediums.

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The reality is that emulation is the only way we’ll be able to preserve a hell of a lot of games. So while I’m also for the preservation of game hardware, I think emulation is a perfectly acceptable way to allow for access to archived games.

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There’s nothing wrong with the concept of emulation. If you play Nintendo Switch Online’s NES app, hook up Sega’s Genesis Mini to your TV, buy most point-and-click adventures off GOG, download a PlayStation 2 classic on your PlayStation 4 , pop Rare Replay into your Xbox One, or (insert your own example here), then you’re playing an emulated game. Games before the PS3/360/Wii era that are faithfully rebuilt from the ground up (like Christian Whitehead’s mobile Sonic ports) or remade entirely (Final Fantasy VII remake) are in the minority: It’s usually far more cost-effective for companies to build, commission or license an emulator.

(Incidentally, the story of emulation’s adoption by the mainstream is fascinating. Gaming Historian has an episode called From Shady to Legal that goes into some of that.)

There’s also no moral issue I can see with using an emulator that doesn’t infringe on the original manufacturer’s copyrights with backups of games you legally own.

Where things get stickier is when it comes to (ahem) “procuring” games for the purpose of emulation. I’m not a lawyer, so I can only speak to my own ethical feelings on this, but I think there are a few understandable scenarios:

  • Its original creators have publicly condoned its (cough) “distribution among hobbyists.”
  • The game is no longer available for sale in a way that benefits its original creators.
  • The game is available for sale but with significant issues (poor emulation, for example).
  • The emulation is for the purpose of preservation, research or academic study.
  • You can’t afford the game now but plan to pay for it as soon as you can.

I think everyone’s feelings may vary a bit, especially on those last two. But that’s the way my moral compass points.

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The general consensus I’ve usually heard is that if the question is “is it all right from a legal standpoint” to emulate, then the answer is generally a flat no (with some exceptions I guess being the original devs giving the OK, or the game has officially become freeware perhaps).

But if the question is “is it all right from a moral standpoint” to emulate, you get a greater variety of answers. My thought on the matter has generally been, if it’s a game currently available on current hardware then you really ought to buy it. The problem is that there are lots of older games that were less popular than, say, the Marios and Final Fantasies, and thus have not been re-released in any capacity for many years.

I would more than happily buy a re-release of Snatcher for example, but that’s probably just never going to happen – and I’m not too anxious to buy a Sega CD (that might not work) and pay $600-$1000 for a used copy of the game (that might not work). I’ve gone to great lengths for certain retro games in the past, and though I’ve never spent nearly that much money on a single game, it can still be a big hassle just getting everything to work properly. And the original devs of course aren’t making a single cent off any of that in the first place… so you might as well just emulate Snatcher. (Not to mention, for many older games, the studios that made them don’t even exist anymore…)

In the meantime, I make an effort to buy lots of re-releases for classic games – mostly for the sake of playing them, but also to encourage devs to continue bringing back more. I love the ACA Neo Geo and Arcade Archives releases, the Sega Ages lineup, and even NES and SNES Online for the Switch. But there are still loads of classics that have been lost to time, especially for certain eras and platforms. (The arcade and home console releases of the late 90s to early 00s especially seem vacant for maintaining a current-day presence – probably because such 3D titles would take a lot more effort to bring back [in a satisfactory manner] compared to 2D pixel games.)

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Personally, everything pre-Dreamcast (that I play) I do via emulation, and I’m looking at going that was for the Dreamcast too. It’s SO much easier from an enjoyment/ ease of use standpoint than fighting to get the best out of decades old consoles on TVs that were never designed for them to run on. I still use a physical 2DS, but when that goes I’ll probably emulate the few games for that system I really love as well.

As for the legality of it, I only emulate games I own/ owned so technically they can be considered backups. There are so many new games I don’t tend to go back to try older ones I’ve not played (outside of re-releases) unless it’s something I’m particularly interested in.

Personally, I think the best way forward would be to expand on GoG was doing by updating older games to run on new OSes.

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I wrote a long reply to this but then deleted it. Bottom line is I don’t like emulation. I think it devalues the software for the owners making it less likely that they will go to the time and expense of doing an official re-release for modern platforms.

I also don’t think it’s our responsibility to “save” this stuff. That’s down to the publisher, developer or IP owners. If they have no intention of going to the trouble of emulating it themselves, then they should declare it as Freeware and at least make the code they have available somewhere.

Emulation of platforms and software still on sale, like 3DS for example, is theft, end of.

Not looking to make anyone feel bad or start a fight.

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Completely understandable, and I wasn’t looking to grind anyone’s gears by posting this, although it can be stated as a hot button topic within the hobby, and will be for quite some time, as it seems to be an issue where people feel rather strongly either way.

My thoughts on emulation are pretty clear but I am not dense enough to not see both sides or declare one better or more so than the other. I find it an interesting topic and one that needs to be discussed, albeit civilly of course.

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Word. I can see it both ways too. It’s all born from a love for games.

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I’m a big fan of emulation, because it’s, by far, the most accessible way to experience retrogaming.

Using real hardware for old systems is a cool aspect of the hobby too, but is a much bigger commitment of money, space, and effort. It’s common to have to replace capacitors which means desoldering and soldering. If you’re using real disk drives, the rubber belts will fail and need replacing. Also, magnetic disks go bad. So lots of people will install disk drive emulators instead, using flash drives and disk images. Then of course there’s the display issue. TV with RF modulator? Various kinds of CRT? Or a modern LCD with or without effects?

It just depends on how much original gear you want to stick with. Similar to old car and bike restoring. You can do everything in software and use modern controllers. Next step towards “authenticity” would be vintage controllers with USB adapters. And it goes on from there.

Anyways. It’s cool stuff, and I’m glad it exists.

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