Emulation: A Blast From the Past

Emulation of video games – using your computer (or another console) to play games from another system – has been possible since the mid 1990s, but video game developers don’t always see the imitation as any form of flattery.

The legal status of emulation is one big grey area. Owning an emulator is perfectly fine, as is emulating your own games from a disc, or making copies of said games (except sometimes when that’s not legal). If the games are out of copyright or were never in copyright, that’s fine too. If the company that owned them is gone (also known as abandonware) that’s not technically legal, but nearly impossible to prosecute. Altering a game via hacks, changing the code or other major modifications is also okay, so long as you don’t breach a cease-and-desist letter from the publisher (and unless you’re trying to pass it off as one of their games or sell it, they won’t). Beyond that, you’re pretty much into law breaking territory – so no new games you don’t own, no retro games that can still be bought digitally, etc.

But if there is a need to make a backup of a game – maybe the dreaded “internal battery has run dry” message on your Pokémon Yellow cartridge has popped up – just don’t try to distribute copies. Sony and Nintendo are particularly efficient at protecting copyright on their games and will come down hard on removing copies of their games from third party distribution. They really want the full 75 years of protection for their intellectual properties. We’re not going to tell you where to get illegal downloads of games, either, so don’t ask.

Now you’re all legal experts in the dark arts of emulation, you’ll be interested to know it is this technology that’s used by the video game companies themselves to provide backwards compatibility in a lot of cases. For example the Wii U’s Virtual Console is able to play games from as far back as the NES – but then that’s kind of a necessity, since cartridges are no longer made and most definitely won’t fit into the console’s optical disc drive. On rare occasions, backwards compatibility won’t be done through emulation but through hardware. The early versions of the PlayStation 3 which included PS2 compatibility essentially held full set of PS2 hardware inside the case, and the Wii was built so heavily on GameCube hardware it could play that console’s games from discs.

Dolphin, an advanced Nintendo GameCube and Wii emulator.

An advantage of using an emulator to play older games is that you can often get a remaster of a game you loved and play it in full HD, 1920×1080 resolution running at 60fps, something the consoles and handhelds of the past (and most still) couldn’t hope to do. Fans may have patched bugs in the game, translated lost gems (Mother 3 is the ultimate example of this), and made timed content or region locked events (looking at you, Pokémon) available at the click of a button. Additionally, if you’re the sort of masochistic human that uses Gameshark or other cheat systems to ruin their fun, the emulators can very often perform similar functions without having to pay.

Another benefit from emulation is the fan created games based on the code used in the ROMs of the old games. Learning to code games used to be a more simple task – the ZX Spectrum back in the 1980’s would have games and other programs submitted to newspapers for people to enter into their computer or edit at their leisure – but there are tools for classic console games like Earthbound or Super Mario World or Super Mario Galaxy that allow users to create anything from minor graphical tweaks to full-blown new games.

While you can emulate consoles up to about the power of the Nintendo DS or PlayStation on many smartphones, getting some of the newer ones like the PS2 or GameCube/Wii to play smoothly can be a bit tricky. As a general rule of thumb, all the components of your computer should be about seven times as powerful as those on the actual console to get a decent speed before any graphical enhancements. Emulators don’t yet exist for the PS3, Xbox 360 or anything later, so if you want the latest games, you’ll be playing them on the machine they were intended for.

In summary, using an emulator is completely fine – I have a couple myself and play games on them from time to time just as easily as with any Steam game – just be sure to use legal ROMS or abandonware and scan the files you download before you install anything. No point going to all the trouble of staying on the good side of the law just to lose your data to some scumbag’s malware.

Have you ever emulated another console? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments!

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