Game Emulation: More than just a Passion Project
How having an accurate record of the past has great implications for the future...
Wait, where are you going? Come back! This’ll be interesting, I promise!
Despite the niche-ness of the topic, I felt this was a fascinating subject worth exploring, because it’s an example of a highly relevant topic in our world: in an age where art is increasingly commodified, how much control should companies have?
Ah, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, a brief overview of what emulation actually is. Basically, it refers to computers mimicking other computers, to run programs that would otherwise cause compatibility issues. There are essentially two kinds: hardware emulation, in which the emulator is a hardware device, and software emulation, in which the emulator is a program designed to mimic the processor being emulated.
In terms of video games, software emulation is the go-to, since most consoles have custom hardware. All emulators use game ROM dumps; compressed versions of the game files for the emulator to run. Game emulators have been around for quite a while, actually. Hobbyist groups began work in the early days of the Internet, when advances in PC power meant that console emulation finally became feasible. While emulators are now far more mainstream, their development remains headed by insanely-dedicated amateurs, hacking away at consoles bit by bit (HA) to make sense of how they work.
Emulators aren’t just limited to PCs anymore either; there are plenty of apps available for your smartphones now. In the immortal words of the 1989 Game Boy advert, “Now You’re Playing With Power. Portable Power.” (That sounded cooler in my head.) Still, there’s something lost in translation; most obviously with smartphones, where the loss of tactile feedback can be a complete turn off. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could authentically play all your favourite classics on the go without fumbling around with a wireless controller?
This is a project that uses the modified shell of a 1989 Game Boy, powered by a Raspberry Pi, a microcomputer commonly used by hobbyists. Projects like these, or even custom consoles designed to hook up to a TV for the Authentic Retro Experience™ are, once again, the work of dedicated communities. While there are emulator handhelds on the market, the experience isn’t as lovingly recreated as with these Pi-powered handhelds, an incredible testament to the passion of the developers.
So, the legacy of older generations is preserved by multiple talented developers around the world, and emulation provides a fascinating peek at the early years of the medium. No problems there, right?
That’s where you’d be mistaken.
Emulation has been legally contentious from the start. And why wouldn’t it be? Game companies aren’t going to support people using their products without paying a single cent. While the legality of emulation varies depending on the case, the consensus is that making software emulators is A-OK, because you can’t do anything with just an emulator. The contentious part is that it’s illegal to use game ROMs without owning a legal copy of the game. For instance, if I wanted to play the original Super Mario Bros. on my laptop, I’d have to either have the original NES cartridge, or own the game legally in another form.
This rule admittedly makes sense when considering games still in circulation. For instance, lots of DOS games are up for sale on GOG.com, so using DOSBox and a copy of the game files would be justifiably illegal. However, the reasoning falls apart when considering obscure releases, or titles only available in a certain region. Access to those would be completely impossible if not for sites like Emuparadise, which offered a wide selection of ROMs before it was sued by companies like Nintendo, who were offering many (but, crucially, not all) retro titles on their own platforms like the Virtual Console service or the PS Store.
(FYI, the Emuparadise server still has all the ROMs on it, you just need a workaround script to access them… but you didn’t hear that from me, shhhhhh.)
Plus, even with games still in circulation, the companies are in complete control of distribution, meaning they could completely cut off legal access to them (although their profits obviously dissuade them from this). This touches on another topic of relevance; the split between physical media and digital media. While digital media pose an obvious advantage over their physical counterparts in that they are far more convenient to access, they are not the ideal medium for preservation because of the aforementioned copyright wrangling. (Look up the original release of the Scott Pilgrim game to see what I’m talking about.)
Now, you might be wondering, so what? It’s not as though this is unique to games; the distribution rights of film and music are constantly in flux too, right? To that I say: Yes. Exactly. If we view art as a form of expression, then the fact that most mass media distribution is heavily regulated by copyright and monopolies is horrifying. In a world where companies like Disney seem to be swallowing up studios left and right, enforcing draconian copyright laws in a battle against the public domain, and generally compressing the possibilities of expression into a single homogenous vision for the sake of the profit margin, the age-old Art v Commerce debate has become more vital. (And yes, that is a film example, but the general point still applies.)
Most people’s default idea (and some people’s entire idea) of video games is Mario or Space Invaders, but lately the medium has showcased powerful, emotional stories. Those games employ techniques borrowed from film, but we are already moving past this. The interactive nature of video games has possibilities that are only just beginning to be explored. Limiting access to their history could therefore turn out to be catastrophic; after all, how are you supposed to learn from the past if the record is no longer accurate?
Video games began as a technical challenge, but they have become far more: they bridge the border between art and technology like no other. In the end, the legal battles over emulation are merely a symptom of a larger problem... one that has massive ramifications, and one that isn’t getting an answer anytime soon.
Designed by Mahir Bhagtani
Video Credit: wermy