Updated: Feb 19
A brief entry into my thought's on a controversial issue
Yoho, Yoho a pirate's life for me…
The term 'emulation' has had an interesting journey in the video game space over the years.
In the late 90s and early 00s, it was a term shared online, only in the crunchiest of message boards and forums. Being thrown into the conversation from one moderately techy computer hobbyist to another when discussing how to "pirate" NES games using in development emulation tools accessible via your PC. In those days there was no wireless controller support or even full screen and scanline options. No, the simple forbidden joy of getting Mario 3 ripped from the internet and playing an almost console perfect version in a window on your computer was an electrifying proposition. Even if at the time you were playing with WASD and spacebar.
Flash forward to today and message boards are lit up with people emulating Breath of the Wild on cheap handheld android devices like it was nothing. The medium has moved forward at such a breakneck pace that it has become almost impossible to keep fully up with everything that's being improved in the field.
Not only in the hobbyist arena, but also in a retail space. Companies both third party and first have seen the virtually untapped potential of this market and have now begun cranking out emulation consoles to meet the demand.
Such as the Retron 5 with its all for one approach to hardware emulation, to companies like Nintendo and Sony releasing miniaturised versions of their own devices. Notably, these very miniature consoles all run emulator versions and game files internally that these same companies took hobbyists to court for. Ironic eh?
The 'piracy' of the exercise was, of course, a part of the thrill but for me, but it was something more than that.
Don’t delete my history!
This stood out to me as a change in the industry, the potential of what was to come from this was endless. Think back to when you downloaded your first single from Napster or LimeWire. Do you remember that feeling? When you hit play on Windows Media Player and there it was, your track in all its glory. No shopping, no saving, no prioritising, no internal struggle, it was just there. Now we all know what happened there, don't we? These so-called 'evil' music torrenting sites were sued for millions and are nowhere to be seen today, but the revolution they started can still be felt.
A digital movement had begone, and people did not want to go back. For many, it was not the cost of the music (free) that was the most appealing aspect. More so the convenience.
For the first time, people could store an entire warehouse worth of music on their computers. A turn around that company's such as Apple were more than happy to cash in on with the I-Pod. However, the truth in saying that convenience is king here is shown when you look at the rising popularity of services such as Spotify, Netflix & their contemporaries. People are happy to pay a fee for the convenience of unlimited content access, even if you only ever experience a fraction of its potential month on month. With torrent downloading going back to being a niche market of accessing otherwise inaccessible content, rather than the semi-norm it had become.
The issue when we talk about the video game space is that there is no service available today to facilitate practically all-encompassing access to the medium that platforms such as Spotify provides.
Yes, more contemporary offerings can be found on services such as Game Pass (the best god damn deal in gaming today) as well as console-specific storefronts dedicated to the cause (RIP Nintendo Virtual Console) but these were always relatively narrowly focused and only the cream of the crop in relative terms tended to be available to purchase and with quite heavy price tags.
Now let me blow your mind for a minute
Say for example you wanted to show your kids the obscure Atari 2600 gem Night Driver to share the nostalgic "one more go" experience with them. Where do you go? I can tell you nowhere 'legit' that is for sure.
Even games that are widely praised for being excellent examples of their genre, on one of the most successful video game consoles of all time are often impossible to find through fully legal means. Take the NES classic Little Samson for example. A game that often sells for anywhere between $400-$1500 online due to its rarity.
A video game I can never hope to own in my life without some very serious life priority alignment.
Should I or the rest of the world not be able to experience this gem due to the restrictive price of entry? Well, I and an old friend of mine certainly did not think so. We found the ROM online (common file type term for cartridge-based video game files), fired up Nestopia (commonly used NES emulator), connected a controller, and were promptly treated to what immediately became my favourite NES game of all time. Honestly, it's that good!
This game has never, even to this day, been available for digital distribution. And to think I may have never experienced it do to something as paltry as a ridiculous cost of entry? I firmly regret nothing.
Sometimes the excellent retrospective videos of people such as the Gaming Historian are not enough, I mean you gotta play the damn thing right?
This brings me to the core of my point. Without the efforts of the hundreds of people worldwide who have worked on multiple iterations of NES emulators, without the hero's who acquired and shared the rare ROM file online, and without the thousands of enthusiasts in community message boards helping to drive the hobby forward, then this my favourite NES game may have been lost to time. That just will not do.
Luckily, we do have all the above, and a hell of an enthusiast fan-base to boot. These enthusiasts are pushing the envelope every day and making the very idea of "Video Game History" possible.
With very little know-how, anyone can attain full access to the entire back catalogue of the Amiga, the Fairchild Channel F and the Intellivision, consoles that you may not have even heard of, who's libraries would certainly have been lost to annals of time without the constant sharing of data that our modern society accommodates.
These systems are often looked at as being harmless as no-one is being hurt so to speak. I mean how do you go about legally buying a game for one of these systems, knowing that the money is going to the developer? You cannot. However, the same practices apply when you speak about the more popular consoles, who for whatever licensing reasons, have never had their full library available for digital download.
Therefore, emulation is now and always will be important.
Let's bring this one home
Now I am an avid game collector. I have done all in my power to shift track into a digital library as I get older and less OK with clutter, but rest assured I spend far more than the average every month on video games. I mean I started a site about the medium, I'm here for the long haul. However, I emulate regularly.
If a game is easily available for me on modern platforms, I am happy to pay for it. Such as the Collection of Mana on the Switch, or the Streets of Rage trilogy on Xbox 360.
That said, if said game is not available on any digital storefront I do not hesitate to emulate. Largely because I want to experience these pieces of what I consider art to broaden my understanding of the medium, but also as I wholeheartedly disagree with false inflation of physical game prices due to a sudden nostalgia-based shot in the arm to the industry.
When a game is emulated often it is talked about often. And if enough people are talking about a game guess what tends to happen? Interest in a remake or re-release is made known and that tends to happen more than you may realise.
Along with, as mentioned, companies like Nintendo using the findings of hobbyist emulation teams to drive new services and products to put their gaming history into the public's hands.
In what is undeniably an ironic digital circle of life, emulation has been instrumental in keeping legally attainable games available to us all. See the amazing work by the team at Archive.org where every DOS game from way back when is now freely available in browser for historical purposes. Without the DOS BOX emulation enthusiasts, this is something that could have never been done.
Emulation has come on leaps and bounds from those early days, and I realise that the issue is a controversial one with many feelings and takes to be shared and discussed.
I do not condone piracy in any way, however, I also do not condone the loss of my chosen mediums history due to negligence in the industry.
We are moving in the right direction. I can't remember the last time I torrented movies or music. I mean come on is it even worth it?
Companies have now taken note of the financial benefits of having content available at all times. We can all agree on one thing, money talks, but at least this will help pave the way for the new normal. Such as the backwards compatible line up on Microsoft's line of consoles.
Once we arrive at a point where we have sufficient services to experience older less known games in the way they were intended to be, I will happily pack away my emulators and devices into storage only to be dug up for fun in examining the tools themselves.
Until that day comes, I'm going back to play another level of Little Samson and will be smiling from ear to ear doing so.
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* Video referenced from the Gaming Historian. Check out his work here