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Emulation: The Secret Multiconsole

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On our most recent episode of The B-Team Podcast a listener wrote in to ask about whether or not we consider it right to emulate a game that was more than eighteen years old.  While my rant was less than ideal, I felt it was time to discuss the often unwritten world of emulation.  We will discuss what emulation is, reasons why it exists and what ethical and legal choices you may need to make prior to diving in.

What is emulation?

The word itself says it all: emulation.  Emulation is defined as “the act of imitating” and that is precisely what emulation means in terms of video games: different hardware attempting to imitate other hardware.  In the beginning this was limited to computers because they were the only format capable of re-creating consoles effectively, but lately this has been expanded to portable and home consoles.  Thanks to most consoles having limited hardware due to cost issues, early consoles were capable of being emulated on computers of the day.  This all changed starting with the 3D generation, consoles like the Playstation and Saturn and technical specs.  Recent consoles like the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 strip away the processing power core and have high-end graphical processors, which makes emulation on computers difficult.  It is true that Crysis looks better on PC, but to have a PC try to re-create a Playstation 3 and then try to run the PS3 version of Crysis is just an overuse of resources and requires too much power to be worth it. 

ePSXe enhances Playstation graphics

Every console imaginable has been emulated from the Odyssey to the Wii.  I’m even betting there are 360 and PS3 emulators out there, but they run too sluggish on modern technology to be worthwhile.  In many cases the consoles themselves can be improved upon – Playstation emulators can definitely enhance the blocky graphics from the late 90s and the recent Wii emulator, Dolphin, can make Super Mario Galaxy look gorgeous in 720p.  This also allows programmers to create de-makes and hacked versions of games never thought of before – there are versions of Donkey Kong Country on the NES and Left 4 Dead on the SNES that wouldn’t even run on the console’s original hardware but work in emulators.  In many cases the emulators themselves are perfectly legal thanks to expired patents and defunct companies, not to mention that modern consoles make their money on purchased software and not hardware.  Despite companies fighting emulation, like Sony did with the Bleem! emulator for the Playstation that appeared on Dreamcast and PC, Sony probably saw new software customers as a result and made money off of it.

Donkey Kong Country 4 is an NES hack of the original

Why do people emulate consoles?

Probably the biggest reason is convenience.  At the end of the day anything that is on emulation is available in some other way, albeit in occasionally expensive form.  In very rare cases there are unreleased games, working projects and demos that never saw the light of day and in most cases emulation is the only option to play these titles.  Having said that, even with those games there are ways to get them to play on the original hardware and thus renders emulation still a matter of convenience. 

Genecyst was a popular Genesis emulator

Emulated games, like digital music, is something any retro gamer has probably done from time to time.  It’s as common as any other media download on the Internet and in most cases it’s just as illegal.  I’m a purist through and through, but if I seem to remember a game like Sparkster being great when I was a kid, I may choose to briefly emulate it instead of spending the $30-$50 of going out and buying a Sega Genesis and the game for an hour of nostalgia.  This isn’t as valid for those that have a Genesis, but I still feel that’s a small population of gamers.  I also don’t have to hunt down various brick & mortar used gaming stores and potentially even have to take to eBay and wait a week.  Sure, if I am already informed and want to own the game for my own reasons then I’ll buy it, but if I just want to show someone what Secret of Mana was like I’m not going to waste a week and $50.  Unfortunately I’m the minority – and keep in mind even I don’t have a lockout on emulation – and most people just emulate everything all the time.

With the introduction of online downloads most gamers, especially young ones with little income, would rather steal games than buy them.  They get to play anything they want without limits (because it’s stolen) and they have nothing but time.  Older gamers may love these titles from their past but they have no intention of delving into the expensive looting mentality of retro collections.  These are the two main components as to why almost all emulation is the use of pirating games.  Not only that, these games are extremely small in size – the entire NES collection spans thousands of games and is less than 500 mb, 1 gb if you include imports and hacks, and any cartridge console’s full library is less than 4 GB for more games than a lifetime – so it’s often easier to download the complete collection of games instead of the few you specifically came for.  As a result many people will load up their laptop, iPhone or hacked PSP with the entire collection of SNES games only to play five minutes of Super Mario World.  I have to give it to emulators, though, they are able to play everything these days, including SFX chip games like Starfox and the Sega Saturn, which was often regarded as unable to be emulated.

A second reason for emulation is import gaming.  As anyone who read my post from a few days back, which I found was guilty of a few bits of incorrect information, playing games from other regions can be a royal pain.  Not only that, assuming you get everything up and running there’s still that fear that the game won’t run properly due to age, that it won’t be fun to play or that it was just a bit too much of a foreign language for you to even understand.  Enter the emulation scene, where original games can be played (and dismissed) in under a minute flat.  Perhaps you saw a game on sale named Pachinko Monogatari: Pachi-Slot mo Aru deyo!! and figured you’d pick it up to check it out not knowing that Pachinko is a gambling game involving little balls dropping into holes.  Now a game that sounded amazing is outright boring and you don’t know how to play it.  Perhaps you’re a bit more savvy, you only buy action games and fighters if importing so you are careful to pick a fighter title that you know isn’t available in the US.  You go with Ryuuko no Ken, it’s a fighter by SNK and it got decent review scores.  Once you import and start it up you discover it is, in fact, Art of Fighting, a common and inexpensive fighter available in the US.  Now you’ve given up on the import scene altogether.  Emulation can help ease these pains in several ways.

The fan translation of Mother 3 (aka Earthbound 2) was huge when it clearly didn't come to the US

For starters, it lets you play these games in advance.  Then you’ll get to see for yourself if Super Famicom Wars is too much Japanese for your liking or help you recognize that Cho Genjin is Super Bonk.  What about those games that you’d love to import and know are good, but they are text heavy RPGs that weren’t regionalized?  Two perfect examples are Clock Tower (Super Famicom) and Policenauts (Playstation), these are known titles that have a decent following and reviews online.  Unfortunately without knowing plenty of japanese they are unplayable and there was no english release.  Enter the fan translation patch.  These are patches that translate existing versions of the game – on CD media you can follow instructions to rip from tangible copies, however with cartridges you usually have to find a copied rom – into english.  If it weren’t for these talented and hard-working individuals that give their work away for free, I would have never been able to play plenty of imported games.  Once the patch is added, though, it can be hard to play on the original hardware.  Without a mod chip you can’t play a burned disc on a Playstation and without a reproduction cart and the hardware to write a ROM you won’t be creating SNES carts anytime soon.  In these cases you can simply plug the patched rom or disc (ISO) into an emulator and play away. 

The final category of those that use emulation are extremely few and far between.  These are the guys who emulate purely to play unreleased items or those that use them to preserve hardware and/or software they own.  Since the passage of time and use result in dead hardware and software, you may not want to play that $100 copy of Earthbound on your SNES and instead prefer to emulate it.  In addition, it’s nearly impossible to find a Bioforce Ape cartridge unless it was reproduced because the game never came out and it is literally impossible to play Donkey Kong Country on an NES because it utilizes functionality not possible on the hardware.  As a result, your only choice is to emulate.  Another decent example deals with arcades; you may use MAME (multiple arcade machine emulator) to play your purchased PCB boards (the chipset hardware that runs the game program) instead of buying a cabinet each time.  On the other hand, most arcades use JAMMA, a specific format of wiring the controls, visuals and power supply to create a plug-and-play “console” of sorts to be used by all your PCB boards.  It’s still easier to emulate, though.

Is emulation legal?  Is it ethical?

This is the forbidden realm of the emulation world that many don’t like to talk about.  Simply put, emulation is most likely illegal in almost any form and it’s completely up to you as an individual to decide if you want to do it or not.  I will go over some situations and ethical considerations to help make this decision.

Hardware emulators (ie: ZSNES, NESticle, Genecyst) are often legal.  This is because the patent on the hardware is up and therefore can be recreated legally.  In other cases the hardware was assembled with over-the-shelf parts (ColecoVision and Atari VCS/2600) and could be re-created without proprietary technology.  Since they don’t utilize actual games they can often be completely legal – if you ever see a clone system version or do a Google search you can discover if it’s legal.  Common sense is also a good rule of thumb – you don’t actually think that the patent is up on the Wii, DS, or even the PS2 do you?  Unless there’s a patent, having the emulator itself on your device or computer is perfectly legal and can be freely distributed (don’t try to sell them, though, this isn’t your software and you can be sued).  This covers the hardware only, not the games.  Even pack-in games like Super Mario Bros. on NES or Donkey Kong on ColecoVision are still subject to software legalities that don’t allow you to possess or distribute the game itself.

Legally all ROMs (“read only memory” chip – term for a ripped cartridge), ISOs (“international organization for standardization” – term for ripped disc media), and including compression formats (like .zip and .rar format) are all forbidden.  They are illegal.  Even if you own them and even if they are deleted within a 24 hour period, like many sites will claim, they are technically illegal if your case was in the hands of, say, a Nintendo lawyer.  On the other hand, if you actually own the game and can produce a tangible copy your case will be very strong.  This doesn’t matter though because in most cases you’ll never be caught and if you are, you usually never actually own the media.  Downloading is technically illegal, but the bigger way to get noticed is to distribute or sell these items due to the popularity that it generates.  If you sell them you won’t even have a legal leg to stand on, so never share, send or sell any games you have, especially over the internet.

So you can have the emulator but not the games?  What do you do without breaking the law?  There are actually a lot of solutions, although you’ll see they all kinda suck.  For cartridge systems you can purchase a Retrode that has a slot for NES/Famicom, Genesis/Mega Drive, and Super Nintendo/Famicom and interfaces with a PC via USB.  This allows you to play your old carts without picking up the hardware.  Retailing over $75, it sounds like a lot of money until you consider that the Genesis runs around $30-$50, NES around $50-$80, SNES around $60-$100 and none of them have a high reliability rate these days.  If you want authenticity in your controllers you can go the expensive route using real controllers or the cheap knockoff route.  If you’re talking about more modern disc games, just rip the disc to ISO format (a simple format that plenty of disc burning software, like NERO, can already do) and play the ISO through the emulator.  This removes the need for your PC disc drive to read the disc and thus slow down and chug the emulator – in some cases it actually improves load times.

Here are the considerations if you want to emulate from an ethical standpoint.  First of all you have the simple legality issue, which for most of us is almost a non-point.  Next is the concept of payment and support for developers that make games you like.  Things to consider include alternative routes to get the game like a digital release (ie: virtual console, Playstation network), console re-release (ie: Star Ocean on PSP) or collection (ie: Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection).  Now, it’s fair to assume you may not want to play the PSN version of Chrono Trigger (I know I don’t) or complete Star Ocean on a handheld when you have a huge 27″ monitor on your Mac or you think that the emulated Genesis games on HD consoles sucks and you want the original format.  Fine.  At least you have purchased the game, supported the rights holder and given them the message you want to see more games like this, and remained somewhat legal in your justification to emulate.  Even if you never play the PSP version of Star Ocean, you have a solid case as to why you emulated the Super Famicom version in purchasing it.  You aren’t really stealing it at that point – although please be cautious and remember that the law may not agree with you.

To play this...buy this

What about repros and flash carts?

In recent days the technology to write files, games, and even entire libraries onto cartridges has become quite easy.  This has opened up a whole new mess in the piracy scene.  In some cases they are worthwhile and give a lot of responsibility to the consumer, like an R4i cart for the DS or the PowerPak cart for NES.  In other cases, like a $3000 mutant MAME arcade that secretly comes with a bunch of discs that contains more than 5,000 arcade ROMs to import into it, this is just outright wrong and highly illegal (although not if the games themselves are part of the transaction). 

Reproduction carts (repros) allow games that never existed to be brought into existence and played on the intended hardware.  I have a repro of Bioforce Ape, an unreleased game that was recently found and released to the world on Lost Levels.  A cartridge of this game never existed, it technically doesn’t have any license rights and to sell it would still be most likely illegal (not to mention kitchy).  I paid a guy to take the ROM (provided by me, downloaded off that site) and write it onto a blank NES ROM chip (he built).  Then I merely removed the plastic casing of an existing NES cart (easy as cake, only need a small screwdriver that can be found at any hardware store) and swap that ROM chip with Bioforce Ape.  A little graphic design and a free template for an NES label later and I was able to print my own label at Kinkos.  Boom – I’ve got a repro of Bioforce Ape that works just like an NES cart in any NES.  The same can be done for fan translations that have been patched, like my repro of Clock Tower  in english, which to remain legal required I own the Super Famicom game as well. 

Due to the timid nature of ROMs and their wonderful inability to work in many cases, be sure that you have a way to test the ROM first (if you buy as a service they usually do that for you) or buy an option that can be re-written.  This includes items like the R4i and PowerPak, which are controversial because of the ease of piracy.  Buying items like the PowerPak or Everdrive can be great for playing your legal fan translations, unreleased games and anything you actually own.  This also removes the risk of burning out expensive and rare titles that you don’t want to hunt down and pay for again.  This also allows you to try out ROMs to verify they will work before you make a full repro cart or use it as a substitute for your own cart.  Unfortunately many people download complete ROM sets and use them instead of buying games.  Again, this can be a legal or moral issue in cases like Final Fantasy, which I’m fairly certain can be purchased on any current console or platform except 360, and not such a big deal in the case of Earthbound, which will never re-release on account of being a license nightmare.  Be wary, in the eyes of the law, it’s all illegal.

So there’s the “secret” underground world of emulation – a scene bred on greed, piracy and convenience, but still has some admirable traits.  Hopefully this article gives you plenty to think about and may even give you some options if you want to replay specific games without hunting down the hardware.  Due to the legal slippery slope, always err on the side of caution when doing anything, otherwise you could end up on the wrong end of a lawsuit.  In most cases, however, it’ll just be a way to play a game you’ve always heard good things about but don’t want to spend $200 to get running, especially when the only person getting money is a collector.  Use this information carefully and it can be an asset to making the most of your consoles, PCs and devices.

Written by spydersvenom

January 5, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Posted in Emulation, Lessons

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