Emulation – a Quick Guide

A fan-translated ROM of Super Robot Wars J running in the VBA-M Gameboy Advance emulator.

There’s an inherent issue with being interested in video games from an earlier time. There’s not always an easy or legal way to play the game you want to. Take for example Ever17The original publisher, Hirameki International, have been gone from the industry since 2008 (though their parent company came back in 2010 to sell console accessories in Japan). At the time of writing, there were no English PC copies on eBay. There was one copy of Amazon – for USD$400. None of the console (PlayStation 2, Dreamcast, PlayStation Portable, Xbox 360) releases of the game were translated to English. At that point, what do you do? What choice do you have? Do you just go without? Or do you turn to the ‘dark side’ and download images of the game’s discs and play it that way?

Similar issues happen on the console-front. A working 32X with all the cables can be tricky to find. Maybe you don’t want to cough up $500 for a Supergrafx just to see what that special edition of Ghouls N’ Ghosts is like. Maybe you don’t have the room in your home to have a whole bunch of consoles set up at any given time. Maybe it’s just really hard to find a copy of Bubble Bobble Part 2 for the NES. For those situations (and others), there’s a little thing called emulation.

In computing terms, emulation is hardware or software that performs the functions of another piece of hardware or software. In this context, an emulator would be a program, generally for your computer, that impersonates a console and allows you to run software designed for it.

Generally, if somebody refers to emulating a game, they mean on their PC or some other system. There are however, official emulations. Nintendo‘s Virtual Console service, re-releases of Sega and PlayStation games on modern systems, any of the DOS games on GOG.com, etc.

Emulation has some benefits to it:

    • Convenience and portability – Having four or so decades worth of console games on your computer is mighty convenient. There’s no grueling tasks such as trying to tune your Atari 2600 into your TV, or finding a power board with enough spaces for the giant DC adapters that the Mega Drive, Mega CD and 32X need. No jamming styrofoam into your barely functioning NES so that the cartridge connectors will line up and allow you to play. There are products like Maximus Arcade and romcollectionbrowser (a plugin for XBMC) that present an easy to use interface for launching emulated games on a Home Theater PC. Putting emulators on laptops, tablets and smartphones as well as systems like the PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS is fairly common practice, allowing you to play whatever, wherever, whenever. Also if the ‘target’ system has a controller you hate, that doesn’t matter. I really dislike the Nintendo 64 controller, for instance, but if I’m emulating a N64 game I can just use a PlayStation3 controller, or the keyboard instead.

      Xenoblade Chronicles (Wii) running at the original resolution..
    • Enhancements – Emulation can enhance a game in a few ways. For some systems, namely the PlayStation 2 and Gamecube/Wii, the resolution the game is rendered
      (displayed) at can be increased, significantly boosting image quality, as shown with the examples to the right. Some emulators allow for textures to be replaced – one particular project replaces the default textures in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, completely changing the art style to be more in line with a later Zelda game, Wind Waker. Games that never got an ‘official’ English release can be translated by fans. For example, Policenauts in its day was teased for an English release on the Sega Saturn, but nothing ever came of it. In 2009, a group of fans released a patch several years in the making that translated all the text in the game to English. There are some other nifty little possibilities, such as cheating and save states, which can render notoriously difficult games such as Ninja Gaiden beatable by generally anyone who wants to try.
..and the same game, running at 4x the original resolution, downsampled to 1080p and with a high-definition texture pack made by enthusiasts.
  • Preservation – Your consoles probably aren’t going to last forever. Laser diodes burn out, capacitors lose their charge or worse – blow their tops and leak all over the PCB, the CDs themselves can rot and deteriorate, etc. Emulating the games provides a method of still being able to play those games twenty years down the track, as well as enabling people to see some unreleased games, such as those dug up by individuals like drz and ASSEMbler.

Of course, there are some downsides or negatives, too:

  • System requirements – While older systems like the Super Nintendo or Sega Master System might not be particularly taxing, newer consoles like the PlayStation 2 and Wii can bring even a hefty system to its knees. It can be both system and game dependent, with some games needing a lot more grunt than others (Sonic Colours, for instance can cause a top of the line i7 processor to chug).
  • Legality and ethics – Using an emulator for video games is generally legal. However, the method of acquiring the games to run on them can get iffy. Letter of the law states that if you dump the game (making an image of the cartridge or the disc) yourself and use that ‘archive copy’, you’re in the clear. However, if you download a game, even one you have a legal copy of, that’s a no-no. Realistically speaking, though, who cares in that case. Some emulators, such as those for the PlayStation and Dreamcast require an image of the system BIOS to work. These are also illegal to distribute.
    However, there’s an interesting conundrum, mentioned in the opening. If a game is completely unavailable to buy and the rights-holders don’t exist anymore, should you feel especially bad for just downloading it? It’s still an illegal practice, but it doesn’t harm anyone, making it more a matter of personal ethics and morals.
  • Authenticity – Some people feel that playing a game on an emulator ‘feels’ different to playing it as originally intended. To an extent that’s certainly true, but it’s different for each person. It doesn’t prevent me from doing it at all, but I know of people who can’t stand playing emulated games.

While this is by no means meant to be a complete guide to emulation, it should serve as an interesting primer on the use of emulators for game purposes.

Further reading:
  • Retro Gaming Hacks – a book by Wired’s Chris Kohler that provides easy ways of getting started with emulators for many systems, though it is a bit out of date now.
  • GOG.com – cheap rerelases of old games with no DRM restrictions. Games that originally ran on DOS use an emulator called DOSBOX to function on modern systems.
  • PS2 games on PSN – a list of currently available PlayStation 2 games that can be downloaded and played on the PlayStation 3 via emulation.

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