Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Console Emulation and ROMS: Ethically Grey Waters in Classic Gaming

The more articles I write, the more I find myself leaning toward certain subjects. This makes a lot of sense, because while I may continue watching a science fiction series or continue playing a particular tabletop roleplaying game, I can (or should, rather) only write about it once. Video games, on the other hand, are a topic that due to the sheer number of different titles I play, usually generate possibilities for new articles faster than I can write them, because I never wanted these pages to be primarily about video games. There are many, many websites writing on that topic, and while I am happy to share my thoughts on the subject, I'd like this site to also be about other things. That said, rather than forcing an article about a different topic when games are on my mind, I'll write about what I'm into, and one of those things at the moment is playing console classics of years gone by on a hardware emulator for PC.

Many difficult NES games are being rediscovered in emulation, some
emulators having cheats built in, almost all allow saving at any time.

At the most basic level, an emulator in this context is a piece of software that allows a modern PC to execute instructions as though it were another piece of hardware, typically a game console. Though there are emulators for computers of years gone by and even calculators, Arcade cabinets and home video game systems are the most popular use of this particular kind of software. The actual games for these platforms are also software, Read Only Memory (or ROM) that is stored on a chip or disc (CD-ROM/DVD-ROM). The original ROM data, if on a chip, may have been housed in a cartridge or slotted into an arcade systems mainboard. This data can, with specialized equipment be "dumped" to a file that creates an image of the same data that can be stored on any device that normally holds files (CD, DVD, PC Hard Drive, USB Thumbdrive, etc...) The ROM file can be read and loaded by an emulator that translates original graphics, sound and controller input to the equivalent on the PC they are running on.

When I got started in video game emulation over 15 years ago, it was mostly for NES, Super NES, Sega Genesis and classic Arcade Games. There was never a question then in my mind regarding the ethics of use of commerical ROMs in this sort of software, as the vast majority of the titles could not be purchased from the original publishers even if someone would want to. Many of these games would be unplayable with the original cartridges due to the advanced age of the systems, and I'd purchased more than a few of them at original retail price. Things are changing, as emulators are released for more and more modern systems, and some of the classic software is becoming available for download for a small fee in the Nintendo Store, Xbox Live, and even for tablet or mobile phone platforms. The original copyright violations, while strictly non-commericial (no one got paid for any of this,) were technically illegal, and the traditional rationalization weakens as many of these games can be purchased now.

Legend of the Mystical Ninja, or Ganbare Goemon was once only available like
this, but now it can be purchased for the Wii.

The hardware emulators themselves are not illegal pieces of software, and they are freely distributed online. There are legitimate uses of this software, and games are being developed by hobbyists for consoles long since abandoned commercially for the newest model by their developers. Popular software includes MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) for Arcade games, FCEux, NEStopia and Nesticle for the Nintendo Entertainment System, Project 64 for the N64, Fusion or Kgen for Sega Genesis and SNES9x for the Super Nintendo. Not all of these emulators are still in development and some may support certain ROMs better than others or allow features like online or LAN multiplayer. There are even emulation programs for the last generation and current generation of game consoles, though frequently many features are missing, don't work correctly or require an incredibly powerful PC for basic operations. One of the advantages to using an emulator over the original hardware is the ability to save at any moment you like, instead of relying on save slots or checkpoints to take a break.

The ROMs themselves were once freely available on websites for download, with proprietary titles like Mario or Zelda games taken down when video game companies became aware of their existence. Certain popular ROM websites would go through years of battling with video game publishers' legal departments, with the eventual takedown of many of these communities as the eventual result. In those early days, for every site that fell to cease-and-desist orders, sternly worded warnings to the offenders' ISP and the like, two more would pop up. Now, websites claiming to offer ROMs are frequently scam or attack sites, full of advertising and with few, if any games. Like MP3s and Pirated Film and TV, the images of the games themselves have moved to peer-to-peer filesharing networks and there is little hope of their availability ever going away. An army of lawyers and lobbyists could literally spend years trying to legislate and litigate these files away, but every time a means of file transfer shuts down, another opens.

Legend of Zelda - Majora's Mask in Project 64 windowed mode on a desktop.

I've struggled with how my many years as an emulation hobbyist fits in with my feelings on piracy and intellectual property. It doesn't feel ethically the same to fire up Super Mario Brothers on an NES emulator as, say, downloading a cracked copy of Dead Island and running it on my PC would. It clearly isn't legal, and most likely isn't really any more ethical than any other form of piracy, but it occupies a part of my geek life, knowing that the entire Atari 2600 library is about 2.5 MB, and every game released for the NES could fit in a tiny corner of a flash drive. PC Gaming got me to stop pirating with Steam, TV and Films did the same with Netflix and other streaming content services. I'm sure that solutions for convenient, reasonably priced and legal alternatives to any sort of content people might pirate will take people like me and convert us into customers, without restrictive DRM or litigation. I'm just not sure where emulation fits into all of that. What do you think? Sound off in the comments.
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Jay said...

i remember really getting into the King of Fighters series in the late 90s/early 2000s.

without MAME, i never would have known about the arcade world...

neatfit said...

Emulators have gone a long way, I've been playing dreamcast and ps2 on my own laptop. I'm not sure if that's too morally correct but I'm sure I can't afford the systems and games at the moment.

Electric Addict said...

i loooove emulators. especially epic to put them on your PSP or ipod

Alpha said...

As long as there is an absence of a fair, commercial alternative, pirating is alright in my book.

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