How Emulators Are Preserving Video Game History

The detailed backstory of absolutely anything can become obliterated simply through the passage of time. Books wither with age and ink can fade, so it falls upon the shoulders of a few individuals to ensure that the origins of whatever we are passionate about does not disappear from our memories and by default, those of our offspring.

The funny part is that the very people who create the things we love so much don't seem to be doing too much to preserve their roots. Nintendo recently axed the digital archive of their hugely popular and now defunct Nintendo Power magazine without any warning. They later told Polygon that the move was necessary to "protect our own characters, trademarks and other content". 

To help combat the slow decay of decades-old information, projects such as MAME and Video Game Yore have stepped up to help preserve and disseminate it across the Internet, all free of charge and strictly for educational purposes. But throw in the usual white collar copyright/trademark complaint through the use of intellectual property, and it all becomes a murky mess of legalities.

Companies are being stingy about what products they release while fiercely protecting their copyrights, and gamers are demanding a way to play older games without paying premium prices. So how are emulators addressing the problem? By focusing on the five points that make playing/collecting video games so frustrating.

The Price of Collecting is Out of Control

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Collecting anything from literal kitchen sinks to Beanie Babies can be pricey, and video game collecting is no exception. Poorly implemented marketing strategies and an initial lukewarm reception can suck any great game into the sands of time, creating a shortage that is quickly eaten up by word-of-mouth and aggressive sellers/resellers. Fans experienced this every time Nintendo released a new amiibo, with preorders eaten up by online bots, only to reappear later at astronomical prices.

The recent release of the NES Mini is evidence of this phenomenon, with preorders already sold before they arrive, then reappearing on sites like eBay or Amazon over the $200 mark, well over its retail value of $59.99. Companies offering a limited initial release is not unheard of, but how many units would it take to dissuade these armchair "entrepreneurs" (I call them douche bags)? 1,000 per location? 10,000?

As for video games themselves, do you want to own the highly praised platformer Little Samson that was released shortly before the end of the NES's life cycle? Be prepared to pay upwards of $1,300. However, if you're not opposed to owning a reproduction cart, you can own your own copy of Little Samson for around $60. Turtles in Time? $32, down from $65. Sunset Riders? $30, down from $95. And that's for loose copies that run on the original hardware. Pricey still, but much more affordable.

There exists speculation that these high prices can be attributed to hoarders who create an artificial shortage, but late releases can also generate lower sales numbers, and thus, create a shortage of authentic copies. The cost of emulating these same games for your own enjoyment: $0. The satisfaction of knowing that you're sticking it to scalpers and ne'er-do-wells while still getting your game on: priceless.

Certain Games Only Appeal to a "Niche Market"

Whenever a company has to make a decision as to what they're next release will entail, they have to determine whether or not the development/distribution costs to do so do not trump any expected revenue. If the expected revenue from that product or service is less than the cost to do so or if any profit turns out to be infinitesimal, they won't do it.

One example of this is the highly anticipated Western release of Mother 3 on Virtual Console. A simple Google search of "mother 3 virtual console" displays multiple articles from various sources, and all of them hoping for the same thing. At the time of this writing, the highly popular game still hasn't broke ground in North America and there are no official reports from Nintendo that they intend to do so.

One reason for this could be that when EarthBound, or Mother 2, was released in North America, it sold less than 140,000 copies. Its failure in North America has been attributed to:

  • Higher price point due to the inclusion of a full-size strategy guide.
  • A poorly received marketing campaign that included sometimes rancid-smelling scratch 'n sniff cards.
  • RPGs in general not having a strong foothold in North America in 1995.
  • Its lack of cutting-edge graphics.

Needless to say that EarthBound went on to critical acclaim years later, but Mother 3 was one of the best-selling games in Japan for the better part of 2006, when it was released for the Game Boy Advance. A fan English translation patch was released in 2008 by Starmen.net for use with ROMs, and may even be the preferred route to go, considering that original cartridges cost upwards from $50. Even worse, some of these copies may be bootlegged, which can trigger unpleasant in-game errors and thus render the game unplayable. 

Until Nintendo makes the decision to release Mother 3 in the States, emulation would be the way to go to avoid an uncertain seller's market. But what if I told you that...

Emulation is Already Being Used by Corporations

Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft...all of them have used emulation at one point or another in recent history. The entire point of emulation is to replicate the internal processes of an outdated system for display and use on newer platforms. The benefits for console manufacturers include increasing the playable library available while still retaining the integrity of their IPs, and gamers benefit from being able to play their older titles on their new console and downloading older games that they may have missed.

Of course, emulators like the Virtual Console are downright simplified and don't have the upscaling and filter options offered by unofficial software. However, since the Wii and Wii U don't have multiple slots for various media as seen on the RetroN 5 (which also uses emulators), the Virtual Console became a viable option for those who may not have had access to the original software and/or hardware.

Where else could you get a working copy of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood without paying out the nose for a PC-Engine console and original disc? Emulators like the Magic Engine not only made playing this iconic title possible, but also allowed for the use of fan translations before Sony even considered it for The Dracula X Chronicles when it was released in 2007.

Were it not for their work, North American audiences may have never had the chance to play one of the greatest action titles in video game history.

With Age Comes Decay

Despite private companies and individuals continuing to refurbish parts for use, hardware and software alike both eventually fall victim to time. Errant spittle, a tiny scratch and even a power surge can instantly turn a reliable 30-year product into techno-trash. For example, the game that I've owned the longest is a copy of Monster Rancher 2 that has seen so many resurfaces over the last 15 years, that my PS2 sometimes recognizes it as a PocketStation. Luckily, multiple reboots seem to fix this problem, but eventually, I know that the CD will give up the ghost and stop working entirely some day.

Unlike cartridges, users preserving optical media isn't entirely unheard of, what with the multiple software offerings that allow them to convert the game's files into a digital format. So now that you've gone through the effort to convert your aging discs into digital format, what are you going to play them on?

It is possible to burn the image onto a disc, but most consoles don't allow for the use of burned games. These users typically turn to soft or hard modding to play these games on the original hardware, but many of them are convoluted at best and some require disassembly and soldering to achieve the desired result.

Emulators such as ePSXe and PCSX2 make playing digital and burned copies possible, but the legal road bump lies in the use of the respective console's BIOS. This file makes playing these games on a PC possible but is indeed protected by copyright; without it, emulators that utilize optical media are non-functional. PSN has made playing older games possible while retaining the integrity of its proprietary BIOS, but doesn't offer its full library of PS1 and PS2 titles. Trying to find a reliable BIOS for use with an emulator can be a trek, but is technically illegal if the BIOS being used is verbatim to the original.

When weighed against each other, emulators still offer the best option when it comes to preserving and playing optical media, regardless of BIOS usage. Taking apart an aging console may not be an option for many of us, and it's hard to install a quarter slot on a PC every time someone wants to play a round of NFL Blitz. Perhaps Sony themselves will provide us a broader offering as time wears on?

Developers Help Corporations

As already stated above, were it not for the work of developers taking on the challenge of emulating one system on another, we as gamers may have never received PSN or Virtual Console.

Rather than investing in their own research and development teams, corporations can benefit from the widely available work of developers to improve on their own products. Even Microsoft utilizes emulation for older operating systems through its use of Windows Virtual PC, which allows gamers the chance to relive titles such as Diablo and Warcraft II without extensive technical knowledge.  

The motives behind why developers choose to create these programs vary, but one thing that many of them have in common is their anti-piracy stance. This is despite the hate that the emulation scene received after the release of the Virtual Game Station, which was the world's first commercial emulator that allowed users to play Sony Playstation games on a PC. Soon after losing the resulting lawsuit, Sony purchased the rights and dropped it like a hot potato, but they may have benefited from its existence, as Sony released the Playstation Store 6 years later. And guess what players could download and play? Old console and arcade releases, of course.

Also, had it not been for the work of the developers behind emulators such as Nestopia, Snesx9 and many others, upscaling graphics for use on an HD TV such as on the NES Classic Edition and RetroN 5 would not have been possible without extensive technical rewrites and countless paid man hours on the company's dime.

By blazing new trails, these developers are ultimately helping the companies that so loudly decried them in the beginning and in the end, we all win.