For years, “emulation” has been a dirty word in the video game industry, regarded by many companies as nothing more than an illegal technology that fuels piracy and poses an existential threat to the gaming industry. However, in an impassioned presentation at the Game Developers Conference this week, gaming historian and developer Frank Cifaldi made a thoughtful case for the industry as a whole to embrace emulation as a way to capture its heritage.
“I think emulation has gotten a bad rap over the years,” said Cifaldi. “I think our industry and consumers have a really bad idea of what emulation is. Emulation is just software that makes one computer behave like another computer.”
Cifaldi traces the bad reputation of emulation in the gaming industry to a keynote address at the 1999 Macworld conference by the late Steve Jobs. Jobs said he wanted to make the Mac “the best gaming machine in the world” and introduced the Connectix Virtual Game Station, a $49 third-party software package that “turns your Mac into a Sony PlayStation.”
Not only was this the first emulator to run PlayStation games at playable speed, but it was also the first emulator to run contemporary games that were widely available on the market at the time (earlier console emulators were aimed at older, defunct systems that easier to emulate with acceptable speed). Soon after, a usable N64 emulator appeared on the Internet with support for 17 games, including the months old The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time.
“That’s when you really started to see emulation in the headlines,” notes Cifaldi. “Before, emulation was mostly a gray market way of reliving the past…something the industry didn’t pay attention to. Then all of a sudden people could [easily] download free games from stores.” (Although Virtual Game Station only worked with genuine PlayStation game discs, hackers quickly got around that restriction).
While Connectix went on to make $3 million from the very first commercial console emulator, Sony sued the company, backed by rivals Nintendo and Sega. But a district court judge ruled that Connectix’s reverse engineering of the PlayStation did not infringe Sony’s trademarks or patents. A similar lawsuit against a PlayStation emulator called Bleem came to the same conclusion: that emulation is and was legal in itself.
However, those statements do not seem to allay the games industry’s fears. When Cifaldi proposes the idea of using emulation to re-release classic NES games through his company, Digital Eclipse, he says rights holders usually don’t want to risk drawing Nintendo’s legal wrath, despite the case law on their side. stands. In front of Mega Man Legacy CollectionCapcom didn’t let Digital Eclipse move forward until they developed a comprehensive solution that authentically emulated NES games without directly emulating the NES hardware.
This is despite Nintendo itself legitimizing the use of emulation for game re-releases through its own Virtual Console on the Wii, Wii U and 3DS. In fact, the ROM file is for Super Mario Bros. currently distributed on the Virtual Console has an iNES file header, a format first developed for an emulation project in the mid-1990s. By far the most likely reason the header is in an official Nintendo product, Cifaldi says, is that the company downloaded a copy of its own game from the Internet. “Nintendo piracy its own ROMS and sells them to you!” he said.
The Uncle Bok Difference
As a teenager with a burgeoning love of classic games, Cifaldi recalled being terrified when he learned that half of all films produced before 1950, and 90 percent of films produced before 1929, no longer existed in any form. When he looked to see if anyone was working to ensure classic games didn’t suffer the same fate, he found that there were indeed people who did. “We didn’t call them archivists or digital archaeologists,” he said. “We called them software pirates… We couldn’t leave the preservation of the content to the owners. The only way to make sure this was safe was to make sure it was accessible to everyone.”
While the pirates did their thing, the industry as a whole refused to recognize that “emulation is the cheapest, safest and best way to re-release video games on new hardware,” which Cifaldi says has severely limited the legal availability of whole parts of games . history.
To emphasize the magnitude of the problem, Cifaldi contrasted The Scrooge McDuck series “Ducktales-an NES game from 1989 that still garners a lot of attention on YouTube and Twitch Uncle Bok– a mid-range cinematic John Candy vehicle from the same year. The Scrooge McDuck series “Ducktales can currently only be purchased as an original NES cartridge or in a heavily modified “Remastered” edition for modern consoles. uncle buck, on the other hand is available in multiple DVD and Blu-Ray packs and on digital download service hosts for rental or purchase. In fact, all the top-grossing films of 1989 are available in modern formats, but the same cannot be said for them each of Wikipedia’s most notable games from the same year (except for mega man 2also thanks to the efforts of Cifaldi).
“These movies have always been in print,” Cifaldi said. “Games could have been the same way, except we demonized emulation and devalued our heritage. We relegated much of our past to piracy.”
While Cifaldi isn’t “weeping over the lost revenue of companies” unwilling to embrace emulation, he says ignoring gaming history hurts the entire industry, and it limits the attention and value given to the classics of games. Bit by bit remasters and “HD upgrades” for major games are fun, but they inevitably involve changes to the original design or graphics. “Porting, by its very nature, will always be a derivative work,” said Cifaldi. “I reject the idea that classic video games need a fresh coat of paint to be culturally valid.”
And even as boutique packages like the Mega Man Legacy Collection can help bring new market attention to certain great classics, Cifaldi recognizes that not every retro game deserves such detailed attention for a re-release. Instead, he says, the industry should realize that “an emulator is just a video codec for playing video games” and keep the old binaries in print via emulation on whatever hardware is relevant. That way they don’t have to “constantly reinvent the wheel” with every new game format.
Some piecemeal progress has been made on this point. The Humble Bundle recently released a collection of Neo Geo games as ROMs playable through a browser emulator, and the PS4’s “Arcade Archives” line does something similar. But by far the biggest use of emulation to sell classic games is DOSBox, the open source MS-DOS emulator GOG.com uses to keep 140 classic PC games in print to date.
This is why Cifaldi is so emboldened that the popular arcade emulator MAME (and its multi-console emulating cousin MESS) went fully open source earlier this month. While the emulator has its issues, the companies that own the rights to gaming’s heritage can now take advantage of this completely free emulation library to ensure that classic games are as accessible to the market as movies such as Uncle Bok.
“The industry has almost ignored the secondary market for our games,” said Cifaldi. “Every other industry repackages its content. Games should too.”