Updated: May 25, 2022
(NB – this article was originally published as a single 4K word count piece on Exclusively Games on August 25th, 2019, under the title ‘Emulation – A post Mortem’. It has since been edited by the author to account for recent developments. The author admits that some of their original conclusions have been proven incorrect. The author is very pleased about that.)
If, like me, you are ‘getting on a bit’, you may have fond memories of video arcade games, such as Final Fight or Raiden. You may have similarly nostalgic feelings about the games you used to play on the early consoles and computers. Games such as Solaris on the Atari 2600, Metroid on the NES, Dan Dare III on the ZX Spectrum or Turrican II: The Final Fight on the Commodore Amiga.
You may then, like me, find yourself getting a misty-eyed craving to play them again and relive your childhood memories. However, you can’t, because you have run into the following snags.
1) You cannot find working arcade cabinets anywhere for the games you want to play.
2) You want to play the games you played at home as a kid all those decades ago. However, you can’t, because either you no longer possess the system in question, or it has stopped working after gathering dust in the attic for years.
You can’t simply purchase a new replacement since both the system and its games have been out of production for decades. You look on second hand sites such as Amazon and eBay, but the one working example you find is being sold for silly money. Why? Because sellers have jacked up the price to exorbitant levels in the hope of fleecing collectors.
3) The game is stuck in I.P ownership hell. This is where the company that owned the Intellectual Property either no-longer exists, has split in two or there is some other reason that makes determining who owns the rights to the game difficult. As such, the game cannot be sold retail either as physical copies or digitally.
This makes it near impossible to play some comparatively recent games, such as Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Adventures and the two No One Lives Forever games.
I have found myself in all three predicaments more than once, and I’ll wager many other gamers have too. So, what is a nostalgic gamer to do?
Thankfully, there is an easy and very cost effective (usually free) solution to both problems. That solution is emulation.
*Obligatory legal disclaimer: Neither Exclusively Games or Nomad’s Reviews condones emulation or any other activities that could be construed as piracy. Although the downloading and using of emulation software is perfectly legal, downloading ROMs might not be*
Top 10 Amazing Games Emulation Kept Alive
Video by WatchMojo.com
What is Emulation?
Put simply, emulation is the practice of using modern hardware and software to virtually re-create legacy systems and their software. This has many uses, for example, re-creating virtual versions of old operating systems such as the Amiga’s ‘Workbench’.
Of course, most people use emulation to run classic games on modern systems. A well-known modern - and legitimate - analogue is a Wii U running in Wii mode, thus allowing you to play Wii games on a Wii U. (NB – this isn’t an exact analogue, since the Wii U features some Wii internal components, therefore it is not true emulation.)
I say ‘legitimate’ analogue because most emulation is not done by the owners of the original hardware, software or Intellectual Property. Instead, it is usually done by individuals or small teams of hobbyists, and usually without official permission to do so. As such, most emulation is done on PC and Android devices due to their more ‘open architecture’.
Emulating a game usually works by virtually re-creating the game, the hardware and the operating system of the device it ran on. As such, the hardware requirements for emulation to work properly can be quite high.
As you would expect, emulation of more advanced systems requires more powerful hardware. 8-bit systems and early arcade games (such as Defender, Galaga, etc.) can be successfully emulated on even the most basic hardware. Emulating an Xbox 360 or a PS3 will require a beast of a PC. It is now possible to emulate the PS4 and Xbox 1, although this *might* require an even more beastly PC.
The early days of emulation were a buggy mess with poor controls and glitches galore. However, by the 2010s it had really hit its stride. By this point, almost every coin-op arcade cabinet and home game system up to the PS2 era had been emulated successfully, each with a huge library of emulated games. Even the Wii with its Wiimote and the 3DS with its touchscreen were emulated.
(The former by getting the Wiimotes to work with PCs, the latter by splitting the screen, with a mouse cursor filling in for the touchscreen.)
Emulation vs Native Hardware
Some puerists and collectors insist that the best way to play a retro game is on its native hardware, via the original physical media, using the original controller or joystick and playing it on a CRT TV screen. Although this will be the most authentic retro experience, it is debatable if it the best experience. Emulation brings with it a host of advantages, beyond the obvious economic benefits of it costing virtually nothing. The main advantages are described below.
Emulators allowed for complete freedom of choice regarding controls. If you wanted to play Mario 64 using an Xbox 360 gamepad then you went ahead and did that.
If you were not satisfied with the game’s default button assignments you could change them to whatever you so desired - something you may not have been able to do on its native system. This customizability appears to be the standard for all current emulators.
Emulators allow you to take ‘snapshot-saves’ at any point in the game. (You can even snapshot-save a game’s loading screens and main menu if you feel so inclined.)
This is a god-send when playing lengthy games that did not natively feature a save or checkpoint system. On their native device, you would have to finish the game in one sitting. This would annoy everyone if you were hogging the living room TV all evening to do so.
Snapshot-saves also allow for ‘Save Scumming’. This is handy for getting through particularly tough games, or ones that send you to the start of the level if you die (Super R-Type – I’m looking at you.)
Emulating arcade games allows for functionally infinite continues. By pressing a user assigned key you virtually ‘insert coins’ and thus ‘buy’ continues - all without costing a penny. To make even the most challenging game beatable, all you need do is spam the insert coin key and plough through it via attrition.
What’s more, many emulators come with optional post processing effects. These can be tailored to the players tastes to make the games look better than ever. These may include widescreen hacks and resolutions up to 1080p (or even 4K in some cases.)
Alternatively, post-processing filters can recreate the scanlines and convex curve of CRT displays for a more authentic retro experience, as can be seen in the image below. This is what Street Fighter II looked like in the arcades back in the ‘90s. Which do you prefer? (Link to original forum thread)
Put simply, emulation usually offers a vastly superior experience to what the games did when released on their native hardware.
Some hardcore enthusiasts go so far as to create ersatz arcade cabinets for their coin-op emulators, complete with artwork and arcade style buttons and joysticks. Some take this a step further and install multiple cabinets in rooms decorated to resemble ‘80s or ‘90s video arcades, as in the image below.
One of the three coin-op arcade machines is an original, the other two are custom MAME cabinets. Can you tell which is which? From Reddit.
Another popular branch of emulation is the ‘RetroPie scene’. Since games up to the 16-bit era can be successfully emulated on modest hardware, some enthusiasts have created their own custom built mini-retro machines based on the Raspberry Pie. Some go so far as to create custom cases for them. I imagine 3D printing has made this much easier than it used to be.
User Friendly Emulation
The UIs (User Interfaces) of emulators have become far more intuitive, user friendly, and aesthetically pleasing over the years. A standout example is RetroArch. Strictly speaking, RetroArch is not an emulator in of itself. Instead, it is a ‘front end’ which attempts to bring the many emulators for the different systems ‘under one roof’.
RetroArch’s developer’s goal is to create a common and easy to use launcher, uploader, and configurator for all emulators, and thus make emulation as easy as possible. This has met with varying degrees of success. Some emulators work perfectly with it, others less so. It is updated regularly, so in time its developers may achieve their goal.
RetroArch’s UI will be very familiar to anyone who has ever played a PS3. It was *ahem* ‘heavily inspired’ by the PS3’s ‘XrossMediaBar’, right down to its background animations.
Look familiar? (Image from RetroArch.com)
The initial set up of an emulator is (usually) the only tricky part of the process, partly due to each emulator being different with its own file structure. Some emulators need the system’s BIOS files to function properly, and these need to be placed in the correct folder for the emulator to ‘see’ them.
NB - I have noticed some of the most recent emulators do not require this. Presumably, they have the BIOS files built in. This makes things much easier 😊
EDIT: I have been informed that most do not have the original BIOS included as this could be illegal. Most use a "home-made BIOS" that replicates the functionalities. Many thanks to the Redditor who clarified this.
It is the same with ROMs which must be placed in a folder. Some finickity emulators require this folder to be precisely placed in the file structure and everything named ‘just so’, with the correct spelling, capitalization, under_scores, etc. Once you have worked out the initial set up everything that follows is easy. (Usually)
NB – RetroArch has made this far easier – simply point it to a folder with ROMs in it and it will work out the rest.
Speaking of ROMs, you will need to obtain these to play the games. A ROM (Read Only Memory) is the game’s files. This is usually a simple matter of visiting a ROM site, typing in the name of the game into the site’s search bar and downloading the ROM/s that the search brings up. Once obtained, the ROM/s can be ‘dragged and dropped’ or ‘copied and pasted’ into the emulator’s folder structure. Larger ROMs may come ‘zipped’, but unzipping software is easy to use and is either free or nag-ware.
Once the files are in place, boot up the emulator, choose the game you want to play, and away you go.
In the early days, downloading ROMs from ROM sites was a potentially risky business. Allegedly, some of these early ROM sites were littered with viruses and malware.
(NB - I was a console gamer back then, so I cannot vouch for this.)
Thankfully, a few reputable virus and malware free sites (which I am not at liberty to name here so ask reddit instead) became the ‘go-to’ sites for downloading BIOSs and ROMs.
It is even possible to download whole ‘ROM-Sets’ for some systems. A ROM-Set is a collection of ROMs (i.e. games) for a system that can be downloaded in one go. A full ROM-Set consists of every game released on a system. These are more common for older systems and early coin-op arcade cabinets. Due to the tiny (KB to MB range) file sizes of such games, a full ROM-Set of several hundred games may take up less than 1% of your 500GB or 1TB Hard Disc Drive / Solid State Drive. (You can store a surprisingly large number of retro games on a simple USB stick - but you didn’t hear that from me 😉)
ROMs are free to download, which is of course where the piracy connotations came in.
As an aside - it highlights just how far games have come when the entire Atari 2600 game library takes up less space than a single modern-day AAA release.
For those thinking “Sounds great. Can you recommend any ROM sites?” My answer would be “No, since Nintendo’s lawyers are scary and I don’t want to get sued.”
Conclusion of Part One
We have now seen what emulators are, how they work, why some people use them and what the emulation experience was like in the past. In the next episode we will look at emulation in the present and speculate what it might look like in the future. See you all then.
Do you have any experiences of emulation back in the day? If so feel free to share them in the comments section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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