Emulating Retro Games – Past, Present, and Future Part One:

Updated: Feb 12

Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator logo
Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator logo

(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.)

The Problem

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.

What’s more, you can’t just ‘make do’ with the home ports. Why? Because the games you really want to play, such as Aliens vs Predator or Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, were never ported to any home system.

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.)

Emulated Street Fighter II without filters
Emulated Street Fighter II without filters

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)

Emulated Street Fighter II with CRT filter applied.
Emulated Street Fighter II with CRT filter applied.

Put simply, emulation usually offers a vastly superior experience to what the games did when released on their native hardware.