Emulating Retro Games Past, Present and Future: Part Two

Updated: Feb 12

NES MINI Classic
NES MINI Classic

Welcome back everyone. In the previous article we investigated what emulation is, why people use it and what emulation was like in its earlier days. Now we will take a look at emulation in the modern day, how Nintendo almost killed it, and what the future of emulation might look like. Let’s dive in.

The Present

Legally speaking, emulation has always been something of a ‘grey area’, since the distribution of ROMs can be construed as a form of copyright infringement or piracy.

Extra Credits’ video below explains this in more detail.

Extra Credits - Do You Own Your Games?

This video was published the day I was first re-writing this article. What are the odds?

Video by Extra Credits

However, it is something that most big software, hardware, and IP owners have historically ‘turned a blind eye to’, so long as it was for legacy systems they no longer supported.

Downloading a ROM for a system that had been out of production for a decade or more was often tolerated. I suspect this is because emulating such a game wasn’t taking money out of the hardware, software and IP owners’ pockets. What’s more, the time and expense of taking legal action may have been more than it was worth, especially for some smaller developers and publishers.

Emulation of ‘legacy games’ - i.e. games that are no longer available for retail purchase - may have been viewed by some copyright owners as being akin to the second-hand game market, in that they were unable to monetize the title by this point anyway.

Emulating a currently supported system and its games (i.e. systems and games that are available to purchase brand new in mainstream retail stores) is a different situation entirely.

Doing so does take money away from the devs and publishers, and thus definitely qualifies as piracy. This is seen as the ‘dark side’ of emulation and is frowned upon by some members of the emulation community.

More importantly, it is frowned upon by the I.P. owners and their legal teams.

The popularity of the retro scene, including Nintendo’s Virtual Console and similar ‘legit’ applications, did not go unnoticed. The big hardware and software companies soon decided to capitalize on this burgeoning market.

Enter the Mini-Retro Consoles…

SNES Mini-Classic
SNES Mini-Classic

It was realized that there was big money to be made from people’s nostalgia. Before long the mini-retro consoles, such as the NES Classic, SNES Classic, PlayStation Classic, and the Sega Genesis Mini started to hit the shelves.

Emulating classic old games was now a threat to the I.P. owner’s bottom line, and so one of them - Nintendo - decided to act.

In August of 2018, Nintendo’s lawyers threatened several ROM sites with lawsuits, claiming damages of $2 million for illicit use of their trademark, plus $150,000 for each Nintendo game hosted. As a result, the ROM sites targeted closed down, and other ROM sites pre-emptively either closed down or removed all their ROMS to avoid coming under fire.

The Future

For a while, it appeared that Nintendo’s actions would leave emulation-via-ROM-sites dead in the water.

Those who already possessed ROMs could continue to use them of course, but many retro gamers - myself included - were worried they would be out of luck if they wanted to download additional ROMs, or if their existing ROMs were lost due to HDD damage or the like. (Hint - make backups!)

However, it appears that these worries - my own included - were unfounded. Although many sites closed, just as many sites, if not more, sprang up in their place. The emulation hydra is not so easily slain it seems 😊

Alternatives to ROM Site Emulation

For those who wish to play retro-games in a way that is 100% legal, I am happy to say there are many alternatives.

The Second-Hand Market

The most obvious option would be to buy the original platform and the games to run on it from the second-hand market. This is easily done via Amazon and eBay, or from 2nd hand stores.

This has the advantage of being the most authentic retro-experience - with all the pros and cons this entails. Owning the original hardware and physical copies of the games may also be important to collectors. Unfortunately, their collectability may inflate the asking price.

You may also need an adapter if you are planning to hook a retro console or microcomputer to a modern-day TV or monitor, as they may not have compatible inputs and outputs.

Classic Mini-Consoles

When your joypads dwarf the console you use them with

Another more affordable and convenient option are the aforementioned mini classic consoles. They come with modern day A/V connectors - usually HDMI - which makes connecting them to modern displays easier.

However, some of the retro-mini consoles have received criticism due to the inconsistent quality of the pre-installed games, and the occasionally shoddy emulation of the games they are running.

(Yes – it appears that at least some of the classic consoles are running the same emulation software you can run on a PC or Android device. I’m sure there is an irony in there somewhere.)

I have heard that some of the Mini-Classic consoles can be hacked, and thus allow users to import additional ROMs via a USB memory stick - assuming the user has access to the ROMs of course.

(Obligatory disclaimer - doing so will probably void your warranty.)

A major drawback of the classic mini consoles is that each one emulates a specific console, and only that console.

Therefore, if you wish to play a variety of retro games from different consoles, for example, Super Mario Bros for the NES, Street Fighter II for the SNES and Streets of Rage for the Mega Drive/Genesis you will need to purchase three separate classic minis.

This can soon become quite expensive, not to mention creating clutter and a cable management nightmare. I’m sure it will not be lost on some that a lot more can be done on a RetroPie for far less money.

Virtual Consoles