Updated: Feb 12
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.
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…
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.
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.
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 are another option, such as Nintendo’s virtual console, and its PlayStation Store and Xbox Live counterparts. However, these are developer locked - you cannot play O.G. Xbox games on a PS4, nor can you play PSOne games via Xbox live, and you cannot play classic Nintendo Games on anything but Nintendo’s Virtual Console. So, unless you own an Xbox 1, a PS4 and a Wii U* you may find the library of retro games available to you is somewhat limited.
Another option is to play the retro games in-browser. There are many sites that do this very well for systems up to and including the N64.
Some sites have games for a single system, whilst others will have games for almost every system up to the N64 era.
Some sites are better than others. For example, some appear to have audio issues - although this may be a slow internet problem - whilst others have no issues at all.
The best sites even support full screen upscaling. Playing in browser also allows for snap-shot saving and customizability of controls. For the few sites/games that have control issues I highly recommend middleware applications such as Xpadder. These will allow you to use any controller with any game, and total freedom of key-to-button assignment.
I am (probably) not at liberty to name specific sites, but a simple Google search will bring up a whole range of them. With a little trial and error, you will soon compile a list of what sites are the best at emulating specific systems.
Cloud Streaming Retro Games
Another option is the UK based Antstream, the self-proclaimed ‘Netflix of retro games’.
The retro video game streaming service allows players to play retro games on a multitude of devices without the need for emulators or dedicated hardware.
Thus far, Antstream’s library appears to consist of games for the Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore C64 and Amiga computers (all of which were very popular this side of the pond) the SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis and a selection of Coin-Op arcade games. A deal with Atari will see this expand to include the Atari 2600.
Video by Antstream Arcade
Games as a Service
Many big-name videogame publishers are embracing the ‘games as a service’ monetization model. Several of these are also rolling out cloud gaming services. I would not be surprised therefore to see many more companies jumping on this bandwagon. This could be both a blessing and a curse.
On the plus side, it may enable gamers to experience retro games they may not have been able to before.
However, there may be a few downsides to this. Firstly, there are the twin-issues of ownership and consumer rights, since you will never own the games you are playing.
Secondly, there is the issue of permanence. Games may not be hosted indefinitely, akin to how films and shows are periodically removed from Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Another problem could be developer exclusivity. Recently we have seen the fragmentation of the video streaming market. Whereas before it was a choice between Netflix or Amazon Prime, now major studios are releasing their own subscription streaming services such as HBO Now and Disney +, with their content locked to their service.
I can imagine video game streaming services going the same way. We have already seen examples of this in Nintendo Switch Online and Sony’s PS Now.
Unfortunately, for retro gamers, this may mean having to fork out substantial sums each month to pay for multiple separate streaming subscriptions. It is an option, however, and one that is free from any legal issues.
Why not Sell the ROMS?
Another possibility, and I admit I’m spitballing here, would be for the IP owners to sell the ROMs themselves. I would imagine hosting the ROMs on their site would be a trivial matter for a big tech company, and many of them already handle on-line purchases of current games, subscription services and the like, so the financial soft-infrastructure is already in place.
I’m sure many people would purchase these ROMS if they were priced appropriately, say $5 for a popular ROM, $2.99 for more obscure ones etc. The IP owners could state in their terms of service that it is up to the end user to find an emulator that will work with said ROMs, and that they accept no responsibility for this.
They would need to implement anti-piracy features of course to prevent said ROMs from being copied and distributed, but that is what DRM is for. However, I suspect that most companies would prefer to go down the subscription route as this affords them greater control and probably generates greater long-term revenue.
And so, there we have it, a brief history of emulation from its inception to the present and a speculative look to the future.
I am glad that the doomsayers (myself included) were proved wrong about the death of ROM sites. It would appear emulation is continuing to grow from strength to strength, with a multitude of ways a gamer can access their beloved classic games.
This bodes well for software preservation too. All technology ages and eventually fails. Working physical copies of games dating back to the late ‘70s are now as old as I am, and just like me, parts of them will begin to wear out. As such, working physical copies may become vanishingly rare, and perhaps non-existent in another 40-something years. Via emulation, they can at least live on digitally, and perhaps do so indefinitely.