New life for old games

New life for old games: By Howard Wen. Video-game emulators intriguingly blur the lines between hardware and software, PCs and game machines. Do they also promote piracy?

Published June 23, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Feel like playing your Sega Genesis games on your PC? You can -- regardless of whether your operating system of choice is Windows, MacOS, MS-DOS or Unix. Ever wanted to play Gameboy games on your Windows CE handheld computer? You can, thanks to emulator programs like Virtual Gameboy.

Straddling the legal line between reverse-engineering and software piracy, scores of programmers are coding freeware programs that emulate the hardware of video-game consoles, arcade machines and even other personal-computer formats.

Most media coverage has depicted emulation (or "emu") programming as a backward-looking novelty: "Hey, remember all those cool arcade games you played in the early '80s? Now you can run the same exact code on your PC and play them again!" But what's happening is deeper than just digital nostalgia: Emu programming is seriously blurring the lines between the proprietary formats that have always balkanized electronic gaming.

From programs like the hugely popular M.A.M.E. (Multi Arcade Machine Emulator) to those perfectly mimicking popular video-game systems, emu programmers have liberated game code from the confines of hardware. Of course, all emulators aren't created equal -- and the speed and feel of game-play on an emulator depends on the power of the computer running it and the coding of the emulator itself. But there's an ever-increasing choice of emulators available on emu sites like the venerable Archaic Ruins. And the increasingly mind-boggling possibilities of the form are multiplying fast.

"I think hardware is still king, but emulation is proving code is quite powerful in today's age of quantity over quality," says Brad Oliver, 27, an Arizona State University student who has worked on M.A.M.E. and is now coordinating the effort behind a new emulator project, M.E.S.S. (Multi Emulator Super System), which will emulate several computer and video-game hardware formats via one program.

"The emu development process is getting quicker," observes Gordon Hollingworth, a 26-year-old NT systems manager in England who codes emulators. "It won't be long before a company releases a piece of hardware, and an emulator [for it comes out] two months later. Emulation could advance to such a point that people would ask, 'Why develop [new hardware] when we can emulate the process quicker in Windows, MacOS, etc.?'"

The Internet's emu scene is only 3 years old, but emulators for most of the old video-game hardware -- including the Atari VCS, ColecoVision and Nintendo Entertainment System -- were perfected long ago. All of the major-brand home computers from the late 1970s and early 1980s -- systems from Commodore, Apple, Atari, Tandy and Texas Instruments -- have also been resurrected in software form. These days, most emu programmers work on tweaking and enhancing their emulators. (Hardly anything is released as a "final" product; everything is considered a beta version.)

The challenge now isn't just to make an emulator; it's to make the best emulator possible. Competition to make the best can be intense -- just look at all the Super Nintendo emulators out there (there are at least seven different ones). Rivals often share their technical information, though, and some eventually choose to merge their individual efforts.

M.A.M.E. works differently; theirs is a collective project bringing together hundreds of programmers who code separate driver programs to run arcade machine games. The result: At current count, M.A.M.E. can run nearly 500 arcade-game ROMs (the code that constitutes the game's software), and the program goes through a substantial update about every month.

"Realistically, there's no point in being competitive. If one person withholds information, chances are, a legion of [other] coders will eventually [figure] it out for themselves," says Cameron Mac Millan, 24, a computer systems consultant in Ireland who beta-tests for emu programmers. "Besides, what really is the prize for being first? Having your name in cathode ahead of everyone else's? Ultimately, it just delays the project."

This culture of "open hardware" is producing a less savory effect: To see these emulators in action -- to play games -- you need the games' code, and that's fueling a new level of piracy on the Internet, particularly for software originally meant to be used on video-game systems. Nintendo and Sega have been on the forefront in shutting down Web sites illegally distributing ROM images (game code that has been dumped from ROM chips into software form) of their copyrighted game cartridges and arcade machines. The Interactive Digital Software Association, the major trade association that represents the interactive entertainment software industry (of which both Nintendo and Sega are members), launched efforts to actively police for piracy on the Net, beginning in March of this year.

Marat Fayzullin, a 25-year-old graduate student at the computer science
department of the University of Maryland in College Park, is regarded as one
of the early pioneers in emu programming. Yet this author of five emulators,
including the aforementioned Virtual Gameboy, holds a very critical view of
his colleagues and the Net's emu scene: "I am not a 'scene' person and would
very much dislike to be [regarded] as one. I have been here [long] before
these pirates and do not want to have anything to do with them."

Emu programmers typically distance themselves from piracy; ask one of them where you can get a certain ROM image -- or, for that matter, when their emulator will be able to run a certain program -- and you're likely to be ignored. They'll remind you that you only have the right to dump ROM images of a game cartridge or chipset from an arcade machine you already own. Still, let's be real: How many people own an actual arcade machine, or have the technical know-how to build and operate a ROM dumper?

"It all comes down to one thing: Your entitlement to use the emulator according to the laws in your home territory," Millan points out. "People have to exercise their own judgment and self-control."

The pretense is understandable. Some programmers tell of being threatened with legal action by companies owning the proprietary hardware they're trying to emulate. Generally, emulation programming in itself is not illegal under international copyright laws, but apparently that hasn't deterred companies from trying to thwart an emu programmer's progress.

Hollingworth, one of four people chipping away at the Nintendo 64 hardware, says he's been targeted: "I had to halt my N64 emulator about a month ago because an organization started legal proceedings against me for 'Illegal Web Content due to serious infringement of copyright.' Basically, [it was a] 'slap on the wrist' for emulating a piece of hardware copyrighted by another company. This was thrown out due to there being no legal precedent for this claim (in the U.K., I guess)." He would not identify the "organization" behind the action.

For the copyright holders of pirated game ROMs, going after the emu programmers themselves may be understandable, but it misses the point. Extending the pirate analogy, emu programming, at worst, is akin to building ships favored by pirates. You can't stop the shipbuilders, because there are perfectly legitimate reasons for using ships -- just as there are for emulators. Emulators enable code to be used across various platforms; they allow archived personal and business information -- such as data that can only be read on an antiquated spreadsheet program that, in turn, ran on a long-defunct computer operating system -- to be accessed on modern PCs.

As for the piracy of video-game ROMs, emu programmers aren't totally unsympathetic to the copyright holders. Says Kevin Brisley, 28, a Canadian software developer for a medical imaging firm, whose claim to emu fame is the arcade machine emulator Replay: "The bottom line is that companies have a right to defend their copyrights. If they want to force a ROM archive site to remove their images, they're perfectly within their rights. However, my personal feeling is they shouldn't alienate their past and current customers by quibbling over programs that haven't generated any income for them for the past 10 years. I would love to see companies offer their ROM images for a nominal fee."

"While they may never be able to turn a profit by selling old ROM images," Oliver admits, "they certainly stand to lose more in PR value by not offering alternatives." He singles out Nintendo for the cease-and-desist orders the company has given to sites illegally distributing ROM images of
its classic arcade games such as the original Donkey Kong: "They've received so much bad PR via their recent hard-line tactics that they are sure to suffer from it."

Would the copyright owners ever distribute ROM images by selling them, or even giving them away, on the Web? It's a radical suggestion, sure to evoke guffaws from the board rooms of companies like Nintendo and Sega. But consider, for example: What better way to plug your company's new games than by giving away old titles that are no longer bringing in significant, if any, revenue? Namco, the copyright owner of Pac-Man, features the yellow dot-gobbler in an upcoming 3D action game for the Sony PlayStation (another video game console, by the way, that emu programmers are working on emulating).
To promote this new game, why not give away the ROM images of the original arcade version of Pac-Man through the company Web site? The company could provide users with access to the ROMs only after seeing online promotions for the new game, filling out a demographic survey and/or agreeing to be put on an e-mail list announcing new products.

Additionally, computer and game hardware companies might want to informally support the efforts of emu programmers. That's what U.S. Robotics did earlier this year when it included the Palm computing device emulator, Copilot, in its development tools packet. The work of an independent programmer, Copilot benefits U.S. Robotics by encouraging software development for its PalmPilot line of personal digital assistants. While the emu scene is tearing down the barriers for code among proprietary formats, it can also support the intrinsic value of a piece of hardware by opening up development for it and extending its market life.

Despite the controversies over piracy, emu programmers' motivation tends to be more personal than worldly. Usually they program emulators because they want to do something with their talents. Emu programming is hardly about ego, they say. Mostly, they cite the challenge of hacking hardware and converting it into software as the most compelling reason. Hollingworth describes the process as though it were magic: "Emu programming has its own uniqueness. Writing [traditional] software is all well and good, but to create something in software that does everything a piece of hardware can do, and then run that hardware's own software, is fascinating and stimulating."

Of course, digital nostalgia does play some part in motivating the creators of emulators. What it's "really all about," says Oliver, is "playing the games and reliving good memories. You can emulate the games, but you can't emulate the experiences. That sounds ridiculously cheesy but, hey, so was Dig Dug."

By Howard Wen

Howard Wen writes frequently for Salon Technology.

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