Unbranding the Sheep: The Legitimate Benefits of Retro Emulation

Console emulation has been around in some form since the late 90s, and yet it’s still a taboo topic in the industry. I have never written for or pitched an idea to a site that has even allowed the mention of emulation other than by compounding the statement that it was bad, and evil, and that Osama Bin Laden took responsibility for it. The reasoning was simple, and narrow-minded: no one wanted to piss off the bigger companies, particularly Nintendo. Who cares if there is some legitimate reporting to be done on the medium, or that we can’t just ignore a significant section of the people that play – and buy – video games? Nope, we can’t piss off The Man.

To me, this mindset is more irresponsible than any potential loss of revenue or company support that comes from pretending that emulation does not exist.

Not only does it exist, but it’s beneficial. A lot of what we know about those older video games came from being able to pick apart retro ROMs or via use of specialized emulators, some with their own hex editors. Of course, it’s important to offset the things that I am about to say with some disclaimers. For one, I’m only talking about retro emulation. I nor Gaming Bus condone the emulation of actively sold games on active systems that can still be bought new. Secondly, I still believe in purchasing retro compilations. It doesn’t matter that anyone with Google and a bit of time can play most games in retro compilations, it’s about supporting the companies that release them, within reason (enough is enough on the Genesis collections, Sega).

With this said, allow me to argue a hard position for someone in the industry to take: that retro emulation is a good thing for everyone, including publishers, and why what we can play on a PC is often better than what we could get in a compilation of on the Virtual Console. This is not to say that those are bad; it’s to say that those can be very good if they were improved.

* MAME – MAME – or the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator – is single-handedly responsible for archiving almost 30 years of applicable video gaming history, of which the vast majority would not be playable in 2011 otherwise. This goes beyond emulating the classics like Donkey Kong or Space Invaders, games which are available through other mediums. A wealth of games that would otherwise be lost to time are available and playable through MAME. One of my all-time favourite games is an oddity from Bally Sente’s called Hat Trick, a two-on-two hockey game from 1984. The current owner of that IP is Midway, who are in the process of liquidation. No one will ever see that game released in a compilation. Without MAME, it would be lost forever.

MAME is also good for showing off more obscure titles from a more renowned company’s history. When Konami released Mr. Goemon for the Microsoft Game Room recently, I was able to buy it sight-unseen because I was familiar with it on MAME. Same with some of the Twinbee games, and Ping-Pong. Nintendo’s old arcade games are in particular need of revitalization on the woefully under-served Virtual Console. Along the same lines of the original Punch Out! games (which played differently than fans of the NES game will remember; the SNES version was closer to the arcade than the other versions) was an Arm Wrestling game that wouldn’t even be playable in 2011 without MAME. Furthermore, the arcade versions of games like Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. and Popeye were superior to their NES counterparts, but these games aren’t playable anymore. Speaking of Popeye, there’s a difference between playing the game, and playing it while having it look exactly like it did in the arcade (note that those are MAME screenshots). Game Room simulates this, but only for some games. Also, note that in the cases of games that are available elsewhere, I own every one that I’ve mentioned.

Hey, speaking of Donkey Kong…

* DEAD SYSTEMS – Fun little nugget: one of the main reasons the ColecoVision started selling in the early 80s was because it was packed in with a copy of Donkey Kong, which was considered almost “arcade perfect” at the time it was released. This was interesting to me; though someone I lived with when I was very young owned a Coleco, I don’t remember it, so I wanted to see if a 1982 cartridge was capable of performing something that a 1985 port (NES) only came close to doing, and which required taking out an entire level. After some light research, I was able to find a Coleco emulator named ColEm, and the ROM file I needed. I fired it up, and… it wasn’t even close. Anyone saying the Coleco version of Donkey Kong is “arcade perfect” is or was desperate for anything at that time being arcade perfect. It was slow, had some cheap deaths (because the flames on the second stage can come in right from the side you’re on), and there was a bug where you could climb ladders faster if you stopped, then started again. In 1982, maybe this would have been close enough, especially when compared to the Atari 2600 version. In 2011, it’s plain to see the limitations of the hardware.

But just having the ability to look back at these older systems, which will almost assuredly never be made available through “legitimate” means, provides an important history lesson for people that want to learn the roots of the games they play. Before getting into retro emulation, I never quite appreciated that the Apple IIe was actually pretty good for action games, for its time (Mario Bros., pictured here, actually plays very well). This goes beyond console emulation, as DOSBox falls under the purview of “emulation” as well. Without DOSBox, games like Hidden Agenda, a flawed but amazing game where you take over a Central American country in the 80s, would never be playable on modern computers. It’s not just dead systems that are affected by this, either.

* GAMES FROM DEAD COMPANIES – Sometimes, a company goes out of business, and their work is bought up by another company who does something with it. Working Designs went out of business a few years ago, but since then, some of their properties, such as Lunar and Growlanser, have seen new life. However, many more of their games have been effectively lost to time. People who want to play Popful Mail or any other game from their history effectively have two choices: pay high prices via the third hand market, or emulate them. Hell, if it wasn’t for cult interest, would anyone know enough about Vay to buy the iPhone version?

Nintendo, Konami and other large companies that came out of the 80s and 90s strong are typically very good at making sure that we as consumers have access to their back catalog of games from older systems. Sega in particular makes sure to shovel the same ten Genesis games onto any system that will take them. But while it’s easy to get those big name games, some very good games will likely never see release on the Virtual Console. One case of a set of games that very likely won’t be seen again are the two Golgo 13 games for the NES. These games – set around a manga franchise that most Americans didn’t know anything about in the 80s – were developed and published by Vic Tokai, a Japanese telecommunications company that was had a video game division in the 80s and 90s. With them out of the industry, chances are good we’ll never see these games on the Virtual Console, and while I own the Nintendo cartridges, even then, the legality of me owning the ROMs via the means I acquired them are questionable. For those that don’t own the game – or who, in some cases, weren’t even born when the game was new – downloading the game is definitely against the law. However, by “breaking” the law, one could drive interst in the games, which could cause a revival.

Even if a company is alive and well, sometimes, issues get in the way. Rare Ltd. is still around, if you want to call being Microsoft’s Kinect-developing lackey “around”, but people forget that even before they hit it big with Donkey Kong Country, Goldeneye and their other hits of the 90s, they were a good developer for systems dating back to the ZX Spectrum, an early computer system in their native England. They hit their stride in the NES era, developing such high quality games that they even made Milton Bradley’s video game publishing arm look good with games like Captain Skyhawk and Jordan vs. Bird: One on One. With Rare in their current straits, we can forget seeing those games again, much less Goldeneye, which is stuck in licensing hell. That’s fine by me, personally; you guys fight over the rights to the game all you want, Project 64 and I will be over here like nothing’s wrong.

* RARE GAMES – There’s more to this than just games from dead companies. For all but the most financially sound gamers, there is a long list of games that would be unplayable today if not for retro emulation. Panzer Dragoon Saga. Radiant Silvergun. Dragon Force. Guardian Heroes. The list goes on. Two of those games are coming out on downloadable systems soon, mainly due to intense consumer demand and frankly, I don’t know what the hell is taking Sega too long putting Panzer Dragoon Saga out. Thanks to my ability to run a Sega Saturn emulator, however, Sega can take all the time they want to make sure I can play Streets of Rage on my toaster. When they wisen up and release the game on Xbox Live Arcade or the PSN, I’ll buy it, but until then, I’m doing just fine.

This goes beyond rote video games, however. When I was at Diehard GameFAN, we had a debate about whether or not Addams Family Pinball was good enough for that site’s Hall of Fame. Since that time, my local rink has replaced Addams Family Pinball with the much lower quality Sopranos machine, which means this game is unplayable for me, due to its obscene cost on the third hand market. However, thanks to Visual Pinball 9 and VPinMAME, I can at least simulate what it’s like to play the actual table. Though an emulator doesn’t support the feeling of tactile response that a real pinball table would give, it’s certainly better than any alternatives reasonably available.

* FAN TRANSLATIONS – I first found out about the ability to play classic console games on my computer way back in the latter part of the 90s, when I heard that someone had not only translated Final Fantasy V, but had put English text in place of the Japanese, making the game playable for Americans. This was early days, and only the biggest systems had playable emulators for them (remember NESticle?), but it still meant that we could play these games, and in some cases, it meant that non-Japanese readers could play games that they never could before.

Nowadays, there is a robust community that revolves around translating and patching old ROMs and ISOs of games, and making the playable not only in English, but virtually any other language. Phantasy Star has always been popular in Brazil; thanks to fan translation efforts, the game can now be played in Portuguese. In some cases, fan efforts go above and beyond what they did in the past. Policenauts had a full blown localization, which is impressive when one considers that this was on top of an ISO for a game that had video in it. Then there’s the case of Mother 3, a game that will likely not see release in America due to realistically low sales projections, which not only got a professional quality patch, but also was able to put out a hardcover strategy guide that put anything by Prima to shame.

Fan translators are even being legitimized by publishers. When XSEED localized Ys Chronicles and Oath in Felghana, they contracted the translation that had been done for the PC version of those games for years, Deuce paid, and into the credits. Instead of demonizing his well-intended work, they embraced him, and created a holy grail for other translators to work towards.

* SAVESTATES – One thing about old-school JRPGs is that they don’t have a lot of save points. In some cases, it can be a lot of time before the player is able to save their progress. I’m in my 30s; I don’t have that kind of time anymore. Emulators give me the option of saving my game when I want to, and not when the game says I have to. In some cases, this is a minor convenience, like saving between stages, but in others – say, for instance, the Game Boy Advance versions of Fire Emblem, which saves after every turn is confirmed – it’s a game changer. Is it the right way to play? No, but who’s right is it to say how I play my games?

Savestates have become so common that they’ve actually changed the way modern games are played. Many compilations nowadays, such as Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection (as well as the Genesis games one can purchase on Xbox Live Arcade), come with savestate support. The Virtual Console supports savestates, though not very well. This is a massive convenience for the Phantasy Star games. In fact, the era of save points and long distances between them seems to be ending. Many games, even JRPGs, come with the ability to save anywhere, and other genres – even historically single-sitting games like shooters and platformers – are coming with the ability to save play. Though there’s no known correlation between these advancements and emulation, the correlation is there.

Retro compilations and ports are great ways for people to play games they might have been too young to play in their original form, but they aren’t capable of doing it all. Retro emulation is still controversial to this day due to the legality of the ROM images, but that horse has left the barn, and it’s not coming back. Instead of sweeping the issue under the rug and pretending it doesn’t exist, it should instead be embraced. Over three decades of gaming history would be inaccessible without it.

Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.