Thoughts On Retro Video Game Emulation

Top Hat Gaming Man recently posted a video (below) in which he discusses some people’s hatred of retro video game emulation. It’s an interesting topic, and I thought I’d share my own thoughts on the matter.

gamingdad.com’s take

I’ll start by stating that I am all for emulation, and in fact a regular user of the same for enjoying my older games. There are two reasons for this – one is the ability to use one device (more on these options will follow) to emulate several means less space taken in an already crowded room, and the other is the potential upgrade to the graphical fidelity of the games. With or without graphical filters to smooth the pixels, a device outputting a crisp image over HDMI frankly trumps the output options readily available on many older systems. Whilst RGB SCART is an option on many, most people will be using composite, or composite through a SCART adapter, resulting in nasty, blurry, washed out graphics.

There is of course a real grey area in terms of the use of ROM images with emulators. Game publishers understandably say “nope, under no circumstances should you download or create copies of our games” but I say those same publishers continually try to charge us again and again for the same game on newer hardware, using either a 30 games on a disc compilation or, particularly in the case of Nintendo, a quite pricey eShop re-release with, in the case of Wii U, some dodgy emulation employed. Even then the list of games they provide for (re)sale is carefully curated and tends to only include the most obvious games that everyone wants and/or already has. So, to play that rare game you remember from your childhood, the only option is a real copy (for which you will likely pay a premium) or emulation.

Some people (particularly the publishers and their sycophant followers) are concerned about the money lost to the (multi-billion-dollar) industry. There are two responses to this – 1) “I wasn’t going to buy the game anyway” and 2) the less childish “when I buy a pre-owned NES cartridge, where does the money go? It certainly doesn’t go to the publisher.” No, when you pay a silly amount of your money to someone on eBay who wants a silly amount of money for a game, someone on eBay gets all the money (after eBay and PayPal fees). That doesn’t support the industry one bit (unless they go on to spend it on new games, I suppose). For myself, I consider the thousands I have paid into the industry over 30 years enough to allow me to bend my morals a little by downloading a few ROMs, particularly those of games I’ve already paid for elsewhere.

There are collectors, who seem to be the strongest proponents of anti-emulation, claiming they “prefer the real hardware”. This has become something of a mantra, and I’m not sure all who use it understand exactly why they prefer real hardware. Emulation is really good now, particularly of any system released before the year 2000. You can add filters to make the games look rubbish as they did on your old TV if you need that, or you can enjoy a crisp, clean rendition of the pixels interpolated on your massive HDTV. If you insist that a NES pad, digging into your palms, with awkwardly horizontal buttons is better than one of many modern alternatives, you can use a USB adapter to make this a reality too.

As for the options for emulation, I use or have used a few: PC/Mac, Wii, Wii U, DS, 3DS, PSP, Raspberry Pi. Each of these options is simple enough to set up, and all (apart from DS) support some version of retroarch to bring all your emulated systems into one place. My main go to is Openemu on my Mac though, it has the best interface and supports every system I care to play. Wii U and 3DS are relatively simple to softmod to enable this functionality, and Wii and PSP (being long forgotten by their masters) are super easy. Raspberry pi is perhaps the best non-handheld option today though, as it’s super inexpensive, super portable, and supports a wide range of controllers including DualShock 3 and 4, and Wii Remotes – to which you can attach a classic controller, or perhaps a NES or SNES mini controller for an authentic experience. (And of course there are fine options such as the NES and SNES mini, which emulate the old games passably).

Anything up to a PlayStation emulates well. Newer hardware needs something a little more powerful – even N64 needs a beefy machine to run many games at full speed. But that’s ok, I don’t want to play N64. One more benefit of emulation – save games. Old cartridges eventually need a new save battery, the replacement of which (without some clever battery swapping) means your data is lost). Other systems require a memory card, which can be costly today. They eventually fail too. Emulators save that data directly to the machine’s drive, which can be freely backed up. Save states are also possible, meaning you can go away and come back years later to continue exactly as you left off. Handy.

So, as you’ve gathered, and as I said at the start, I am pro-emulation. I am not a fervent, fanatic fan of retro gaming in general (the sycophants and sealed collectors beat that out of me), so I don’t care to have shelves and cupboards full of hardware and software for these things, and I certainly don’t care to maintain a river of cables and power supplies behind my entertainment centre. One device, a couple of cables, and I’m ready to go. I support the video games industry by putting my money into new games and hardware, which also gives me new experiences.

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8 thoughts on “Thoughts On Retro Video Game Emulation”

  1. A very good write up man. As you know from my post, I completely agree. Emulation is one of the only ways people can play some of the most expensive and rare retro games now and, as you have said, it also means you don’t have to worry about the memory cards or save batteries failing

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    1. I didn’t actually comment on the fact that people “hate” emulation. That is just a sign of fanaticism to me. As I hinted, the “I prefer real hardware” crowd are often just chanting a mantra that doesn’t mean anything, just parroting an opinion they kind of like.

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      1. Clever parrots as I call them. Slapping each other’s backs for saying the same old thing, it’s like a boys club. Say anything contrary to the script and you’re outcast. It’s a dangerous thing, an echo chamber

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      2. That is very true. If you dare to have a different opinion, you are often pushed aside and viewed as “not a real member of the community”. Obviously this isn’t the case with everyone, but for those who do follow the leader, it causes friction.

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      3. You only have to see follower numbers on twitter. I’m approaching 1000, which took two years, whereas the script followers do that in months. The benefit for me is I get to have actual intelligent conversations with people who can handle opposing ideas and respect a persons right to not think nes is great

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      4. “But, but… how dare you not think my favourite console, Random-Retro-Console-X, isn’t the greatest thing to ever have graced this planet with its presence?”

        Yeah, I know what you mean. I, for one, enjoy the idea of being able to intelligently debate and discuss an idea without it deteriorating into “I like this so it is the best because I say so”.

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