I should start right off by saying this is probably going to be a contentious statement. In fact, I’m fairly certain my co-host and good buddy, TB, will disagree with me on this. That being said, I firmly believe this and feel it’s important to talk about outside of the stigma of piracy and criminal action. Here we go: *deep breath* I believe wholeheartedly that not only should emulation of video games be accepted in the gaming community but it should be embraced as the best method of video game preservation available.
Whew, that was tough. Honestly though, this is something I’ve thought about a lot as a strong proponent of retro gaming and gaming as an art form. I want to be clear in this though, I AM NOT CONDONING PIRACY! When I am talking about emulation here in this article, I am talking entirely about games from past consoles that are not currently being published. I’m not a fan of someone downloading Assassin’s Creed Origins because it’s cheaper than dropping $60 on an Xbox copy or whatever.
Another point I want to make clear is that despite my opinions about it being acceptable, our videos on YouTube always use legitimate copies of games. While we have used emulation in the past in order to better capture games (we don’t have a good way of capturing Genesis games right now, I’m sorry!), we have always owned a physical copy of the game obtained through legitimate means (no reproduction carts), as well as original hardware available to play it. In case you need to ask, nothing is illegal about emulators or dumping your own ROM, assuming you own the game in question and do not share it.
Alright, I know that was a lot of preamble but that’s the nature of emulation at this stage in the game. Even the term tends to make some folks bristle immediately due to its association with piracy and I think that’s part of the issue. Let’s take a second to talk about the legality of emulation because it’s far more grey than a lot of people seem to think. An emulator is a program that allows your computer to emulate a video game console as closely as possible. These are, in no way, shape or form, illegal to own or make. There are no laws in the US whatsoever that ban the use of emulators and to my knowledge, no other regions ban their use either.
The trouble comes with the copyrighted games. These files, commonly ROMs or ISOs, contain copyrighted assets (artwork or music) that are owned by the company who made the game. While it is perfectly legal for you to dump your own ROM (capture the files from a game you own and turn it into a ROM or ISO for use with an emulator), it is breaking copyright laws to share these with others, whether for free or for a profit.
I understand perfectly the need for laws like this. In fact, in many ways, I believe these laws need to be tightened. Just look at any mobile games app store and you’ll find everything from cheap lookalikes to straight up infringement running rampant. In fact, my Google Play storefront is suggesting that I go ahead and download Cuphead for my phone. An interesting choice since Cuphead hasn’t been released for Android or iOS, at least not by the original creators.
However, I also submit that the lifespan for these copyrights needs to be shortened to something more fitting of video games. Here’s why:
This is an actual eBay listing for Terranigma live as I write this article. If you don’t know this game, Terranigma is an RPG made by Quintet, the same folks who made ActRaiser, Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia. In my opinion, it’s one of the best SNES action-RPGs out there. Unfortunately, it was never released in the US and Quintet has been dormant for over a decade now. Thus, it is not available via any legal means other than to buy second-hand copies like this one and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
You may go to eBay right now and look up Terranigma and be thinking, “Hey Crosstix, there are about 10 copies up there right now for under $20” and you’d be absolutely right. But those are what are known as reproduction carts. A reproduction cart is a cartridge made by an individual who used special equipment to print a ROM onto a physical cartridge, playable on the original console. How do I know that those cartridges of Terranigma are all repro carts? Well, remember how I said that this game was never released in the US? Fun fact, PAL and Japanese SNES cartridges don’t look like US cartridges. They look like this:
So when you find a Terranigma cartridge that looks just like the SNES cartridges you grew up with in the states, you can be sure that it is a reproduction cart. Where does that leave us? It means, if you want to play this unique and fun SNES RPG, you’re gonna have to drop at least $500 just to get a beat-up cartridge with no box or manual. Oh and don’t forget, you’re also going to need a PAL region SNES to play it on since you can’t play PAL games on a US SNES.
Think Terranigma is the only example of this? Think again! Seiken Densetsu 3, the sequel to Secret of Mana, is widely regarded as the best in the series but unless you want to learn Japanese, it’s unplayable without a fan-made translation available via ROM or repro cart. Heard of Earthbound? Maybe seen Lucas in Super Smash Bros? Maybe you want to play Mother 3 then? TOO BAD! Nintendo has withheld that game for years despite a strong English fanbase crying so loud it makes Shenmue fans blush.
It’s not just region locking that bumps the price of games up to extreme levels. Sega Saturn is well known for its extremely expensive games. Getting a copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga will run you several hundred dollars, at least, for a legitimate copy.
So, some games are expensive, I hear you saying. That’s no reason to allow piracy to run rampant and that’s the crutch of this argument here. To pirate something, it means you must be stealing something, presumably from the creator of the work. That’s not the case with the video game market. Once a game stops being published, the creators of that work don’t see any money from its continued sales. You think the Quintet folks are seeing money from that $2,400 eBay sale of Terranigma? Of course not! That’s all going to 1337R3troG4meS3ll3r who happened to own a copy and thought they could profit off of its rarity.
I could argue all day about how even digital re-releases of older games are only seeing sales go to some rights holder who happened to pick up the resale rights on a lark but I think we can at least all agree that we don’t owe it to random eBay seller #5 to buy their legitimate copy of a game for thousands of dollars when they didn’t even make it. So if we don’t owe it to re-sellers to pay them tons of money, why pay it at all?
The second main point I have is freedom of gaming as an artform. A few years ago, the debate about whether or not video games were art raged on but I think it’s fairly safe to say that debate is over. I recently went and saw the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle which has an entire space dedicated to new and unique indie games being made, doing unique things with game design as well as telling interesting stories. This area is right next to a large theater showing concerts from classic Rock icons such as Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin.
While many may make the argument that art has always been for the rich, I strongly resist this idea. Fine art costing thousands, if not millions, of dollars has always been grating to me. As an artist myself (of the writing variety), I believe art is something that should speak to all people, regardless of wealth or status. While artists deserve to make a decent living, the idea of art pieces being horded by the rich for the rich is appalling to me and something I will always resist.
This is why I’m such a huge fan of the DRM-free movement on PC lately. GOG and CD Projekt Red are two of my favorite companies in the industry right now because they understand this and believe that games should be available to everyone. If you don’t know about GOG, I strongly recommend you check out their website http://www.gog.com. As someone who has a job and is able to pay for the games I play, I have my own code about buying games and never pirating but not everyone is in a position to do that. I’m happy to support developers for others who may not be able to do so.
The other side of being an art form is that preservation of that art is important. Are you a fan of Doctor Who? Maybe you’d like to see the origins of that show. Watch the first few Doctors in action? That’s just too bad for you because many of the original episodes no longer exist. They weren’t stored by TV stations so when they stopped airing those episodes, they were discarded and now, no known copies exist.
As gamers, we need to learn the lessons taught to us by film, books and television. We need to start preserving games now, rather than later, and emulation helps us to do this. If you’re like me, you like collecting old games and hardware but what you may not know is that those games and consoles actually have a very real lifespan to them. Any cartridges with save systems include a small battery in the cartridge itself. This battery is what allows the save to work and it will last an extremely long time but when it does die, that game will no longer be able to save at all. The lifespan of that battery? About 20 years. That’s right, many of you collectors probably own a game today that can no longer save due to a dead battery. I know my original copy of Pokemon Red can’t save any longer.
While that problem can be fixed with a bit of technical know how, not every problem can. It is the fate of all cartridges and consoles to eventually go bad. Digital preservation resolves this issue though. That copy of Pokemon Red may not be able to save a game anymore but with modern technology, I can use an emulator and a cloud service to play Pokemon Red nearly indefinitely… assuming you really like Pokemon Red. Not only that but I can play Pokemon Red on my computer, on my phone, on my tablet, even on certain modern consoles, all accessing that same save file.
Digital preservation can also be used to save different versions of games. Did you know that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has 3 different versions released just in the US alone? While most changes are relatively small, certain versions of Ocarina of Time actually include completely different music for some areas. While most people don’t care about these sort of minutiae, gaming historians appreciate it and emulation allows them to analyze these differences to their hearts content without buying hundreds of copies of the game, hoping they get one with the right version number. For the greater majority of us, however, this can be extremely important when trying to preserve early access releases that may be drastically different from version to version. Hello Neighbor Alpha is an entirely different game than Hello Neighbor full release.
Finally, emulation can actually improve games and protect them from the wear and tear of age. This is perhaps a superfluous reason to promote emulation but it’s important for a lot of people and may be even more important as time goes on. Sometimes, major leaps in technology not only allow for the bar to be raised but it can cause older technology to actually stop functioning.
The best example of this is HD televisions which can cause older games to function poorly, look bad or, in some cases such as Duck Hunt for the NES, straight up stop working. As HD televisions become the norm, platforms to play these older games become more and more rare. One group working to fix this is the fine folks behind the emulator, Dolphin. Not only does it function as a Wii emulator but it can actually scale up the resolution of many games to HD. The games look better but also, as it’s going through a computer rather than the original console, the emulator prevents the problem of HDTVs introducing a delay in the controls. As such, if you don’t still own a CRT television, Dolphin may just be the best way to experience your old Wii or Gamecube games.
So, say emulation of any game older than (for example) 5 years becomes legal and acceptable. How do companies stay afloat? Can they just not profit on their older games? No. There are plenty of ways for companies to continue profiting on older games while keeping the gates open. I previously mentioned GOG. They often sell games that can be downloaded off Abandonia (a site for games in the public domain) for free but they include benefits to buying it. Not only is your game supported by them for modern operating systems but they put work into including original game benefits such as downloadable box art, manuals, maps, etc. They also put work into modernizing certain dated elements. For example, the classic 4X game, Master of Orion has some very outdated methods for playing multiplayer. However, by opening up GOG’s included file, they will do all of the back-end work for you and help you get into games easier.
GOG isn’t the only company doing this, Beamdog has made a name for themselves making “Enhanced Editions” of the classic Infinity engine games such as Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment. While you can use free mods to do almost everything Beamdog sells, people have shown that they are willing to pay for the convenience and support someone else provides. If more companies embraced this philosophy, everyone would win. Gamers willing and able to pay could get some cool, nostalgic extras while games unable to buy a game through normal means could still enjoy the games as they were originally intended.
Ultimately, emulation is something that will likely never become fully embraced by gaming. There are too many ways for it to be abused and too many companies who have already burned customers and can’t expect their goodwill in return. That said, I still hope that someday the tireless work that goes into creating an emulator can be respected. I hope that someday we can use fan translations to play games that were never officially released west without needing to deal with janky workarounds to bypass DLC. Games should be celebrated worldwide for fans of any social status. Emulation can bring us there.
Thanks for hearing out my case.