How the demonization of emulation devalues gaming’s heritage published by Mooba
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Posted on 2016-03-23
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For years now, "emulation" has been a dirty word in the video game industry, regarded by many companies as nothing more than an illegal, piracy-fueling technology that represents an existential threat to the gaming business. In a passionate presentation at the Game Developers Conference this week, though, gaming historian and developer Frank Cifaldi made a well-reasoned case for the industry at large to embrace emulation as a way to capture its heritage.
"I think emulation has gotten a bad rap over the years," Cifaldi said. "I think our industry and consumers have a really bad misconception of what emulation is. Emulation is just software that makes a computer act like a different computer."
Cifaldi traces emulation's bad reputation in the game industry back to a 1999 Macworld conference keynote by the late Steve Jobs. Saying that he wanted to make the Mac "the best game machine in the world," Jobs introduced the Connectix Virtual Game Station, a $49 piece of third-party software that "turns your Mac into a Sony PlayStation."
Not only was this the first emulator to run PlayStation games at playable speed, but it was the first emulator to run contemporary games that were widely available on store shelves at the time (previous console emulators had been focused on older, defunct system that were easier to emulate at acceptable speed). Soon after, a usable N64 emulator appeared on the Internet with support for 17 games, including the months-old The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time.
"This is when you really started seeing emulation in the headlines," Cifaldi notes. "Before this, emulation was primarily a grey market way to relive the past... not something industry took notice of. Then, all of a sudden, people could [easily] download games that were on stores shelves for free." (While Virtual Game Station only worked with legitimate PlayStation game discs, hackers soon worked around that limitation).
As Connectix went on to make $3 million from the first ever commercial console emulator, Sony took the company to court, with the backing of competitors Nintendo and Sega. But a district court judgeruled that Connectix's reverse engineering of the PlayStation didn't violate any of Sony's trademarks or patents. A similar lawsuit against a PlayStation emulator called Bleem came to the same conclusion—that emulation, in and of itself, is and was legal.
Those rulings don't seem to ease the fears of the game industry, though. When Cifaldi pitches the idea of using emulation to republish classic NES games through his company, Digital Eclipse, he says the rights holders usually don't want to risk Nintendo's legal wrath, despite case law being on their side. For Mega Man Legacy Collection, Capcom only let Digital Eclipse move forward after they developed an elaborate workaround that authentically recreated NES games without directly emulating the NES hardware.
This is all despite the fact that Nintendo itself has legitimized the use of emulation for re-releasing games through its own Virtual Console on the Wii, Wii U, and 3DS. In fact, the ROM file for Super Mario Bros. currently distributed on the Virtual Console sports an iNES file header, a format that was first developed for an emulation project in the mid-'90s. By far the most likely reason that header is in an official Nintendo product, Cifaldi says, is that the company downloaded a copy of its own game from the Internet. "Nintendo is pirating its own ROMS and selling them to you!" he said.
As a teen with a budding love of classic games, Cifaldi recalled being terrified when he learned that half of all films produced before 1950, and 90 percent of films from before 1929, no longer existed in any form. When he looked to see whether anyone was working to make sure classic games wouldn't share the same fate, he found there were indeed people doing so. "We didn't call them archivists or digital archaeologists," he said. "We called them software pirates... We couldn't leave preservation up to the content owners. The only way to make sure this was safe was to make sure it's accessible to anyone."
While the pirates were doing their thing, the industry as a whole refused to acknowledge that "emulation is the cheapest, safest and best way to republish video games on new hardware," which Cifaldi argues has severely limited the legal availability of whole swathes of gaming history.
To highlight the extent of the problem, Cifaldi contrasted Duck Tales—a 1989 NES games that still attracts considerable attention on YouTube and Twitch—with Uncle Buck—a mid-level cinematic John Candy vehicle from the same year. Duck Tales can only currently be purchased as an original NES cartridge or in a heavily altered "Remastered" edition for modern consoles. Uncle Buck, on the other hand, is available in multiple DVD and Blu-Ray packages, and on hosts of digital download services for rental or purchase. In fact, all of the top-grossing films of 1989 are available in modern formats, but the same can't be said forany of Wikipedia's most notable games from the same year (save for Mega Man 2, thanks in part to Cifaldi's efforts).
"These movies have always been in print," Cifaldi said. "Games could have been the same way, except we demonized emulation, and devalued our heritage. We've relegated a majority of our past to piracy."
While Cifaldi doesn't "weep for the lost revenue of corporations" unwilling to embrace emulation, he says that neglecting gaming history like this hurts the entire industry, and it limits the attention and value granted to gaming's classics. Piecemeal remasters and "HD upgrades" for important games are nice, but they inevitably involve making changes to the original design or graphics. "Porting, by its nature, will always be a derivative work," Cifaldi said. "I reject the notion that classic video games need a new coat of paint to be culturally valid."
And even as boutique packages like the Mega Man Legacy Collection can help bring new market attention to certain major classics, Cifaldi acknowledges that not every retro game deserves such detailed attention for a re-release. Instead, he says, the industry should realize that "an emulator is just a video codec for playing video games" and keep its old binaries in print via emulation on whatever hardware is relevant. That way they don't have to "constantly reinvent the wheel" with every new gaming format.
There has been some piecemeal progress on this score. The Humble Bundle recently released a collection of Neo Geo games as ROMs playable through a browser emulator, and the PS4's "Arcade Archives" line does something similar. But by far the biggest use of emulation to sell classic games is DOSBox, the open source MS-DOS emulator that GOG.com uses to keep 140 classic PC games in print so far.
This is why Cifaldi is so encouraged that popular arcade emulator MAME (and its multi-console emulating cousin MESS) went fully open source earlier this month. While the emulator has its problems, the companies that own the rights to gaming's heritage can now take advantage of this fully free emulation library to ensure that classic games are just as accessible in the marketplace as movies like Uncle Buck.
"The industry has all but ignored secondary market for our games," Cifaldi said. "Every other industry repackages its content. Games should too."
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