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Love/Hate: Emulators


7:00 PM on 12.25.2009
Love/Hate: Emulators photo



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Imagine a device which would empower you with the ability to select almost any single game in existence and play it within seconds. Take a moment to process just how blissful the premise sounds -- universal access to any game, instantly; and this could be done regardless of what console or platform it was originally meant for.

To most gamers this would seem like Heaven on Earth, a virtual paradise. But many of us are already living there because we've gained entry to the awesome world of console and arcade emulators. But like most Utopias, paradise isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Most of us also know that along with all of the virtues and wonderful advantages we get from emulator's , they also bring with them some very significant and frustrating drawbacks. In this column I'm going to discuss all of the things worth loving and hating when it comes to emulators. 

Love: The power to satiate nostalgia: Want to revisit that long lost arcade classic or play that old NES game you remember from your childhood? Emulators make that possible. You can get the instant gratification you crave and relive all of those meaningful memories.

Hate: Some memories just aren't meant to be revisited. I once eagerly loaded up a ROM of the NES game Rygar only to be sorely disappointed by how bland it was, it turned out the game was nothing like the epic adventure I remembered from my youth. Sure some games are timeless -- replaying classic games like The Legend of Zelda or Super Metroid can be just as exhilarating as playing them for the first time. But that's because those games were always exceptional, the nostalgia factor is just an added kick. Sadly, the majority of games simply cannot live up to the heights of our imagination. The fact is that they just weren't as well put together as the true classics.



Love: A tool to explore gaming history: Not all of us have been playing games since the Atari 2600 or the NES days. Even if you owned a couple of the old legendary consoles or computer systems, it's very unlikely that you owned all of them.

In this case, emulators give us the means to discover those old games we either missed the first time around or were too young to experience. They serve as a kind of museum of video game history; preserving the past for new gamers and allowing some of the old timers to turn back the clock for a few hours. Even if a system is no longer manufactured or a game goes out of print, you can be sure that someone will emulate it and the game ROMs will be made available.

No game ever becomes obsolete, forgotten or lost; this is definitely one of the most important benefits emulators provide.

Some examples: A young gamer who loves Oblivion could discover the roots of western RPGs by checking out the Ultima series. A person who could only afford a Super Nintendo when he was young, can finally play some Sega Genesis games and experience the awesomeness of 'Blast Processing' firsthand. The avid game enthusiast who keeps hearing about that one classic game that influenced his favorite designers and keeps appearing in 'best game ever' lists on websites can now find it, play it and finally see what all the fuss was about. (For me it was the Commodore 64 game M.U.L.E. and more recently Panzer Dragoon Saga for the Sega Saturn.)

Hate: Legality Issues: Despite all of the merits that Emulators and ROMs can provide when it comes to preserving the history of gaming, the fact remains that it's illegal to own a copy of a game and play it on an emulator if you do not currently own the original. Some of us choose to do it anyway; we download over 4000 arcade ROMs despite the fact our apartment, let alone a real arcade, could not contain that many cabinets.

This is a deal breaker for a lot of people and with good cause. So far it seems the industry has turned a blind eye. I have not heard of anyone ever being threatened with legal action for owning ROMs but I imagine this can change at anytime. It would really suck to have to go to jail and explain to hardened criminals that you're there for pirating vintage video games. Still, some of us feel the risk is well worth it and do it anyway.

Let's face it, this law sucks. The fact that many of these games are just impossible to play otherwise and may have disappeared into obscurity if not for emulators should be incentive enough to re-examine the law. In my opinion, a lot of these games should be considered public domain and efforts should be made to make them available legitimately.

There is also a reasonable concern that developers may not get paid for some of these old games. The truth is a lot of them are just happy to see their games are still being played - in the case of those popular games which are still re-released, it may be a genuine concern. Luckily, this generation of consoles has begun to re-release many older games that can be played through their own emulators at an affordable price through services like Virtual Console, X-Box Arcade and The PlayStation Network. This is definitely a step in the right direction and a great legal alternative. However, it's doubtful that any consoles will ever release old games at the same scale as their outlawed counterparts. Unless something dramatic happens, it seems to me that the traditional (IE: Illegal) method of utilizing emulators and ROMs is going to be around for the foreseeable future.



Love: The joy of discovery: Nothing can be more satisfying than finding that unexpected gem. A lot of us usually play games we're familiar with, whether its revisiting an old favorite, or checking out something we heard about. But having access to such a huge library allows us to dig through a whole bunch of forgotten artifacts; if you're patient enough to wade through the trash (see below) your bound to come across something you never heard of but absolutely love. I received a big rush once by hitting the "Select Random Game" option on my arcade emu and discovering this amazing surreal Beat-em-up called Pu-Li-Ru-La. The gratification of finding something so unique and fun was immense to say the least. Since then I've been hooked, now I repeatedly find myself 'Rom Diggin' (Vinyl collectors will totally get this reference) in the hopes of repeating the experience.

Hate: A lot of the old games stink: Having such a wide selection of games at your fingertips seems like a godsend until you start playing them. Then you start to realize that the majority of games just aren't that good. This is the biggest hazard for a "Rom Digger." For every Dragon Warrior you find, there are about a hundred games the same quality as Deadly Towers. As a rule this applies to every single platform. For every System Shock 2 you come across on the PC you will find a thousand Daikatanas waiting to discourage you. I can go on, but I think you get the idea. It's like searching for a pea sized gold nugget in a bucket full of shit.

Hate: Emulator syndrome: A lot of us are familiar with emulator syndrome, it's the uncontrollable urge to stop playing a game after a few minutes no matter how good it is just so you can load up a different one to check out. It's extremely difficult to really appreciate or enjoy a good game when you're robotically jumping from ROM to ROM. It takes a lot of effort to commit to just one game no matter how good it is. If I had to pick one thing I hate most about emulators this is totally it.

Love: Translations: The first game I ever played on an emulator was a fan translation of Final Fantasy V. It was actually the reason I became aware that emulators existed in the first place. Fan translations are probably one of the coolest things to happen in gaming, they allow us to play many of those awesome Japanese games we heard about back in the days but were never released in the U.S. Without them many gamers would not be able to experience games like Hideo Kojima's Policenauts or the extremely popular Mother 3.

Hate: Nothing to hate here: I dare you to come up with something to hate about people dedicating countless hours and working hard as hell to translate the games that we're all dying to play. These guys are heroes to the gaming community.



Love: Convenience and advantages over the original hardware: Some readers might be surprised to hear that there are quite a few ways emulators can actually improve on the original console.

There are tons of smaller features which a few people find indispensable. Some of these include screen captures and the ability to record videos while you play. Additionally, Save States are probably one of the most beloved of these small features, but I won't talk about them just yet, I reserved a special section just for them

Visual improvements are the most common. The option to upscale the resolution and smooth out the graphics on many of the older consoles is a pretty handy feature. Emu's are also a helpful solution if you just bought a new HDTV which isn't compatible with your old systems. You won't need to plunk down some cash to buy special cables or attachments.

Portability is another factor. You can throw all of these systems and games on one laptop and take it anywhere instead of carting around a bunch of consoles and handhelds. Also, the fact that ROMs do not take up any physical space is a pretty big deal - imagine how much room every NES cartridge would end up consuming in your house. Some of us just don't have that kind of space.

Emulators actually helped relieve some of the annoyances of the early handhelds. A friend of mine said his first-generation Game Boy Advance's screen was so awful that he just ended up playing a lot of his GBA games on an emulator instead.

Hate: Emulators just can't replace the real thing: One of the best experiences I've ever had at an arcade was the day me and my kid brother first stumbled upon a Street Fighter (Part 1) machine. Yes, I know this is probably known as the worst entry in Capcom's venerated fighting series but I believe this is only because not many people have played it the way it was meant to be played.

You see, the original Street Fighter cabinet didn't have the standard Jab, Strong, and Fierce buttons. Instead, it had two extremely big buttons one for punch and one for kick. The trick to it was that you had to actually PUNCH the button. That's right you were actually encouraged to give the machine a physical beat-down! The strength of your characters punch or kick depended on how hard you punched the thing; for example: a wimpy punch would provoke Ken to 'Jab' but a powerful jump up and smash the button with your elbow style attack would incite a 'Fierce' attack. I have to admit, the game is nowhere near as good as later entries in the series and yeah, the 'punch-em' buttons were a cheap gimmick, but this is probably one of the funnest experiences I ever had with a video game. Me and my bro mercilessly unloaded a barrage of HULK-SMASH style punches on that poor machine until we exhausted the very last of our quarters. The story does have a sad ending however, the next day when we arrived at the arcade ready to expose our inner Mike Tyson's can you believe the machine was broken. Yup, it seems like Capcom underestimated the physical strength of gamers.



This long-winded story is just one of myriad examples detailing why emulators are poor replacements for the real thing. Those absurd yet amazingly fun punch buttons on that old Street Fighter machine can never be replicated, neither can many of the other awesome peripherals found on arcade machines. Even if you build your own cabinet with trackballs and arcade style joysticks for your emulator, you can never get Punch Out's superfluous double screen, Sega's ridiculous rotating R-360 contraption or the legendary Discs of Tron's upright cabinet with it's cheesy attempt at an immersive environment. There are plenty of other examples of how emulators just can't measure up.

Probably the most important thing missing is the arcade environment itself. The bleeping sounds and music from all of the other games surrounding you, the person watching over your shoulder waiting for you to lose, the crowd around the Street Fighter II machine, the music playing over the radio. All of these things may seem minor, but the environment and the social interactions that occurred among the players is probably the most important part of the arcade experience. Sadly arcades are almost nonexistent these days so at least emulators are there to provide access to the games if nothing else.

These limitations aren’t just restricted to arcade games, console gamers will also miss out on a lot. The feel of the old NES controller in your hand, the ritual of blowing into a cartridge before shoving it into your machine, the touch of the power button at your fingertips – these are just a few of the things that can’t be emulated. Sure you can plug a PS3 controller into your PC's USB slot but it just can't replicate the visceral joy of playing the real thing.

Even PC owners are affected. Despite the fact that the mouse/keyboard interaction is usually more or less the same on games for all computer based systems there is still a lot to be sacrificed. For instance, back in the days the software was just a small part of the entire experience. The game itself was actually just a component in dense, elaborate and richly conceived packages. Take a look at all the stuff that came along with Infocom's classic text adventure A Mind Forever Voyaging. Due to limitations the designers used to actually provide much of the interactive and narrative based elements through the printed documents and several unique toys. This stuff just can't be replaced with emulators in the same way.

Perhaps the biggest drawback is that sometimes emulators don't always run as well on your PC or console as on the original hardware. Of course, nowadays we are pretty spoiled with near perfect emulation for many consoles but there are still some games and systems that will display graphical glitches, noticeable slowdown or shoddy sound. Even some of the 'professional' efforts fall short as anyone who has played Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection can attest

Love: Save States: Instant save is another amazing feature many gamers love. The ability to save anywhere, at any time, makes many of those old impossible 8-bit games tolerable. No longer do you have to restart at the beginning of the level (or gasp, the entire game if you lost all your lives) if you missed that one lousy, totally unfair jump in Ninja Gaiden. You can just save the game's state before the jump and restart right from there if you die. Sure, it's kind of like cheating but we all know a lot of those games cheated too!! And now we have the power to do something about it. Remember those infamous 40+ character passwords back in the NES days, forget about them - instant save spares you the agony.

Hate: Easy Mode is for Sissies: Save states are awesome but the temptation to rely on them too heavily can do a lot to ruin your fun.

As frustrating as they were, some of those old games were just meant to be played a certain way. Starting the entire level over is part of the fun. That intense feeling you get when you have one man left and no continues is worth something and should be savored. If you can fallback on save states it just cheapens the moment.

Let's be honest, we all like to share our hard earned victories. Nothing beats braggin' rights but let's face it, no matter how unfair some of those old games are you just don't get the same level of self-satisfaction for completing a nearly impossible segment when you use save states - it's taking the easy way out. Your friends that slaved through the game the old fashioned way just won’t respect your ‘half-assed’ triumph.

My personal solution is to use save states only as a last resort. If you start getting the urge to smash your keyboard or throw your controller at the nearest wall then its probably time to either take a break or throw in the towel.

And with that, my discussion on the joys and tribulations offered by the world of emulation ends. Is there anything I missed? Do you have any emulation stories of your own to share? Please me fill me in via the comments section.

Please note I intentionally neglected to mention the name of any of the emulators or provide links of where they could be found. I did this because I do not want Destructoid getting into any trouble on my account. So if you’re looking to satiate your emulation needs you’re on your own - a few Google searches should get you pretty far. On the other hand if you want to check out a site that mentions plenty of games worth exploring I highly recommend you check out Hardcore Gaming 101.






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