AUTHOR'S NOTE: This blog is in response to the misleading title of this post from PC Gamer.
Emulators are applications, usually for the PC, that "emulate" other hardware configurations and operating systems. While you can find an emulator for just about everything, when most people say "emulator", they're referring to game console emulators. Game console emulators, which we'll just be calling emulators from this point forward, have a long and storied history in the industry, but the first time they really jumped into the public eye was during the PS1 era. We'll skim through that a bit later.
Often discussed hand-in-hand with emulators are ROMs, duplicate digital copies of retro games. ROM is an acronym "Read Only Memory", and refers to the ROM chips inside cartridge-stored games from the N64 era and earlier. ROM is sometimes used to describe copies of games from more recent, disc-based systems, but this is a misnomer, as those files are actually ISOs.
ISO isn't a cool acronym, unfortunately, but refers to disc images. For instance, if you burn a CD or DVD, you'll often get an .iso file. Now, if you know anything about ROMs in this context, you probably also know that Nintendo is on a fucking crusade right now. Nintendo's always hated people pirating their games, but recently they've taken it to a new, more extreme level than ever before.
Now, why is Nintendo on a warpath against sites hosting ROMs of their old games? And why so late? Probably the NES and SNES Classic. Or just because they can. This article isn't actually about that, though, it's more explaining the context in which this is written. If you're looking for a dedicated thinkpiece as to why Nintendo is right or wrong to do the things they're doing, you're in the wrong place. That's a topic for another day. Right now, there's an entirely different issue I'm attempting to tackle.
Really, PC Gamer. Stop calling them emulator sites.
You see, while emulators can be used for piracy, that doesn't mean they have to be. In fact, emulators can be and are used for legally playing legally-created copies of games that you own. Many of them, like PCSX2 or Dolphin, can even play games right off their original discs. Doesn't get much more legitimate than physical media.
"But wait!" some of you might be saying, "Didn't Nintendo say it's illegal?"
Oh yeah, they did. They totally think it's illegal.
But it's not. That little snippet on that little webpage has been there for quite a few years now, yet emulation projects still exist. The reason they aren't getting huge cease and desist orders and lawsuits is...wait for it...
Because that battle has already been fought. Back in the 90's, Bojack Horseman was in a very famous TV show, and Sony lost two separate cases that effectively cemented the legality of emulators.
If you want the full story in all of its agonizing details, watch the embedded video above. The Gaming Historian tackled this way better than I could ever hope to. But to skim through the point, emulators were found to be legal, at least in the United States, a very long time ago. Even commercial emulators. Even emulators that allow competing consoles to emulate another's games. Legally-speaking, projects like PCSX2 and Dolphin are totally protected.
This is getting a little lengthy, so let's wrap it up.
The point is, emulators are legally-protected and can be used to play legal copies of games you own. Doesn't even need to be a copy, in many cases. Emulators also have their own special qualities, such as allowing you to enhance your favorites so that they look even better than you remember, or adding online multiplayer to games that really should've had it.
As I probably should've conveyed with more context in this quick post, it's time to stop saying "emulators" when you mean "illegally-hosted ROMs and ISOs". Nintendo has been taking down sites hosting illegal copies of their games, not "emulator sites". An "emulator site" would be something like Dolphin's site, or Project64's site, and Nintendo making a move like that would be firing a massive gun that re-ignites the great emulation battles of the 1990s. That hasn't happened yet, and characterizing an attack on ROMs as an attack on emulation is not only misleading, it also adds to the stigma around emulation.
Fundamentally-speaking, emulation is a consumer-friendly method for preserving, playing and enhancing all your favorite games. Legally-speaking, it's also...legal!
Now, is Nintendo greedy and shitty for taking down sites hosting old copies of their games? They're legally in the right, but morally...
...that's a discussion for another day.
...actually, no it's not. They're kinda being dicks about it.