Gaming, Geek

A Top-to-Bottom Explanation of Game Emulation

There is something special about older games. Some call it nostalgia, while others believe that games from the past were legitimately better. Regardless of the reason, there is a demand to play those older games again. From the early text-based games like Zork, to classic platformers like Super Mario Bros., to the first 3D games like Banjo-Kazooie and Spyro, people want to play these games. It’s why the demand for an SNES this holiday season has been crazy.

Yet, many older games are no longer available for purchase. Whether it’s because the publishing company is no longer around, the company isn’t releasing it for current consoles, or the game is simply old and rare, it can be hard to get some classic games. Yet, with the power of emulation, many ancient games have been saved and are available to play.

Here, you can learn all about emulation, including the basics of how it works, what devices are capable of it, and the current state of emulation.

How Does Emulation Work?

How do emulators work? When I see NES/SNES or C64 emulators, it astounds me.

The premise of emulation software is to get one computer’s system to simulate a different operating system. This, in turn, lets the computer run specific programs that only function within the desired operating system.

There are two different kinds of emulation: low level and high level. For low-level emulation, the computer or device creates a simulated version of the original hardware required to run the game or program. This is done by having actual hardware similar to the original devices (like how the original Playstation 3 had hardware capable of playing PS2 games) or by having software mimic the signals that would be sent in the original hardware. The more complex the signals, the harder it is to emulate.

High-level emulation is a bit more complicated than that. Instead of trying to simply create an environment that mimics the hardware, high-level emulation has your device’s hardware do the same actions as the original hardware. That means doing stuff like running the program line by line and acting exactly as the original hardware; looking at chunks of code and trying to improve upon it; and interpreting commands from the hardware and optimizing it for your device’s hardware.

To those not familiar with it, emulations can seem very confusing, but for playing older games, low-level emulation is what you’ll utilize. The more advanced emulation, like for the last generation of consoles, use high-level emulation.

Are Emulators Legal?

Is Downloading Retro Video Game ROMs Ever Legal?

Emulation of older games is in a weird legal area. The means of emulation, the software, isn’t illegal at all. Video game companies use it all the time. It’s how Nintendo lets people buy their old games on new consoles, how the Xbox One can play Xbox 360 games, and how the original PS3 could play PS2 games.

The legal problems happen when downloading a game you didn’t pay for. Technically, that is piracy and illegal. Even if you use the defense that you bought the game in the past, technically you don’t own the rights to the game; you simply bought the game cartridge. So, if you do choose to emulate games, know you do so at your own risk.

The older the game, though, the less likely a game company will go after you. Sega isn’t really concerned about people playing the original Sonic game on their PC, but Sony might care if you pirate The Last of Us for PS3. If the game developer or publisher isn’t even in business anymore, it’s likely nobody is going to come after you.

Popular Devices For Emulation

The NES Classic is sold out, but these emulators do the same thing for free

The most versatile of devices for emulation are PCs. They can emulate a variety of operating systems, ranging from old versions of Windows to Super Nintendo. The emulators available to PCs cover tons of operating systems, with people working on new ones all the time. The more high-demand platforms for emulation, like old video game consoles, even have multiple different versions of emulators available. If you have a computer with a high-end graphics card and lots of extra RAM, it’s even possible to emulate game consoles up to the PS3/Xbox 360 era.

Next, let’s cover the smartphone. While lacking the hardware strength of a computer, smart phones are still able to do quite a bit of emulation through emulator apps. For Android phones like the latest Samsung, emulating is as simple as downloading an app through the Google App store, downloading a game ROM from a website (such as from the PS2 Roms Collection on Fileproto), then launching the game in the emulator app. iPhones are a bit trickier as Apple doesn’t like emulators on their products and doesn’t allow them on their App store. It can be done, but it requires a bit of extra work and knowledge, even without jailbreaking the phone.

Finally, let’s talk about Raspberry Pi’s. A Raspberry Pi is not an emulator, but simply a micro computer. It has the same basic components as a PC, but typically is programmed for a singular task. In this case, you can dedicate a Raspberry Pi as an emulator of older games. All you have to do is load and install an emulator software to it, and then load games to launch in the software. Most Raspberry Pi computers lack the graphics card and memory to do complex games, so they mostly stick with games in the Super Nintendo and earlier generations.

Emulators Will Always Exist

I made an NES emulator. Here’s what I learned about the original Nintendo.

Emulation is clearly going to be a part of the gaming community for the foreseeable future. As long as people want to play games from their past without hunting down an authentic console costing around hundreds of dollars, emulators will exist.

If you plan to download and emulate games, you need to ask yourself if you are OK with it morally. Legally, it’s considered piracy, a crime. But it is a shame that classic games that brought joy to people everywhere can’t be played because physical copies are impossible to get. Unless game companies open up their vaults and make all games available digitally on all platforms (never going to happen), emulation will happen.

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