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The joy of emulation - IT tutorials, reviews and articles


Rediscover your childhood video games or software

By Maxime Abbey - First published on 12-04-2000 on Arachnosoft, updated on 12-04-2013

With the growing power of game consoles and computers, it's now possible to rediscover the best video games and software from your old machines, from the 70's to nowadays. This system is known as "emulation".

An emulation software is simply called an emulator. It's a piece of software able to run, on a given machine, games and software aimed to run on another machine. Emulators are available for a various range of machines, either older (ColecoVision, Nintendo Entertainment System aka. NES/Famicom, Super Nintendo...) or more recent ones (Xbox, PlayStation, Dreamcast, GameCube, Wii...).

How does it work?

An emulator aims at working exactly like the machine it emulates. To run software from a given emulated machine on the host machine, which doesn't always carry the necessary hardware equipment to read the original support or media (CD, DVD, cartridge...), an emulator loads the software from a suitable support, that the host machine, on which the emulator is running, can recognize and read.

A first example: to emulate on a computer, a game coming from a cartridge-powered console (like those from Nintendo or the older from Sega), a so-called "ROM" or "image" is used.

In this particular case, it's a computer file like all the others, which contains the whole video game as it was stored on a cartridge; a file which can be then read and processed by the emulator. Of course, the size of the ROMs changes from one console to another, and is tied to the game's video and audio quality: for example, the ROM from a 80's NES game will not have the same footprint than a ROM from the Nintendo 64.

The "ROM" terminology is often used for game consoles, the "image" or "disk-image" terms being more used to designate emulated media from old computers, such as the Amstrad CPC or the Commodore 64, as a reference to the original media they used to store their data, the diskettes, or floppy disks. But the concept remains the same, as these are still computer files which carry the whole contents of a single disk.

Creating an emulator requires a lot of technical documentation, a lot of programming, and, most of all, a lot of time, each being often handled by third-party people who have never been involved in the development process of the original machine.

That's why an emulator will never work exactly the same way as the hardware it emulates. However, it often brings some new features that were not available on the original machines: removing game textures, running software faster, offering more memory to the applications, providing support for some hardware or software acceleration of sounds or graphics, etc.

But... is it legal?

At first, a software is designed to work on a particular machine, and using it on another one is usually forbidden by its license or terms of use.

Actually, the first emulation solutions released were totally given for free, because they were created by video game enthusiasts, who wished to rediscover the games which accompanied them during their childhood or teenage years. As a result, they were used to emulate hardware, software and games which weren't sold anymore on the market, and which, theoretically, did no longer represent financial revenues to their original authors, who, thus, weren't really harmed by this phenomenon.

The problem being that emulators deeply evolved since then, and, as a result, went progressively away from their original goal: they're now able to emulate machines, consoles and software still available on stores, which leads to financial conflicts; machine vendors can logically loose money because of this phenomenon, which exists because the use of emulators (and therefore, their authors) implies that the user owns the original console which is being emulated, having paid, in some way, the rights to use the features offered by the machine, either through emulation or not.

But, of course, nothing prevents any individual from using emulators for consoles or machines (s)he doesn't actually own, therefore representing a financial loss for the original machine's conceptors.

ROMs, disk-images and other variants of emulator supports are eligible to the same rules, which implies that the user must own the original support and/or user license of any game or software (s)he wants to emulate, unless otherwise explicitly decided by the rights' owners.

Some people may indeed choose to promote the use of an emulator to re-release, either for free or not, software that they developed on another machine or platform. Among these people, I could mention Claude le Moullec, who had been very prolific back in the Amstrad CPC era, who now offers to rediscover the software he created on Amstrad CPC through an emulator, or the LucasArts video game company, who re-releases some of its best-sellers from the 90's, as a pack containing the full games as well as the free (open-source) ScummVM emulator.

If you want to be sure to legally use an emulator, you have to inform yourself about its own terms of use.

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