Let’s talk about Emulators and Roms; A former dev talks about legality and uses

I’m Kinglink and this week we’re going to talk about Emulation. It’d be really easy to talk just emulators, but instead, we’re also going to have to talk about ya know… Piracy. That means this week it’s time for Emulators and Roms. 

I want to cover this in three acts. First, we’ll talk about what emulation and ROMs are at a high level. Second, we’ll talk about why people emulate and play ROMs. And finally, we’ll talk about my thoughts on it. I can actually address this from multiple angles, as I am a gamer, but I also was a game developer, I’ve even had people tell me they pirated my game. True story, and hopefully that will be an interesting angle. 

But why discuss emulation and ROMs, doesn’t everyone understand them already? If so I could just post a quick overview, but as I started to write this script, I saw this post on Twitter, the account has been deleted now, maybe it was a troll, but here’s the important photo part. If you’re not able to see the video, it is a Spongebob meme posted by someone named Nero Shen with Spongebob holding up a sign that says “People who emulate games should be fined and sent to jail for theft. Emulation is illegal and hurts the industry. I pay for my games. So should you. It’s only fair.“ being a little snarky with that voice there, but I think it’s deserved.   

Most people responded to that correctly, if a bit vitriolic, and so a majority of people already know this but it’s also clear some people don’t, such as Nero Shen, but he’s hardly the only one, and as such we’ll go over a quick version of what Emulation and Roms are. If you already know or don’t care, click the second chapter, or go to the timestamp on screen now. 

Just as a note this isn’t a perfect explanation, there’s probably a hundred asterisks or further dives I could do on the topic, even extending it beyond gaming, but we’ll try to keep this tight.

Emulation is the idea that you can create a program that will interpret game code in the same way that the original hardware will work. That’s at least the theory, there’s a lot of differences at times, and that is a point for later but for the most part, if you have an NES cartridge, it should run on an emulator, the same as it would run on a real NES. You get the same game, same experience and if done right every game that runs on an NES would run on a perfect emulator.

This is different then simulation, which attempts to recreate the experience such as a DDR simulator, which doesn’t run the official DDR files. They are slightly different mentalities to the development. Emulation is trying to create a one-to-one representation of what some devices will do. 

And here’s the important part, emulation is completely legal. Many people will claim Sony Computer Entertainment America, Inc. v. Bleem LLC made emulation legal. That was one of the big and only major court cases about an emulator, but that’s a misunderstanding, Sony’s case against Bleem is interesting but based specifically on using comparative screenshots.  

On the other hand, there was Sony Computer Entertainment, Inc. v. Connectix Corp for their Virtual Game Station, which pretty much sets the precedent. However I’m not a lawyer, I just like legal documents, and if you are interested in this read up on it, or hire an attorney, and if you like legal drama and history, check out the Gaming Historian video on both of these court cases. It’s an excellent dive.

And this week I’m mostly going to be using these. My NES classic edition, my Super NES classic edition, my Genesis mini, and of course my Playstation classic, because… why else did I buy all of these. Every one of these uses Emulation and Roms. So clearly emulation isn’t all bad. 

Yet I still have this giant wall of games. including multiple NES games, Nintendo DS, Playstation, Playstation 2, Xbox, PS3, PS4 and I think there are some Xbox One titles somewhere. So why not just play any of these on an emulator for this video.  

Well, that is the other side of this topic. While Emulation is completely legal at least as far as current case law. The files to play the games are… dubious. There are Public Domain ROMs, which are people who created games that can run on emulators and are legal to play by anyone.

However, to play any of my collection of games, you’ll need computer files that are the entire dump of the memory. Emulators need the data from the cartridges and disc media, which was stored on Read-Only-Memory or Roms which is why they are called that. 

And to return to the meme, Nero Shen is completely wrong about emulation but to give him the benefit of the doubt, I do think he means ROMs or piracy here, not emulation directly. Fair enough, but I still disagree, at least partially. 

So to get ROMs for emulators, you can go download Roms online, which is illegal. Though it is rarely punished, it’s still not something I can or will recommend. Or you can dump your files, whether it be from ripping the CD or using a device like a Retrode to download them yourself which is more dubious, probably legal, but let’s just say I don’t want to be the one to try to create any court precedence, as in the case of both Bleem and Connectix, both companies won their cases, but closed shortly after, because the legal process is quite expensive.

There is also BIOS which is the Basic Input/Output System, and with getting way too technical for this video that’s also copyrighted, and can’t be shared similar to Roms, even though some people may do that online, and some emulators will require those.

So basically Emulation is completely legal, Roms can be legal but usually aren’t. 

With that explanation out of the way, let’s move on to part 2, why? Why would anyone emulate when they could just play the original game on the original hardware. Old hardware isn’t that expensive and old games can’t cost too much, right? On that point, well let’s start there.

People like free. You know, as much as everything else I say in this video, the fact is many people emulate and use ROMs because they want to play games that they don’t own, or have some trouble playing. Their system might break, their carts might break, but really, they want to play a game and would rather get it for free right now, versus some time in the future and for a decent price.

I’m not going to dive into whether it’s a lost sale or not, I think both sides are wrong on that front, not every pirate will buy, but I also think some pirates would. The other common trope about this is that “piracy is a service issue” is often held up, but usually done so incorrectly. It directly contradicts the idea that not every pirate would buy the game if given the option. Truthfully, people just want to play games and don’t want to pay, that’s a big reason people get into piracy and possibly emulation.

The second reason is the ease of use. I ripped many of my DVDs at one point because I just liked watching stuff on my computer and not having to find my favorite DVDs to watch them or swap them. It also helped when I mishandled my DVDs. 

Being able to just select any game I own is better than having to find the cart, hope it works, and switch the system on and off with each attempt. Thank god for emulation, because this is honestly really easy now and the old hardware and carts can have issues.

Third, we have speedrunners. And here’s my epic hardcore no-deaths run of Super Mario Brothers. DAMN…already over. 

Speedrunners need a few things, reliability is huge, not relying on hardware can be important, especially because sometimes that hardware breaks, on the other hand sometimes the real hardware helps. https://twitter.com/VGDensetsu/status/1343514729743085570 PS That’s insane, heating up your cartridge for a speed run is as amazing as it gets.

But a consistent game is a huge benefit for speedrunners, and it’s worth mentioning it also helps them examine the game as well. This brings us to the fourth and my favorite reason. Emulation allows players to add features to games and more often the systems that it’s running on. 

Good old save states being the biggest ones that most fans might think of. Save states might be the only way I can beat most NES games. Not to mention there’s a ton of additional features such as cheat codes, memory examinations, speed up, slow down, and more.  

There are also subtle fixes. Emulation can fix mistakes made in the game, not changing the game’s code but allowing improved visuals and graphics. It also can allow fixes such as screen flickering due to sprite limitations if the players want it. Players can also update and play new versions of the ROMs, which is why several great Japanese RPGs have fan translations that will never get official releases.  

Players can experience major games that never reached their original countries, such as Policenauts by Hideo Kojima, or the Mother series which outside of Earthbound has yet to arrive in America, but players have been experiencing it for decades because of emulation and ROMs, and Mother continues to be a very popular series in America because people have seen the series with fan translations. 

Then there’s modernization, or rather my personal favorite, achievements. Retroachievements.org has found ways to add an achievement to classic video games and players now can earn achievements on multiple old platforms including but not limited to Atari 2600, NES, and Genesis.

If you don’t care about any of these features, getting the original hardware can be the best way to experience old games because it’s the authentic experience, but there’s still a lot of reasons to legally want to emulate games, as well as reasons why people will emulate their favorite games even if they already own a copy of it. 

So it’s time to get into the real sticky part of this discussion. Does any of this make it right? First, again make your own decisions, I just wanted to talk about this from my viewpoint and what I think about emulation and ROMs. But let’s start with that juicy part of the story. I made video games for 12 years, I worked on Saints Row 2, Red Faction Guerilla, Red Faction Armageddon, Carnival Island, and at least 7 years of MLB The Show, not to mention various platforms for each. I’ve made a lot of games, I think I calculated thirty different SKUs at one point. 

And there was a time, I was talking to someone in person and they heard I made Saints Row 2, not completely unheard of but this time the guy says “Oh yeah I pirated that game, it was awesome, I loved it.” So that was weird, but I asked about him pirating it and without any embarrassment, his answer was “well you know I wasn’t going to buy it.” In my memory I think he called it a weak GTA clone or something, that could be embellishment and he said this straight to my face after knowing I had worked on it. 

So, how does that make me feel? Well, the time period for this was about 6 years after the game launched, Saints Row 3 or 4 was already out, I wasn’t with Volition anymore, and… I still hated it, but not for the theft necessarily, but more the naked idiocy of that comment. 

Don’t go up and tell a director that you enjoyed their movie on streaming but didn’t or wouldn’t pay for it. I know that does happen as well, but come on. This was such a stupid interaction that has stuck with me for half a decade at least. 

And at the moment a flash of anger did happen because this guy didn’t pay and he didn’t have a right to play that game. Now I firmly believe in paying for games you want to play. If you buy a game and pirate a version that doesn’t have DRM, I understand that. You should have the right to play games in the best format. Having a copy should entitle people to the right to play games they’ve purchased, and if this sounds like an argument for digital rights, it kind of is. Not necessarily the DRM that people know but a centralized right or licensing system for software makes sense. 

At the same time, I’ve been thinking about that interaction a lot, and I came to some conclusions. As a developer, I wouldn’t get that much money from that sale, if anything. As a programmer, a studio paid me a lot of money before the game came out to make the game and there were some bonuses post-launch. That studio was paid a lot of money to make the game from a publisher, sometimes more than one.  

I’ve heard the argument that the publisher takes the largest cut of money on a game sale, which is true, and some people will rationalize piracy because of that. It’s a bad argument though because the publisher has already fronted all the money up to that point, and the developer entered into an agreement about that revenue split. It makes sense that the publisher gets a large cut but also remember that solid sales from a title usually show that the developer is a good investment when deciding which future games to make.  

But the real problem comes when I want to play an old discontinued game and this is where I get into the very murky water. You see buying old games doesn’t help anyone that it should. It does show there’s interest in titles, but after a while sales don’t matter as much. Eventually, games stop being sold, and there’s a finite number of copies of a title in circulation. While publishers can reprint popular games this is exceedingly rare especially when the platform is dead. 

I still remember paying almost 80 dollars because I wanted a copy of Disgaea in the Ps2 era and they woefully under printed that. This was before they issued a reprint but that purchase of a second-hand copy didn’t benefit anyone at Nippon Ichi Software or Atlus because I bought used. 

Having a used game market is good, and the resale of games is important to the industry as it expands the reach of games. It’s also important as a consumer’s right, but it also doesn’t help the developer directly. 

I understand some people collect games, I still have my collection right here, if you forgot. However, wanting to play an exceedingly rare game and having to pay more than the original price, sometimes multiples of the original price is not a fair deal. Buying a game for over 100 dollars to just play the game doesn’t make a lot of sense. It also does not benefit the original publisher, developer, or individuals who worked on the game. I understand the appeal of collecting or having a full collection for a platform and if that’s the goal, paying 100 dollars might make sense there for rarity. But wanting to experience some games that are out of print and unavailable from the publisher, and then being forced to pay exorbitant prices to collectors doesn’t make a lot of sense, which is where I think emulation starts to make sense.

One caveat to this is digital games don’t leave print, you can buy them whenever you want, which is mostly true. Recently the Ps3 and Vita network was going to shut down and when that happens, some games will be lost forever. Though as a quick note, Sony did back down from that, however, I don’t see this as a permanent win, one day, sooner than later, Sony will eventually shut down the PS3 network, and I understand that, but I do worry we’ll be seeing the loss of games. 

I personally really liked Tokyo Jungle for the Ps3 and that never got a physical release in America. While I could try to keep my Ps3 in good working condition and keep it on my hard drive, that limits it to just that unit. This leads me to another big reason I like emulation. 

I like the idea we are preserving our history as a fandom. There’s a lot of people who may have never played an NES and while a lot of famous games are now on the Switch Classic Games, there’s even more that aren’t. The NES had over 700 titles released, and while the classic games library has over 80, they don’t have everything. Part of the reason is they don’t have rights to the game, and sometimes those rights are in a mess, but also they don’t seem to care to get every game or realize how expensive that might be. 

For instance, I don’t expect them to pick up Guardian Legend but I’m glad there’s a way for me to play Guardian Legend today because I enjoy this game, well mostly. If you want to know, yes that is my original copy and my original manual.  

Developers and system creators don’t care about the full scope of these releases, so it becomes a problem that fans need to maintain the full history of these amazing systems and emulation has done wonders.  

Here’s a guy who has grabbed every ATARI 2600 ROM he’s ever seen, including multiple pirated copies and bootlegs that were created by other companies. It’s an amazing archive. 

But emulation will continue to be an important system for another reason.

There’s a concern that the Ps3 has a major issue where if the CMOS battery ever dies, it will require logging onto the Playstation Network after being replaced, which is also a pretty major replacement to my knowledge. I don’t know how true that story is but it shows that even the hardware will have its limitations over time and whenever that network finally is shut down, players will lose the ability to repair the hardware. It appears the Ps5, Xbox One, and other systems have switches similar to this. 

With hardware dying as well as the networks, eventually, the only way that players will have to experience these systems will be emulation.  

Of course, physical media has this habit of being damaged, which means over time, a finite supply of games will only decrease. Great news for collectors, but not for historians or fans who just want to experience older titles. There are a few games that have only a handful of known copies around, such as Tetris for the Genesis, of which only ten cartridges were originally made, good old legal emulation giving us this game. Also it kind of sucks.

Then there’s also the fact that when these networks shut down, patching games becomes impossible. Suddenly you are left with the launch versions of these games, and that’s becoming a more frightening thought with every major release. Imagine Cyberpunk 2077, but you can only play the launch version. Horrific. Even worse when most games now have a mandatory day one patch, this will also be lost. 

So with all that said, I think it’s clear where I lie. Emulation is completely legal and I think it’s required both as a community of gamers, as well as a developer. Emulation allows us to keep the legacy of the developer’s work alive beyond what the hardware or the medium developers allow.  

On the other hand, if there is a way to support developers, publishers, and creators of the media, usually through legally buying that game from them, that should be the first thing you do. That support is important to help the creators keep creating games. Hopefully, this will grow with the creation of digital games. There are quite a few games on Steam that are already over 15 years old, and that money should go to the creators.

But ultimately there’s also a point where some games aren’t available anymore and that’s where I think ROMs and piracy might start to be warranted. The idea of abandonware has been around for decades, and I think it’s something that the industry needs to find a way to officially accept. It’s one thing if you’re constantly releasing updated versions of your game like Skyrim and GTA 5, but once fans can’t buy titles or the digital platforms, close down, it’s more important than ever that those titles be preserved. 

It’s a great thing to be able to remember our history, but also having access to our history is just as important as fans of the medium. 

So I’m going to keep pushing for emulation and ROMs, not because I want to get free modern games, but because I want the ability to go back and see what former systems are about. Because we should realize that one day every modern system will be as old as the NES and ATARI 2600 is now, and while there will be super futuristic games, someone’s going to want to come back and see what Hades was about. Hopefully, they’ll have a legal and interesting way to check it out. 

That’s what I have for this week for emulation and ROMs. Honestly, it’s a topic I’ve had a changing and evolving view of, when I was younger I was heavier on the piracy side, when I started making games that other people pirated, I switched quickly against it. Now that I’m past the point of developing games, I still don’t love piracy of active games, but it’s a remarkably important topic as well and it gives us a chance to continue checking out amazing games from decades past. 

So I just wanted to mention I reached 2000 subscribers this month, and I’m amazed, I honestly don’t know why, I’m grateful for every single one of you, and thank you for giving me your support. If you aren’t a subscriber yet, consider clicking that button and if you want to do one better, ring the bell for notifications when I release new content.  

With that said, I have two videos for you to check out if you want more. My video on the challenge of reviewing Multiplayer games titled Better with Friends is worth checking out. And since we’re talking about old retro games, check out a website review of UHS-Hints, the best way to get a unique walkthrough for old adventure games. 

Until then I’m Kinglink, and thanks for watching. 

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