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What You Should Know About Game Emulators

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Emulators have a sort of negative reputation in the world of gaming. Game companies and people have learned to associate the term “emulator” with piracy of older games.

Yet this isn’t the truth. Emulators aren’t good or evil, they are simply a tool to accomplish a goal. That goal could be to use an emulator to create a new game that feels like it runs on an older system, or to get an older program you own to run on a newer system.

In fact, emulators have a major impact, both good and bad, on the game industry that can’t be ignored. If everybody only views them as a tool of game piracy, the world is dismissing a useful tool with tons of applications.

What Are Emulators?

First off, it’s important to understand what an emulator is. Without going too much into the technical side, an emulator is a type of software that mimics the functions of hardware. So for example, through software commands, a Super Nintendo emulator can recreate everything the console does and place the results on your screen.

Now, emulators don’t just have to be used for video game consoles. One major use for emulators are for older computers that are no longer being manufactured, but people still want to use the programs only available for it.

Where Do Emulators Exist?

Well, believe it or not, but emulators are a lot more common than you think. Did you ever download The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time onto your newer Nintendo console? The game runs on your Wii or Wii U thanks to an emulator — just one that Nintendo created. You know that big push Microsoft is making for getting Xbox 360 games playable on the Xbox One? Those are emulators too. Even Nintendo’s NES and SNES Classics are forms of emulators.

Emulators can exist on a variety of platforms that you probably own too. Emulators, both for games consoles and not, can run on most PCs. The higher end of emulation you want to do, like PS2 or Gamecube emulation, will require higher-end graphic cards and RAM to function. Lower-end emulation though does not require from the host system though. It’s easy to run low to mid-end emulators on newer Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy S8. It’s a bit hard to run emulators on iPhones, but still possible. Some emulators can even run in a web browser, letting people play old games on Chrome or Firefox.

Another growing popular platform for emulators is on a Raspberry Pi mini computer. Basically, people take these mini computers and dedicate them to running a specific emulator, typically on the lower end of power. A Raspberry Pi doesn’t have the graphical capabilities to run games in the N64 generation or more but can run SNES generation and earlier games easily.  

Are Emulators Legal?

This is where it gets very tricky legally. Emulators by themselves are often not illegal, especially if you are not distributing or selling them. The legal problems come when you download a ROM of a game. Simply put, it’s piracy. You are downloading a game you didn’t pay for, regardless of how old it is.

There is a legal myth floating around that if you own the original game or have purchased it digitally at some time, it’s completely OK to pirate and emulate it. This is not the truth. When you purchased a game, your purchased the license to play the game using what you were given. If you have an old physical copy of Super Mario World, but then download the ROM of the game again with plans to emulate it, it’s still piracy.

Now, while it’s illegal to download older games, even those you can’t get anywhere else, the older the game, the less likely companies will pursue a legal action against you. You are especially safe if the game developer and publishers have both closed down or if the game is decades old. Really, a game company will only go after older game piracy if they think it could damage future income

Emulators Are Keeping the History of Gaming Alive

So many older games are not available for purchase or even compatible with today’s systems. Ranging from children educational games like Reader Rabbit to old classics like MechWarrior 2, these games can’t be played without the help of emulators and ROMs.

While remasters, updates, and fan projects can do a lot to keep older games constantly available, it’s inevitable that some will never get the attention they deserve. Without emulators, amazing must-play games run the risk of being forgotten forever. If we want to keep the history of gaming alive, emulators must be allowed to exist.

Yet, emulators are constantly being attacked, both by many gaming companies and the media as a whole. The media, with its own flaws, sensationalize and attack emulators as a whole without fully understanding what they are. It’s important to help educate others about why emulators are simply a tool, one that could be used for good and to help keep old games alive. Yes, they are used for piracy, but if game companies worked with emulators and those that build them, it could lead to keeping old games available and potentially lead to extra money coming in to them.

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Ben Allen

Ben Allen

Champion of Hyrule, defender of space, bane of demons, savior of light, and occasional pizza eater.