By Harry Rabinowitz
“Can I take a look?” Rebecca asks me, gesturing towards the blue-screening copy of Mega Man III.
I open the lid of the Nintendo Entertainment System, a piece of equipment a little under a decade older than me, caress the cartridge of Mega Man III out of the system and pass it to Rebecca, a visiting videogame preservation expert. She flips the large square upside down. It rattles a bit.
“What’s that?” I ask. “Sounds like a bead or something.”
“It’s bad. Really bad.” She frowns.
Rebecca explains what the sound means. I ask more questions, naturally curious about games and a console I never had the pleasure of owning. It gets complicated. About a half-hour later I get the gist of it.
That copy of Mega Man III is dead. We won’t be able to get it to play anymore.
I work in the NYU Game Library. Every day, I sit at my desk placed in front of hundreds of cartridges. Atari, NES, N64, Sega Master System, SNES, GameBoy, you name it. I’ve probably only played three of them. Slowly but surely, each and every one of these games will degrade. The cartridge might get “finicky”. The consoles might run a game strangely. And one day, a Legend of Kage or Zelda II with have its final death rattle. It might literally start rattling, or just show a silent blue screen, and that’s that. If I were more versed in this kind of hardware, I could open up the cartridge and try to bring it back. But I’m not, and I don’t know a single person in my generation who is.
60 years from now will people still be able to play any of these NES cartridges?
Videogames are not like other art forms. We cannot just put a copy of The Legend of Zelda in a glass display somewhere and be satisfied. To understand a game, you need to play it. With companies like Sony and Microsoft abandoning backwards compatibly, the likelihood that my stack of PlayStation 2 games will ever see playtime is shrinking every day the console gets older. Nintendo is trying its best with the Virtual Console store, but they do not offer nearly the amount of titles that sit behind my work desk.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure how to physically preserve the consoles and games I work with everyday. But I do know how to digitally preserve them.
I am, of course, talking about emulators.
For those that don’t know, videogame emulators are computer software that matches a specific game console, allowing you to play games from that console on your computer. There are a lot of these emulators: NES, Atari 2600, Neo Geo, Commodore 64, PS2, CD-I, Atari Jaguar, Nintendo GameCube, GameBoy Color, Macintosh, you name it. To me, they are the saving grace of videogame preservation. Even though our consoles and games may stop working, we can still play old games without having to wait for a remastering or HD version. We have the original experience forever preserved digitally. The only problem is that playing games this way is… well kind of illegal.
To play a game on emulation software, you need that particular game in computer file form. These are often found as .ROM or .ISO files, essentially the entirety of a single game in one readable, runnable file. How to get these files is the part where things get a bit gray legally.
If you’re a master computer and hardware wizard, you can create your own game file. I am not going to pretend to know how to do this. To those of you that do, you are amazing technical masters!
For everyone else, you download one of these files from someone else—people put these files up all the time. There are websites that act as .ROM and .ISO libraries. The problem is that this is technically pirating a game.
Games, along with being a form of art, are also products. Downloading a file that is, in essence, a game, is bootlegging that game. You are playing it even though you have not bought it yourself. The people who made that game make no money off your playing through an emulator. It’s similar to appropriating a movie online or downloading music for free. It’s illegal. The emulators themselves are perfectly legal as spectacular software. Playing a game on an emulator though, that’s illegal.
Frankly, it irks me that this is the case. Sony and Microsoft, two of the largest companies in gaming, have not made it easy to play their older titles. Hell, it seems like they do not care what happens to their PS1, PS2 and Xbox titles of old. Sony may be starting to change this with Playstation Now, but it’s not enough. What particularly confused me is that, from a business standpoint, I’m sure Sony and Nintendo have made substantial sums from making their older titles like Crash Bandicoot, Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy VII, Donkey Kong, and Castlevania available for purchase.
Even more confusing is that they are letting old games, which are art pieces in and of themselves, wither away on someone’s shelf or in a box somewhere. With the current state of the games industry, I do not see someone in the year 2070 being able to play Mega Man III or Double Dragon. I can walk into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and see objects from thousands of years ago. The fact that videogames, which are inherently digital, do not appear to have that kind of staying power is unbelievable to me.
Luckily, a small community has made a vast number of titles available through emulation. Not only are they helping in the preservation of videogames and videogame history, they are helping in the education of game designers, enthusiasts, press, and people like myself. The value of emulators cannot be understated. The fact that I can sit down and play Terranigma, a game released before I could even talk, with a USB-powered SNES controller on my laptop is incredible. Even if, in today’s world, it’s illegal. Hopefully that part will change someday.
What are your thoughts on emulators? Leave a message for us in the comments section below.