Hot Topic - Emulation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Pt. 1 (Emulation vs. Original Hardware)

Each Issue's Hot Topic features brief commentary from the Armchair Arcade editors on an issue currently in the news...

This issue's Hot Topic is
"Emulation vs. Original Hardware"

The next two hot topics will concern the emulation of classic game systems on modern PC's and consoles. This is a controversial issue for most fans of retrogaming, because the only way we can get access to certain classic platforms and machines is via emulation and unauthorized (and usually copyrighted) ROM files. Furthermore, there is the more important issue of playability--some argue that it's just not the same to play a retrogame via PC emulation. Perhaps an even bigger controversy surrounds the emulation of modern consoles on PC's. Many emulation advocates stop short of saying that emulating games currently in production is ethically acceptable.

In this Hot Topic, we will specifically discuss "Emulation vs. Original Hardware." In other words, what are the advantages of playing a game on its original hardware versus emulating it on a PC or other system?

Matt Barton, Editor: Let me offer some background before I try to answer this question. I grew up playing games on Commodore computers, starting with a Vic-20 when I was 5 and working my way up to an Amiga 3000 when I was 15. I never owned a console until my adult years, though I had plenty of opportunities to play Nintendo and Super Nintendo games at my friends' houses.

Now, it's important to realize that Commodore computers were vastly different from their contemporary IBM-compatibles (I still occasionally refer to PCs as "clones," though my thinking has changed significantly regarding proprietary hardware). The key difference between, say, a Commodore 64 and a IBM PCjr was the advanced gameplay. To put it simply, I could attach the exact same joystick controller to my C-64 that my friends used for their Atari 2600's. Furthermore, the C-64's and most Amiga computers could be hooked up to televisions instead of a monitor; thus, there really wasn't a huge difference (from a gameplay perspective) between playing games on these computers versus playing them on a dedicated game console.

Commodore 64c. Emulation for the Commodore 64 is quite advanced, but the unusual keyboard layout of the original system makes for some confusion.
Commodore 64c. Emulation for the Commodore 64 is quite advanced, but

the unusual keyboard layout of the original system makes for some confusion.

Now, another benefit of Commodore computers was an abundance of good games. All of the important arcade games were present in one form or another. Sure, we didn't have Super Mario Bros., but we did have Great Giana Sisters, which in my opinion is still one heck of a game.

Anyway, I feel that growing up with Commodore computers instead of game consoles has given me little ability to appreciate the merits of a good game console. There is nothing nostalgic for me in playing a game "on a real SNES," and I feel quite happy playing these games with ZSNES on my PC. As far as arcade games are concerned, I did have a problem at first—the PC joysticks just aren't up to the task. If you've ever tried playing Donkey Kong with a flight-stick style controller, you know what I'm talking about. However, I solved this problem by purchasing a dual X-Arcade controller, which is simply the best controller I've ever owned for any computer, period.

I have emulators on my PC for NES, SNES, Sega Master System (SMS), Genesis, Commodore 64, Amiga, Magnavox Odyssey, Atari consoles and computers, TRS-80, and, of course, MAME (arcade). Never in my life have I had access to so many games on so many different systems. I have at least a thousand games sitting on my hard drive that I've never even booted up! When I'm in the mood to play games on my television, I look to my Dreamcast, which I picked up for $20 at a local Electronics Boutique store. The Dreamcast has plenty of nice games, but I use it mostly for emulating (almost flawlessly) NES and SMS games. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the Dreamcast still doesn't emulate the SNES very well, but I don't really mind playing SNES games on my PC using my X-Arcade.

Coleco ColecoVision Expansion Module #2.  Turbo can be played quite easily through emulation, but is it really the same without one of the first console steering wheels?  On the plus side, emulation doesn't require batteries like the original module does...
Coleco ColecoVision Expansion Module #2. Turbo can be played quite easily

through emulation, but is it really the same without one of the first console

steering wheels? On the plus side, emulation doesn't require batteries like

the original module does...

About six months ago I happened by a flea market vendor that specialized in classic hardware. I bought an Amiga 1200 and several Commodore 64 accessories. I was entertaining the notion of tinkering around with these systems simply for nostalgic purposes. However, I started asking myself why I was bothering with these old systems. Was it really worth tracking down software and other necessary accessories when I could just as easily play all the games on my PC via emulation? I was also turned off by the "vulture" like collectors on eBay and the like; I didn't want to give my money to these people who were so determined to cash in on somebody else's nostalgia. Eventually, I decided to give up the collection and sold the 1200. The C-64 accessories weren't even worth what I paid for them ($20 for two 1541s and a tape drive), so they're still sitting here under my desk.

Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate that the machines themselves have historic value as well as nostalgic. If I were ever to visit Bill's home in New Jersey, I'd hope to spend at least a few hours (if not days!) browsing his massive collection and booting up a few classics just for the heck of it. As for now, though, I'm quite satisfied playing all these games via emulation.

Bill Loguidice, Editor: Since we'll be talking about the ethics of unlicensed emulation next issue, I'll make my comments for this "Hot Topic" under the hypothetical assumption that access to the software (ROM's, image files, etc.) for use in emulators on modern PC's and consoles is the same as using originals. In other words, in my hypothetical scenario, my actually owning the original software is the same as my pulling a virtual copy (hereafter referred to as a "ROM" for convenience) off a Website. Further, owning physical copies of original software - say a 5.25" floppy disk that contains either an original copy or a "cracked" (forcefully removed copy protection) copy of commercial software - will fall under the same classification.

Mattel Intellivision II with Intellivoice.
Mattel Intellivision II with Intellivoice. It's been notoriously difficult for even

official emulation to properly translate the controls of the system's unusual

controllers. Critics consider the use of alternate controllers a blessing, which

is really only possible through emulation. Speech volume is controlled directly

from the Intellivoice, creating an effect not possible in emulation.

From as far back as I can remember - the mid-1970's - I was into electronics and gadgets, specifically being fascinated with my mom's pocket calculator around age three. By the time I was five, I had long since graduated to my parents' Pong console from Sears, often begging to have it hooked up to the television. A few years later I bought my first Atari 2600 (a "woody" of course) with my Communion money, then soon thereafter, received my first computer, a Commodore Vic-20. Even though my parents sold off a lot of that original stuff, there was always more to follow, like a Commodore 64 and Coleco ColecoVision. It reached a point where selling the old stuff was no longer an option I would "allow" my parents to pursue (not that I wanted to do it previously). I began to not only want to acquire new stuff, but begin to grow my current "collection," whether I immediately realized it or not. Indeed, I have been an active classic game and computer collector since the mid-1980's, before there really was such a thing. Today, with a house and family of my own, I not only have most current systems - consoles and PC's - throughout the house, but an entire bedroom (my "workshop") dedicated to my current collection, which features dozens of systems with countless software, books and accessories (among other things). So that's where I'm coming from--there's something obviously inherently appealing to me about the physical item.

How do I express to someone the feelings the beep of a real booting Apple II disk drive elicits within? Or the clanking of a Commodore 64's disk drive as it tries to read a heavily copy protected disk? Or looking at a real GCE Vectrex monitor, in its true vector glory? Or that wonderfully aromatic "presence" my whole workshop has as I open the door and enter for the first time in a few days? Real nostalgia is a tangible thing. I prefer physical books to digital books, and yes, I prefer physical computer and videogame hardware to digital simulations.

Now, emulation on a PC or recent console has its place--it's convenient that it's accessible from something you presently use regularly anyway, with the added bonus of requiring no additional physical space; you can try a lot of different software titles you may never have access to; and the cost, often nothing, is hard to beat. With that said, emulation is nothing more than a bonus, an adjunct, to the real thing.

GCE Vectrex.  The Vectrex's custom vector monitor makes true emulation impossible.  However, emulation is considerably cheaper than trying to locate working Vectrex units.
GCE Vectrex. The Vectrex's custom vector monitor

makes true emulation impossible. However,

emulation is considerably cheaper than trying

to locate working Vectrex units.

Emulation not only can't duplicate the feel of another system's keyboard, it also lacks the ability to physically match the original's layout. Ever try to figure out which key on your PC's keyboard is mapped to what key on the system it's emulating? Kind of ruins the illusion, doesn't it? A computer mouse is not an equivalent of an Atari paddle controller. A modern console's gamepad is not a good match for an Intellivision's specialized controller. In short, emulation merely does its best to match the utility, not the reality or personality of the original. And speaking of personality, there's a reason why some of the most widely emulated games - the classic Infocom text adventures like Zork - still command such a high price when a complete boxed version goes up for sale. Original boxes, manuals and other goodies - especially for RPG's (Role Playing Games) and the aforementioned text adventures - often make a huge difference in getting the most out of the play experience. In fact, this ties in to what I conclude with in the next paragraph, which is the most damning case against emulation...

Simply put, you can never be 100% sure that what you're playing is actually how the developer designed the final product. If a game is for the Mattel Aquarius, for instance, you can always be sure that the programmer designed it for the actual Mattel Aquarius - with its "chiclet" keyboard and Intellivision-like disc controllers - not your 2004 multimedia PC with ergonomic full-stroke keyboard and digital gamepad. Further, you can never be sure that your emulator is not making some subtle change to the control, the frame rate, the sound, the visuals, whatever, that will affect your impressions. You can never have total control over all of the variables, be they the quality of the emulator's code, the type of speakers that you use, your display device, your controllers, whether something in the original packaging was important, whatever. The list goes on. With the software - ideally with the original packaging - running on the original hardware , you can be confident that a game will suck because it genuinely sucks, not because of some possibly unknown factor introduced 20 years later.

David Torre, Assistant Editor: I owe probably my entire drive to collect classic games to my discovery of NES emulators for the PC. Once I started building my collection of NES games and accessories, I headed over to my favorite emulation message board to declare that "the best NES emulation was the real thing." I received a near-universal backlash from some of the regulars, suggesting that in all my nostalgia, I had glossed over some disadvantages of playing on the authentic hardware: dirty cartridges and worn connectors that led to blinking screens, a tiny controller that was much too small for my adult hands, and no save states. Certainly these are problems solved by emulating this particular system on the PC, but is it worth it?

For a person who grew up loving this Nintendo system, it bothers me that each NES emulator has a slightly different color palette and not a single one of them seems right. You might not have to clean the cartridges when you load up a game in your favorite emulator, but what about that esoteric unlicensed game that uses a bizarre mapper and won't play? Are you really going to search for another emulator that plays that game correctly? Sure, you could use a save state after you make it through a difficult area in Ninja Gaiden, but is not the challenge diminished each time you do that? Emulators may be downright convienent in a lot of ways, but I feel that oftentimes the more someone gets into a particular platform, the less acceptable it becomes for that someone to accept anything less than the original.

Some people brag about having hard drives full of music, movies, and games--I'd prefer to have something I can touch. To me, a ROM is simply something that is intangible and abstract. I want a pretty box I can put on my shelf. Call me nostalgic, but wouldn't it be cool to have boxes for all your classic games hung up on the wall so it looks like a 1980's Toys "R" Us?

Some might conclude from my tone that I'm downplaying the importance of emulation. I think emulation serves an incredibly important purpose--it ensures that games for obsolete systems can still be played even when every piece of original hardware fails. Of course, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to preserve the original hardware as long as possible. A lot of what makes collecting the real thing worthwhile is capturing more of the culture of classic gaming. A game by itself won't give you a complete image of that culture, but collecting things like magazines, manuals, patches and toys will certainly give you a better picture.

What's your opinion? We'd love to hear from you. Tell us your own emulation story below or register for our free discussion forums!