If you have read any of my previous posts, you probably know about my custom arcade cabinet and the neverending saga of it’s construction. I never really mentioned it, but I’m sure at least one or two people have wondered how the games actually run on there. How do you take hundreds of games from the 1980s and 90s that used to inhabit several stacked circuit boards and reels of coiled wire each and make that fit into a smallish pedestal. The answer is emulation, and it’s kind of a big deal.
I’ll cover the boring stuff first. Emulation usually refers to creating software that mimics hardware. Sometimes it is software that mimics other software, but typically software can be ported, or rewritten to work on different hardware, so emulating it isn’t necessary. Hardware emulation is really what we are talking about here.
Take for example an old hardware system like the Mattel Intellivision. The Intellivision was created in the late 70s and used some common processor chips of the era. It also contained a lot of resistors and capacitors, the sort of non-transistor electronic components that are prone to age related failure. The majority of the Intellivision machines that exist today were manufactured as cheaply as possible 35 years ago. This means that the failure rate for that hardware is very very high. Also the video and audio output of those machines is for a video standard that is largely obsolete, making it difficult to connect one of these boxes to a TV if you can even get it to start up. The only reliable way to play an Intellivision game is either through reverse engineered, newly manufactured hardware, or through a software emulator. Usually a combination of the two. Create a solid simulation of that old hardware in software, and the game programs will run just like they did before, only on modern hardware.
This would all be hunky dory, except emulation of games is still a ‘keep your voice down’ type conversation in the game industry. This is mostly because of the grey legality of it. Here is the problem. Video games are copyrighted works whose distribution rights are typically retained by a person or company, or even several companies. Making and distributing a copy of that game without receiving the approval of the rights holder, usually by paying them money, would violate those rights agreements. Depending on where you are in the world this may or may not be illegal. This has led a lot of people, usually the rights holders, to suggest that emulating games is illegal, since almost all emulation of games requires creating a copy of the original code. I’m not a lawyer and I don’t know what is and is not legal. In fact, it’s been proven time and time again that a lot of lawyers don’t really know what is and is not legal when it comes to emulating old software. An awful lot of the computers that people use to keep the lights on and maintain the public water supply require heavy use of emulation software. Reverse engineering a hardware system to run in software is not really the problem. It’s often a practical necessity.
I think it comes down to public perception. For a long time, and more importantly for a certain generation of people, video games were considered commercial amusements, and not creative works. They occupied a place in our culture different, and somewhat lower, than movies, music, or books. Preserving a working copy of Buzz Bombers, would be an unthinkable waste of human effort to some people. Rights holders eager to maintain a hold on their creations would often agree, just because it made the argument easier to win. Doing the work to maintain a running copy of an old game takes effort, but putting in the effort costs money they often couldn’t be guaranteed to recoup, but allowing your work to be distributed without compensation doesn’t make sense either. It was, in the past, occasionally easier to convince a judge that software emulation wasn’t legal, and put off having to do anything at all about the situation. Then these old games were simply going to vanish into the wash of history.
If you told someone that they couldn’t read Frankenstein due to the original printing press rusting to powder, they would look at you like you were bonkers. New plates would be created and installed in an updated, faster, and more efficient press, and the book would continue to be sold, or distributed. People didn’t stop buying Revolver because vinyl records became obsolete. A created work outliving its distribution medium is sort of the norm.
Video games are the first medium to break the laws of supply and demand. With any digital work you have an infinite supply and a limited demand. Prior to copying games, people could of course copy music by recording tape to tape, but the nature of analog recording meant that each successive generation would suffer a loss in quality, eventually leaving you with ear grating noise. Even playing the original master tape would eventually wear it out. Computer data doesn’t work like that. If you make a copy, it will be identical to the original. If you make a 100 copies, or a million copies, They will all be identical. When games were distributed in cartridges, or stored in large circuit boards, it made creating copies difficult, but not impossible, and the data on the chips would still never degrade, no matter how many copies you transferred to new chips. When you factor in emulation, you don’t need the chips either. A software simulation of the chip is just as good as the hardware as far as the game is concerned.
While this is disruptive economically, since nothing in human history has ever presented us with infinite supply and limited demand, it also means that video games will likely be the best preserved cultural artifact we have ever had. There are a very small number of games that depend so heavily on the original electro-mechanical hardware that they can’t be accurately emulated, but everything else in the short 40-50 years people have been making or playing video games can be recreated on a relatively meager modern computer. At one time there were a lot of angry voices yelling that floppy copying would be the death of video games. It wasn’t. There were a lot of the same voices yelling that emulation would be the death of video games. It’s not. In fact it has introduced so many people to games they would otherwise never have seen or played, that playing old games has inspired countless new developers. Business have started and thrived based on making it easy to play older games. I have bought a lot of them. An awful lot.
If you want to predict what will happen to music, or books, or any other analog turned digital medium, you can just look at the history of video games, because whatever the issue is, video game have probably dealt with it first, fastest, and maybe violently. When we start scanning vinyl discs, wax cylinders, and celluloid at a molecular level, maybe those mediums will enjoy the type of precise preservation that video games already do and no one will be tricked into thinking that attempting to preserve a work of art is illegal, because video games will have paved the way.