Emulators: the good, the bad and the ugly

Emulators may not be the best option for an overly demanding player, but they do the trick for others. And what about the legal issue?


Controversial... They generate discussions almost as heated as those about sports, religion and politics. Some defend their use as the only viable way to get to know games out of reach, and as an accessible way to relive the ones that have become museum pieces. Other, say that it only serves to spoil the user, with thousands of games available, and without really enjoying any of them deeply.

Besides, of course, turning you into a dangerous gangster.

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It's hard to remain impassive in the face of the countless emulation options available. Everything you've played in the past, can live again on your PC, and if you have a lot of ROMs (almost always illegally), it would be almost a kid's dream coming true: your "harem" of games at your disposal, without taking up a single shelf at home, all on a simple hard drive, or even a small card.

For those who got rid of their old consoles long ago, emulators seem like the perfect solution, unless you're willing to invest a good amount of money buying back your beloved titles from "collectors" who would rather let said old devices gather dust in a closet or attic than pass them on. After all, some can be very difficult to find in good condition, like the original PlayStation (almost always with a faulty laser) or some rare ones like the Turbografx-16.

Emulador de arcades MAME
Screen of MAME, multi-arcade emulator.

But does quantity equal quality?

More is less

From what we can see browsing websites and forums about emulators, most of the users are returning players, and therefore, in their late twenties or more. They are reliving good old past times, but games for them are no longer a priority.

The emulator seems ideal for them: quickly find what you want to play, then play it, and get back to your activities. No complications, cables, TV. And that's without talking about the legal status of using ROMs, calm down.

But if back then, we only had a few cartridges to play on the weekend, and they were used amazingly, now it only takes a few clicks to access an entire catalog of games.

Let's draw a parallel. Imagine that, instead of having only two cartridges to play for two or three days, your 12 year old had all the games ever released for that console at once. All of them.

Even if I were a kid who had nothing to do but go to school on Monday, I wouldn't have time to play more than about five of those games, to be optimistic. I would probably end up superficially playing a bunch of them – not so different from what happens with emulators today, with one aggravating factor: we are no longer kids who only have school to go to. We don't need entire catalogs.

Incomplete experience

Despite the convenience, emulators have problems, such as not giving the player an experience so close to the original as we think. Devices, controllers, TV: all of this is lost.

It starts with the screen. Old games on LCD or LED monitors are no fun. Period. Old games looks good on a TV with CRT screen, becausethose games were made with scanlines in mid. The resolution of a computer monitor is way higher than regular TV's. Using filters like scanline is not a perfect solution, but helps, of course.

For peripherals, not all of them work, or at least, not as they should. The Justifier, from Konami, to kill the Lethal Enforcers bandits, or the "powerful" 3D glasses for the Master System, or even the Super Scope bazooka from the SNES: all of theem can be a bit "inconvenient" to use with emulators, when possible through some hack/circuit so that the computer recognizes the device. Using LCD/LED monitors, don't even think about it.

Periféricos: bazuca, pistola e óculos 3D

The same applies to controls, at least for me. I tried every way to adapt the exceptional 6-button controller for the Mega Drive (the only part of my old console that I have left) to the PC, but from what I found out, it only works with a little electronic engineering and through the game port, which more modern computers don't even use anymore.

Update: I found out some really interesting gadgets like this adapter.

The solution is to use a "generic" controller, like the Saturn's via USB, or the Chinese clones. The first, as good as it may be, definitely doesn't offer the same feeling playing SNES with the Saturn gamepad. "Universal" controls won't please hardcore fans of a system. We can try the clones, and there are some that are really faithful in their approach, despite the inferior quality.

Is it a crime to use ROMs from the internet?

Using ROMs without having the original game is illegal, since by law, you can only copy content for storage purposes and to protect it against damage to the original media. According to the called Lei do Software (9609/98)*, which treats about copyright on computer programs – and by extension, games):

Art. 6 - the following do not constitute an offense to the rights of the owner of a computer program:

I - the reproduction, in a single copy, of a legitimately acquired copy, provided that it is intended for backup or electronic storage, in which case the original copy will serve as a backup;

* this post was originally written in Brazilian Portuguese; the "Lei do Software" (Software Law) is a Brazilian law. If you need legal support, please search about your country's software and copyright laws.

In other words: you can copy and use the copy, storing the original. Some companies are putting protesting even against this, though. Nintendo has a long FAQ on its website about the subject, where they state that emulators encourage copyright infringement and are "the greatest threat ever seen to intellectual property rights in video games".

The fact that a game is no longer being sold, does not give anyone the right to reproduce it without authorization, not even for storage or historical preservation. It's crazy, but that's the law. Even if a game is 30 years old and has been completely abandoned by the manufacturer, even if there is no interest whatsoever in revisiting it, no one can touch it.

screen capture of Street Fighter II
According to current laws, Street Fighter II will be copyright free around 2066. I can wait.

Under American laws, an intellectual work only falls into the public domain 75 years after its publication; under Brazilian law, after 50 years; and under Portuguese law, 70 years after the author's death. If you want to use ROMs legally, you have to wait that long – Street Fighter II, for example, will only be copyright free in the year 2066. Will my reflexes be good by then?

Even those who have the original software, would be committing a crime by downloading and using a ROM of the same software, since it was not they, the owner, who made the copy. And even if they did, it could only be kept to avoid damaging the original software. The ROM can't be used for any other purpose, including emulation.

Brazilian and American laws are not very in tune on the subject. While the American grip has been increasingly tightened around any type of copying, including for personal use and storage, it's not so strict in Brazil, yet.

According to the same law mentioned above, we can have...

...reproduction of a single copy, of small excerpts, for the private use of the copyist, provided that it is done by him, without the intention of profit

But according to legal experts, the full private copy would indeed be accepted as legal, as it falls outside the scope of Copyright Law, which is protected by the principle of free private use. According to the current archaic law, you can't even copy tracks of your legally purchased CDs to listen on your MP3 player or any other format, in your car or on your phone. You would – legally – need to buy them again, already in the final format...

Emulator yes, emulate no

Antagonistic as it may be, the emulator itself is not illegal.

In 1982, Atari filed a lawsuit against Coleco, which created a peripheral to emulate the Atari 2600 on its ColecoVision. But they lost, setting a precedent for the legality of emulators. Other companies would later try, in vain, to sue emulator developers, such the iconic case Sony against Bleem!

Bleem! was a PlayStation emulator for Dreamcast and PC. The dispute dragged on for years until Bleem! went bankrupt, but without a legal victory for Sony, except in the case of Bleem! using screenshots of Sony games on their product packaging.

Since the emulator, except for the use of the BIOS, is legal, but emulating games without permission is not, if have a strange situation. You have original video game cartridges and CDs, but maybe you don't want or can't turn on your console to play; you want/need rather to continue on your PC – but you are prohibited by law.

If the emulated device needs a BIOS, even worse: the emulation itself is illegal, since the BIOS is also a piece of software, protected by law.

All these inconsistencies lead to the need to modernize the Brazilian law, signed in 1998, in a scenario very different from the current one. The text with the modernization proposal, after going through phases of popular consultation and much discussion, should go to the Civil House on the 15th.

Update 12/07/13: to date, there has been no vote. After several disagreements about the law between Ministers of Culture (Juca Ferreira, Ana Buarque de Hollanda and Marta Suplicy, in sequence), everything is still "to be discussed" and "controversial" points are  being reviewed. The lobby of the industry and some organizations are strong enough to get in the way. Who knows, maybe one day...

Update 2016: zzzZZZZzzzZZZzzz...

Abandonware and "delete it in 24 hours": urban myths

After the term abandonware became popular and its misuse spread, there was much speculation about the legality of distributing games that are not updated and have been apparently forgotten. But except in a few cases, these software do have copyrights, and distributing them "at will" is infringement.

A similar example: you took a bunch of photos and saved them on your computer. Years later, you discover that someone copied one of them and distributed it on the internet. But you were planning to make money with it now.

Would it be a crime, without the owner's authorization? Even if the use was for no profit? You know the answer.

Just as the rights to software in this condition, that can be passed on to other companies, such as creditors of a bankrupt developer, you may want to sell that photo one day. And how are you going to charge for it, if it has already been spread for free without your consent?

Turbografx-16, da NEC
The Turbografx-16 was a console rarely seen by many, but that's not enough (legally speaking) excuse to freely emulate it.

The "24-Hour Law" is even simpler (or laughable): a lame excuse to distribute copyrighted material with the argument that "you are testing it, it's your right to use the product for 24 hours, then delete it from your computer if you don't intend to buy the original".

To use a somewhat crude but well-founded example, it would be like me coming to your house, picking up your new Xbox, using it as much as I wanted for 24 hours, and then returning it without further explanation. "I was just testing it out!"

Out of print? One of the reasons for using ROMs is that some games and consoles have simply disappeared from the market, due to limited production or only being made abroad. Many end up in the hands of collectors, others are lost over time. What should you do in a situation like this?

Games from machines that are over 20 years old, such as NES, Atari, Mega Drive and SNES, seem like natural options for emulation. They have already had their moment in the market, and they generated profit for the manufacturer on the first sale. When these consoles are discontinued, the games become an easy target for emulation.

But that's not quite the case. The proof is Nintendo itself, which with the support of other companies, started selling old games to run on the Wii in 2006. Could these companies have released the old stuff for free, as happened with specific games from other companies? EA, Ubisoft and Rockstar are some that have released old titles from their catalog for free.

They could, it would be great. But they didn't and emulation (theoretically) takes away a potential customer for these classic games via Wii, Steam and other game bases. Theoretically, since not everyone has a modern video game console and won't bother buying one to play classics, either buy an old original console, or one of the "retro console-emulators", such as Dingoo and Cybergame (which are also illegal when using ROMs without authorization), or play on the emulator.

For better or worse, companies have the right to put their creations in a safe and never show them in the light of day again.

Genie out of the bottle

After this long text, in which I apparently attacked the emulators, you can get the impression that I am a hypocritical moralist, babbling against those who use them. That's not the case.

I don't encourage anyone to break the law, but I like emulators because they give us the chance to remember great games. Only a few will care enough to buy a Neo Geo for hundreds of bucks to play twenty minutes of an old arcade game, or hunt down a Famicom Disk System to see what it was like. Some might not even care to buy these retro releases on Virtual Consoles.

The point is that the genie is out of the bottle, but the world is not the same of the 80s or 90s. Laws are archaic and companies need to learn how to deal with the new technologies. But there are laws and we are subject to them.

If the incomplete experience is not enough to satisfy your nostalgia, or your principles prevent you from using an emulator for ten minutes as a nostalgic experience, a good search on used product websites can help. Or not.

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