Emulation is a dirty word in the games industry, with Nintendo annihilating ROM download sites with zeal. Elsewhere, Apple merrily booted iDOS off the App Store for having the audacity to provide file system access. Meanwhile, many games are at risk of extinction on a daily basis. But who saves them? Historically, pirates: ancient classics have been preserved for all time in digital form by people who made illicit copies of the kind that would make a Nintendo lawyer itch.
The industry’s lack of broad interest in and respect for gaming’s past is driven by it being young, profitable, and always about the next big thing. Gamers have been trained to believe in tech evolution above all else and to ditch gaming’s history as detritus. Even this is nothing new: I recall during the mid-1980s seminal C64 magazine Zzap!64 casually dismissed excellent games that just happened to be conversions of two-year-old arcade titles. But the reality is old games do matter: they show where the industry came from, can help us learn, and can be superb fun in their own right.
Compare gaming’s situation to the music industry’s. How absurd it would be if any recording more than a decade old was inaccessible to the average punter, bar a few choice cuts Nintenmusic deigned to sell you remastered versions of again and again. It was therefore great to hear Phil Spencer, Microsoft’s vice president of gaming, suggest the industry work towards keeping games alive through “legal emulation”, noting that many games are locked to devices that are no longer supported, and arguing we should long be able to revisit these past works of art.
The snag: emulation is mainly legal already. The problem is game distribution. Companies ferociously guard old IP, on the basis it’s still profitable. Elsewhere, where rights lie isn’t clear and can be fragmented – for example, Numskull recently had to halt development of a Track & Field Quarter Arcade on discovering the cabinet artwork rights were held by the original creator rather than Konami. So it’s tricky. Even so, you’ll find entities doing their best to preserve what came before. World of Spectrum has long attempted to secure legal permission for hosted game files. GameClub ambitiously rescues mobile games from oblivion (while Apple and Google have no interest in doing so). Blaze reissues licensed old games as collectable carts for its own Evercade hardware.
But these efforts are a drop in the ocean – and only World of Spectrum’s is genuinely open. Moreover, none compare to the success of illegal actions, or legally dubious ones such as the growing collection of ROMs over at Internet Archive. Yet if nothing changes, it will be pirates and nonconformists that future generations thank for letting them explore gaming’s past. It’s they who will have kept countless games alive, rather than the wider industry itself – and that’s an absurd position for the games industry to find itself in.
On Twitter, GamesBeat’s Jeff Grubb (@JeffGrubb) responded to Spencer’s remarks by reiterating that emulators are legal, adding: “The thing we’re talking about here is getting companies in line to accept emulation as a natural end point for their copyrighted software”. That is a reasonable goal and likely wouldn’t impact on balance sheets either, even for companies making money from old games. Emulation has friction. Many folks happily splash out on a zero-fuss re-release of an old favourite, not least if the package is pretty – witness the success of Nintendo’s Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. But this stance would positively impact on gaming as a whole, provide widespread access to the industry’s past to those who want it, and stop many games from disappearing forever.