Videogames are expensive. More expensive than most other forms of home entertainment. As an experience, they last longer than most movies and can have budgets that rival the most expensive TV shows. Because of this, you usually have to pay a premium for them, but many people aren’t prepared to do this. So, a free alternative can be to emulate them using various software on Android, Windows, or other operating systems. This is only technically legal if you own the game you are emulating but many people don’t follow this rule and play whatever they like on emulators. However, emulation lets people who might not be able to afford official video games experience gaming.
Is this morally right? I guess it depends on your opinion on whether video games are worth the price they are sold at, and what your views on piracy are. The easiest games to emulate are older games, from systems such as the Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis/Megadrive, Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo 64. You need powerful hardware to emulate games on Switch or other more recent systems. This article gives an overview of emulation and some of its history over the last 25 years.
Early Emulators on PC
Back in the late 2000s, it was possible, even then, to emulate games if you had a decent laptop or PC. I remember that the most popular emulator, out of the people that I knew, was definitely Project 64 for PC. This software emulated Nintendo 64 games, and it still exists, in some form today. The experience was prone to freezing and graphical errors, and not like playing on the original hardware, but it replicated it relatively well. It was amazing to play games like Super Mario 64, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on your PC without actually paying anything (whether you owned the physical cartridge or not). I also remember Game Boy and Game Boy Colour emulators being a thing, even in the late 90s. You could play through the original Pokemon Red and Blue without even owning a Game Boy!
Since then, emulators have come on leaps and bounds, and you can download texture packs (some of which are full high definition), ROM hacks (which alter the original game), and even use emulators to play Nintendo 64 and Playstation Portable games on your phone! One form of emulation was popular during the Nintendo DS era, roughly from 2005-2015, and that is the use of R4 cards and similar cards which allow for emulation (and piracy) on Nintendo DS and 3DS.
Piracy has afflicted both the Sony Playstation Portable and Nintendo DS to a high degree. Basically, people play games on these systems in ways that aren’t official and are often not even legal. While you can hack both handhelds and portables (the Wii is a good example where this is easy to do), with the Nintendo DS, a popular way to play games has been to use DS cards with homebrew software installed in them. Popularly known as R4 cards, this allows you to use a mac, PC, or Chromebook to install homebrew software and play a ton of games that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to play.
Using an R4 or similar card on Nintendo DS, you can play a range of games from the DS, Game Boy Advance, Super Nintendo, NES, and more on a Nintendo DS or 3DS. However, some games from the Super Nintendo library and other systems, don’t run very well, and you’ll never be able to get something like an N64 emulator running on a Nintendo DS. With the 3DS Nintendo has made it much more difficult for groups to produce 3DS cards that can run emulation software (but you can still use a DS R4 card on a 3DS).
However, it is still possible to hack the actual device to run homebrew. Nintendo makes its money selling games, so they don’t like it when half the install base is playing the same games that they sell for money, on an emulator, for free. This was the case with what happened with R4 cards and the Nintendo DS. However, in recent years it has become possible to play more recent emulators on the things we constantly carry around with us, our phones.
Emulation on Android Devices
With the rise of smartphones, mobile gaming has really taken off. However, in my opinion, there is no quality control with mobile games, and the online stores are full of what could be described as ‘shovelware’. Well, miraculously, you can even use emulators on modern mobile phones. Not only that but a cheap £40 Alcatel Android phone can even run an N64 emulator. Back twenty years ago, this would have seemed like witchcraft, and it truly is amazing to see a cheap phone running full 3D retro classics like Goldeneye 007, or Resident Evil 2.
All you need is a decent Bluetooth controller and you’re good to go. If you’ve got a long train ride across the country, the boredom problem is solved. Just whip out your phone and Bluetooth controller, and battle your way through the Water Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. There are loads of emulators for Android. The one that I use M64 Plus FZ has a nice layout, uses box art in the game library, and also allows you to play expansion pack exclusive games. It also works on a Chromebook. Not only can you play original games (in the form of ROMs) on emulators generally, but you can add texture packs to your games which can change the style and feel of a game.
Texture Packs and ROM Hacks
With increasing computer power, more detailed and advanced graphical effects in games become possible. As time progresses computers have become more and more powerful. For this reason, games on consoles like the Nintendo 64, and original Playstation now look dated. However, in 2023 there are highly detailed texture packs available for popular games that you can add to your ROM files, which can make games look much better. While you do need to know a bit about computers to add these files and make them work, if you achieve it, the games can look like games made in recent times (at least the textures, not the models).
Texture packs are available for games such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Super Mario 64. In Zelda’s case, you can get texture packs that make the game look more like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, or The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. ROM hacks are another phenomena that exist because of emulation. This is basically when the game’s code is altered. In-game text can be changed as well as new environment features. There are many ROM hacks of Pokemon games, that basically result in new fan games being created. If you’re interested check out some of the Pokemon ROM hacks. Some are meant to be worth playing despite not being official.
Nintendo’s Battle Against Piracy
Nintendo, as the company that introduced the ‘seal of quality’, and always sold its games at high prices has been known to vigorously fight against its systems being exploited. It is also one of the developers/publishers whose games don’t generally lose value over time. It’s fought against piracy since the early days of the NES.
Generally, it does well in this battle, for example, one of the reasons the Nintendo 64, didn’t follow in the footsteps of the PS1 and use discs, was that cartridges were harder to copy and fake compared to discs. The PS1 was easy to adapt to be able to play fake games, while the Nintendo 64 wasn’t. However, with the Nintendo DS and R4 cards, it could be argued that the pirates won. The Nintendo DS is the second best-selling videogame machine ever (after the Playstation 2 which was also easy to pirate), so things aren’t all bad for systems where piracy is easy.
Online updates on systems like the 3DS and Wii U check for hacked hardware, and if they find that anything has been messed with they can brick the system (which basically means it is unusable). While this works with hardware hacking, an R4 card, as it is read as a legit game cartridge, can’t be affected by these online updates. With the Switch, it has allegedly been hacked, so homebrew is possible, although from how things seem, piracy isn’t rife on the console.
To sum up, emulation has been around for over two decades. It allows people to experience old games for free. While this might not be honest, it at least allows for people who aren’t flush with cash to play games. If this helps vulnerable, or for want of a better word, ‘poor’ people to play some of the classics, which are valuable experiences, then that can’t be a bad thing.
Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft (possibly Nintendo the most) have a long legacy of fighting piracy on their systems, but to be honest, games are expensive, and the battle between the pirates and the hardware developers will probably continue long into the future. If you have the cartridge of Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Zelda: Majora’s Mask, or another classic and want to play it on your phone on the way to work, then emulating it wouldn’t be a bad option.