emulators or ROMsIf you're not a big gamer, then you've most probably haven't heard about emulators or ROMs. So, if you so wish, please allow me to tell you something about them both. On a basic level, an emulator is a piece of software stored on your computer (or another device, in some cases) that can be used to run console video games. A ROM, on the other hand, is a memory file dumped from a video game cartridge into a format that an emulator can read and run just like the real game. So, in effect, an emulator will load up whatever ROM file you feed it and replicate the console gaming experience right there on your PC. But in all honesty, they can do so much more than that.

At first, back in the 1990s, the goal was to find a way to run popular NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, and other games on your computer with a reasonable gaming experience. Over the years, features such as “save states” (the ability to save at any moment in a game and, if desired, reload to try again), the ability to take screenshots, the saving of instant replays, and a lot more were added to popular emulators. What’s more, modern emulators have the ability to “upscale” the resolution of various games to make them look good on modern displays (trust me, 320x240 looks pretty bad pixel-by-pixel on a large modern TV!) and they can take more modern games and scale them to insanely high resolutions for those who have a PC that can handle it.

There is a problem though: most of the ROM files that people download and play on their emulators are illegally obtained. Meaning: unless the person actually has a physical copy of the game they are downloading, they're committing software piracy. The way most websites that host emulators and ROMs get away with it is with a disclaimer that usually states something to this effect. Basically, the site itself accepts no responsibility for the use of the games hosted on it by those who do not have physical copies of the game. They legally consider that “ROMs” exist for “backup purposes”, and so by downloading those games, you are agreeing that you are only downloading them for that reason. Of course, that’s just to waive them of any liability in court because we know that many of the visitors to the site are just trying to get free games to enjoy.

Game Cartridges
Emulation itself, though, is completely legal. So long as the author of the emulation software hasn’t stolen any source code from the game console they're trying to replicate, it’s completely fine. In effect, it all comes down to the art of reverse engineering - if an emulator is built from the ground up, happens to be able to run commercial video games from a popular system, adds in a lot of unique features, and doesn’t steal any protected intellectual property in the process, everything is good to go.

Over the years, there have been a few legal challenges against emulation sites (particularly ROM hosting sites) mainly by companies with deep pockets. While some ROM hosting sites were ultimately shut down because of these types of lawsuits, most of them remain unscathed. Also, as far as I'm aware, no reverse-engineered emulator has ever been successfully shut down by a copyright claim from a major gaming company. In fact, emulation seems to be thriving these days with many exciting emulators out there to try.

So, what happens if you don’t own a game you are emulating, but you are downloading it for the purpose of evaluation? Back in the late-1990s, this was another justification for the hosting of ROM files. Sites argued, back then, that someone may want to download and try a game using one of their emulators for a period of 24 hours and they claimed this was a valid use of ROMs. Personally, I’m not sure that’s legally true, but if someone is really intending just to try a game for a little while, delete it, and then go out and buy a legitimate copy, I suppose that’s alright. I’ve done this with expensive computer programs before because I wanted to be completely sure that the software would do what I needed it to do, so in this light I think it would be okay.

Streets Of Rage
So, all legal questions aside, there are quite a few benefits I think that emulation offers. For one thing, when it comes to older games on the NES, Master System, SNES, or Sega Genesis, playing the physical cartridges (while certainly a cool experience!) puts wear and tear on aging cartridges and hardware. Emulation would let you enjoy those same classic games you already own and put no stress on any of your old memorabilia. Also, since it’s pretty easy to hook up a PC to a large screen, emulation no longer tethers you to a small laptop screen or desktop monitor. There are also the benefits discussed earlier when it comes to being able to render older games in more modern resolutions, cleaning up blurriness and resulting in a much crisper, sharper gaming experience. Seeing a game like “Super Mario Sunshine” rendered in 4K is something else, and if you can ever witness it, you’ll certainly see why it’s worth doing!

Emulation also makes it much easier to capture footage of older games for the purpose of streaming or doing “Let’s Play” videos. Most modern emulators work perfectly with capture software, allowing you to capture footage, add voice-over (or a webcam, if you want), and share your gaming fun with friends and others online. For purists, though, there are also capture devices that you can plug directly into old game systems that will capture footage to your PC, but if you are aiming for simplicity then an emulator is certainly the way to go.

Street Fighter
Another very unique advantage that emulators have is the ability to run various “ROM hacks,” which are basically games that have been fundamentally altered by various programmers to present you with an experience ranging from minor gameplay improvements to an all-out original gaming experience. ROM hacking though is another pretty expansive and deep concept, with its own legal questions behind it (but that might be a subject of a future article).

Emulators also exist that can run on your smartphone or tablet or even other gaming systems. Heck, back in the early-2000s, I used to use emulator software that you burned onto CDR discs for use on a Sega Dreamcast! Now, though, even the Sega Dreamcast would be considered a retro console!

Where things will go from here in the emulator scene is anyone’s guess, but it’s certainly clear that it is a vibrant community that is here to stay. Even if companies like Nintendo and Sony often have their own bones to pick with the existence of emulation software, it’s very clear that the features within freeware emulators have heavily inspired their use in official products, such as Nintendo’s NES Classic mini-console or their own “Nintendo Entertainment System” app on the Switch (which includes both graphics scaling and save states!). So, if fan-made emulation continues to positively inspire software development by the big guys, I’m certainly all for it!

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the topic. So please stay tuned for more crafty content coming your way, care of Jessica's Journey, as written by Joypad Jess from NerdyButFlirty.com.

EMULATORS AND ROMS - GAMING IN THE GREY EMULATORS AND ROMS - GAMING IN THE GREY Reviewed by David Andrews on January 15, 2019 Rating: 5

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