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Emulation: Where Next?

The ability to run retro games on your computer (or phone/hacked console/calculator) via an emulator is nothing new, and has traditionally been a peeve to publishers but a godsend to fans. Yet no-one can deny the impact emulation has had on reviving games from long ago. Emulators exist for just about every console from the ZX Spectrum to the Xbox, Game Boy to DS and have been ported onto every platform that shows the slightest sign on being homebrew capable. Legalities aside, emulation negates the need to hunt down rare expensive classics like The Legend of Zelda and makes every game available to generations.

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So how legal are they then? Generally, emulators in their own right are fully legal. The actual games needed to run the emulator, ROM or ISO files, are not as they have to be downloaded illegally unless they’re your own back-ups. The intention is that the emulator is only being made for homebrew or public domain ROM files. Yeah, right. Furthermore, for more recent consoles like the PlayStation, you need a BIOS file that is illegal to distribute. Legally you have to dump it from your own console.

Yet it’s only been fairly recently when publishers had capitalised on their back catalogues that they despised being file-shared for free. The noughties has seen many publishers back catalogues released into compilations, notably the Sega Mega Drive Collection, Sonic Mega Collection, various Final Fantasy re-releases and Midway Arcade Treasures amongst others, whilst many SNES titles saw re-releases on the technically similar Game Boy Advance. But before they were a rare phenomena when the introduction of 3D meant the death of 2D to many.

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The ability to download games cheaply has become the perfect platform for retro games, as fans can satisfy their nostalgia for a fiver. Nintendo’s Virtual Console service offers one of the few good reasons to own a Wii with a large foray of titles from the NES, SNES and Nintendo 64 alongside its competing formats, such as the Sega Master System, Mega Drive and Turbografx-16. The PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade have hundreds of HD remakes as well as downloadable PSone titles and Xbox originals on offer, with the latter more limited in choice.

Console emulation has a fair history, and it’s not an easy task to accomplish. The newer the format, the harder it gets. Formats up to the SNES and Mega Drive exist on any programmable platform, be it a mobile, on a DS, Linux, whatever. The PlayStation and Nintendo 64 are very much complete, save for the occasional incompatibility, although less so for the Sega Saturn. We have a lot to thank to the hard-working people who have spent years of their spare time learning the workings of a console to programme the emulators, and this nature has meant that they don’t reach completion until the actual consoles twilight years at least.

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However, consoles made since then are work in progress at best, taking longer to reach completion than previously. Furthermore, you need a computer with a lot of juice. The best Dreamcast emulator, nullDC, is hit and miss with compatibility but will run well on an average gaming PC. The PlayStation 2 emulator, PCSX2, can run games at full speed with sound; Final Fantasy X works flawlessly on my MacBook Pro but lagged on other games. According to its own compatibility list half of the tested games are fully playable and a further quarter at least get to some in-game action. The GameCube/Wii emulator Dolphin has a handful of fully playable titles (Super Smash Brothers Melee works a treat) but things are limited on the Xbox, with Cxbx hosting 3 fully playable titles (although this was from a test list of 23), a surprise when its similarities with PC hardware led many to believe it would be the easiest to emulate.

That’s not to discredit the authors who write them, as they have done a fantastic job in reverse-engineering what is complex hardware. Newer platforms are harder to emulate, and take longer to be written, and have been the result of dedicated enthusiasts. Even the Xbox 360’s software-driven backward compatibility has its limits and the PS3’s was fairly dodgy to the extent it was eventually dropped. Given this however, where is it next for console emulation? Dolphin can emulate the Wii due to its hardware similarities to the GameCube. But with the Xbox 360 having passed its fourth birthday, and the PS3 nearing its third, word has yet to come through of any emulators being developed, whilst previous gen systems were released 8-10 years ago are still under construction. Furthermore, there is also the hardware issue. Taking a very rough guess it takes at least ten times the processing power of the original console to emulate it. A fast gaming computer today would run 2-3 times faster than a PlayStation 3, so it’s some time before computers will reach ten times its power.

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Emulation is great, legal or not, but maybe the ability to run PS3 or 360 games on our computer won’t matter for some time. Consoles are reaching their peak graphically, improving the visuals further are will make development costs rocket for what will be diminishing returns. Consoles are going sideways, looking for new ways to innovate. The Xbox 360 has Project Natal coming up and a huge emphasis has been placed on online communities such as PS3’s Home, Xbox 360 Achievements and Avatars. If there doesn’t appear to be any new consoles on the horizon, then maybe it won’t matter so much that we can’t emulate these consoles yet. At least there won’t be any red rings of death on a 360 emulator.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2009.

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