Inside Pulse 12

Retro-Grading 12.27.02

Okay. Bottom line, this is about bootlegging, using emulators, and the like. It make sense Retrograding should be the column to cover this aspect of gaming because 99% of the time, emulators are used for old games. I’m going to be fair to both sides however, and allow you the reader to come to your own decision. The bottom line with the topic is that it comes down to a choice of Ethics, and thus there is no true right or wrong answer.

Emulators. There are two camps in the hardcore gaming world. The first primarily uses emulators for old games and even fansubbed versions of games that are out in Japan so they can play them ahead of time. The other group is adamantly opposed to Emulators as it’s bordering on the realm of illegal and takes money away from the creators of the games.

You can find emulators all over the web, but I’m not going to give any sites out here simply to keep this column in a shade of gray. I’ll be honest and say that since I own 14 systems and a crapload of games for each, I don’t use emulators. I don’t have a need to. I’ve got the games in the original form. But a lot of people can’t afford to keep their old systems, buy the massive amount of great games for them, or sold them long ago and now can’t find them anywhere. I sold a copy of Radiant Silvergun this summer for 150$. I paid the equivalent of 30$ when it came out. And that’s not unusual. Try buying Panzer Dragoon Saga, Shining Force 3: Part 2, and on and on. Gamers simply can’t afford the copies that still exist. And that’s where Emulator’s come in.

As the companies no longer produce the game, having fan emulated copies on the web don’t affect them financially. After all, all the copies of Blazing Rangers were made years ago. Sega will never see a dime from the ones sold on Ebay, so in truth, how different is it if the person who won that game went own, made a ROM emulation of it, and distributed it for free on the web? This way no one has to pay for the game and everyone can enjoy what a masterpiece it was.

But in truth, it’s not so easy. There are copyright and trademark laws out there, and any replication of a game that does give royalties is technically illegal. Now you might say, “If the games are going out for free, the companies cut would be a percentage of zilch.’ But that’s not true. A perfect example of copyright law in this case comes from the music industry. When a singer covers another song, they have to pay that artist royalties. Madonna has made 99% of what she will over her nearly 20-year-old pop songs, and Kelly Osbourne’s horrible cover will take nothing away from the millions of albums she already has sold, but she still gets a cut. Even if the song had been banned on the airwaves and hadn’t made a dime, Kelly and her label would still have to pay Madonna a lot of cashola for the right to cover her song.

As all these companies don’t receive a dime, there is the breach of copyright law. But are these corporations really going to care if they don’t receive a few hundred dollars so that people can play Mutant League Football across the web against each other? Will it really affect the zillions of dollars that the industry makes every year? And most importantly, if these companies really care about their consumers and truly love the industry, wouldn’t they be happy to see their no longer published classics gain new life and allow nostalgia to run wild? One word for you people: SEGA.

Why did the Saturn and Dreamcast die so quickly? It’s not because the hardware wasn’t better. The Saturn was technologically superior to the PSX. Marvel Vs Capcom is all the proof you need there. The Dreamcast could do a lot of things that the PS2 couldn’t, and that has been shown by games that are own both systems. Crazy Taxi, Space Channel 5, Grandia 2, and on and on. Games for both systems were always superior on the DC. (But the PS2 is a bitch to program for and the DC was very programmer friendly and that is a big part of the reason.). So why did the systems die? Sega’s Genesis actually did better than the Super Nintendo in terms of library and overall world wide sales. So how could their two next gen systems die so quickly?

Two reasons. The first is bad marketing. The Saturn was geared towards hardcore gamers: The only kind that were really around in the Mid 90’s. Yes, casual gaming was climbing, but video games still were a stereotype of the Decker-Wannabe and geeks across the globe. Sony can be thanked for making video games primarily a casual user market (and I’d bitch about the quality of games going down right here because of that, but I won’t) , but as Sega had their system geared to a much smaller audience, it was doomed to come in second. Simply a matter of numbers. The second problem was that this is when Emulation caught on big time. And people started emulating old NES and Master System games. And no company really commented on it. Both Sega and Sony were more concerned with Hong Kong Bootlegs than anything else. But then a funny thing happened. Sega Saturn games that had just come out were appearing on the web as Emulations. And not surprisingly, sales plummeted. The moral/legal issues of emulations weren’t around then, as it was a relatively new concept to the majority of gamers. The Web exploding and before the WWW fascination hit, emulators were nigh impossible to get. All gamers knew was that they could find free games instead of paying 50-70$ for a disc, and 40$ for a RAM cartridge and 200$ for a system that would be obsolete in 3 years. It seemed like a winning situation.

Now I won’t pretend to know why the Saturn was hit so badly and the PSX wasn’t. The Saturn is supposedly the hardest system to program for and why it was so much easier to find Emulations of their new games and PSX ones were rare by comparison is a question I have to sadly leave unanswered. If you the reader know, feel free to tell me and If it’s not a Sony conspiracy theory. I’ll add it to my next column. But the fact remains that those two aspects of gaming changing killed the Saturn dead. Yes their was more, but when you talk to SEGA employees, the tandem of misjudging the new market and Emulators is what killed them.

And the same thing killed the Dreamcast as well. The Dreamcast used a different kind of CD to prevent piracy and emulation. It was still geared towards the hardcore market, and also gave us online gaming (The Saturn did do it first, but it sucked royally.). But now there was a new problem. Sega was synonymous with LOSING the last VG war. It also was still geared towards hardcore gamers which were now a very tiny niche market compared to the people playing Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon. And to top it all off, a crapload of people figured out how to get around SEGA’S new CD system and you could find DC emulations on the web almost a week after the games came out. A friend offered me the Japanese version of 18 Wheeler with the Net capacity still on a week after the game came out. I still get offers about once a month from Emulators for copies of my Vampire Chronicles and Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo X for Matching Service and the DC has been dead for years. Once again Emulators by refusing to buy games for whatever reason help bury 2 Sega CD systems like HHH burying everyone else on the WWE roster. And because of that, Sega is now software only. And you gamers who only buy new are stuck with Sony and Microsoft. Two companies that are widely known for not giving a flaming f*ck about their customers and are only concerned with dollars and profits. You had better get on your knees and pray that Nintendo never follows their route, because without them every hardcore gamer is going to be felched.

At the same time one has to argue, Sega killed itself. 70$ for a new Phantasy Star game. 200$ for Segagaga or the Sakura Taisen boxed set? Sega made a lot of weird business decisions and although they kept pushing the boundaries of gaming in every way possible, they were too concerned with creation and not enough towards the business and money making aspect, thus making the entire company too naïve to stay in the hardware business. And now, especially that it is dead, if someone can make an emulation of say, Sakura Taisen, and give it a Japanese to English patch, how can that hurt anyone? Sega was never going to release the series to America, were they? Especially not now. And if someone can IMPROVE the game so that millions of people who never knew the game existed could now have access to it, how can that be bad in any way shape or form. If anything it will create a cult following trying to get that game or a later version released on a next Gen system in English.

The bottom line is that the video game market knows that Software is where the real money lies. The hardware rarely ever turns a profit. It’s the software that rakes in the cash. So when emulators of old games like Captain America and the Avengers or Arcade games never released for consoles or even Japanese games that never made it to the states (like Capcom’s Dungeon and Dragons collection) appear on the web, no one seems to get pissed. And that’s because the companies don’t make money of it. Are the emulators illegal? In a perfectly legal sense? Yes. Is any company really going to sue for a few hundred dollars? Well, Sony will. Look at Bleemcast and their attempts to kill that. But that was for emulating/converting CURRENT games. Things they can make money on. Not old games. So making emulations and even running a site for them is pretty safe and easy to do, even if it is something you could be fined for. But the chances of getting in trouble for it is like dubbing a copy of a VHS tape for a friend to have. No one actually gets prosecuted for it, and no one probably ever will. And everyone does it and companies turn a blind eye to it. It’s one of those little illegalities that no one cares about at the end of the day.

But when you see people emulating new games, or worse, SELLING those emulations on the web or on burned discs, that there is a huge problem legally. After all, you’re taking a current game and burning it or putting it on the web and keeping a company from making a potential profit. Now that amount the emulation takes away is minuscule, but it still freaks the corporations out and that’s what gets them to actual shut down some emulation sites. In fact, it’s this growing practice of emulating current, and even games not actually out yet, that is making the industry go after sites that only emulate old, no longer published games. To be honest nothing pisses me off more than to go to Gamefaqs.com and see boards filled with people talking about using emulators for games that aren’t coming to the states for months and months. Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire is by far the worst, and it’s all the more sickening when GBA games are relatively cheap compared to console games. And most of the people have no intention of buy the game when it comes to America in English. They just want the game for free for whatever stupid reason they have.

Yeah, that pisses me off. It’s like the people on Ebay who go to fansub anime sites, download the episodes then SELL them! I do not want to see any Video Game franchise go the route of the Sega hardware systems. If a few dozen people play an emulator of a current game, it doesn’t do much at all. Little profit is lost, and market surveys and Stats don’t change. But when thousands plus start playing emulators instead of buying the game, it shows in the profit margin and some companies choose not to put out sequels because of it. Sure Pokemon will always churn stuff out like Final Fantasy and Street Fighter does, but it’s still a noticeable dent. And before someone emails me and says I’m overreacting, tell that to Sega.

So people, keep using your emulators. If you don’t have a Neo Geo, you shouldn’t have to play 500$+ for a game of Samurai Showdown. And SNK no longer exists so the legality of using an emulation of their games gets even more into a grey area. Companies don’t lose anything from it, and if you don’t find anything ethically wrong with taking a free game you won’t get otherwise, then do it. I’m not your judge, and I won’t think less of you for it. But if you see a ROM of Golden Sun 2 or any other game you know is about to come out, or is actually on the shelves, don’t download it. It may be free and easy to access, but it’s still illegal and hurting someone financially. Not necessarily the Corporation, but the designers, the developers, and the actual people who put their blood, sweat, and tears into the game. It’s their creation and they deserve financial success for it, even if it is a piece of crap like Oddworld. If you really don’t want to shell out 50 bucks for something, you rent it people. It’s that bloody easy.

And before anyone asks me about mod chips and how it relates to this article, yes I think it’s perfectly fair that Sega and XboX and some software companies have put anti-mod feature sin their systems and that the chip nulls your warranty. I own Japanese Saturn and boot discs, which are legal and sold in Video Game Stores like Electronics Boutique. Mod Chips are like Emulators and thus I won’t touch them.