Unbranding the Sheep: Paid Emulators vs. Established Emulators

One of the main advantages of the recently released Nintendo Wii is the Virtual Console. This beautiful invention allows players – for anywhere from $5 to $10 USD – to download picture perfect copies of older games from the Nintendo Entertainment System to the Nintendo 64, with even some old PC Engine and Genesis/Mega Drive games thrown in for good measure. I’m sure that’s comforting to old-school Sega and NEC fanboys, that the games that they supported with such a bloodlust can be bought and played on a Nintendo system. But the fact of the matter is that they can, and although the lineup of available games in America and Europe sucks to what those lucky Japanese bastards can get (Fire Emblem!), it’s still impressive to have some of these games available at launch.

Now, I’m twenty-six years old. I grew up playing and replaying these games from year to year. I still play a lot of them, as all of my systems are still playable, going back to my Atari VCS. The best gift I ever received was my NES in May of 1987, with Mike Tyson’s Punch Out! and Mighty Bomb Jack. I still have that NES, almost 20 years later. I’d rather play Tecmo Super Bowl than Madden ’07. I have the New Super Mario Bros., and yet last Thursday, I went back and replayed the old Super Mario Bros., because it’s just more enjoyable to me. I love classic games, and have supported them over the years.

Therefore, it surprises me that with Nintendo’s success in this generation – and most likely, their survival as a console manufacturer on the line, lest they go the way of Sega – that they are not doing more to protect their investment in one of their money products, that being the older games that they keep releasing and rereleasing.

I am talking, of course, about the threat that console emulators, and the ROM images for those emulators, could possibly possess to the Virtual Console.

Now, before I begin, a disclaimer: I am not condoning console emulation, nor will I tell anyone where to get the emulators, nor the ROM images. Furthermore, not only do I own just about every worthwhile compliation out there – and plan on picking up the new Konami and Genesis compliations sometime this week or next – but when I get my Wii, I will likely drop a shitload of money on the VC, getting all the good games that I can handle.

But it’d be foolhardy to ignore the fact that console emulators – for Windows, Linux and Mac – are not only readily available, but actually have been for years. I admit that the first time I played Final Fantasy V wasn’t when it was released for the PS1, but back in 1997, with a fan-made translation. It blew my mind that it was possible back then, and nowadays, the technology has gotten better to the point where you can literally find working emulators for the Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64, among other systems.

Furthermore, not only is it possible to play these games, in some cases, it’s possible to play them with benefits that the original consoles didn’t give. Most emulators support savestates, which allow you to save a game at anytime, and pick it up later from that very exact moment. Imagine playing an RPG which doesn’t allow you to save in a dungeon; problem solved. Plus, some emulators come with native cheat support that support devices such as Game Genie and Gameshark, and in some cases, they have hex editors that allow math-savvy users to find their own codes, and actually hack the ROM image to their liking. This has allowed another advantage of commercial emulators: fan translations. As someone that used to run the largest English based Fire Emblem community on the internet, I can’t stress how much these translations meant to said community. Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy, Tales of Phantasia… all of them have become popular more or less due to fan translations, playable on emulators. Finally, some emulators support network play, either over an internal lan, or over the internet. Of all the things that the Wii could have provided for it’s older games, the lack of online play will hurt it the worst; name recognition of old Mario games only gets you so far, especially when XBox Live is offering their own classic games, with it’s own online support.

So what can Nintendo do to protect one of it’s cash cows? Actually, Nintendo has been doing what it could for years. There is already a group dedicated to protecting the rights of software companies, called the Entertainment Software Association, formerly known as the IDSA, and more commonly known, and henceforth referred to, as they ESA. On some “legit” ROM sites; they took down ROMs – and in some case, references – to specific games and series that the ESA protects on their request. Most of these fall into big name games, such as anything having to do with Zelda, Pokemon, Mario and the like, to certain movie licenses, such as anything having to do with 007. However, a quick check of one site’s banned list – and their games – show that many big-name games – even some of Nintendo’s – are still available, and some of said games are even available for the Virtual Console, such as Ice Hockey, Urban Champion, F-Zero and Kid Icarus (though, with Super Smash Bros. Brawl coming out, plans for a new game and the coming release of the VC title, I don’t expect Kid Icarus to stay up there for long). Furthermore, the entire Genesis collection of VC titles is available, and for people that really want to find them, there are certainly sites that don’t play by the rules of the ESA.

So what can Nintendo – and other affiliated companies with a stake in the VC – do about this? Sadly, Nintendo couldn’t be reached for comment due to them being too busy worrying about the massive Wii launch, but it seems they have two options: they could keep everything going the way it has, and ask the ESA to keep the big names – or games that they’re directly profiting from – off of the ROM sites while publically calling all ROMs, as well as their emulators, illegal, figuring that the problem is not only too big to contain, but also potentially lucrative, in the form of fan translation interest.

Their second option would be to pressure the ESA to take the stance that it’s contemporaries in the MPAA and RIAA have taken, that being the shotgun tactic; shoot everyone, ask questions later. While probably idealistic to some Nintendo executives, as well as some executives in other companies that have a stake in the VC (I’m sure Konami will be interested), this would be disasterous, as the negative PR would override any benefit in closing down ROM sites, especially as most of them are in countries where the ESA’s – and America’s – influence don’t reach. Furthermore, such a campaign would go against all the good that the ESA does for the video game world, such as supporting independant developers, supporting the under-fire ESRB, and most importantly, taking on the government’s efforts to regulate and censor the video game industry and it’s games. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why they have not tried a hardcore takedown on the level of the MPAA and RIAA; those two organisations are practically in the government’s pockets while the ESA goes AGAINST the government. It would explain how those two companies get away with the illegal, immoral bully tactics they use…

So what should the gamer do? Should he continue to plunk down money for 20 year old games, or should he emulate them? Sadly, this is a loaded question; on the one hand, it does seem a little bit rediculous that we’d have to pay $5 for Ice Climber after paying $20 to play it on the GBA, and for the older gamers, paying $40 back in the ’80s. The fact that all of these games are direct ports of the NES title – warts and all – is both an endearingly positive and a negative thing for the newer versions of the games; gamers want the gameplay they came to know and love in the ’80s and ’90s, but they also want the options that modern technology bring. Gamers want to be able to play against people online, and post high scores to leaderboards; the Wii Console does not allow this. In reality, the VC basically uses today’s technology for two things: taking gamers’ money, and the promise of additional features in the future. In a way, it is very much like Apple’s iTunes, and not always in the best of ways.

But on the other hand, emulating the games is risky on more than one level. For one, most ROM sites are of terrible quality, with popups, tracking cookies and advertising that even put our own Inside Pulse to shame. Some go lower, by linking people to known spyware sites, or forcing gamers to download ActiveX controlls for Internet Explorer which are, in almost every sense of the words, either malware or a virus. Furthermore, by downloading and playing ROMs, gamers are literally taking money out of Nintendo’s pocket, and telling them that they will not support their efforts at emulation… and therefore, that new attempts to improve the experience should not be pursued. I’m sure that Nintendo would love to use that money to go on what can be considered an anti-pirate Jihad.

It definately is a sticky situation for all involved; gamers have to keep supporting the efforts of companies that are putting out these old classics in order to tell them that they want the efforts furthered, but on the other hand, giving $5 to $10 a pop is no guarantee that Nintendo will improve the service, and in reality, it could end up like a situation, in the music industry, where people bought music infected with Windows Media Player DRM from companies like Yahoo! Music and Napster, just to find out that Microsoft’s own Zune won’t play said files, and that gamers would have to essentially buy the music again, or face the wrath of the RIAA if they tried to download it through illegal (read: non-approved) methods. Do gamers that are computer savvy, and have been emulating games for years, continue to do so, or do they trust a company that once intentionally shorted supply of it’s own games to create a false demand? That’s some Zen-like shit.

Personally, I see potential for the Wii Virtual Console to be improved, and therefore, it should be supported. Like I said, when I get my Wii, the VC will be one of the areas that I drop the majority of my Wii related money into. And if I may be allowed to make a personal plea to Nintendo, the day you translate and release Fire Emblem: Monshou no Nazo to North America is the day I buy your Wii, and not a day later. In the meantime, I’m sure enough gamers will support the VC – with either the lack of knowledge about emulation or the unwillingness to take chances – that the perceived threat of traditional emulators and their ROM images will not even make a noticeable dent in Nintendo’s profits.

Finally, for gamers that want to play classic games legally, but don’t feel like going on a per-diem basis, or going out to get compliations at $20 a pop, might I recommend Gametap. The amount of games this thing has – 752 as of this writing – are unbelievable, and for $6.95 a month, you can play anything from old Atari VCS games to arcade titles from all generations, going up to almost new PC titles and Dreamcast games. Best of all, they get the new Sam and Max games before anyone else. Furthermore, it supports a lot of the things – savestates, multiple controller support, etc – that classic emulators have, and to top it off, they have a top notch support staff. There’s also an instant messenging system, as well as support for AIM, and even a way to play against people that improves by the day. Anyone that has Gametap, make sure to look for “superbus”.