Emulation 101:
Classic Gaming
on the PC

   - Keita Iida


Atari 2600

Atari 5200 /

8-Bit Computers


GCE Vectrex


Multi Platform


Emulation Links


Say the word "retro" and see what your friends pull out of their closets: First you'll hear the sounds of Andy Gibb and the Bee Gees singing "Staying Alive," next you'll see your girlfriend in platform shoes and bell-bottoms, and from some dank corner of the closet will waft the musty, mold-like scent of the broken lava lamp fluid that you neglected to dispose of. What's missing here? Unless you were a collector, chances are that your old video games went off in a box to a local Amvets or became inexpensive hand-outs at your family's garage sale. When we think retro, we think of our favorite classic video games. But we can't really play them without an old Atari or Colecovision console, or worse yet, an actual coin-op, can we?

Now we can. Boot up a game of 2600 Yars' Revenge on your Pentium PC at full screen, with sound coming out of the speakers via your Sound Blaster sound card. No cartridges. No dusty old game console or bands of video interference. No broken controllers. No humongous arcade cabinets taking up valuable space in your living room, to the dismay of your significant other. And all for free -- so long as you have a PC or a Mac (there are versions of emulators available for Amiga, Atari ST and others, but we won't get into that). Sounds too good to be true? If you have the Stella emulator and ROM images of your favorite games, you can play the classics on your keyboard via the computer programming magic of Emulation.

For the uninitiated, an "emulator" in gaming terms refers to the replication of the hardware of a gaming machine, computer or coin-op via the use of software on a computer. If the emulator works properly, a person can run a "ROM image" (a diskette-stored copy of cartridge game data) and play the game just as it looked before, but even better -- there's no video interference to speak of, and the picture is as clear as anything else on your computer's monitor.

Until recently, the only hitch was that there was no single program that allowed you to play every old game for every old console: most emulators were (and still are) console or computer-specific in nature, and a number of skilled coders have successfully been able to emulate classic video game systems and computers from the Atari 2600 to the comparatively complex Commodore Amiga. That's quickly changing, however, with the release of such multi-platform emulators like MESS, MAME and others. Anyhow, if you download an emulator for a specific gaming platform and find the binaries of the games that work with the unit, you can then play that platform's games on your computer! Best of all, the vast majority of emulators are freeware and thus are available for download from various web and FTP sites. On the coin-op side, emulators for both specific individual classic coin-operated arcade video games and even multiple arcade games have even begun to appear, so gamers can now use their PCs to play arcade-perfect versions of Pengo, Mr. Do!, Donkey Kong and Space Duel. Other multi-format emulators have already begun to appear as well.

Various emulators have been available for free downloading for over two or three years, but early attempts at emulating machines such as the Commodore 64 and the Sinclair Spectrum computer were hampered by the limitations of 386-based computers which were running the emulators. It was more effective to fire up the old C-64 than it was to play the games at half of their natural speed via emulation. A combination of advancements in computer technology and an increase in knowledgeable programmers have spurred the advancement and viability of emulators, and the recent explosion of interest in classic video games has provided inspiration for many programmers who were looking for a challenge that was both rewarding and fun. Lax enforcement of ten-year old Coleco and Atari copyrights have made it possible for ROM images of virtually every classic game to circulate freely on the Internet, and as a result, we are now quickly reaching the point where playing Superman on an Atari emulator is virtually the same as popping the cartridge version of the game into the Atari 2600 for an all-night gaming session.

Several hobbyists who still program games for classic game systems have also benefitted from the emulator boom. Kevin Horton, for example, did the bulk of the testing of his Colecovision game Kevtris using the ColEm Colecovision emulator. If he had been forced to develop the game through old-fashioned means, he would have had to copy the game data from his computer onto custom-designed battery-backed RAM cartridges in order to test the game. Instead, it was possible for him to pass the data via the Internet to a number of game testers who then tried the game on ColEm, saving considerable time and money in the development process.

Is there a downside to emulators? Strictly speaking, distributing or selling game ROM images of actual game code is illegal for the vast majority of games. Even downloading the ROMs and playing them in the privacy of your own PC is considered technically illegal if you don't own the actual game, athough companies such as Smith Engineering (makers of the Vectrex) have given permission for Vectrex vector titles to be circulated freely so long as no profit is made on their distribution. More likely than not, however, games you remember will still be the property of their publishers or developers, and even though legal action against a hobbyist who passes on a ROM image to a friend is unlikely, the possibility exists that a company interested in profiting further from a game title might take action to stop the distribution of games to which they lay claim. We've already begun to witness the crackdown by the Interactive Digital Software Association (ISDA) of major emulator sites which had ROMs available for download. We cannot advise you that game copying is legal, moral or even socially acceptable, so it's something you'll have to decide on your own time.

For those interested in some of the finer emulators currently available for major classic home video game systems, we've provided a list of the better PC-compatible programs. Due to the sheer number of emulators out there, we're not going to begin to try and cover them all. And we're restricting ourselves to the coverage of classic-era machines. For wide-ranging info on emulators for such consoles as Neo Geo, SNES and PlayStation, check out some of the finer general emulator information sites.

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