Remember the good old days of gaming, when there were only 5 pixels in the protagonist and your imagination could turn them into a heroic figure of Schwarzenegger proportions? When the enemies and the heroes were distinguished by colour and you only needed one button on the joystick? Well times have changed and technology has moved on. Pulling my old Commodore 64 or Atari out of the back of the cupboard and setting them up often takes more time than the nostalgic pang lasts. I’ve also noticed that some of my old disks are starting to age and become corrupted. Enter the Internet.
The wonderfully technologically gifted and giving Internet populace is out in force in their attempts to preserve the older side of gaming. Remakes and Emulators for almost any old machine can be found around the Internet. Emulators act as a layer between old software and new hardware allowing modern PCs to run programs that such hardware was never meant to see. Commodore 64, Amiga, NES, Master System, Arcade Machines and more have all been emulated and the necessary programs placed online for download, usually for free.
Emulation is not a new idea. I had a hardware emulator for the VIC20 that plugged into the back of my Commodore 64 and allowed the use of the older VIC20 cartridges with the new hardware (I never actually owned a VIC20 or any programs for it but that’s another issue). Emulator popularity has been fading in and out for many years, only coming into many people’s attention with the release of Bleem!, a PlayStation emulator for PC that was released while the PSOne still held a dominant share of the video game market. Bleemcast (a PlayStation emulator for the Sega Dreamcast) soon followed causing one of the more interesting video game legal battles as Sony fought to have the emulator shut down. However, the emulators have a strong following and very active user base.
Emulators are easy to find and download. Simply search for the system you want and add the word emulator to the end (e.g. “SNES Emulator”) and you’ll probably come up with a lot of hits. Be slightly wary as some emulator sites will either be false links or may contain pornographic ads. Setting the emulators up to run is usually fairly straightforward and there’s a fair chance that you’ll be able to find some documentation and help. Some of the newer systems require a BIOS image to be installed with the emulator. This is to get around the legal issues raised by Sony in the Bleem! legal battles by requiring you to be in possession of a PlayStation BIOS (and hence, presumably, a Playstation) in order to play the games on your computer. Making a BIOS image to load into your computer will most likely be beyond your technical expertise, but a quick check of your console’s case will reveal the file you need to get and then it’s as simple as searching the internet for a BIOS image that matches the BIOS you already own.
Of interest are the PC emulators now available. Windows no longer has very good support for older DOS-based games so there are a few emulators out there now to emulate the DOS environment. DOSBox (http://dosbox.sourceforge.net/) is probably the best known of the crop. There are also game-specific emulators such as ScummVM (www.scummvm.org) or DOOM Legacy (http://legacy.newdoom.com/) that focus specifically on certain games and hence are able to improve the experience for those particular titles.
Once you have yourself an emulator you’ll need to get yourself some programs to run with it. These programs are called ‘ROMs’ and are images of the original storage device that the program came on (be it a cartridge, tape, floppy or other). The process of creating a ROM is probably far too technical for the vast majority of computer users so you’re probably going to have to find a ‘backup’ from somewhere to download. This is where the venture gets slightly foggy. Basically the deal is that you can only have a program ROM if you own the original program. So if you have boxes of old Amiga disks, NES cartridges, or other old gaming programs stored away somewhere, you’re in luck, otherwise you’re treading on legally shifty ground. While it can easily be argued that the downloading of a 1987 computer game is of no real consequence to the company that has in all likelihood closed down, copyright doesn’t actually expire for 50 years and computer games just haven’t been around that long.