Emulation and video game piracy: is it really that bad?
I’ve been frequently streaming again on Twitch, and one of the games that I’m currently playing is a Gameboy Advance game, or rather a ROM hack of Pokémon Emerald called Pokémon Glazed. I’m playing this ROM hack through an emulator… which basically means I’m pirating software doesn’t it? Emulation and the pirating of (retro) games have been a heavily discussed topic for quite a while and still one that pops up frequently–be it through Nintendo’s many lawsuits against sites such as Emuparadise, or the actual users of emulators themselves. While I very rarely use emulators outside of Twitch, I do have a lot of experience with them from when I was younger with the mindset being ”I can play any game I want for free? Sign me and the rest of the world up!”. Now that I am older and also an avid game collector, I figured this would be a good time as any to look at this topic and give an opinion myself.
Of course, starting an article with a controversial title as this has to be started with some explanation. The usage of emulators (or emulation in general) is not piracy; it encourages piracy. The actual downloading of the games, ROM or ISO files themselves is considered piracy, and rightfully so. After all, you’re downloading software for free that was initially sold for money. Unsurprisingly, I’m of the opinion that downloading games illegally is equal to piracy, and I do not support that.
However, allow me to rephrase that sentence to show a different side of the coin: I’m of the opinion that downloading games illegally that are still being published physically- or digitally and can be bought first-hand is equal to piracy. This changes everything because when it comes to emulation, we are often talking about retro games from systems such as the Nintendo Entertainment System and the PlayStation lineup of consoles. Several games are still being re-released to this day; after all, what Nintendo console doesn’t play Super Mario Bros.? But what about the games that are still stuck on their original console to this day?
“You should purchase a game to support the original developer(s)” is the #1 sentence that is used as a defence against piracy, and I agree… for games that are still being published physically- or digitally and can be bought first-hand. This sentence is the most right- yet wrong argument when it comes to emulation because it highly depends on the context, and I’m going to say this right now: buying games second-hand does not support the developers; it supports the sellers’ bank account. I love how obvious this sounds because it really does, so let’s put that into context for games that can not be bought first-hand anymore.
buying games second-hand does not support the developers; it supports the sellers’ bank account.
Little Samson. Castlevania Legends. The Quintet trilogy consisting of Soulblazer, The Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma. I just grabbed a few random titles that I personally own, except for the first one. All of these are games that have become scarce, and are now being sold for high prices–especially Little Samson which is one of the rarest NES games ever, selling easily for 400 euros or more. What these games all have in common, is that none have ever seen a re-release. So if you want to play this game legally, you better go pay someone your monthly savings to own a game that was sold at the time for the same price as any other on their respective systems.
This is silly; of course you shouldn’t pay a grand just to play a game that has (sometimes artificially) shot up in price due to scarcity or even worse: scalpers. None of these games are worth over-spending for, however good they may be. Why should you support someone unrelated to the development- or publishing of the game that much money just to play a game? This is a whole different topic and I’m kind of going off-track, but it does enforce one point: if the games are not made available through official means on modern platforms, then how else are we going to play them but emulation?
So my personal opinion (not a factual opinion) on pirating video games essentially comes down to yes, piracy is bad, but only for games that are still being sold first-hand physically- or digitally. And even then it’s arguable because if you’re buying Super Mario World now, you’re supporting the corporation, not the people who were around at the time to make this particular game. But this statement can basically go on forever for both sides, so let’s keep it at my initial opinion. Now that we’ve come to my personal conclusion on piracy for video games, let’s move on to emulation since that’s what initially sparked this idea.
Putting piracy aside, I will always support the idea of emulation. Not only does it give more people the chance to play games they might have missed out on, but there is a less straight-to-the-face purpose behind it as well: game preservation. All the games I mentioned earlier are good examples because they aren’t distributed anymore, and if ROMs were never archived before now, there is a good chance a huge amount of people might have missed out on Little Samson. Why would any of the people who own this highly sought-after game go through many hoops- and loops to preserve this game for other people? Not only that, but old systems- and games are slowly- but surely dying. PlayStation 1 discs are beginning to rot, and 8-bit consoles are having their own multitude of problems. After all, none of these consoles were meant to live on forever, but they do have games that are still stuck on there.
I should also stress that emulation doesn’t just exist for games that were sold to the public, or that were even released. The above video by Nick Robinson is an excellent recent example of a game that we were never meant to play, but we can now due to game preservation. Whether you agree with us being able to play something exclusively designed for up-and-coming McDonald’s employees is a good thing or not (even though McDonald’s themselves helped out with getting this game archived), it remains a fact that if a group of dedicated people didn’t hunt for this game, it would eventually be lost forever.
And the funny thing about this McDonald’s game example is that it segues nicely into my next point, because it’s not just old games or games unreleased to the public that are being preserved. Even cancelled games and prototypes get preserved, such as the Pokémon Spaceworld 1997 Demo; an original concept for Pokémon Gold and Silver. But this prototype, just like the McDonald’s game, were all exclusive to Japan. This is where the fans come in, who can modify the ROM (or rather, create a patch due to legality issues) so that even we can read and understand the game. Some fans even go the extra mile and expand on the original cancelled games or prototypes and “finish” them. The fan content is what I personally most use emulators for, because I couldn’t play them on the original systems anyway.
The ROM hacking community is actually one that I’ve been in since I was very young. I even attempted to create my own ROM hack of a Pokémon game multiple times, taking inspiration from the Nintendo Gamecube games where I would replace the shiny variants of the creatures with their shadow counterpart. I was an edgy teen after all. And while my ROM hack never really got beyond creating a few unique maps- and sprites that never saw the public eye (and ones that I unfortunately don’t have anymore), I was interested in creating my own game due to the massive amount of creations that other people have made. The ROM hacks of Pokémon are definitely my main territory as I’ve played a lot of them, but there are so many ROM hacks of the Mario and Mega Man games as well for example. Sometimes there are even simple modifications, like adjusting the pitch of Mega Man II’s soundtrack to make you not want to rip out your ears. In short, because ROM hacking is an entirely different topic: fans do what Nintendon’t. And other companies but that wouldn’t work with the slogan.
Which is probably another nice segue into how I personally feel about emulators, and how I use them–and this time without the legality stuff. That’s actually an interesting question, since my mentality always used to be the following: “It feels better to play games physically on their own platform”. I do still feel that way for sure, but the older consoles having more issues nowadays is not something I want to deal with. That, and my room just isn’t made for console gaming right now; it’s just not comfortable. This is also the reason why most of my reviews tend to be PC games instead of the massive backlog of Xbox 360 games I still need to go through. I will probably always prefer playing on an actual console over an emulator, but the advantage emulation has is way easier accessibility. And heck, I can stream whatever is on my PC to my TV, so it still feels like I’m actually playing on a console.
I will probably always prefer playing on an actual console over an emulator, but the advantage emulation has is way easier accessibility.
Emulators also work on systems such as the PSP, Nintendo 3DS and of course our smartphones, so you can play even more games on the go now that would probably require a more bulky system otherwise. I also own an emulation device called the Retro Freak, and while I’m overall happy with it, it’s exactly what it sounds like: an emulation device. Sure, it can take my cartridges so the legality issue isn’t here anymore, but I might as well just download emulators which is still far easier and more comfortable to do. I always followed the mindset of ”I only play games that I actually own”, and that is also still the case except for games that have gotten an unofficial translation by fans (such as The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero). While I’m slowly dropping that mindset due to what I mentioned earlier about retro games being highly overpriced, I also have more than enough games in my backlog so I don’t really need to play games I don’t own.
Finally for me, a convincing argument to play on emulators over the original system is something very personal, which also makes the circle go round again as I started this article talking about streaming. If you want to legally stream retro games, it’s going to cost you a lot of effort and money which is just not worth it for me. I’m a beginner streamer after all, not a professional who earns money through his hobbies. I do actually own a capture device and it does work on my Retro Freak but as stated before, my room is not made for gaming–especially not if there’s also a ton of cables lying around when streaming. And aside from emulation being more beneficial for streaming, there’s also another objective that I have: Retro Achievements.
What exactly is Retro Achievements? The name basically says it all, but it comes down to making an achievement set for retro games a la Xbox Achievements or PlayStation Trophies. I am a known achievement hunter, and the basis of my streams are to 100% complete games, including achievements. Retro Achievements is therefore my best option for retro games and since I’m emulating to stream anyway, I would be stupid not to use the site. It’s the same emulators that are always used, but they have an overlay now for achievements (that also make a nice jingle upon achieving them). This site is entirely run by fans, and anyone with programming knowledge can create an achievement set. This gives me an entirely new experience when playing through these games and I love it. I’ve actually been using this site for multiple years now, though I’ve started from scratch for my streams with the aim to 100% complete every game that I come across for everyone to watch!
And now that I’ve read my entire opinion again, I think I can come to a definitive personal conclusion on the question asked in the title. Illegally downloading games is, as the name applies, illegal. I do not support it… but I do make an exception for games that you can’t get first-hand anymore. You should never have to pay a ridiculous amount of cash to a reseller just because the game has become scarce–unless you really want to of course. And as for emulation: I support it 100%. Not only does it give us benefits such as game preservation and easy accessibility, but emulators themselves aren’t piracy–that’s the games you download for them. But through emulation, we’ve been able to play so many fan creations and fan translations, and I can never thank the concept enough for that. Oh, and Retro Achievements being a thing is very beneficial for me of course.
But that’s just my opinion. None of what I’ve stated above in my conclusion can really be taken as a fact, or as a morally right thing to do. Emulation and piracy will probably always be a grey area, and it’s not really my intention to convince people. Well, I would convince people to not support scalpers, but I believe I don’t have to mention that after the recent travesty with the PlayStation 5 release. Anyhow, I was curious: what is your stance on this topic? Do you have any experience with pirating games or playing on emulators for example, or do you consider all illegal downloading of games, be it old or new, to be piracy? Let me know down below where we can hopefully spark some conversation regarding this topic!