The Emulation Stipulation Clarification!


Recently I witness a small twitter debate on the emulation of video games. This is a common topic of debate, especially among the retro gaming community as a whole. I had wanted to write a bit about this anyway, and seeing that debate prompted this. Besides; I warned them I had a lot to say at the time, so here we are!

I’m going to start off, before I go into a deeper explanation, my general stance on the subject just so we’re clear:

  • Emulation is mostly illegal. If you like something enough to want to experience it, that developer deserves your money. That’s all there is to it.

So now we can move on. I want to break this into two pieces, one piece being minor and the other being major, but both having an influence on how we view the subject:

The Retro Experience

First, the minor part. The retro experience. Some people simply want to use the original retro hardware. You can put aside all the other valid arguments such as legality of emulation, the desire to pay a developer for their work, and anything else you can think of. Simply wanting to use the original hardware for the feel, the nostalgia, or just because, is totally and completely valid.

Let’s pretend for a second emulation was completely legal. So you have a viable, legal, free method of obtaining and playing these games. It’s STILL perfectly valid for someone to just want that original experience, even if it costs more, even if it’s a pain in the ass. Some people still prefer music on vinyl, when digital audio is so cheap and widely available. So long as we can agree to just let people enjoy things, even if that’s not how we would do it, this should be a non-issue.

The real issue here is legality. This is the bigger one.

The Legalities of Emulation

Okay… where to begin? I’m going to start to putting a stop to one VERY common argument I come across:

“I’m emulating this game, but it’s okay! I own a legal copy. I’ve bought the game twice in fact! Once digitally on the console, and I own the original physical copy as well. I like to emulate it because I want to play on my PC.”

I can appreciate people who only emulate titles they’ve legally purchased. I know their heart is in the right place. But it’s still illegal. You see, it’s only legal to emulate back-ups of your physical copy. If you head over to download a ROM for Super Mario Bros., you’re downloading a digital version of someone else’s legally purchased copy, not your legally purchased copy. Emulators exist because they use this loophole. They are applications designed to let you play the digital back-up of a physical copy that you legally purchased. Just like how the bong shop down the road sells “devices intended for tobacco consumption”. Doesn’t mean you can’t smoke pot in one. Just like it doesn’t mean someone can’t fire up a ROM that isn’t theirs on an emulation application. They can. They’re just not supposed to.

But let’s be real here. I would argue far less than 1% of players are using emulators to play back-ups of their own games. So the bulk of people are most likely doing this illegally. Let’s take a quick peek at a couple other common arguments:

“Why should I have to keep paying $5-$10 for the same games over and over again? I already bought it once!”

You don’t get a Blu-Ray for free because you saw the movie in theaters. You’re paying to experience it via a different medium. It is up to you, the consumer, to maintain your software and hardware in working condition past the manufacturers warranty. If you fail to do this, or the hardware simply breaks down on it’s own due to age (which may be very possible, given this is speaking generally to a retro crowd), this is on you. If you want that experience back again badly enough, you should be willing to pay for it again. If you aren’t willing to pay for it again, that’s okay too. But if you then go and steal it, it was clearly something worth your while in the first place and should have been paid for.

“<Game Dev X> is brutally anti-consumer, and is asking to have their games pirated/emulated.”

I don’t even know how in the fuck I’ve managed to see this emerge before, but I have. I don’t give a shit how anti-consumer they are. I don’t care if it’s Activision or EA, and I don’t care how evil you think they are. If you’re pirating/emulating legally available content because you really want to play it, the argument stops there. Because you need to make a choice between upholding your morals and not supporting a developer you deem negative to the industry, or playing the game you thought looked really cool despite your dislike for the developer.

“I couldn’t get the game any other way. I looked but there was nothing aside from buying all the stuff second hand!”

Bingo. In my opinion, the one single valid argument for emulation. Let’s use a couple quick games off the top of my head. Take Super Mario World for SNES, and Stunt Race FX for SNES. Super Mario World is so easy to purchase legally it’s insane. There’s the original, sure. But it’s also available on every iteration of Nintendo’s virtual console aside from, at the time of writing, the Switch.

“But I don’t want to have to buy a whole system for one game!”. I agree. But of all your options here, download it illegally isn’t one of them. Either buy the system for one game, research additional games to make the system purchase justifiable, or go on not having the game. That’s it. If the third option isn’t an option you, then the first two need to be.

Stunt Race FX, however, was released on the SNES and never re-released. I used to own a physical copy that I’ve since lost. As we know now, this doesn’t make an emulated copy legal. My only choice to acquire this game now, legally, is to purchase a SNES and a copy of the game second hand. But then, I haven’t given Nintendo any money. At this point, there is no method for me to financially compensate Nintendo for a copy of this game. I can financially compensate a second hand dealer, but this isn’t quiet the same, and is probably it’s own complete area of debate on it’s own.

Finally, I’d like to discuss one last thing:

I emulate. All the time. Despite everything I’ve just said. However, for a different reason.

As much as I appreciate the retro scene, and keeping that hardware alive, my #1 concern is video games being playable for the foreseeable future regardless of time of release. I am convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that software emulation is the key to retro gaming (all gaming, really) longevity, not hardware preservation (although I research both, as the hardware is as important to gaming history as the software). My experience in emulation is for testing purposes only. To see what works and what can work.

For example, I recently wanted to play the original Legend of Zelda. I have MORE than enough resources to get this for free and to play it smoothly and comfortably via emulation. But I bought it on the 3DS Virtual Console instead. Because I wanted to pay Nintendo for a game I wanted to play and experience. If I wanted to test how the Legend of Zelda performs with various software emulation, and document the results, I’m going to emulate. So that in a few decades when some functional hardware may be impossible to track down, I’ll still have options to play the game. Because I care a lot more about me always having access to these experiences than I do a large companies financial compensation. I will, however, financially compensate wherever and whenever I can unless it is otherwise impossible.


This ends my lecture on emulation, haha. At the end of the day guys, I don’t feel emulators are bad or rubbish. In fact, they are the keys to our games working for decades to come, like it or not. So I love them, because they keep the doors open to gaming experiences that could be lost.

But if a gaming experience isn’t lost, and it’s legally and easily available for purchase right in front of you? Buy it. There is nearly no valid excuse not to.

— JST

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