How game console emulators preserve our culture for fun and profit
There's nothing quite like playing the original "Super Mario Bros." The game, which was released on the Nintendo Entertainment System, is simplistic by today's standards. You run. You jump. You spit fire at mushrooms, hop on ducks, and travel through giant pipes. But, before you can do all that, you have to find a way to play the game -- which might be easier than you'd think, thanks to console emulators.
Nintendo created the modern video game market with the Famicom, its first game console that yesterday celebrated its 30th anniversary. Then it released the NES, which popularized franchises still popular today, such as "Super Mario Bros." and "The Legend of Zelda." These games, and these game consoles, have left their mark on art and culture. The only problem is that these devices (which includes the games themselves, as they were sold on floppy disks and cartridges) haven't quite survived as well as their legacy.
That's where emulators, programs that mimic console hardware, so games can be played without relying on cartridges or disks, come in. You can find emulators that cover consoles like the NES, SNES, GameBoy, PlayStation, and others on almost every platform, from Windows Phone handsets to Apple computers and Android devices. You won't find any in the App Store, however -- Apple has banned emulators from the marketplace due to their legal ambiguity. If you want to play "Super Mario Bros." on your iPhone, then, you have to get sneaky.
So that's exactly what emulator-makers have done. Some release their software through the Cydia marketplace, which allows consumers who have jailbroken their iPhones to install software that might not be allowed in the App Store. Others have built emulators into seemingly innocuous applications, including a baby-naming app that would only reveal its true function if certain points on the display were tapped in a specific sequence. (The app has since been pulled from the App Store, largely because of posts like this one that outed its true purpose.) Still others exist outside of both Cydia and the App Store and can be installed through a Web browser, which Apple can't control.
Put another way: If there is a device capable of running an emulator, someone will develop an emulator for it. Like other software, these emulators are often free but ad-supported or "freemium," offering advanced features (and fewer ads) for a few bucks. People want to play the games from their youth or spawned the series with which they are now familiar, and emulator-makers are able to satiate those desires through the digital preservation afforded by their software. These games are part of our cultural legacy, and people want to play them.
Which is why the Smithsonian American Art Museum included an exhibit called "The Art of Video Games" last year. It's why the International Center for the History of Electronic Games is collecting arcade cabinets, game design notes, and digitizing older video games so that they can be played through -- you guessed it -- emulators. As ICHEG's head of digital preservation, Jeremy Saucier, told Polygon:
"In a few decades, almost no one will have a Commodore 64. So we can preserve the code and allow people without the resources we have to still play these titles down the road."
Saucier says that there isn't any hard evidence on how fast data in floppy discs and NES cartridges decays. Because of this, he and the RIT students are more focused on capturing older titles for the time being. They're in a race against time, and there is no definite finish line in sight.
"Just like the rest of the ICHEG, we're learning as we go," Saucier says as he rubs his neck. "We're creating guides and documenting how to do all of this. It's challenging, but it's exciting. And in 20 years, when more museums decide that video games are art, we'll have the resources they need." These games are part of our culture, and no-one knows how long it will be until the original cartridges stop working and they're wiped from existence. Emulators allow museums to preserve those games and keep hold of the beginnings of a new art form. They also allow people to experience these games for themselves despite ever-changing products and platforms. The physical world doesn't provide many ways to preserve these artifacts. Emulators have found a way.
[Image Credit: FHKE on Flickr]