Junk

Alex Hutchinson

In an industry where newer, faster and more powerful are usually synonymous with quality it is surprising to find a mini-boom in software that is slower, graphically inferior and borderline obsolete. This is because computers and computer software have always been considered functional objects. They did things. Performed tasks. And when a newer version of a program came along which performed the same task faster or more efficiently, the old version was straight into the bin.

Even games were victims of this staged obsolescence. The buying public want the new games. The new games looked and sounded better therefore they were better therefore you may as well throw out that copy of Mario Brothers because here comes Super Mario Brothers. Historically, graphics have always been able to sell a game. Gameplay is more difficult. Consumers have often found it difficult to see past a dated surface to the game inside.

But things are changing. A recent boom in emulation has (in a physical sense) made old software accessible to more people than ever before and (in a theoretical sense) given us yet another example of the slow maturation of entertainment software. Put simply, emulation allows owners of high end PCs to run software designed for foreign formats. That means old Nintendo games, old Atari 2600 games, old Amiga games, and a slew of different arcade boards. And we’re not talking the half-baked arcade conversions ported to PCs in years past, we’re talking perfect arcade/system replicas. Consider it a gaming renaissance.

Software that you thought had died with systems you owned in the 80s can be resurrected on your brand new Pentium or i-Mac. Games that are no longer for sale and no longer available at any price, games that your mother threw out, games that rotted in your closet, games that died in the sun, all of them can be played afresh. And this is what lies at the heart of emulation: preservation. There is also no money involved. Emulators are (for the main) freeware, designed by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. In other words emulators appeal to those who appreciate the subtle art of gameplay regardless of its age. People who understand that newer isn’t always better, faster isn’t always more enjoyable, and that there are few things as enjoyable in life as bouncing a tiny green bubble-blowing dragon around a 16 colour, single screen maze in Taito’s 1986 classic Bubble Bobble.

At ground level people are taking games seriously. This is not an argument foisted on people by academics or cultural observers. In fact, most cultural observers couldn’t care less about games, the ubiquitous and only passably entertaining Tomb Raider series and Douglas Coupland aside. This is a grass roots revival which is showing us that games are no longer the disposable tissues of the entertainment world.

Legally, emulators exist in a grey area. The programs themselves are perfectly legal so long as certain reverse engineering techniques are avoided. This has been true since Atari lost its suit against Colecovision in the early 80s for marketing the ‘Atari 2600 expansion kit’ which allowed users to play Atari 2600 games on their Colecovision. However the situation regarding games is a little hazier. If you own the actual game you are allowed to own the copy of the game on your PC. If you don’t, you can’t. A fact which of course hasn’t stopped anybody or escaped the notice of the copyright holders. But that isn’t the issue here. Morally, most emulators occupy the high ground. They emulate systems which are no longer available for sale, often by companies which went belly up over a decade ago. They allow people to play games they could not buy at any price.

Why is this important? To those who have never had an interest in games, well, probably it isn’t. But to those of us who grew up in front of their trusty Amiga 500, it means a hell of a lot. A chance to relive classic gaming moments and a chance to realise that games are a powerful and different medium.

What were old games? Think of them as genre fiction. They were fun. People enjoyed them and happily spent money on them. Some of them had great depth and intelligence. Most of them didn’t. But they allowed game companies to grow fat enough to put together the millions of dollars that modern games require. Think of them as analogous with the populist origins of other artforms.

For home game systems, it all really started in the 80s. Earlier systems had done well but it was the original Nintendo (NES) which boomed and found a place beneath 90% of American family TVs. Many more systems followed, but it was the PlayStation which was the spiritual follow up to the NES in 1995, again selling in ridiculous numbers but this time bringing a level of sophistication most people hadn’t realised was possible.

What has this created? A culture of game players.

The major emulation sites have all topped 20 million hits and growing. There is a massive and varied audience who not only enjoyed playing games in their youth, but who are waiting for the next step. There will be a time soon when players demand more from their software—the signs are already there—and game companies are forced to begin looking at what they are communicating and how they’re doing it. Whether they use this to make a play for ‘art’ status will make interesting viewing.

But while you’re waiting, join the classic gaming fraternity in a celebration of the old and pixilated by checking out these sites for pure gaming history: start at the source, the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME) site at www.mame.net then check out Retrogames at www.retrogames.com or the good folk at the site formerly known as Dave’s Classics at www.vintage gaming.com. They should have links to all the files and instructions you need.

RealTime issue #35 Feb-March 2000 pg. 22

© Alex Hutchinson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2000
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