Piracy, emulators and history

First of all, head to byuu’s homepage to update your bsnes. Some time ago they finally cracked the last of the chips, and now bsnes is basically a virtual SNES for you. It also supports more consoles now, like the Famicom and GameBoy.

With every negative thing piracy does, there’s always that one thing that it excels at; archival. Without piracy most of the PC games of the 80’s and back would’ve been lost in the annals of time. For example, I believe part of Atari 520ST games have been physically lost, but thanks to the piracy rings we have bakcups of them. Originally in disk format, then later as data. Same goes for the Commodore 64 and all other computers. Partial reason most likely was that part of the 80’s computers used C-cassettes as their choice of media, like the ZX Spectrum. Some of them later gained cartridge add-ons or similar, but it still begs the question how many of these games have survived in their original form, and in what shape they are.

Piracy archives pretty much everything. The Internet has sources for some films’ VHS rips that no longer exist on the market in any form. You may find sixth or eight generation tapes that some obscure Hong Kong dealer may have, if you’re desperate for a physical copy. Physical media usually lasts long, unless it’s easy to damage. C-cassettes and floppy disks are rather easy to damage, and lower quality productions usually eroded far faster than their pricier counterparts. In comparison, a dog once ate parts of my NES cartridge away, chipping some of it off and all that, but the game survived mostly intact. It still works the same, even thou part of the lower PCB was literally chewed off.

I have no real trust on the DVD format and beyond. Piracy will archive these films and games as it has always done. I haven’t met any disc rot in my library as of now, but I suspect that in the next ten years part of my films and games will become unplayable because of it. With movies it’s not that big of a deal, as the experience doesn’t change on the format outside quality. However, experiencing games does change with a jump from consoles to emulators. This is why well coded emulators that emulate the hardware are needed.

Emulators’ first and foremost mission has always been to emulate the original platform. At some point most people lost this idea and emulators’ purpose was corrupted simply to play games. The notion “to emulate something” is a misnomer, as you don’t emulate the games, you emulate the platform they run on. This is why precise and accurate emulation is required by the core idea; to both preserve the functions of the original platform as closely as possible in digital form, and to provide as perfectly emulated platform the games run on as possible. bsnes and MAME are two emulators that still continue to follow the idea of historical archival, thou MAME has become exceedingly heavy at it’s core and partially is held together with hacks.

Hacks and plugins in emulators is not a good thing. This means that the emulator is not doing a good job at emulating the system. ZSNES still runs mostly on hacks that do not emulate the workings of a real SNES as it should, and ePSXe relies heavily on plugins and their workings. From gamers perspective anything that makes the games playable is enough, but when get over the initial excitement, you realize that lack of proper emulation affects the gameplay experience. Some emulators actually go beyond what the original system could’ve done and removes slowdowns and such. However, there are multiple games out there that use various systems’ limitations to create gameplay. For a simple example let’s use Space Invaders. The original hardware it ran on could barely run the game. Basically it ran too slow and couldn’t handle all the objects on the screen. As the player defeats the aliens one by one, the game gets faster as less and less objects appear on screen. If we take the approach ZSNES and similar emulators, Space Invaders should run on the speed that it runs when there’s only one alien on the screen. We all can agree that this isn’t how the game works, but this is what some of the emulators do; fixing what wasn’t broken via “over emulating.”

As playable emulation does not exclude accurate emulation or vice versa, the only reason people still want to use ZSNES is because they simply refuse to change their habits.

Even when games break down, the systems may survive. It’s rather easy to get games from the Internet and them to a disc. With a modded console, or in Dreamcast’s case modded disc image, you can run games on their original systems. What about cartridge systems the reader asks. To that I answer; there are flash carts like Everdrive. At some point in the future carts will erode and die. Custom cartridges like the Everdrive is then one of the answers how to play these games outside re-releases. While I applaud Nintendo and other companies on their older game re-releases with the new systems as downloadable games, we all can agree that playing Super Mario Bros. on the Wii is not the same thing as playing it on a real NES. Flash drive carts are in their infancy as there isn’t much people working on them, but I hope that at some point we will go over the threshold where the carts support all the games in a system’s library.

Ultimately, all physical systems will break down. Piracy will conserve the games in their ROM form. Emulators like bnses will conserve the platforms as closely as possible to their true counterparts. While piracy can’t be promoted, it is a necessary evil. As history has showed, companies tend to misplace and destroy source codes and protoypes. For example, Sega pretty much lost all source codes on their Saturn era games. This is why all Saturn games we see re-released, like Princess Crown, are emulated. Unless someone in Sega actually reverse engineers Saturn’s workings, we’re never going to see Saturn games on modern consoles as ports. Seeing how Saturn works, nobody really is interested even making proper emulators for it, let alone reverse engineer it.

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