The Emulation and Digital Distribution of Video Games

I've been catching up on podcasts from BrainyGamer.com, in which he was talking about how he doesn’t emulate older games on his computer much any more. This piqued my interest because I semi-regularly emulate NES, SNES, and Game Boy titles on my laptop because I feel like I have gaping holes in my gaming experience from when I was younger. For games that are 15 or 20 years old, it’s much easier to emulate them. It’s also much cheaper. Some classic, rare games are quite expensive today. For example, a game like Chrono Trigger currently goes for $50 or more on eBay, and that’s more than I’m willing to spend on most older games at this point in my life.

That being said, I know that emulation is both illegal and a form of stealing. If possible, I would choose to buy a classic game at a reasonable price and support the company that made it. But video game stores in the U.S. rarely have old used games. They limit themselves to the current and previous generation of games because of higher profitability. For two decade old games that aren’t in production anymore, 100% of the profit goes to the retailer, not the developer. The only recourse to find most used games is the Internet, which has its own issues of buying used merchandise sight unseen.

Emulation also sometimes leads to compatibility issues, and it’s often more fun to play a game with the physical controller and system it was designed for. The GBA game Riviera: The Promised Land provides a good example of how emulation isn’t preferable just because it’s free. Riviera is an RPG, but it tries to keep the player on their toes by having regular action scenes that require you to input a sequence of button presses within a time limit. Whether the outcome is beneficial or harmful is determined by your skill. I bought this game around Christmas, and the response time for inputting the commands is quick and seamless. But prior to this, I had emulated the game, and I found that neither the keyboard nor a PC gamepad were adequate for these sequences. I regularly made mistakes, and my characters would take damage or miss important items. Riviera is infinitely more smooth and enjoyable on an actual GBA.

Despite problems with emulation, I’m eagerly anticipating the future expansion of digital distribution, not just of games, but of all media. I’ve spent 5,000 yen (a little less than $50) on Virtual Console games on my Japanese Wii. If I had an American Wii, I probably would have spent more. Several classic games I want to play are already on the Wii, and more arrive every week.

What intrigues me, though, is what programs like the Virtual Console will look like in 10 years. Most of the best old Nintendo games will be on the Virtual Console at some point in the future. What then? Will the service be over? I suppose the upcoming WiiWare will provide additional original content. More importantly, what will happen to the Virtual Console when Nintendo releases its eventual successor to the Wii? Maybe we’ll be able to transfer our games to the new system. Or they could try to cash in some more, develop a new and improved download service, and release updated versions of their best games yet again. I fully want to support legal purchases of emulated games. But this is still a relatively new enterprise, so there are a lot of questions for the future without clear answers.

Here’s my ideal scenario: Someday, every single game from previous generations will be available for purchase and download. That kind of world sounds quite nice, and I won’t have to feel guilty about downloading and emulating games illegally. Until that day, I’ll continue my current emulation practices and buy what I can as it becomes available. I greatly prefer legitimate copies of games to illegally emulated ones. I’ve downloaded many games onto my PC, but as these games become available on the Virtual Console or I happen to find a good deal online, I’ll often go ahead and purchase them, deleting the version on my computer. I dabbled in Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones last year, but bought it in a store without hesitating. I played most of Super Metroid on my computer, but bought it on the Virtual Console the day it was released. Not only do these games play better than the emulated versions, but they make me feel a little better inside, too.

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