Many companies treat emulators like the plague. But in many ways, emulators are the keys to the industry's past -- and preserving its future.

How Emulators Are Keeping Classic Games Relevant in a New Generation

Many companies treat emulators like the plague. But in many ways, emulators are the keys to the industry's past -- and preserving its future.
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I went to college for video game design. During our last semester, we were split off into teams and tasked with making a student game based off of pitches we had submitted the month before. The instructors selected the 10 or so best pitches and let each group choose which game we were going to work on.

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The game my group chose to work on was most accurately described as X-COM meets Oregon Trail. The problem was, the younger members of our team — myself included — hadn’t ever played Oregon Trail. Thankfully, we were able to find an emulated version of the game on

In terms of video games, emulators are used to play games, usually older ones, on a system other than what they were made to run on. In short, the emulator re-creates the digital environment of the original OS so that it can then run software that was created for that OS.

At their worst, emulators are inextricably linked to piracy. But at their best, they are one of the strongest tools available to aid the preservation of video game history.

Emulators Preserve the Past

A Golden Future with All the Games from Our Past

Preservation becomes ever more pressing as old video game cartridges continue to age and degrade, eventually leading to corruption of the data held within.

This talk, while admittedly a little dry, is very eye opening
and helped inform my thoughts on this topic. 

But saving games becomes an ever more daunting task every day. Not only are old games slowly degrading, but new games are being released faster than historians can document them. Games are also becoming increasingly more reliant upon networks to be able to function. Just think about the MMOs that are shut down every year. These games can never be played again unless people are able to reverse engineer servers, as some have done in order to run vanilla WoW.

Some historians don’t believe that all games can be saved. They argue that our priority should be to record the existence of games and their content. What were their mechanics? How did they play? What were their stories about? After all, video footage is much easier to capture and store than video game data. And we already know how to store it for the future, with film historians having been doing it for years.

In this way, Let’s Plays are a big part of video game history. Recorded footage of people playing games sets up both their historical context and what the games consisted of.

This is our history folks. Soak it in. 

However, they only represent a particular viewpoint. Let’s Plays inherently skew the way a game was/is viewed or played by the nature of their construction — trying to play things that cause interesting, funny things to happen, for example. Text adventures might be fun, too, but PewDiePie’s channel doesn’t play them very often, now does it?

As anyone knows, footage of a fun game is a crappy second best to playing it. And games can look a lot different in motion than in reality. Just recently while writing an article about animations I touched upon several games that looked much smoother in action than they felt in reality, like Final Fantasy 15.

That’s why it’s great news that the data from these games can be extracted and stored to preserve the game. The use of an emulator can make it playable. That almost makes it sound easy, doesn’t it? Thankfully, we have copyright lawyers to get in the way!

Piracy — The Hurdle Standing in Emulation’s Way

The Existential Threat

It’s no secret that many video game companies view emulators as an existential threat to the video game industry. Even if they use them for backwards compatibility, which is technically legally their prerogative. Or, in Nintendo’s case, used a hacked ROM off of the internet and sold it back to you .. ahem, anyway … 

Despite this hypocrisy, piracy is a real problem. And emulators of modern consoles can wreak havoc on the video games industry if left unchecked. Even just recently, ROMs of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valencia were made available from a leak within Nintendo. This has happened with multiple big profile Nintendo releases, such as Pokemon Sun and Moon.

While Sun & Moon sold well and it is hard to ascertain exactly how much this leak hurt sales, it is safe to say it is not a good thing. Few of us want the video games industry to become like the music industry or the anime industry where piracy is the expectation, not the exception.

The problem, however, is not emulating newer games so much as older ones — the ones whose preservation is most pressing. Despite many companies having no plans to either use their old consoles or old properties in the future, they still have not been forthcoming about assisting museums or universities in preservation efforts.

Just recently, the long-canceled Primal Rage 2 was saved via emulation. 

Even if a company were to give the green light, the law would seemingly leave preservationists vulnerable to future legal action. In the case that preservationists weren’t vulnerable, they’d still need to have lawyers work out detailed plans as to what they could and could not do to prevent the company’s wrath.

What many want is a legal exemption that protects those seeking to preserve video games. Video games present a particular edge case because they degrade so fast, meaning that they have long since degraded once the game is no longer protected by copyright law.

Our History — Perhaps Saved by Emulation

When All is Said & Done

As a young medium, video games don’t have a ton of history. Almost all of it is directly in our pasts. While game design itself can be traced back through centuries worth of games — from chess to soccer — video games only stretch back to the 70s. For all intents and purposes, even the eldest members of the medium still exist as playable fossils. An oral history could keep up with much of what there is to know.

But with this fleeting youth comes the realization that said fossils are almost dust. And that video games themselves have perhaps the shortest period between release and extinction that any medium has ever seen. Historians have reached the point where procrastination would result in permanent loss of history.

Back in college, I played Oregon Trail on my MacBook while screen-sharing it with my teammates over Skype. One friend kept getting lost and another kept getting bitten by snakes. It was the best type of damned mess. Over the course of a couple hours, we were able to relive what so many kids had lived through decades earlier; that is playing the game, not the actual journey that the game represents. This, I believe, is why video game preservation — specifically through emulation — is so important.

I’m not sure we humans have ever done great with tools that pose both great promise for us and great danger to us. The world has almost forgone nuclear energy because we are afraid of nuclear fallout. Likewise, emulators could safeguard our past, but they could also hurt our future.

Header Image Obtained from massmatt. Edited.

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Graduated from Full-Sail with a BS in Game Design (Speaking of BS, how about that student loan debt, eh?).