Emulation can lift you up...
February 04, 2019

My experiences with console emulation are a mixed bag, and that is to be expected when asking one box of microprocessors to pretend that its something else. The first rule of thumb is that emulation requires hefty hardware, depending on what your target hardware is.

To put it simply: Emulating the complex of microcircuitry within the SNES requires a CPU capable of 1000Mhz or more. That's a lot when the fastest processor in the SNES was its CPU at just 3.7Mhz. Naturally there are code cheats that allow emulation to be done on much slower machines... but the order of magnitude is astounding, in practical terms. Just try installing a lightbulb with oven mitts on, some time.

These days even modest, affordable hardware like the Raspberry Pi can emulate consoles like the SNES at full speed with relative ease. They're even quite capable of reproducing the visuals and sound with all of the quirks that tease those nostalgic feelings in us. Enough work has been done by the community to grant us access to very playable games that even work online in ways that the big names can't or won't make possible for myriad reasons.

Whether it's copyright, vapourware status, rights conflicts, obscurity or even rarity of media, software preservationists are among the first to stand for the cause of emulation. So much good as been done and even obscure titles have risen to the surface to be enjoyed by audiences who would have otherwise missed out on the experience. What downside could there be?

I've asserted for many years now that the community does a better job of taking care of IP than most companies do, and that continues to hold true. When passion leads the project, amazing things are possible. Humble developers with no more than a computer and an idea can bring about impressive results for many people to enjoy.

That is awesome.

The downsides are mostly fiscal and financial, being that the gaming industry is currently supported by new products - well, at least the hype aspect of it is, but that's not what holds my interest. As you might expect it's my personal attachment to the games I either had a chance to play, or missed out on at the time. The PlayStation was one of those consoles that I had many near misses with, but also had a chance to enjoy.

I can't say where you might stand on the matter... but I can talk a little about what draws me to emulation. Who has the room for all the hardware they want to re-experience? Who has the resources and energy to set them all up? Not this fella, and I would guess not most of us. However... there is one exception:

The Nintendo 64. I've had some interest in emulating it, and that's pretty easy to access, even if emulation itself is sketchy. About 80% of games run well enough to play, and the most popular have been accounted for in the software so as to be playable, but there's no magic bullet for a system as complex as the N64. High level emulation means that functions shared by modern hardware can be directly mapped so as to lower hardware requirements of the host system, though.

The fact of the matter is that Nintendo didn't support the N64 very well, and it was a difficult system to code for, and that means that developers took many different approaches to produce the results they wanted. Apparently there was an engine capable of producing 300,000 polygons compared to the standard 150,000 by Ninty's counting. Nintendo nixed the use of it - for obvious reasons. Putting the rest of the system's small library to shame would have raised a lot of questions at the time, and not reflected well on the Big N.

The point is that even Nintendo has its reasons for not emulating all but the most popular of its titles, especially when those who want to play the games can do so without reserve. I know there are those who still are barred, but ... popular media being what it is, emulation is at the shallow end of the pool. It's not talked about, but it is common practice.

Yes Nintendo doesn't like it, but they can't stop it, either. Unfortunately for them, and us, it devalues the prospect of reproducing even beloved games on their modern, primary console, which we would happily support, but not assign the same price tag to. Take for example the NES and SNES Classics. Retail games for a fraction of their original retail price in a tidy, official package that outdoes the average user creation.

Palm sized emulators are adorable, but at least in Canada the asking price for such a system is still twice what Nintendo was asking for its compact emulation stations.

I mentioned the N64 because it wasn't my interest in getting the hardware that is the impetus. In fact, my nephew's fixation on the console is what resulted in my owning a system, buying a controller and even a game for it. I wouldn't have done it if not for him - and though it's a small investment and low risk, it would grant me the opportunity to explore a much larger avenue of playing N64 games on legit hardware, circumventing emulation's biggest hurdle.

As nostalgia goes, either it works or it doesn't. Dissatisfaction rears its head fast when you hear that a chip isn't tuned properly (I'm looking at you, A-Games), performance isn't what it should be (Sony Classic), and the product fails to reflect the care that you have for the system in question.

That's what this all comes down to. Either we care to re-create the experience to the best of our ability, or we're shilling out for few bucks and/or being taken for a ride.

To date the best experience I've had in emulation is for the smaller, simpler systems like the SNES, Genesis, and Gameboy Advance. GameCube emulation is suprisingly effective, thanks to high level emulation making higher resolutions than stock possible, but systems like the Sega Saturn and Jaguar are left out of the loop, thanks to their relative obscurity and hardware complexity.

Now try installing a lightbulb with a oven mitts whilst swimming. Good luck with that.

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Masters Masters - February 07, 2019 (01:58 PM)
Do you have any hands-on experience with the Sony Classic, or are you going by reviews you've read? I haven't done much research on the system, but then, most of my favourites wouldn't have been chosen as pack-in titles.

I bought the NES Classic and toyed with it for a bit before exchanging it for a $100 Steam card which I got much more enjoyment out of. I don't know what I was expecting: you get to experience a few dozen well emulated games that someone else has selected as representative of the system. I have that same number, more or less, that I selected myself. I also use a Xbox One wireless controller and kick back on the couch rather than sit on the floor, chained two feet from the TV.

Space is definitely a consideration -- though we'd be kidding ourselves if we didn't acknowledge that freeloading is the runaway motivation -- I had at one point something like 14 consoles. Fiddling with wires and cartridges and CDS got tired quickly.
hastypixels hastypixels - February 08, 2019 (04:11 PM)
I haven't toyed with the Classic, but I have used the emulator - it's accessible in RetroArch for the magical price of free, so the experience isn't difficult to have, at least as the software goes. It's a good emulator, certainly a lot less fidgety than ePSXe and its cousins. Making the games look good with shaders is certain easier than messing with myriad settings, only half of which I understand.

From reviews I know the Classic was a hackneyed last minute project to milk some cash out of the mini console craze, and I'm sure it's serviceable with the right software... but you've stated what's most important about all of this retro emulation: It's subjectivity and relative experience.

I picked the entire Sega Classics series for less than $50 and I hardly ever touch it, but it does mean I legitimately own copies of Genesis games I've enjoyed over the years. Accessibility is still a problem where these games are concerned... like most people, I don't have the time, energy, finances or space to keep physical copies of the games I have nostalgic feelings about.

As usual the rights holders miss the boat - they don't get why we pine for these games, and can't possibly attend all of our needs, anyway.

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