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July 14, 2016

Filed under: gaming»perspective

Emu Nation

It's hard to hear news of Nintendo creating a tiny, $60 NES package and not think of Frank Cifaldi's provocative GDC talk on emulation. Cifaldi, who works on game remastering and preservation (most recently on a Mega Man collection), covers a wide span of really interesting industry backstory, but his presentation is mostly infamous for the following quote:

The virtual console is nothing but emulations of Nintendo games. And in fact, if you were to download Super Mario Brothers on the Wii Virtual Console...

[shows a screenshot of two identical hex filedumps]

So on the left there is a ROM that I downloaded from a ROM site of Super Mario Brothers. It's the same file that's been there since... it's got a timestamp on it of 1996. On the right is Nintendo's Virtual Console version of Super Mario Brothers. I want you to pay particular attention to the hex values that I've highlighted here.

[the highlighted sections are identical]

That is what's called an iNES header. An iNES header is a header format developed by amateur software emulators in the 90's. What's that doing in a Nintendo product? I would posit that Nintendo downloaded Super Mario Brothers from the internet and sold it back to you.

As Cifaldi notes, while the industry has had a strong official anti-emulation stance for years, they've also turned emulation into a regular revenue stream for Nintendo in particular. In fact, Nintendo has used scaremongering about emulation to monopolize the market for any games that were published on its old consoles. In this case, the miniature NES coming to market in November is almost certainly running an emulator inside its little plastic casing. It's not so much that they're opposed to emulation, so much as they're opposed to emulation that they can't milk for cash.

To fully understand how demented this has become, consider the case of Yoshi's Island, which is one of the greatest platformers of the 16-bit era. I am terrible at platformers but I love this game so much that I've bought it at least three times: once in the Gameboy Advance port, once on the Virtual Console, and once as an actual SNES cartridge back when Belle and I lived in Arlington. Nintendo made money at least on two of those copies, at least. But now that we've sold our Wii, if I want to play Yoshi's Island again, even though I have owned three legitimate copies of the game I would still have to give Nintendo more money. Or I could grab a ROM and an emulator, which seems infinitely more likely.

By contrast, I recently bought a copy of Doom, because I'd never played through the second two episodes. It ran me about $5 on Steam, and consists of the original WAD files, the game executable, and a preconfigured version of DOSBox that hosts it. I immediately went and installed Chocolate Doom to run the game fullscreen with better sound support. If I want to play Doom on my phone, or on my Chromebook, or whatever, I won't have to buy it again. I'll just copy the WAD. And since I got it from Steam, I'll basically have a copy on any future computers, too.

(Episode 1 is definitely the best of the three, incidentally.)

Emulation is also at the core of the Internet Archive's groundbreaking work to preserve digital history. They've preserved thousands of games and pieces of software via browser ports of MAME, MESS, and DOSBox. That means I can load up a copy of Broderbund Print Shop and relive summer at my grandmother's house, if I want. But I can also pull up the Canon Cat, a legendary and extremely rare experiment from one of the original Macintosh UI designers, and see what a radically different kind of computing might look like. There's literally no other way I would ever get to experience that, other than emulating it.

The funny thing about demonizing emulation is that we're increasingly entering an era of digital entertainment that may be unpreservable with or without it. Modern games are updated over the network, plugged into remote servers, and (on mobile and new consoles) distributed through secured, mostly-inaccessible package managers on operating systems with no tradition of backward compatibility. It may be impossible, 20 years from now, to play a contemporary iOS or Android game, similar to the way that Blizzard themselves can't recreate a decade-old version of World of Warcraft.

By locking software up the way that Nintendo (and other game/device companies) have done, as a single-platform binary and not as a reusable data file, we're effectively removing them from history. Maybe in a lot of cases, that's fine — in his presentation, Cifaldi refers offhand to working on a mobile Sharknado tie-in that's no longer available, which is not exactly a loss for the ages. But at least some of it has to be worth preserving, in the same way even bad films can have lessons for directors and historians. The Canon Cat was not a great computer, but I can still learn from it.

I'm all for keeping Nintendo profitable. I like the idea that they're producing their own multi-cart NES reproduction, instead of leaving it to third-party pirates, if only because I expect their version will be slicker and better-engineered for the long haul. But the time has come to stop letting them simultaneously re-sell the same ROM to us in different formats, while insisting that emulation is solely the concern of pirates and thieves.

Future - Present - Past