Why are video game emulators so important?
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Why are video game emulators so important?

Super Mario Bros will never die. Nintendo always re-releases the 1985 classic on every new console it makes, and people still buy millions of copies. But what about games that aren't liked? Will they survive?

Nothing is certain, but one thing greatly facilitates the preservation of our history: emulation. Running old Atari, Nintendo, and Sega games on your computer, while legally complicated, helps ensure that even the most obscure titles stay alive in one form or another.

Collections are not enough

Without emulation, how would games be preserved? Well, there are collectors. The people who obsessively scan eBay for obscure games, then buy and preserve them, go a long way in ensuring that no game is gone forever.

A stack of Nintendo 64 game cartridges

One of those people, Nate Duke, sold his collection for $ 25 after years of acquisitions. Such collectors, who buy even the least popular games, create a market for obscure titles that contribute to their survival.

But even that has limits. Cartridges eventually fail, CDs stop working, and in theory that could mean entire games vanishing from the world forever. And we know exactly what the loss of work looks like, because it has happened throughout history.

When the media disappear

Scrolling through the Lost Works Wikipedia page is downright depressing. So many writings of great minds are gone forever, and we know them only through references in other documents. This happened in part because people lost interest, in part because of fires, and others were not kept basically because no one saw the point in doing so.

It sounds like a problem for the ancients, but we're not much better off in the modern world, in part because we don't know what future generations will appreciate.

Here is a good example. By the 1960s, Doctor Who was widely viewed as a silly science fiction show, and the BBC saw no compelling reason to keep copies of previously aired episodes. They recorded on the originals of several episodes, largely to save money on the tape (a common practice for shows at the time).

Over time, Doctor Who became a cultural institution in the UK and beyond, and fans around the world really wanted to see these missing episodes. A few have been recovered in spectacular fashion, as BBC speaking Philip Morris describes it here:

The tapes had been left to collect dust in a storage room at a television relay station in Nigeria. I remember wiping the dust off the duct tape on the cartridges and my heart skipped a beat when I saw the words, Doctor Who. When I read the code for the story, I realized that I had found something quite special.

Even with efforts like this, some episodes are still missing. They may never be found.

How emulation helps preservation

This brings us back to emulation. An original cartridge or CD in a showcase partially preserves the game, but does not necessarily preserve the experience to play the game. At least, not in a way that most people can participate in.

Emulators can't completely reset this - the buttons won't feel the same and you won't be looking at the same CRT monitor. But when it comes to keeping classic titles in a playable state, emulators get the job done.

And the Internet Archive is helping to make that happen. You can browse its collection of playable classic games right now and play them right in your browser. They also offer DOS games.

Everyone's Secret: Emulators Help Preserve History

It's hard to imagine Doctor Who episodes disappearing altogether these days, and hacking is no small part of it. Even if every TV channel on earth removed all copies of an episode, Usenet and BitTorrent would still offer it. It's not hard to imagine that the BBC will eventually pick up the episode from there to restore its archives.

This does not make pirating TV episodes legal, or even morally acceptable. But this preservation is an advantage of the current situation. And emulators and ROMs are similar.

In a way, setting up RetroArch, the ultimate emulator, is an act of helping to preserve history. The one who in all likelihood violates copyright law, of course. But the one that helps preserve history all the same.

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