Industry-Hated Game Emulators Save Two Video Games For Posterity

from the emulation-preservation dept

For far too many years, the video game industry struggled to assert its place as a true artform, one deserving of the kind of respect granted to movies, music, television, and literature. This has been a source of frustration to those of us who can recognize the powerful storytelling device that video games represent, as well as the way modern games contribute to art and social commentary. But by its nature as a relatively new medium, games have also struggled to preserve the industry's history in the way more widely and permanently disseminated artforms have accomplished. And that's where the gaming industry has taken a turn against its own artistic interests, often demonizing methods for preserving gaming history over intellectual property concerns. Emulators are the chief method at hand, where games that are ancient by gaming standards can be digitized and preserved for posterity, save for the threat of legal action over copyright infringement and the industry's attempts to stave off these useful tools.

Like so many issues in the intellectual property world, it's not hard to understand the gaming industry's consternation. There's no doubt that many people use emulators simply to play games from old consoles and cabinets rather than pay for physical copies. Still, there's also no doubt that these same emulators work to preserve the artistic output in the gaming realm. This was most recently evidenced in two games that might never have seen the light of day again, save for emulators.

The first is the discovery and release of Millennium Racer: Y2K Fighters, a previously completely unknown 2001 Dreamcast port of a 1999 PC racing game. The title was recently discovered intact on a Dreamcast development kit, altered a bit to get it into a playable state, and then released as both an emulatable ROM and a burnable disc image that will work in actual Dreamcast hardware...The second emulation-fueled release making the rounds recently is Primal Rage 2, the unreleased sequel to the popular prehistoric-themed, stop-motion arcade fighting game of the mid '90s. Only two prototype cabinets for the cancelled sequel are known to exist, and one of them has been playable at Illinois' sprawling Galloping Ghost arcade complex since 2014.

The moment we agree that games like this are a form of art, we must also agree on the impetus to preserve that art. And once that's done, we can only conclude that these efforts to digitize the history of gaming in this manner have to be more important than any legal hurdles that exist in the form of copyright infringement or DMCA prohibitions on tinkering with them. The stated purpose of copyright seems to make this quite clear. What could be more important to promoting the arts than preserving art that could otherwise be at risk of total loss?

Emulators and those that use and support them play a key role in this, one that goes beyond merely copying the game digitally to be played.

While both of these games were technically accessible on their original hardware when they were discovered, it's only the ability to copy and emulate the software on other hardware (often with crucial software tweaks) that has made sure they'll be preserved and playable going forward. That kind of preservation doesn't just happen, either; remember that an estimated three-quarters of all silent films ever made have been lost to history. Thanks to emulation and a committed community of video game preservationists, that situation seems less likely to happen as the video game medium grows out of its youth.

The future will judge the history of gaming by the actions of the present. If games are art, and they are, then efforts to preserve this art must be cheered on, not demonized.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 2017 @ 6:13pm

    The haye against emulators is especially laughable when the physical versions of the game are no longer for sale, and sometimes have been so for a decade or more. The "lost sales" farce doesn't even apply when there isn't a single sale anymore in the first place.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      David, 21 Mar 2017 @ 3:22am

      Re:

      The time you spend playing Tutankhan could instead be spent boredly ordering Tomb Raider 13.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        JoeCool (profile), 21 Mar 2017 @ 8:24am

        Re: Re:

        That's the real reason companies hate emulators - they don't want you playing old games you love, they want you buying new games you probably won't play for more than a week.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ShadowNinja (profile), 21 Mar 2017 @ 10:59am

      Re:

      Not to mention it also shows just how absurd the length of copyright terms are that they're even protected in the first place.

      No one in their right mind would ever think games like Sonic the Hedgehog 1 are sellable and commercially viable games anymore these days. That's why even Sega doesn't sell it anymore.

      There's only a small handful of Sega Genesis games that have retained their value today. But the people who own the copyright on them don't sell them anymore, it's just collectors on Ebay who sell them.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 21 Mar 2017 @ 11:19am

        Re: Re:

        You are not thinking like a publisher, while individual old games may not have a very big audience, may thousands of together represent a large number of game playing hours that detract from the sales of the few game that they have on the market. Publisher want even longer copyright so that old works are lost long before they exit copyright.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 22 Mar 2017 @ 1:41am

        Re: Re:

        "No one in their right mind would ever think games like Sonic the Hedgehog 1 are sellable and commercially viable games anymore these days."

        Actually, that's a very bad example;

        https://marketplace.xbox.com/en-US/Product/Sonic-The-Hedgehog/66acd000-77fe-1000-9115-d80258 410864

        But, for the majority of games you're right. Not only are they not on sale, the publishers don't even exist any more for a lot of them. They should be available regardless.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 22 Mar 2017 @ 6:32am

          Re: Re: Re:

          I hear that for some old games, large publishers will buy them up and squat on them like patent trolls. They refuse to let anyone even create a new/sequel game to them to "protect their IP." They'd rather their hostage franchise completely die in obscurity than give up total control.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 2017 @ 6:19pm

    Saying it's art is fine, but the logical leap to say all art should be preserved doesn't follow.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 2017 @ 6:21pm

      Re:

      Why would you not want to preserve art and culture? It's for historical, hobbyist, and academic purposes.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 20 Mar 2017 @ 9:22pm

      Re:

      the logical leap to say all art should be preserved doesn't follow

      What makes a work of art or a pop culture artifact worth preserving — is it the medium in which it is presented, the supposed quality of the work, or some other intangible subjective quality? Who amongst us has the right to declare what art “deserves” preservation?

      In other words: What compelling reason could you possibly offer to justify why a video game considered by industry historians and average gamers alike to be one of the best games ever made (e.g., “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past”) deserves less of a shot at proper preservation than a film considered by all who have seen it to be one of the worst films ever made (“Manos: The Hands of Fate”)?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 21 Mar 2017 @ 1:13am

      Re:

      Why? You can't throw out a blanket response, which seems ridiculous and counter to reality to me, and not specify why art should not be preserved. Please, continue with that thought.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 21 Mar 2017 @ 5:09am

      Re:

      And who chooses what should be preserved? You? No thanks. I'd rather have as much as possible preserved so I will be able to enjoy what you don't believe that is art but I do.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 20 Mar 2017 @ 6:31pm

    Assuming the emulator is well made and runs the game(s) without any issues, I often prefer emulation over the real thing for two reasons;

    1. Configurable controls. Ever try to play a flight sim game using a left-handed D-pad? It sucks! Using an emulator, you can plug in a joystick and use that instead. Or just change the button layout to something you're more comfortable with.

    2. Save States. How many old games didn't have a save feature? Or they didn't let you save in the middle of a level. Or they made you enter ridiculously long passwords.


    That said, I do have an issue with the "preservation" aspect as it relates to 80s game consoles. Most all the commercial games from that era have been dumped and archived. Whenever a prototype game is found, there are calls to have it dumped and preserved.

    But what about all the homebrew games that have been created and sold over the last decade? Unless the author released the ROM file themselves, you won't find a single one of them anywhere on the net. I get that the authors want to make money from their creations and I have no problem with that, but many of these games were only produced in limited quantities and are now unavailable unless you're willing to pay $150-200 or more on eBay.

    The authors have made all the money they're ever going to make from these games and there are a limited number of copies floating around. Most people will never get to play these games because they can't afford to spend that kind of money for a game that might only hold their interest for a few minutes.

    Don't these games deserve to be preserved and enjoyed by all? Apparently not as there seems to be a world-wide ban on dumping them. Either that, or everyone who knew how to dump game cartridges has now lost that ability.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 2017 @ 6:33pm

      Re:

      The Romhacking community likely has people who know how to dump cartridges. Why not ask them?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Rekrul, 21 Mar 2017 @ 10:32am

        Re: Re:

        The ROMHacking forum rules specifically state that talk of piracy is off limits.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 23 Mar 2017 @ 3:46pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Of course. I also said nothing of piracy. Dumping cartridges is useful for archival purposes.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Rekrul, 24 Mar 2017 @ 2:11pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Of course. I also said nothing of piracy. Dumping cartridges is useful for archival purposes.

            So how would it help to have them dump a copy of the cartridges and then not make those dumps available?

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Leigh Beadon (profile), 21 Mar 2017 @ 10:14am

      Re:

      I recently re-played through a SMB3 - discovering that in my childhood fascination with warp flutes I had actually never even visited a significant number of the worlds - and I never could have done it without save states. Or rather I maybe *could* have, but I don't have that kind of time to spend. Plus, after playing Super Meat Boy, the idea of waiting longer than .5 seconds to restart a level is just unacceptable to me now.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 21 Mar 2017 @ 8:19pm

        Re: Re:

        I recently re-played through a SMB3 - discovering that in my childhood fascination with warp flutes I had actually never even visited a significant number of the worlds - and I never could have done it without save states.

        The "continue" system in Super Mario Bros. 3 is actually really interesting, especially in 2-player mode, and very generous—particularly for an NES game. I may have noticed as a child... but then I got good enough to never lose all my lives (1-ups are all over the place if you know where to look), and was mostly playing alone, so I forgot.

        You're missing out if you only play with save-states. Some things to pay attention to:

        • how the death of a specific player affects the world map ("M" and "L" labels are not quite equivalent, and fortresses are ersatz checkpoints)
        • airship repositioning (and anchors, and how "optional/pointless" levels may not look so optional after)
        • transferring of lives between players (battle mode)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Châu, 20 Mar 2017 @ 8:32pm

    Source Code & Hardware Designs

    Unfortunate source code and hardware designs for many old games become lost. Some companies probably still have source code but never share (not include Id, they share much). Source code & hardware designs of old games have much value for educate people and create new games.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    PaulT (profile), 21 Mar 2017 @ 1:20am

    I've not been in the scene for a long time, but I remember there being a lot of issues surrounding the Atari ST game library. IIRC, the games tended to use different disk formats and other tricks to try and prevent piracy. This, of course, failed. The pirates were so good that not only did they crack the disks, they managed to compress several games that spanned multiple disks on to a single disk with additional content (animated menus with original music, tech demos, etc).

    When I started looking at emulating some of my game library (I have a habit for hoarding most of my old games, with titles going back to the ZX Spectrum), I found that the original disks were not usable in an emulator due to the disk formats. There were, however, complete collections from each of the original piracy crews available to download. Thus, without access to an original machine, any game not pirated was consigned to history, whereas I could play any game that had originally been pirated, albeit in a modified format.

    This will only get more prominent as disks die and original machines are harder to come by - the pirated / emulated games are here to stay, those not will disappear.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Mar 2017 @ 3:07am

      Re:

      Especially the case with a lot of old games:
      The source code MIGHT still be available but back in those days many fixes were made directly in the game's machine code. Couple that with a lack of VCS and whatever source code has remained may not even be representative of the original game.

      It even happened in more recent times. For an example you need not look further than the Silent Hill 2 & 3 HD re-release for the PS3.

      There's your argument for preservation.

      With a lifetime of 75+ years, copyright on the earliest ATARI 2600 games won't expire earlier than 2052.
      Curators need exceptions. We shouldn't let those games simply be lost to the mist of history.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 21 Mar 2017 @ 9:32am

        Re: Re:

        Well, we COULD use exceptions for curators, OR we could just reduce our preposterously long copyright terms. (or both!)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Mar 2017 @ 11:59am

      Re:

      When I started looking at emulating some of my game library (I have a habit for hoarding most of my old games, with titles going back to the ZX Spectrum), I found that the original disks were not usable in an emulator due to the disk formats. There were, however, complete collections from each of the original piracy crews available to download. Thus, without access to an original machine, any game not pirated was consigned to history, whereas I could play any game that had originally been pirated, albeit in a modified format.

      This was recently noted for Apple II software, and the preceding link has a call for original disks. (You may want to email about sending software for other systems too.)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David, 21 Mar 2017 @ 1:25am

    You...don't...get...it...

    Like so many issues in the intellectual property world, it's not hard to understand the gaming industry's consternation. There's no doubt that many people use emulators simply to play games from old consoles and cabinets rather than pay for physical copies.

    Similar to a lot of music copying, the problem is not that people are depriving the industry of selling old original games. The problem is that all the time and effort people spend on acquiring and playing old games is not spent on acquiring and playing new games and the necessary hardware.

    And worse: if they can enjoy navigating a 16x16 8-color pixel character (rather than 500x1000 16777216-color pixels) through some maze competently handled by an 8-bit processor at 4MHz rather than a GPU, they get a wrong understanding what "fun" is about.

    The only redeeming quality of physical arcade games is that they are a rare commodity.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 21 Mar 2017 @ 4:09am

    One wonders how much of the hatred is based in the logical fallacy that they MIGHT do something with the IP and don't want it harmed in the meantime.

    They control the IP and completely ignore what seems to be robust demand, then bitch when people work around them as they take a few decades to figure out if they have clearances for the chip tunes.

    Then there are the games that have changed hands so many times and the papers are molding in a warehouse because no one wants to bother to go through it... unless someone else might try to make a buck off of it. They they issue threats, without even knowing if they have the paperwork trying to kill off any development.

    If only they didn't keep expanding the time people could own IP, we could hit a point where the games could be saved and given new life legally. Not having to be edited because the contract was missing the term "in the known universe forever" when acquiring the rights to use it in the game.

    Perhaps it is time to demand that code & carts be submitted to be stored for the day when the public finally gains new additions to that public domain thing I've heard of but never seen.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 21 Mar 2017 @ 5:17am

    Emulators should be fully legal. And the games should be automatically on public domain if they can't be found for sale for a working, supported platform. Simple as that. If the company isn't bothering to keep it on sale then why should it get any protections? And why should I be prohibited from running my legally purchased things in an emulator (and I already do it with PS2 games)?

    When copyright law respects me I will start respecting it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Mar 2017 @ 5:28am

      Re:

      Unfortunately that cannot be codified as law.

      What could be done is to have DMCA exceptions for the backup of games for systems that are no longer manufactured.

      Re-releases of games would still be covered by DMCA because their DRM exists on hardware still being manufactured.

      Additionally, museums and archival institutions should be allowed to obtain, hold onto such games.

      That would at least be a start.

      Sure it would be great to get rid of most of 17 U.S. Code § 1201 but that's practically impossible at this point.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 21 Mar 2017 @ 11:40am

        Re: Re:

        Unfortunately that cannot be codified as law.

        The Constitution allows copyright but doesn't require it. So why couldn't we decide that out-of-print stuff is public domain?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Mar 2017 @ 5:32am

      Re:

      Also, as long as the patents have expired, emulators ARE fully legal. The problem is that without system software (i.e. BIOS files), all of which IS copyrighted until at least 2052, many emulators are also completely useless. Some emulators have a reverse engineered BIOS, which is legal, but most don't.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 21 Mar 2017 @ 6:21am

        Re: Re:

        many emulators give a guide on how to dump the bios for the system(s) they cover... though i'm sure many people just "borrow" one from someone online

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 21 Mar 2017 @ 8:18am

      Re:

      That's pretty much how I see it. There are no 'lost sales' if it's not for sale, and the idea of 'well they might want to re-release it again in the future' is a weak excuse at best.

      The (theoretical) purpose behind copyright isn't to provide a steady stream of revenue to companies and individuals, it's to benefit the public by giving them more stuff to work with and/or use, so if a company isn't selling something the in a manner the public can actually make use of it the public should get it's half of the deal, as the company clearly doesn't think the game is worth supporting themselves at that point.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Ninja (profile), 21 Mar 2017 @ 12:25pm

        Re: Re:

        And thank god we have the Internet Archive and pirates to protect older content. We've seen how much of old movie titles (for instance) were lost due to deterioration, bad storage and other issues. In a few more decades people will be thanking pirates for their services.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          That One Guy (profile), 21 Mar 2017 @ 1:28pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Yeah, a real sign of how crazy things have become that if culture is to be preserved it will be in spite of the laws, rather than because of it. Things will be preserved not because those that own the rights bothered to do so, but because other people were willing to ignore the laws and do it themselves.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    DakotaKid, 21 Mar 2017 @ 10:11am

    Copyright infringement baloney

    What is copyrighted is the software. This extension about what device you can read it on is unconstitutional.
    The US Constitution under powers granted to Congress:
    To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
    The writings and discoveries are protected, not the method of interacting with them.
    This extension of the DMCA is clearly unconstitutional.

    If you bought it legitimately, and you did not copy it, the method of display should be immaterial.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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