The world of game emulation has evolved over the past decade or so to provide near-flawless execution of classic hardware. As complex as hardware emulation actually is, to the normal user, the allure of being able to play all of their favorite childhood games, for free, is reason enough to download an emulator for their system of choice and get down with games they miss, or games they missed. Whether or not the clockspeed is picture-perfect is really irrelevant to the average user. The point is, it plays games, and it plays them pretty darn well.
And while firing up an emulator is not something I have any moral issue with, after all, these games are out of print and in some cases very expensive, I take issue with what it does to my view of those games.
A few months ago, I discovered the project RetroPie and decided to turn my broken PlayStation 2 into a housing unit for a RetroPie emulation center. The project was a couple hour venture into learning the fundamentals of the RaspberryPi, and overall I consider the project a success. The final product is exactly what I aimed to create: a machine that can be plugged into a TV and can play emulated games from all of my favorite classic consoles. It even accepted two PS2 controllers through the existing ports and it worked great.
What I noticed a few days after finishing this project, however, was that the “Playstation-Pi” started gathering dust. I had lost all incentive to play it. An overload of “new” games that I didn’t actually own had effectively cheapened the game. And that’s really where my issue with emulation begins.
I had finished setting up the software portion of my Playstation-Pi when I started to dig into some of the games I had set up. I meticulously crawled through the ROM set list to find the games I wanted to replay, as well as the games I never got a chance to experience, mainly for the Gameboy Advance, Gameboy Color, and Super Nintendo. I Google’d around for “top rpgs snes” and similar terms, trying to find the “master list” of great games to play on it. Then it hit me – I was totally overwhelmed!
It’s easy to forget what games I added to my backlog, because there were just so many. Off the top of my head I can remember Breath of Fire, Illusion of Gaia, and Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. All games I never got to play when I was younger, but now had full access to! Although this already sort of proves my point – it was only two months ago yet I cannot remember more than two games that I wanted to play. I had to Google to remember Super Mario RPG.
I made very little progress in each of the ~7 games I started. The issue I ran into was that as soon as I got stuck, or there was too much dialogue, or I was bored for three whole seconds, I immediately exited back to the main screen and started up something else. These games were no longer epic adventures to get engrossed in – they were cheapened versions of themselves that couldn’t provide me more than 10 minutes of entertainment at a time. They weren’t mine, they were just names on a screen, amongst a massive pile of other names.
And why bother even playing for more than 10 minutes? You can just skip to something potentially better! Not like you had to work to obtain those games.
Fast forward a few weeks from this sad realization that I had no desire to even play any of these anymore, and I went out on a limb. I wanted to play Sword of Mana but also prove my overall theory, so I went on eBay and bought a $12 copy for the Gameboy Advance. As of this point I’m about 10 hours logged and I love the game. It simply feels special to me and that drives me to play and enjoy it.
Emulation is a great way to re-live certain games that are otherwise unavailable, but for me, it does a tremendous disservice to the magic behind the game. It cheapens it, deincentivizes spending time on it, because I don’t feel like I’m working towards “getting my money’s worth.” This is a similar phenomenon I feel with digital games, with Steam being the biggest offender. But that’s a topic for another day!
Do you regularly play emulated games? Does it feel different to play a physical copy vs an emulated copy? I love talking about this kind of stuff and hearing how other people handle this topic, because there are many unique takes on it. The digital vs physical debate especially is a close relative of this topic and it’s a debate that will be going on for years to come. Let me know how you feel in the comments!