Why I Don’t Like Game Emulation

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!

Maybe I’ll come back to it one day?

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!


  1. Hey, this is quite a deep topic for me.
    I have experienced a similar feeling for emulation, and while I agree on everything, you made a terrible mistake.
    You got greedy and didn’t treat the games with as much love as they deserved 😀
    Literally the same thing that happened to you with emulation could have happened to you with real copies of games. Imagine you win the lottery and decide to collect the entire physical library for multiple classic systems…
    And it costs you nearly nothing compared to all the money you already have… Literally the same thing would happen.

    There’s even more to this… to me, real life is directly connected with games.
    And when you’re a kid, you’re growing (obviously), so you get to experience a lot of first time experiences and have a bigger desire to also experience videogames. If you’re someone who’s building your own emulation project and are on the internet looking for tons of old roms, you’re likely someone who’s already a grown up. You’re not growing too much anymore. Your first time experiences are scarce now. As such your brain has less juice to play classic games. This is sad, and I won’t blame you for it. I loved my life as a kid, and I loved being around family, and we’d travel often to see more family and see more places, all while playing GameBoy on trips and stuff like that. In fact, if you travel bring an emulator device with you, you can love them just the same as you did when you were younger, but that depends on how many roms you bring with you, and how many you dedicate to play. (Hint: Bring only 2 roms or something but plan your trip around those games.)
    Wait, I forgot one thing. If you travel and you’re a grown up, you’re likely the one doing all the driving and everything 😛 damnit.

    Anyway, it’s not emulation’s fault exactly, it’s people greediness. And trust me, just like you I got a ton of roms 20 years ago that I still havent played… and in many ways, I still intend to play them all, but I want to find a balance in life that is similar to how things were when i was a kid. I want a new friend, and play a new game with them. That is usually wonderful! (Although if the game is Fortnite or whatever, fuck everything)

    I probably have a ton more to say. Ah well! Hope you enjoy reading my comment.


  2. This post pretty much sums up my own thoughts and feelings about emulation. This is why even when I was stranded away from gaming with only my PC and a couple of emulators to go by, I carefully limited myself to games that I already knew and love. Like, I would indulge in an yearly rerun of all my personal cult classics, from Landstalker to Ducktales, without forgetting all the 16-bit Sonic entries. I tried games I didn’t know only occasionally and when I was 100% sure I would love them. That’s how I discovered Terranigma and Seiken Densetsu 3, and they were deeply fulfilling experiences because I played them like I would have on their original systems, i.e. with reverence and a pinch of artificially created scarcity.

    For me, this carelessness and lack of involvment also applies to digital games as sold by the PSN & co. No matter how hard I try, I just cannot value these games as much as physical games that I can look at, touch and whose booklets I can sniff until my heart swells. Heck, I come from a place where games were precious items that were yours forever once you bought them, and I’m not ready to renounce to these sweet possessive feelings towards physical games.


    • Ah, man, I couldn’t agree more about digital titles. For whatever reason, this doesn’t apply to PC games, although I still will buy physical copies when available, but for my 3DS and Vita, I feel nothing for digital-only titles. I’ll gladly pay $30 for a physical copy of a game I like that costs $20 in digital form. Might sound silly to some, and maybe I’ll think I’m nuts in couple of years, but I very highly value the ability to share games with my friends and family.

      Glad to hear I’m not the only one!

      As a side note, have you played The Swapper? Looks like there’s going to be a Limited Run release of it for Vita/PS4 this Friday 🙂 Game looks incredible and has some rave reviews, but I’ve been holding off on the PC edition because I was waiting for a handheld release. Waiting paid off, for once!


      • The Swapper? Nope. Overall, I don’t play indie games that much, because… Because most of them are digital games, obviously! But I admit that this particular game looks interesting. Maybe I’ll get it on a PSN sale one day.


  3. You’re totally right. I feel the same way about emulations. It feels like a knock-off, and tremendously fake. You just don’t get the same satisfaction out of it. Great post!

    I’m actually the Community Content Manager for NowLoading.co, and I would be thrilled if you considered posting on our platform (while still posting on your personal channels). If you don’t know much about us- we’re the same team behind Movie Pilot, and push to give awesome writers (like yourself) some exposure. Feel free to email me! My email and more info is on my about page. 🙂


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