With emulators available even on smartphones, dipping into your playing past is easier than ever
Last modified on Sat 25 Dec 2021 18.27 EST
Nick Bowman gestures to the old-fashioned gaming consoles littering his desk.
“Whenever I am having kind of a crappy day, I pull out the Nintendo,” he says, pointing. “That’s a licensed one. I also have a Raspberry Pi that I have all my emulators on. [And] I have the original Pokemon Red on my smartphone.”
Bowman, an associate professor of journalism and creative media industries at Texas Tech University, has a vast collection of consoles and hundreds of cartridges and discs.
Like me, he grew up in a time when video games were intimately tied to a physical device. We played using handheld consoles, while the games themselves were on cartridges – the kind you pulled out and blew out the dust from if it wasn’t working.
As kids we spent hours immersed in gaming worlds, but when our devices were lost, broken or superseded, the game likely was too.
While music and literature has long been well-preserved, and constantly re-released, games weren’t like this. For years our favourite games were inaccessible because they were non-interoperable: the cartridges didn’t work on other devices, and old computer games wouldn’t run on newer operating systems.
Playing them was only possible thanks to a handful of dedicated individuals, often anonymous, who remade or ported them to work on current systems.
“Think about all the cultural capital that was tied up in cartridges and power cables that our parents threw away,” says Bowman. “And then a couple of people found it and put it back together.”
Bowman’s research shows how powerful the nostalgia from playing old video games can be. For many people, games are intimately tied to social networks. We played Mario tennis with our friends, or racing games with our dads.
“We already know that games are a source of psychological wellbeing,” says Bowman. “…With nostalgia you get sort of a bonus relatedness because you get to connect to yourself. You’re replaying a game from a positive childhood memory. Those things can be particularly powerful for short-term stress release.
“It’s almost like a digital smoke break. Return to this past life, play through it, and reconnect with yourself, literally.
“In our research we found that people who have social nostalgia memories – memories of playing games with friends in the past – they feel connected to themselves and their friends in the past, and they also feel connected in the present.”
Nowadays, companies are going after the market for nostalgic gaming. Nintendo is slowly adding Nintendo 64 games, some of which I played as a kid, to its Switch console.
“I don’t think the industry was all that interested in providing nostalgic games until the retrogramers and the modders and the emulators took it upon themselves,” says Bowman.
“Coders and hackers and modders, I think, saved classic gaming. They showed industry that there is a market.”
The Raspberry Pi Bowman has on his desk is a basic computer loaded with emulators. Emulators are software that can behave like the hardware of a video game console, allowing you to simulate a console on your computer.
The coders and hackers that created the emulators are driven by many factors. One of the most famous emulator projects is MAME, which was first released almost twenty five years ago and has had hundreds of contributors.
“That one probably has one of the most noble goals of emulators,” says Stuart Cairne, a Tasmanian software developer.
“It was trying to emulate the original hardware and preserve it so that we don’t lose that part of our history. Some of the games that it emulates are from the mid and late seventies, or even earlier than that – hardware that was only available in universities.”
But other emulators are created simply for the joy of playing them, or because of the technical challenge of making them work. Many developers still have access to the old devices, and even go to the extent of opening and inspecting the chips so they can replicate bugs and make accurate digital recreations.
Carnie, whose day job is at a data company, often found himself contributing to these projects so favourite games like Monkey Island would work on the operating system he used.
“I wanted to play the games, and being a developer I had the tools and skills … I would often bring them to whatever platform I was on, which has been a Mac for the past 20 years.
“It’s fun just to see these things come back. It’s all that nostalgia too – there’s that game I used to play when I was 10 or 13, and now it’s working on my PC.”
After the launch of the iOS App Store in the late 2000s, Carnie started working on a Commodore 64 emulator for iPhones and iPads. He and his partner in the project joined up with a big Danish game developer with industry connections so they could license everything.
“We had licensed the branding, so we were able to sell it as a Commodore64,” Carnie says. The emulator sold on the app store for US$4.99 and included five games: Dragons Den, Le Mans, Jupiter Lander, Arctic Shipwreck, and Jack Attack.
Sometimes it was impossible to find who owned the rights to games – over the decades many of the companies went bust, or their catalogues were sold.
“We had some big names on the emulator that we had fully licensed from people who had still retained their IP … but we also found that some of the developers we were able to communicate with no longer had the rights to it or did not know where [the rights] had gone.”
“We had one [game] we had released on the Commodore 64 for free because we couldn’t track down the rights to it, and then the Bruce Lee foundation messaged us to say it had to be taken down because Bruce Lee’s name cannot be used,” Carnie says.
For many years emulators were the link to our childhoods. They existed, as Bowman and Carnie note, in somewhat of a legal grey area. Some of the most popular – such as Visual Boy Advance, a classic Gameboy game – were created by anonymous individuals, who sometimes faced lawsuits against them.
Mostly emulators were technically difficult to use. The amateur-created software could be hard to find and install, and buggy. The grey market for the games was full of shady websites.
“It was hard,” says Bowman. “[Just to play them] you had to learn a lot of coding on the fly. I remember downloading those files and you had to trust the link, and unzip it and load it to this file and not that file. And it was always kind of a wink, wink culture.
“I remember that joy, I think it was [the game Contra], [of] hearing the sound. You go into the emulator and you have to do all the settings and I finally got it to play and all of a sudden … I remember getting tingles that I was about to play a game, on my work computer, that I hadn’t seen since I was in my jammies.”
Even if you still physically possess an old game disc, it can be a nightmare to play.
My friend Praveen owns a disc of an old Star Wars shooting game originally created for MS Dos. Actually playing it started with trying to find a copy of Microsoft Windows 95.
“After that it’s pretty straightforward,” he says. But as he continues, it really doesn’t sound like it.
“You have to use the command line to install it,” he says. “The other cool thing about this game is that it’s one of the early games with sound. But if you want to hear the audio you have to manually configure your sound card.”
“Hardware comparability is a huge issue with these old games,” Praveen says. “They can’t ‘comprehend’ things like 1GB of RAM when they were designed to run on 16MB.
“There’s a certain level of competence and pride that comes with grabbing a controller. Turning on a 30-year-old game and entering in the same code you did when you were 11, and it works,” says Bowman.
“For a lot of older gamers we pride ourselves on not going to the guide but remembering it from when we were kids.”
Retro gaming is now more democratised than ever. Emulators have become much easier over the years – even available on smartphones. I have encountered numerous people who dipped into their childhood games to get through Covid lockdowns and other stressors.
A recent YouTube video by someone who remade Simpsons Hit & Run has had more than five million views. It’s a game I also played for countless hours as a kid. Except I didn’t actually own it, so all those hours were actually at my cousin’s house. He remembers this too.
“I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that those hobbyists, emulators and rom makers may well have saved gaming in two ways: provided people access to content that had become completely inaccessible, and reminded us of properties that we had actually forgotten about,” says Bowman.