Omar Muñoz-Cremers

Now That Our Youth Has Been Emulated...

The best starting point from which to understand the impact of emulation is a standard thought experiment:


Step into the time machine and zap to the year 1983, preferably in the neighbourhood of an arcade where you – in your 1983 version – are throwing your pocket money into all sorts of video games. Start a conversation with yourself (... and Ajax will win the European Cup I again in 1995...), and after a while starting pointing at everything around you with dramatic gestures and announce: One day this will all be yours!

And not only that, but you'll never have to pay for it again! After your 1983 version has made a fruitless attempt to zap back to the year 1999 with you, a feeling of amazement will remain: How will they do it? Is 1999 a utopia? And why will I still be playing computer games in sixteen years, anyway?

But what is left of that amazement in 1999 as we sit in front of the PC? Is nostalgia stronger than the hunger for novelty? And what do the words MAME 32 on the desktop icon mean? MAME stands for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, and it is undoubtedly the most fascinating emulation program in recent years. In general, two kinds of emulator can be distinguished: those that make your home computer imitate another home computer (Apple II, Amiga, Commodore 64) and emulators that imitate game computers (Vectrex, Atari, Gameboy). MAME is actually in a category all its own. Since February 5, 1997, when MAME 0.1 was presented as a collection of emulators of separate games, MAME has quickly grown into an umbrella program that can emulate more than 1300 games at present, so that a well-filled MAME folder starts to resemble a virtual gameroom, or rather, a map of memories.

Emulator developers explain what they're doing in terms of the challenge of translating old games through a new program. This is an understandable but dull excuse - what they're really doing is rediscovering and charting lost worlds. Most emulator users, however, don't waste a thought on the beauty of the code when confronted with the return of places they inhabited in their youth. This is, first of all, a purely nostalgic experience. Some games turn out to still be perfectly playable (Uridium on C64, Crazy Climber), others bore after one play. And then there's the joy when a long-forgotten arcade game you once played on vacation suddenly appears on the screen of your PC. In that first flush of discovery, you'll declare the Internet holy, and say things like, Now this is true progress, until calm finally returns after five rounds of Missile Command, Mr. Do and Space Invaders. And this is not the calm of relief or fatigue. This is the if-you-can-do-everything-why-do-anything calm, that treacherous form of postmodern consumption ennui.

Emulators have appeared right on time. Conversations about favorite games from childhood had already been providing a welcome change from the eternally recurring list of favorite TV shows from the seventies. Space Invaders is the return of old Puma trainers, Adidas jogging suits, old-school hip-hop and Star Wars – in short, nothing other than a component of the next retro period, which is nothing other than an expression of collective symbolic insecurity. Can I dance to jungle? Is Prada really wearable? Is Carmaggedon too bloody? Why doesn't Gummo have a plot? If the nineties are too chaotic, non-linear, hypercomplex, with no central point of authority, then the past suddenly seems a beacon of calm, simplicity and understandability. Wasn't everything better back then?

This Zukunftangst (to interpret a culture in German – very retro) has indisputably positive aspects. Emulation is archaeology: the conservation and study of cultural artifacts that have more value for us than any random work of art from the same period. The construction of traditions, the drawing of new lines of descent, is an inescapable will for even those artifacts (athletic shoes, graffiti, acid-house 12-inches, etc.) that should have disappeared without a trace because they happened to circulate with a different speed. Emulators save games from the hands of hip curators and dead museums, inspire a personally active archaeology that poses questions like: What are games? How have they changed? How has my consciousness changed with time? How has technology changed? It's PacMan as a playful form of philosophy.

One way of analysing games is to frame them as a lattice of information into which the nervous system tries to fit itself. Computer games let you learn to handle speed. This is why games are addictive – like drugs, they open the body to new speeds, they train the body. The gamer transforms in front of the computer or arcade machine, strains his body in various ways and tries to become absorbed into the plateau of speed where the body is empty. Then there is no longer any difference between screen and consciousness; eyes press, fingers see and the ecstatic moment unfolds in which one sees actions in time.

When we analyse the ecstatic experience of computer games over time, we see that an important difference lies in the relationship between imagination and complexity. It is clear that the degree of difficulty of games has become more diverse. Faster and faster speeds were once the only way to make a game more difficult, so that the squadrons in Galaxian at one point fly down at an inhumanly high speed and you 'die.' With the passing of time the computer's capacity grows ever faster, and the games naturally change along with it: the ability to offer different levels, the ability to build story lines into the game for the first time, the ability to better represent spatiality. At present it seems as if games force, not follow, hardware innovations, for why else would you buy a Voodoo II video card or Pentium II?

Games themselves are now virtually worthy of the status of simulation. Watching football on television you begin to recognise patterns from FIFA 99, the difference being that watching football suddenly becomes boring when you can be football yourself. And Need For Speed III tries to simulate the speed of sports cars to perfection, a speed which swallows you up so that even the detailed reflection of the environment in the chrome of the automobile no longer registers. How can we speak of the advantages of old games when we're gaping at such splendour? Simple fun, 'one joystick, one firing button,' limited screens, '1 credit = 3 lives': In their celebration of simplicity, these terms resemble those with which traditional societies are extolled. This is the dangerous point at which cultural pessimism V2.0 lurks: the imagination with which we filled in the simplistic lattices of our Atari games has been lost; today's games leave no room for imagination. Perhaps. But the complexity of games doesn't just operate at the level of the gleaming surface, it also branches off into the worlds created. The function of imagination has changed. It no longer has to fill in the gaps in simplistic representation; it is forced to believe in representation. This is precisely the power of the wave of 3D games: from Doom and Quake to Tomb Raider and //Half-Life:// The world washes over you. Sounds, shock effects and movement through tunnels make the imagination believe. It has otherwise little to do with inherent qualitative differences between old and new games; they merely present a different kind of fun - the minimalist enjoyment of filling-in as compared with a maximalist enjoyment of immersion.

Criticism can be better applied to something else, namely the programmers' actions. First of all, there is the problem of genre formation. Computer games have always been quite strictly held to a limited number of genres. Some disappear (PacMan and its thousands of clones), others will always exist (sports games). What's disappointing is how in spite of the well-nigh endless spatial possibilities today's games continue to limit themselves to safe paths. Strategy-Action (Red Alert to Starcraft), 3D Paranoia (Wolfenstein to Half-Life), Sports, Racing, Martial Arts (Street Fighter to Tekken) and Cute (King Mario) are the natural laws to which programmers chain their imaginations. The rest is a question of ever-faster and -bigger memory and processors so that details can be fiddled with every so often without changing the basis of the game. In that sense, emulation sometimes seems nothing more than an alternative for programmers who want a challenge other than filling up the Quake engine with arbitrary details.

It's the old story of limitations generating power. Why is the Commodore 64 a machine that arouses so much emotion in spite of its measly 64K? The C64 was never boring because the games kept on changing. The challenge that the programmers took up back then to try to push the machine's boundaries in spite of its limited capabilities made them more creative and anchored the players' relationship to their machine. With the power of computers forever increasing, what used to be a reasonably fast computer can now hardly keep up any more with the newest games; the machine has to grow with the games. More annoyingly, the removal of limitations has made programmers lazy. Attention seems to have been transferred to the sharpness of detail, vibrating stereo effects and filling up the emptiness of gameplay with impressive but ultimately pointless films.

Naturally, the solution is not to completely shield ourselves from contemporary games by means of a haze of emulated childhood memories. It seems more productive for producers to look for fascinating points in the history of game development and create a vertical line of development, a game from an imaginary parallel history. Moonchild thus managed two years ago to be the perfect Commodore game that could never have appeared on a Commodore. The PC's greater capacity was used to make better graphics and bigger worlds, while the gameplay and the strict two-dimensional presentation were a strange but pleasing anachronism. Moonchild is a model for endless mutations of games. Possible worlds: PacMan versus Quake, the blending of textures, Elite versus Starcraft, the blending of styles of play, Jet Li versus Bruce Lee Kung Fu; the possibilities are there for the taking. And that means doing something more creative than putting out a new 'improved' version of Frogger, Battlezone or Asteroids (the Puff Daddy way of doing things).

In retrospect, it is clear that the Golden Age of emulation took place in 1997 and 1998. Until November 1998, everything was peachy: MAME worked on Windows, the front ends got better, and more classics seem to be reanimated every week. Then the programmers got reckless: the classics from the period 1977-1987 were almost all available, and they begin to look to the nineties. Neo-Geo games (previously a separate emulator) soon worked on MAME and the expectation arose that reasonably recent successes like Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam would be added to the emulator in the foreseeable future. A process which, by the way, divides the emulation scene: many programmers and players explicitly dislike post-1987 games, while others want to bring the emulation process to its logical conclusion.

In November, alerted by various copyright holders, the IDSA (Interactive Digital Software Association) decided to temporarily shut down Dave's Video Game Classics Web site (new address:, the biggest emulation site. IDSA is a trade organisation for companies that publish computer games, with a separate department that studies and fights software piracy. Dave's Classic's returned after a few days, but without the essential ROM archive. The MAME FAQ explained the relationship between ROM and MAME this way:

These are NOT recreations; these are the actual arcade games that appeared in arcades in the 70's and 80's. The game's code is dumped into ROM files that MAME loads and replays on your computer. The purpose of MAME is to actually pretend to be the CPU and support chips that these games need to play. MAME is the 'hardware' of the arcade game; the ROMs are the 'software.

For the MAME user, this was the signal to quickly download all possible ROMs. Indeed, within a few days, all the big emulation sites were forced to close their archives.

Perhaps a bigger problem than the emulation of newer games was that in the enthusiasm generated by the emulators, sites more and more often ignored an important rule for offering this kind of programs, namely offering the emulation program (which, despite the claims of IDSA, is legal) separately from the ROMs (which were always illegal). In the period before the spread of MAME, ROMs were offered on a fairly small scale, mostly geared to emulators of specific games or to aid collectors in the repairing of old machines. Providers of emulators attracted attention with the aggressive tone in which they discouraged questions about where to find ROMs.

As classic game sites emerged and grew, little attention was paid to this subdivision. The emulators were mostly offered on a site itself together with screenshots of the available games, whose ROMs were often located on an FTP site, thanks to a very thin dividing line (one mouse-click further). It is understandable that an end came to this user-friendly situation, but it doesn't mean much. Despite tough talk by the IDSA and threats by for example legendary software house Capcom to, the emulators themselves are not illegal. The newest versions of MAME are thus still easily available. The difference is that ROMs have disappeared in the morass of WAREZ. Those who don't feel like maintaining a chat-room network in order to exchange ROMs must prepare themselves for the ultimate test of patience: finding illegal software on the Internet. I will send no one without warning into the world of WAREZ, not because of any question of illegality, but to protect the searcher's mental state. Be prepared for disappointment and deception. Don't look on in surprise when your browser becomes ensnared in a connected series of porn sites. Don't even try to comprehend the existence of such useless things as Top 10 WAREZ lists; the majority of sites will do anything to win your priceless mouse-click.

But this labyrinth has its hidden prizes, and let those who would rather pay $50 for a game cast the first cabel modem. Once again a strange capacity of the Internet becomes clear: The harder it is attacked from without, the faster it addresses a problem. Those who were previously looking mostly for easily obtainable ROMs of old games suddenly runs across brand-new games. The IDSA has done us a favour. In addition, emulators were triumphantly distributed for the Nintendo 64 and Sony Playstation at the beginning of this year, a direct attack on the foundations of the non-PC game industry. Though these projects have been going for a long time (you don't build an emulator in a month), there seems to be a barely concealed idea of revenge at the bottom of it.

On the above search, one will quickly run across that other digital pariah, the MP3. Like ROM, the MP3 provoked the rancour of the music industry, that other pillar of the entertainment complex. The MP3 is simply a way to play music on your computer with near-perfect sound quality. Offering and finding MP3 files has become a game in itself, since servers have begun pursuing an active policy in the struggle against the dissemination of MP3s. A lively barter goes on here too, often conducted through stark, glamourless FTP sites. If a song is at all popular (in other words, don't look for obscure works by Sun Ra), you'll find it with any effort. If not, CD burners are widespread enough by now that someone will always be willing to burn a disk full of MP3s, ROMs, photos and related stuff for the price of a blank CD-ROM.

The conclusion is clear (and let's be honest, none too original, considering people have been saying it for years), but the idea of copyright is unworkable with the digitalisation process. The developers of MAME understood this and always gave away their product for free (the radicalism of the gift is still intact) and invited others to contribute to the construction of MAME. Meanwhile, the music and game industries can expect little sympathy; the process of payback for every overpriced CD and game has only just begun. The question remaining is whether the consumer's vengeance and this 'alternative technological economy' will last. Who dares these days to use the words technology and utopia in the same sentence?

translation LAURA MARTZ