Whenever you debate the merits and flaws of emulation you’re guaranteed its insane, inbred twin “Piracy” will show up not long after to vomit a bucket’s-worth of half digested fish heads all over your nice new shoes. The two are inextricably bound to each other and yet couldn’t be more different. In theory one takes games that would otherwise be decomposing in landfills, or gathering dust in a concrete vault under a desert, and preserves them for new generations to know, experience and enjoy, while the other wants to play games for free and to hell with whoever it puts out of a job. The truth is more nuanced than that of course and there are plenty of arguments on both sides. Visit any gaming forums and you’ll break your neck tripping over them all.
Telling the two apart can be a bit tricky sometimes even for long-time gamers, however. Where does preservation end and outright theft begin? Who’s to say self-gratification can’t evolve into a genuine desire to curate? If games companies won’t preserve old games then who will? Why can’t I get a legit copy of “How To Be A Complete Bastard” for the ZX Spectrum anymore? And all that’s before you even touch on the basic legality of the whole thing, an area swathed in so many shades of grey you’d probably find some fisting in there if you looked hard enough. When discussing emulation there’s a very, very fine line between advocating the preservation of gaming heritage and promoting outright theft.
Forbes writer Erik Kain tripped over this line several days ago in an article about an old SNES game called Nightmare Busters. Don’t kick yourself if you haven’t heard of it since it was never officially released during the SNES’ heyday. Its original publisher Nichibutzu dropped the title before it was due to be published and it has since only survived in ROM form, playable on your Super Nintendo emulator of choice. The only way you could get a copy of Nightmare Busters was to go to any of the numerous quasi-dodgy ROM archives out there on the internet and download it to your PC. You’re only hearing about it now because a company called Super Fighter Team recently acquired the rights and have teamed up with the original developers to finally give it an official release…on the Super Nintendo.
Yep, you read that right. Super Fighter Team want to sell you a game that’s been floating around the internet for god-knows how many years for a console you can only get from ebay, second hand shops or car boot sales if you don’t already own one. Wherever you do pick one up it’ll probably be somewhat cheaper than $60 USD, the price Black Ops 2 was on release and the same thoroughly-modern price Super Fighter Team plan to charge for Nightmare Busters. For the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. How long I wonder before we’re all asked to scrounge up the parts of a Difference Engine for “Numbers Scribbled On A Toilet Wall by Ada Lovelace” (RRP $99.99).
Forbes haven’t been doing gaming articles for very long but they’ve been well-received by the gaming masses for their tendency to side with the consumer. A case in point being the great Mass Effect 3 ending outcry of 2012. Coincidentally they’ve also been outright condemned at times by many in the games journalism “old boys club”, for various reasons that seem suspiciously like pettiness rooted in low self-esteem. Anyhow, in his article about the forthcoming release of this hot old game Kain made what could be charitably called “a rookie mistake” by including a link to an actual working SNES emulator.
Now anyone with even the slightest knowledge of the emulation scene knows the first rule of Emulation Club is “You do not provide URLs to Emulation Club.” You can discuss it, drop vague hints, hell you can flat out admit to having a MAME cabinet in your kitchen if you like, but you never give out an address. The uninitiated must discover it themselves, preferably after having been pummelled by a fat man because Emulation Club is not for precious and unique snowflakes.
Kain didn’t link directly to an actual ROM of the game itself, because while he may be somewhat uninformed he’s clearly not fucking stupid. Unfortunately for Kain the tone of his original article implied downloading the linked emulator and “acquiring” a Nightmare Busters ROM from some other site might not be a bad idea. By suggesting this Kain incurred the…ahem, “wrath” of Ben Kuschera of the Penny Arcade Report, who immediately condemned Kain via twitter for having “advocated stealing games” with a “turd of a story”, and hoped Kain’s career would be hurt as a result. Kuchera then launched a brief full-scale sneer campaign of snotty remarks and aloof dismissals interspersed with profoundly witty retorts to his critics, encouraging his followers to do the same. Kain responded with his own retorts and supporters.
It was all a big bloody mess of twitter drama, or “another day in games journalism” depending on your perspective.
In his defence Kuchera himself has never directly broken the first rule of Emulation Club. Unless you count that one time in 2005 when he linked to a site about hacking Sony PSPs in a short news piece about PSP firmware. That was donkeys years ago though and the site he linked to is long gone, having changed to a site with a different name and a sizeable collection of emulators for the PSP that include versions of MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) and Snes9x (a SNES emulator). There was also that piece where he linked to an article by a fellow Ars Technica writer about a SNES emulator called bsness. It only discusses the pitfalls and potentials of various emulators however and contains no links to them, so no Emulation Club rules were broken (it’s an interesting article by the way, and well worth a read).
The same cannot be said for Kotaku who were inadvertently dragged into this whole fiasco when one of their writers, Jason Schreier, leapt to Kuchera’s defence by calling Forbes a “content farm.” That a Kotaku writer chose to involve himself in this “discussion” is particularly interesting seeing as Kotaku published a step-by-step guide to playing Wii games on PC, in High Definition, back in December of 2011. Conveniently titled “How To Play Wii Games In High Definition, On Your PC”, it includes links to a Wii emulator called Dolphin and a utility called Rawdump that lets you copy the contents of Wii/Gamecube discs straight to your hard drive. The guide comes with the following disclaimer.
“We’ve prepared and tailored this guide to help those who already own a physical copy of a Wii game. Those who give Nintendo (and other publishers) the money they deserve for making these awesome games.”
A very responsible disclaimer that makes everything cool and the gang. Right? Not according to Nintendo, who make their stance on the matter very clear in the following excerpts from their legal page. I’ve emphasised relevant words and sentences to make it even clearer.
“Game copiers enable users to illegally copy video game software onto floppy disks, writeable compact disks or the hard drive of a personal computer. They enable the user to make, play and distribute illegal copies of video game software which violates Nintendo’s copyrights and trademarks. These devices also allow for the uploading and downloading of ROMs to and from the Internet. Based upon the functions of these devices, they are illegal.”
“Personal Websites and/or Internet Content Providers sites That link to Nintendo ROMs, Nintendo emulators and/or illegal copying devices can be held liable for copyright and trademark violations, regardless of whether the illegal software and/or devices are on their site or whether they are linking to the sites where the illegal items are found.”
So the next time you see a games journalist – or anyone for that matter – showing off or waxing lyrical about SNES emulation, it’s your patriotic duty to report them to Nintendo’s Secret Police (email@example.com). Failing to do so means you’re literally helping these thieving scum bastards steal food from the tables of developers AND their families. And their dog too. Probably their cat as well. You monsters! How do you sleep at night?
The exception to this rule is Jeff Gerstmann of Giant Bomb who basically owns every game and system ever and is therefore untouchable. I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually had an original copy of Nightmare Busters somewhere in his terrifying collection.