Classic video gaming for all ages

By Вen Li

Now that classes are over and assignments are in, many of you are probably stuck with a week of nothing to do before exams. Why not waste some valuable study time on some good old-fashioned video games. Even if the tuition monster ate your X-box money, you can still enjoy a wide variety of your favourite titles this holiday season. Antiquated arcade and console classics like Frogger, Asteroids and Tempest can all be reborn on your personal computer through the use of emulators.

A video game hardware emulator is piece of software that uses the processing power of modern personal computers to pretend to be the chips and circuits found in old video game machines. The emulator behaves just like the original hardware, and games written for the old hardware run on the computer just as they did in the original consoles and uprights. Emulators exist to simulate almost every platform, including the Commodore and Amiga series, the various Nintendo and Sega units, upright arcade boxes, and even not-so-old Sony PlayStations.

So why play 20-year-old games when the latest and greatest systems are released every year?

Many fans think, and rightly so, that video games of yore were more challenging and fun. Video games had more entertaiment value when authors actually put effort and creativity into creating them instead of just rewrapping the latest flashy point-and-click 3D first-person shooter or combat sim. Jungle Hunt, Pac-Man, and Paper Boy were three very distinct games which required three separate skill sets and hundreds of hours to master, while anyone who has played the original Doom or Warcraft will be able to conquer most games on the shelf today. The lack of diversity in modern games is one of the reasons why emulation has become so popular.

With emulation, anyone with a modern computer (Pentium 200 or better) can enjoy almost every video game ever made, as long as you can obtain a ROM image of the game that is.

A ROM image is basically a software copy of the programming stored in the microchips of an original video game cartridge or machine, and contains everything needed to run the game on another machine or computer with an emulator. The relatively small size of ROMs and their ready availability over the Internet makes ROM collecting a viable hobby for many people who started by enjoying the games themselves.

But video game emulators and ROMs are not without legal controversy. As with MP3s, the distribution of copyrighted video game ROMs created for "backup" purposes rests in a legal gray area. While many would argue that
people should be allowed to obtain and copy ROMs of games no longer distributed by the original publishers, the publishers’ lawyers generally disagree. In the past, sites hosting ROMs have been shut down, with lawyers citing the very demand for ROMs as potential lost profit for the publishers themselves.

Now that you know ROMs are arguably illegal, you may be wondering where to find some. While we can’t tell you exactly where to get ROMs, you may be able to find what you are looking for using a search engine like Google or Altavista. We can, however, freely tell you where to get emulators since those are generally not illegal.

Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME)

If you try nothing else, try MAME as it offers access to one of the largest library of video games. As its name implies, MAME’s purpose is to emulate coin-operated arcade video game machines, and it does that well too, supporting over 1,500 titles from the ’70s and ’80s. Despite highly configurable inputs, you’ll definitely want to use a joystick or other controller and not the keyboard for input, especially for games like Moon Patrol, Q*bert and Missile Command where quick reflexes are required. Support for most sound cards is solid in both Windows and DOS, but variable for other platforms.

Source code is also available if you’re into that kind of thing. Also be weary of some of the truly awful games out there.

While MAME was written for Windows and DOS, versions are also available for other platforms.

Super Nintendo

Snes9X is simply the best Super Nintendo emulator for Windows, DOS, and almost everything else out there. With an advanced menuing system, support for cheats and good sound and joystick support, Snes9X leaves little to be desired. You can even save and resume games at will, even games that did not originally support those functions. In addition to playing games released in North America, Snes9X will also play ROMs dumped from European and Japanese cartridges including such classics as Final Fantasy V. One cautionary note, however: Snes9X requires a decent computer to run properly, and may not display some games properly if you don’t have the latest version of DirectX under Windows.

ZSNES is also worth a try if you remember what Mode 7 and Super FX are.

ATARI 2600

While there are a variety of ATARI 2600 emulators available, the best two by far are PC Atari Emulator and Z26. Both of these offer joystick and sound support for a wide range of games. Unfortunately, they are written for DOS and may be somewhat slow in Windows. While still under development, StellaX works sufficiently well under both Windows and OS X and offers sound and joystick support. Since many Atari games are cloned from arcade versions of the games, you might be better off with MAME in some cases if you want to enjoy the real thing.

Commodore 64

C64 emulation is by far one of the most popular platforms emulated on PCs and Macs. Versatile Commodore Emulator (VICE) for Windows and Power64 for Macintosh offer near perfect emulation of the sound and graphics hardware that were on the forefront of the personal computer gaming revolution, giving users access to some of the best games ever produced. C64
staples such as Lode Runner, Jumpman, and Lunar Lander are among hundreds of games and applications available for download.

But since the C64 was much more than a video game console–it was a full-fledged computer system–C64 emulators can support disk drives and other accessories in addition to video games.