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So the RIAA is going ballistic lately with its numerous lawsuits against mp3 downloaders and file sharers. It claims that the continued dilemma of illegal online song-swapping has taken a huge chunk out of profits year to year, even though a recent detailed study conducted by Harvard Business School says otherwise. The study has speculated that if indeed all the file sharing has caused a decline in music-related profits, then other industries, such as motion picture and video game, would also have felt the pinch as well, since many “ripped” movies and games are openly traded over the Internet as well. But in fact, box office receipts and sales for games have instead gone up. So who is to blame?
One can ponder the answer to that all day, but a definite parallel can be drawn between the mp3 file swapping perils and that of the EMU community. EMU gaming, (“EMU” being short for “emulator”) has been around a long time. Do a search for “EMU” and “ROMs” and more than likely you’ll be presented with page after page of results pointing you to various programs that emulate everything from classic arcade machines to the latest home and handheld gaming consoles, along with their respective ROM files which have been ripped and stuffed in handy .zip files for everyone’s gaming pleasure.
Is it legal? This is where the logic becomes fuzzy, as usual. Most ROM sites come with a disclaimer that the downloader must actually own the original game to legally download the file. The disclaimer usually goes on to state that if this is not the case, then the user must delete the file within 24 hours. Ah… the catch. Delete the file. From the hard drive, right? So technically that means one could burn them to a disc, correct? Ah, the glorious loophole has reared its head.
It’s no secret that the EMU gaming community does indeed download and play these files for its own pleasure. Take a look around the same searched sites and you’ll undoubtedly find forums where gamers are openly discussing how they have even built their own arcade-style cabinets and fitted them with controllers to make the EMU experience even more realistic. Yet this kind of activity has come with a price, namely having a lot of the best ROM-trading sites shut down or more well-hidden. In my book, the absolute best site was the old mame.dk depository which had every classic arcade ROM known to man, and then some. Its existence came and went several times, with various legalities threatened and so forth. The demise of the site was a pretty big blow, considering the pages never had any popups, or pr0n ads (that’s “porn” for those not fluent in Haxor Elite speak) that so many of the remaining sites are littered with these days.
The EMU community experienced a glorious free-wheeling heyday on the net around the same time the original Napster started coming out with guns a-blazing. I’m not sure if the success of Napster made the whole enterprise more visible, but suddenly news stories were filled with tales of all sorts of file sharing stories, and the gaming community came under the hammer for a while as much as the p2p file swapping sites. Yet perhaps since it is so often interpreted that the game industry is more fringe-like—a silly assumption, considering the average oldest age of a gamer continues to grow lately—ROM files and EMUs have continued to thrive in the shadows.
Of course, ROM swapping has come under the gun by the industry’s own RIAA, namely the IDSA (Interactive Digital Software Association). This group has made it difficult to obtain once freely-traded ROMs, such as Donkey Kong, a number of the Street Fighter titles, and so forth. And of course companies such as Nintendo, Sony, et al are no fans of EMUs, either. It could be true that the majority of the gamers out there participating in the EMU community are playing those older games that no longer exist, but it must also be said that there are a number of EMUs for newer systems and games as well.
But yes, the hardcore elite often fancy an older title. Everything from the classic arcade machine to Commodore 64s, every Atari console known to man, Nintendo and Sega’s classic games, and the kitchen sink has had an EMU designed for it. Sometimes these are successful, other times they don’t work at all. Among the most successful is MAME—Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator. This is the program that will play all the classic arcade games, as well as the beloved NEO GEO/SNK titles. For SNK-specific fans, there’s always been the excellent NeoRagex. Nintendo Entertainment System fans often fancy the NESticle EMU, and for the Super NES, the ZSNES EMU has also been a favorite.
So what does this all mean, really? Is it just a geek’s wonderland, a trip to the proverbial candy store? Yes and no. It perhaps does take a certain kind of gamer—more than just the casual kid who enjoys playing Halo all day—to get into EMU gaming, but anyone with an interest in classic games is usually out and about in the community. The residents will tell you that keeping these games alive and available is really what it’s all about. After all, who’s making money on old Vanguard and Gyruss machines anymore? Again, I say, who knows? The EMU world is yet another in a grey landscape that can’t easily be sorted out. The fact is that the programs and ROMs are out there making many a gamer happy. And if this gamer said he didn’t thrill to still be able to enjoy the likes of Twinkle Star Sprites, Mappy, Amidar, Samurai Showdown and countless others, he’d be lying. May the grey area continue to remain so.