Keeping it real

John over at 61fps has posited a question of sorts: namely, is he the only one who doesn’t really care for emulation?

It is nice to know I’m not alone.

I think Sharkey is consistently baffled when he casually talks about playing via emulation and I sort of shrug and say, “Eh.” He finds nothing odd about having beaten preposterously tough games like Dracula X using arrows and the Tab button. To me, that sounds utterly horrible. I don’t even really enjoy emulating with a good USB D-pad; games just don’t feel right under emulation. Except really perfect emulation, like most of the Virtual Console systems — and even then, I think much of the appeal is that the games are running in their “proper” environment. That is to say, running from a console to a television.

I’m not sure what it is, but I’ve come to realize that there is some ineffable quality to a real game played on a real system that even Virtual Console can’t quite match. Maybe it’s actually a lack of quality? The scanlines, the shoddy A/V-out technology, the constant risk that this will be the time your batteries conk out, or that you won’t be able to make the contacts work right thanks to the NES’s stupid spring-loading system. Et cetera. But no, there’s something else — something more primal. There’s a certain feeling I have when I see an older game running on its native platform that I just don’t have when the same software is downloaded as a ROM, or even as a standalone Wii Channel. It could very well be some sort of nostalgia, or simply a Pavlovian response to when these games were new and expensive and hard to come by and generally just precious, a feeling completely lost when you can download several hundred of them in an hour’s time.

I suppose that’s another part of what I’ve been trying to capture in the giant console purge-and-rebuilding program (pogrom?) I’ve undertaken of late: the sense of visceral presence in games. I even picked up a copy of Rockman 5 while I was in Japan despite being so thoroughly unimpressed with my emulated experience a few months ago; I have a sneaking suspicion that maybe if I play it the way nature intended — on a cartridge, in a console, on a TV — maybe I’ll feel differently.

On the other hand, maybe this is all just me growing more demented in my old age.

42 thoughts on “Keeping it real

  1. It is good you remembered the “more” in your closing line, or I’d have had to add it for you, but I think I DO understand your sentiment on some level. It came about when I tried emulating FFVI so that I could play it when I lent it to someone (and they… “lost” it for two years). The sound of the wind’s howl was completely off what I knew it was supposed to be, and nothing could console me about the sound being wrong.
    (Then again, I was convinced the sound was still wrong on the playstation re-release, so it might be that I had a defective copy…)
    It’s not the same thing you’re describing, and it’s nowhere near what it would take to put me off of emulation, but if I had the choice between keeping $60 and playing a game in its original environment, I would pay up.

    There are a few small exceptions to this. I’m not actually keen on buying a multi-tap for SoM.

  2. perhaps your sense of timing is so fine-tuned that you can discriminate between the silicon-etched clock speed of old chips and the phony timing induced by software control. At some granularity there must be error or skipping due to roundoff or overflow.

    alternate theory: a person’s cognitive model of a process deeply influences their experience of it. example 1: the placebo effect. example 2: the color of a liquid and its taste.

  3. Trying to avoid the harder enemies in Mother 3 with the arrow keys has never been more difficult. My fingers are cramping, too.

    So, I guess I’d have to agree your dementia.

  4. I kinda understand how you feel. I recently purchased a copy of Earthbound Zero on cartridge so that I could play it on the actual hardware. I am also looking to purchase a GBA rom cartridge so that I can flash a copy of Mother 3 in English onto it and play it on my GBA SP, DS, or Gameboy Player. Something just does not feel right about playing a console game with your face pressed up to the computer monitor. And I think there is something nostalgic about the experience of playing a console game on a console too. Nothing really replaces the feeling of the actual controller playing an actual copy of the game on the real hardware.

  5. Emulation has become an emergency measure for me. I mean, I have a good controller (looks just like a dual shock) and everything. But for the most part, I find playing NES games on my computer kind of odious. Go figure.

  6. There’s something magical about pulling out the cartridge, loading it in the machine, and switching on the power button of the NES or any system and having that start up screen appear and music start to play. It feels real.

    I appreciated the hardware of the NES when I played Mega Man 2 for the first time in a while because I was amazed that the hardware was running the game. Maybe it was because I had played the collection that runs at 480i, but with the NES and its low res of 240p, the waterfall on Bubble Man’s stage and just the way the sprites moved on screen seemed amazing on the TV to me at the time. I had forgotten what the NES could do. Emulation, even Virtual Console, can’t reproduce the original crisp sound of the NES either.

    I’ve never been big on emualtion, some of it for legal reasons, but mainly that I prefer to play games on their original console. I picked up carts of Mega Man 1 and 3 to play right before 9, even though I had the collection on PS2 because its not the same.

  7. I think you guys are just being snooty! Saying that a game played on a console is just in some ineffable way “better”. I’d love to do a blind test with games you’ve never seen and with the actual box hidden to see if you can actual determine the difference between emulation and actual console.

  8. There’s something to be said for the hum of an old television (or Commodore monitor, like I use), the imperfect signal separation, the scanlines, the NTSC artifacting, the long-lost genetic gamer memories evoked when holding that stiff little NES controller… I wouldn’t say that playing emulated really kills the experience of a game for me, but there is something primal and intangible about playing an old game on a real console.

    That said, playing an old game on the original system with modern display technology is horrible, and you’re better off hooking up the PC to the display and playing the game with some NTSC filters on.

    There is, however, something to be said for emulation, but if you can track down a 3 in 1 PC Joy Box (they seem to be out of production, I was lucky to snap one up right before they all but disappeared) and a Japanese or US Model 2 Saturn controller, you can play virtually any classic console with that beautiful piece of interface design. My abiding love for the simplicity of the NES controller notwithstanding, using a Saturn controller for SNES or PS1 games is an epiphany as you realize how underperforming that stock SNES interface is.

  9. Also nothing will make Megaman 5 any less heartbreakingly mediocre, except possibly playing Bryan and Crapcom’s epochal ROM hack “Mega Crap” instead.

  10. About emulation and ‘digital’ games vs. slapping a cart in and playing that…

    It’s basically a similar answer as to why I exclusively buy music on vinyl (analog) instead of digital/download. There’s just something…palpable and real about having the THING there while you experience it that digital erases or diminishes.

    If I could still buy, say, Herzog Zwei or Secret of Mana on cart vs. download, I totally would. I’m nerdily obsessed with the idea that the world might end someday, so the only way I’ll be able to listen to music or play a game is that I own a physical copy and can play it with the help of some kind of generator.

    ….yeah, I know. This comment was stupidly long and ramble-y. I apologize.

  11. I have no problem with sitting at the computer playing games rather than being on the couch, but that’s probably because I’ve always been a PC gamer first and foremost.

  12. My friend has a gamepad for his PC that has a built-in fan to cool your hands (and keep them from sweating) while you play. Until you find me an NES controller with that feature, emulation wins.

    Also: save states.

  13. I know I couldn’t have said that better, Jeremy. I also feel a bit of a separation from the experience when it’s a free game as opposed to a legitimately obtained piece of physical property (though, the PSN/XBLA mediums have some merit). I actually feel like playing these games to their endings has meaning when I’ve taken it as it was intended.

  14. Mother 3, after so much waiting… turns out to have zero excitement, when the game is emulated. Seiken Densetsu 3, Square’s great betrayal of the SNES era, translation tested for 15 minutes and never to be played again. Perhaps emulation is worst for RPGs, where it detracts from the experience too much, compared to an action game that you might finish in an hour, or at least feel satisfied about playing, without ever returning to the rom again. Perhaps if you have a system spefically set up for emulation, it will help, but it’s very hard to get the screen to look just right, or even almost, or to disregard the feeling that the sound’s off, or even get the same feeling of starting up or continuing the game. Emulation takes a lot of trouble and time to feel worthwhile.

  15. Indeed. I use emulation mainly because that’s the only way to play some games and for screenshot purposes, but NOTHING can replace the feeling of playing it on a TV (or the real system) with their native controller.

    My first experiences with the GBA was through emulation and I wasn’t really impressed with the system. Until I caved in, bought a Gameboy Player and Metroid Fusion. The difference was like night and day. The crackly GBA music didn’t sound bad at all, the framerate and controls were super responsive and smooth.

    From that day forward I took emulation for what it should be, a way to experience games you have no way of playing today, but it should not be by any means a replacement for the real thing.

  16. How are you sure it isn’t the financial investment that’s giving you this special feeling?

  17. Uh, no. It’s the other way around — I wouldn’t be spending my money if the medium didn’t matter. My original plan was just to dump my collection, but then I realized that I was sacrificing a tangible benefit in the process.

  18. This is all completely subjective and there are no ‘right’ answers, but I know that I personally played FFV and SD3 and Live A Live and Tales of Phantasia and Bahamut Lagoon and lots and lots of other RPGs all the way through via emulation. And they were good. Well, ToP wasn’t so good, but that’s not emulation’s fault. Of course, a portable game like Mother 3 is a whole ‘nother kettle o’ fish, and when I get around to that one, I’m going to stick it on my gba flash cart.

    But the point is, for my money (or lack thereof), emulation:rpgs::chocolate:peanut butter.

  19. I completely agree. For me it is the fact that whenever I am at a PC, I feel like I am worlking. Or that I should be working, so playing something thjat doesn’t look like a PC game makes it hard for me to settle into a groove. Very silly I know, but that’s the way it is for me.

    I had to put mother 3 on my psp in order to have any hope of enjoying it without extra effort and so far it is working beautifully.

  20. I’ve got a Mac Mini hooked up to my TV; I use it as a media and emulation box. The problem is that the Mac emulation scene is abysmal (SNES9X and MAME notwithstanding), so I wind up dual-booting Windows.

    Although I’ve also got my old NES, Genesis, and Dreamcast set up in the guest room.

  21. I think there’s a lot to be said for the tangibility aspect here too. If I had a bunch of roms sitting around on my computer, whatever, there’s a directory of tiny files in some dark recess that can be pulled out to have some fun with. Instead, I have my nice big wall of games here, sitting in their original packaging, their box art periodically catching my eye, reminding me they exist, tempting me to periodically replay them, etc. It also appears to my hording nature.

    There’s also, I think a lot to be said for the physical restriction of only having immediate access to a single game at a time. Sure, it would only take 30 seconds or so (well, significantly more with the NES) to get up, pop out the current game, put it in its case, shelf it, and pop in something else, but that slight psychological barrier is going to be enough to make it my active game, encouraging me to actually stick with it until it’s completely gutted or I’m sick of it, then a different game gets my full attention for a while.

  22. I agree with Mr Parish. Each console has it’s own video output quirks. Genesis games actually look way better emulated, because the Genesis output was so damn grainy. I am not talking about the limited color palette or dithering, I mean even solid colors looked like they suffered from jpg compression. N64 games lose a lot of their blurriness emulated. These can be good things, but if the game was designed with the specific output quirks in mind, they can look wrong without them. I still enjoy emulation however. PS, if you like Megaman, try Lickle / Little Sampson for the NES.

  23. I guess I kind of agree with you. But I wonder how much of the effect is the mood being set by the ritual of using the real objects. The cart, the gamepad, flipping on the power button, etc. It’s nostalgia for us old dogs. It probably wouldn’t mean anything to a kid who didn’t grow up with the ritual.

  24. Unfortunately it looks like no one agrees with me but I have to say dementia is a very probable explanation.

  25. The problem is that the Mac emulation scene is abysmal

    Is it? I think most of Richard Bannister’s ports are very good. Mind you, if you want to emulate obscure Japanese computers from the eighties, you might have problems, but otherwise…

  26. …or Sega CD, or PlayStation, or Saturn, or PS2, or…

    Yeah, the Mac emulation scene is pretty sorry. The few people who contribute do good work, but that’s the thing — they’re few. The switchover to Intel didn’t do much to help, since most of the legacy projects had been developed with the PPC platform in mind. You’ll find most Mac emulation projects dried up right around the beginning of 2006, and it’s no coincidence.

  27. I don’t know; I generally find emulation to be a superior experience. Owning the game makes me more attached to it, but I’d much rather play the thing on my nice crisp monitor with customizable controls, save states, and, where appropriate, an HQ4X filter. It helps that I’ve got a really nice controller.

    The one thing a computer can’t do, though, is emulating handheld titles, for which portability is such a major part of the experience. That’s what that one GBA-on-PSP emulator is for. Come to think of it, these days that little guy is my favorite way of playing most PS1 and SNES games.

  28. Like Parish, I’m attracted the “object-ness” of non-emulated titles — that is, the full sensory experience of having the cartridge, the janky old system, the cathode ray tube, etc. In it’s true form, a game has some stature — you have to play by its rules, and that’s the fun.

    However, Emulators have allowed us to see inside the guts of a game and manipulate them for our convenience, and of course, to obtain the game without wading through bins at the local import store or pawn shop. It’s kind of like becoming aware of the matrix. And as much as I hate being aware, I have trouble pretending games are more than they are.

  29. What I’m playing any given game on doesn’t matter, as long as it plays and sounds right. When it comes to newer shit and handhelds, I do perfer to have the real thing because thats the stuff thats still making the companies I wish to support their money. In the case of Consoles, it’s just sensible to do it that way. In the case of Handhelds, I feel a huge part of the experience is gimped when you play on a computer/laptop…the point is to get out there and play with other people.

    When it comes to the older stuff, 16 bit and below…I don’t mind emulation at all, granted some games do have fucked up sound (Contra 3 instantly comes to mind), it’s been an extremely rare occurance in my experience. Plus, up until the companies decided to do digital download…it was established that they weren’t making any more money on their really old stuff, so emulation really wasn’t that big an issue…it was everyone else and their own self imposed principles and morals that made it an issue as far as I know. (no, that was NOT a snarky stab at anyone…merely an observation.) Basically, Virtual console and all that crap, to me, is like all the companies saying “hey, lets get all those high-n-mighties that didn’t support emulation by…SELLING THEM EMULATION! *hi five*” and you all are buying it to support the companies you like…more power to you.

    …In summary, the whole “experience” and how it’s pursued is a matter of preference, but in really, all that matters is the game you’re playing and whether it’s playing right. (for the record, I play my emulation with an S-Video cable hooked up to my TV, and controller depending on the game. I use PS2-to-PC usb converters with a PS2 dual shock for NES and Super NES, the Street Fighter Anniversary 6 button pad/ USB Sega Saturn Japanese controller for Genesis games, and the Tekken 5 Joystick for all my arcade [Final Burn Alpha/GGPO] roms.)

  30. I don’t understand who in their right mind would try to play an NES title with the keyboard, or just don’t connect their PC to the TV. I thought we liked retro games enough to put some effort and patience to make them look, sound, and feel good. If you are going to be lazy like that, you deserve to pay the exorbitant $100+ for your copy of Earthbound on Ebay.

  31. Well, I’ve been a fan of emulation for the better part of a decade now, and it was actually those quirks of the NES that made me want to get rid of mine and go digital. I had a copy of A Tale of Two Cities jammed in the cartridge slot to keep the game down on the contacts. Best possible use of Dickens, in my opinion. And yes, there’s an undeniable charm in the wipe and blow of an old NES, but it would take me a minimum of ten minutes to line up the game just so to get it to play, and that irritated me.

    My parents’ POS E-machines PC was just powerful enough to run ZSNES, and I had heard so much about FFVI and Chrono Trigger that I had to go through them. Especially in the days where there was only one computer and save points were few and far between, save states were a godsend.

    Frankly, the medium has never much mattered to me, only the message. I’d love to be one of those vinyl-collecting punks one of these days, but to have any taste at all gets expensive when you deal with physical media. Yeah, yeah. It’s wrong, but I hate to think that I would have completely missed out on Sam & Max and Grim Fandango if I had played by the rules for all these years.

  32. I’m in unreserved agreement, Jeremy. These last few years have seen a sad game purge of my own. One sizable elephant remains in my room: a modded PS2 with almost every Genesis, NES, SNES game loaded onto the hard drive, err, and a few dozen cd cake boxes full of PS2 isos. There’s a growing part of me that prays this thing with break down and release that burden of so many unplayed games (mostly read “Atlus JRPGs).

  33. …or Sega CD, or PlayStation, or Saturn, or PS2, or…

    Sega CD, okay, but I thought the point of emulation was to play OLD games. Or maybe I’m just dating myself.

  34. I’d love to own every second of music on my hard drive [and I’ve gigs of the stuff] on vinyl. Similarly, owning a hard copy of every emulation on my hard drives would be a dream come true. Physical copy simply feels better.

    Likewise, downloading digital media is a fine example of how more can be less; with more stuff to go through you’ve less time to savour each individual moment.

    However, whether for practical or ascetic reasons, that option simply isn’t realistically viable. As much as I wish for physical copies of everything I own, I won’t deny that that school of thought is nothing more than blind romanticism.

  35. One of my SNES carts has “Barton” written on it in black marker. I have no idea who Barton was, where he (?) lived, or whether he enjoyed the game. I’m sure our vinyl collectors have similar stories – – of where they found a particular record, how long it took them to track it down, or even if some teenager 30 years ago wrote their name in marker on the label. You just don’t get those little mysteries with a warez.

    In the end, nothing is permanent–even the electronic bits in your carts will wither and die eventually, your PS2 disks will get disk rot, etc.–so it comes down to values, the subjective aspects of games that are important to you. “Tangibility” is a value, and maybe old-fashioned, but there’s no reason to call it demented, or fear that it is. Maybe.

  36. JP: While you may be both Demented & Old… I still agree with you. Emulation just feels different. I will take my Castlevania NES cart over my Wii VC DL any day of the week.

  37. I agree with the vinyl analogies. Look past the fact that records actually have better sound quality (provided you’ve got a good enough sound system) than cds, there’s something about that scratchy noise you get from putting on a record.

    Not to mention the actual ritual of removing it from it’s sleeve, popping it on the turntable, and figuring out where you want to put that needle. It’s a beautiful thing, and there’s no reason to think that it’s silly. Something’s charm (whether intended or not) can from just as much from the outside as it does the inside of the object. If that makes a lick of sense.

  38. I completely agree with you. I collect consoles and console games because they are the original definitive versions. Nothing can compare… it’s a feeling that you’re at the mercy and whim of every nuance of the original game. Nothing can be missed or approximated; it’s exactly as released back on day one. I applaud your position on this :)

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