Emulators are a way to preserve old technology, and they’re a means for keeping games alive
Illustration by Alex Castro
When Nintendo’s Game Boy arrived in the world in the late ‘80s, two things happened. The first was that the handheld became an instant international sensation — Nintendo sold out its entire first run in Japan in two weeks, and it sold 40,000 units the day it came to America — and the second was that it changed how games could be played. It brought games outside.
I never had a Game Boy. It was only after the Game Boy Advance came out that I had a Game Boy Color because my parents were somewhat biased against the latest hardware. In my recollection, that happened shortly after kids my age had moved on to 3D consoles, like Sony’s Playstation 2, Microsoft’s Xbox, and Nintendo’s GameCube. The moment, at least for me, had passed. We found Halo, and we could drive ourselves to the LAN cafe. But I never felt like I’d missed any of that era because, in the years before, I’d discovered emulation. It was how you could play Game Boy without a having a Game Boy.
“Emulation” is a dirty word in the game development industry because it is piracy-adjacent. Emulators mimic proprietary hardware, which means that if you have a game’s code, you can play the games on just about any computer without making any hardware modifications. This is also only partially against the law. The legal precedent says that emulators are not illegal in themselves, but downloading game files is because those materials are copyrighted. It’s similar to how it’s not illegal to own a bong — you can use them to smoke anything, after all — but having weed, in most parts of the US, can be enough to put you in jail. The sites where you could download ROMs felt appropriately seedy in the same way. They were filled with ads and possessed a certain Geocities brutalism. You can buy a bong at gas stations across America, but depending on where you live, buying pot is a more seamy experience, involving A Guy.
(There is a long-standing online rumor that if you deleted the ROMs you copped after 24 hours, you’d be safe from legal action. But there’s absolutely no truth to that. US copyright law protects original works for 75 years, and gaming has only been popular for a few decades. That said, it’s probably legal to rip games to ROMs, provided you own the game in question and don’t share the file.)
Emulators also allow you to do things you’d never be able to do on original hardware, like fast-forward through cutscenes, save anywhere, slow down in-game time to do maneuvers that you might not otherwise be able to complete, use cheats more easily, and optimize tool-assisted speed runs (TAS). You can also play new games designed for old hardware; through software, you can even resurrect old computers that don’t physically exist anymore, like the Jupiter Ace or the Nascom 1.
The history of Game Boy emulators is a little murky, but the first began to appear around 1996, seven years after the console’s release. According to the probably reliable Emulation Wiki, Virtual Game Boy — written by Marat Fayzullin — was the first emulator that could play commercial games, which was a revelation. No$GMB (pronounced “no cash GMB”) arrived in 1997 for DOS. That’s important because Game Boy emulators were some of the first console emulators to exist. They were preceded by some NES emulators (notably iNES, also by Fayzullin, and Nobuaki Andou’s Pasofami, which both cost money), but it was only around the late ‘90s when computers became fast enough to mimic consoles.
“Well, I also grew up on emulators,” said Vicki Pfau, the developer behind m-GBA, which is widely held to be the best Game Boy emulator on the internet. “I didn’t have a Game Boy until the Game Boy Color came out. I guess that was around 1998.” Pfau’s parents had offered to get her a Game Boy when she was very young, but she declined. “I ended up saying, ‘No, I want the Sega Nomad instead because it’s in color, and I can play Sonic on it,’” she says. “I still have that Nomad. It still works.” Pfau is 29, around my age, 27, and, like me, she came across emulation at that critical point when she was young enough to want to play games that she otherwise wouldn’t be able to but old enough to know how to figure it out herself.
“I remember playing Pokémon Red in No$GMB [now No$GBA], which was sort of a full-screen DOS thing. It was really not meant for 1998,” she said, which I took to mean that it was more technically advanced for the time than it perhaps needed to be. That and NESticle — an ambitious NES emulator released in 1997 that redefined how the public played retro games and was also named after a specific body part — were Pfau’s introductions to emulation. She only had three games for the system, and for her, that meant emulation introduced her to classics like Super Mario Bros. 3, which she didn’t have.
“I do remember the sites that said you have to delete these within 24 hours,” she says. “But you know, as far as I’m aware, no kid ever did that.” Later on, Pfau used vSNES, a popular Super Nintendo emulator, to play Final Fantasy VI and Super Metroid. Then, when the Game Boy Advance came out, she instantly got one. Around the same time, Pfau also downloaded Visual Boy Advance to “[give] some games a spin,” .ike Breath of Fire II, a port of a “somewhat infamously poorly translated Super Nintendo RPG” that had ended up on the Game Boy Advance. Pfau liked it so much that she eventually bought a copy. “It was my introduction to the RPG genre, a genre that I really liked. But, you know, if it hadn’t been for playing it in an emulator, I never would have known about it.”
That first release didn’t make much of a splash. It played games well enough, but it was, in Pfau’s words, “pretty dang buggy.” Eventually, m-GBA gained some notoriety because it was simply more accurate than any of the other options on the market. To replay TASes from emulators on real hardware, you need a very accurate piece of software. m-GBA became faster and more accurate than VBA, which was enough for people to take notice.
When I was growing up, I felt the same way as Pfau. I’d never really played a Pokémon game before finding a ROM of Pokémon Sapphire and Visual Boy Advance. I remember loving how it played and feeling like I’d stumbled across something I hadn’t, until then, known I was missing. There were other games I loved, too, like Advance Wars and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. This was before real life had started to intrude and before I had to think about more than homework. It felt like accessing a hidden world. Eventually, I deleted the ROMs, the computer I had died, and I moved on. By then, I had a couple of next-gen consoles, and playing online with my friends was more exciting than revisiting games that were growing older by the second.
Pfau sees herself as a preservationist, although her stance on piracy is more nuanced. She won’t write or port emulators for current-gen consoles, but she feels better about pirating games that are hard to find or not in print because, she says, if you buy a copy on eBay, the only person who’s financially benefiting is the person you’re buying from. “I’m not really fond of piracy [because] I know how it can impact people,” Pfau says. “I’m not going to make a dent in Nintendo’s Virtual Console sales. I just don’t want to do that. You can do this legally. And I also don’t want to run afoul of Nintendo in that way.”
Game emulation is a form of preservation. Copies of games that are out of print, for one reason or another, circulate on ROM sites. You can find things online that you can’t buy anywhere else. If you believe that art and culture are worth saving protecting for future generations to experience, then games preservation is incredibly important. The problem of digital preservation is looming: corporations don’t always save the original source code or assets to games, and, more broadly, there is the matter of formats. (What happens to the games, for example, that only lived on floppy discs?) There are organizations like The Videogame History Foundation, led by the archivist Frank Cifaldi, that attempt to catalog and save as much as possible from gaming’s earliest days. Cifaldi gave a talk at the 2016 Game Developers Conference about emulation, arguing that emulation was the best way to republish old games so that they’d avoid the fate of early films. “Over half the films made before 1950 are gone,” he said.
The other day, I downloaded m-GBA. When I looked online for ROMs, it felt like the landscape had changed. None of the websites were familiar; the sites were slicker and seemed less unsavory. I downloaded a few games, booted up the program, and everything worked smoothly. The old magic was there — sort of. But I buy my own games and consoles now, and emulation isn’t what it used to be for me. I don’t need it like I felt I did then. But that’s because it shaped me.