Opinion: Hardware vs. Emulation

One of the issues that seems to divide the retro gaming community is around how you actually play old games: on original hardware or via emulation on more modern devices? To me, there are pros and cons of each.

On the one hand, purists argue that original hardware is the only way to go. It ensures a faithful recreation of the original experience and delivers the game as it was meant to be played.

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument. Playing with the original hardware really does transport you back. Listening to the beeps of a tape loading; the whirring of a disk; holding that ancient Quickshot joystick or Mega Drive pad: these things recreate formative childhood and adolescent experiences. It is retro gaming at its finest.

At the same time, though, it is fraught with difficulties. Getting old machines to work with modern TVs is not always easy and requires all sorts of adapters and cables to get the machines talking to each other. Even though these things can be bought (or made) pretty cheaply, it’s still a bit of a faff.

Then there’s the fact that much of this technology is now way beyond the lifespan ever envisioned for it. Britain’s two favourite 8 bit computers – the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum – are getting on for 35 years old and, inevitably, bits start to fail. If you’re like me – a complete dunce when it comes to repairs – that can mean Game Over (although the ever-helpful retro community is filled with people who will fix your machines for a pretty low price if they can).

There are some more practical issues, too. I’d love to re-purchase every system I’ve ever owned (and many I’d have liked to have owned but couldn’t afford) but have neither the space nor the finances to do it. Mrs RetroReactiv8 is pretty long-suffering, but she already thinks I have “enough games machines” and my collection currently only consists of a Wii, PS3, Vita, DS, PC, Amiga, Mega Drive and Dingoo A330. Goodness knows what she’d think if I added a C64, Spectrum, SNES, GameCube, Dreamcast (and many others). I suspect she might seriously think about a visit to a good divorce lawyer!

Then there’s the cost. Sadly, as these machines start to break down, get thrown out or sit unused in lofts; as tapes and disks start to degrade, they kit and software becomes harder to get hold of and the cost of ownership is starting to rise dramatically. Whilst there are plenty of sites offering titles at more affordable prices (rather than Ebay’s ULTRA MEGA RARE!!!! listings), you’re still going to need pretty deep pockets if you want to build up the sort of collection I had when I was a kid.

So, original hardware is great, but expensive to acquire and maintain. What about emulation then?

On the face of it, this seems like the perfect solution. Playing old games on modern hardware is not exactly technically demanding and even the most ancient of laptops should be able to run most emulators and software. Thanks to the internet, games are usually easy to access and download (some legally, others of more debatable origin), whilst the idea of emulators is that  they do all the hard work of getting the game up and running for you, leaving you to enjoy it.

The reality, however, is somewhat different. Emulators are not always that straightforward to run. Getting games to work properly can require a lot of tweaking of settings and if (like me) you don’t really know what you’re doing, it can be confusing and frustrating. Equally, it can be time consuming. Many is the time that I’ve sat down to play an emulated game, only to find that it’s taken me so long to get it working that by the time I have, I’ve not actually got any time left to play the damn thing.

Playing modern games on new tech also doesn’t feel quite right. Playing C64 games with a laptop trackpad mouse doesn’t feel as tactile as using the original hardware and somehow diminishes the overall experience. I recently bought an Xbox 360 controller to replicate the experience a little more faithfully, but even this doesn’t feel absolutely right – particularly for games that were originally designed for a two-button joystick. Then, of course, for more complex games, you’ve got all the hassle of trying to map all the controller buttons so that they work. Again, by the time I’ve got this sorted, it’s usually time to pack up and go to bed!

Finally, there are rights issues. I’ve already touched on the dubious legality of some software and, depending on your viewpoint, this might be a barrier. A few companies  have designated some of their old titles Abandonware or Freeware, meaning they can be downloaded and played with the company’s full blessing. Most software, however, is still technically copyrighted, with who owns the rights lost in a maze of IP, ceased companies, new companies, bought out companies, asset sales and so on. Whilst you could argue that downloading a 30 year old computer game is low-risk (compared with, say, illegally downloading modern music or films) it is technically on the same level. As rights holders start to realise the value of some of the older IPs they hold, they may start to more actively protect it.

Essentially, whichever way you cut it, it’s a tricky issue. Boiling it down to a very simple level, you can either break the bank or break the law!

Without wanting it to sound like a cop-out, which route you take is ultimately down to you and your circumstances. In an ideal world, I’d own the original hardware for all the systems I’m interested in. Sadly, cost and space prevent me from doing this, so emulation offers the next best thing. OK, the emulation experience isn’t quite the same, but it’s a practical trade-off that ensures I can keep going with my hobby, whilst keeping both my wife and bank manager happy!

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