If you’ve ever had that nostalgic urge to replay your favorite childhood games, you know how frustrating it can be digging through an attic in hopes that the console and cartridge can still be found somewhere. If you’re lucky, maybe that game is available to be re-purchased on a newer console, like with the Nintendo Wii’s “Virtual Console.” But what if you don’t own a Wii? What if there was a way that you could not only play that old video game, but you could do so on a PC or smartphone, using all that fancy new hardware to make that game look better than it ever did before?
Welcome to the world of emulation. Like masturbating, emulating is often dismissed as a dirty way of spending your time—mostly because emulation has made video game piracy so much more accessible. And also like masturbating, it’s something that most gamers have experimented with once or twice (okay, probably more).
In their simplest form, video game emulators are programs that let you play video games built for one console—say, a Super Nintendo—on something else entirely, like (most often) a PC. The games are ripped from physical cartridges or discs and turned into digital files, then played in an emulator program, much like a text document opened with Microsoft Word.
But there’s more to it than that; emulators are beautifully engineered love letters to the game systems they imitate, and they represent gaming in its purest form.
Of course, all of this isn’t exactly new to Pierre “Delroth” Bourdan. He’s one of hundreds of software engineers who have worked on the Nintendo Wii and Gamecube emulator called “Dolphin” since 2011. During that time, Dolphin has risen to become one of the most popular emulators available, with over 200,000 downloads in May of 2016 alone.
“I started playing on Dolphin in 2011 just as a user,” Pierre tells me over Skype. “I wanted to play an old Japanese game, but as soon as I started playing it I noticed all these bugs.” At the time, Dolphin was an imperfect program that often failed to play Gamecube and Wii games at the same level as the consoles themselves. Instead of just tossing his hands up in frustration and walking away, Pierre decided to pry open Dolphin’s hood and look inside.
Since 2008, Dolphin has been released as “open source software,” meaning that the internal programming is free for anyone to look at—a stark difference from how most programs hide their “source code” from the public. It also means that anyone is free to download the “guts” of the program and take a peek inside, which is exactly what Pierre did.
Though he now works at a big tech company, five years ago he was still learning. “I’d been doing software development for only five years, but I thought, let’s just take this apart and see what’s going on. It can’t be that hard,” Pierre laughs. “Well it turns out it is.”
THE GUTS OF GAME CONSOLES
While it certainly would help, you don’t need a degree in computer science to understand how an emulator works. In its simplest form, an emulator is an interpreter that can take the language shared between a video game and the console that plays it and translate it on the fly to work on an entirely different system. While that sounds simple in practice, actually developing one pretty much does require a degree.
Each video game system has its own unique components manufactured specifically to adapt to the needs of the console. There’s the basics that you might be familiar with, like the central processing unit (CPU), which acts as the brain of the system; the random access memory (RAM) that’s like short-term memory; a graphics processing unit (GPU) that’s responsible for creating all those lovely images displayed on screen; and finally, the motherboard (mobo), the skeleton that binds everything together. Each of these components talks to all the others and the video game you are playing in a highly specific language that, in the case of video game consoles, is cryptic and hard to understand without the console’s version of a dictionary—something most manufacturers like Nintendo treat as well-kept secrets.
Pierre uses the older Nintendo Gamecube, one of the two consoles Dolphin can emulate, as an example: “A game for the Gamecube will be designed only to talk to the hardware available within the Gamecube. If you want it to run on a PC, you basically have to translate every single thing that the game wants to do so that it can be understood by PC hardware.” The real trick, however, isn’t intercepting these communications between video game and hardware—it’s understanding what the hell the game is even saying in the first place.
Because the technology powering consoles is regarded as the “intellectual property” of the company that created it, the developers of Dolphin have no access to that language.
“It’s a huge technical challenge,” Pierre says. “We have no documentation for how this hardware works, but we’re trying to recreate every single feature of it. You just don’t find very many projects that attempt to do that.”
That’s exactly what has inspired Pierre and hundreds of others since Dolphin was made open source in 2008 to work together, spending countless evenings observing how a Nintendo Wii or Gamecube operates in a language they can’t understand and then translating it to one they do. That process is called “reverse engineering.”
But looking at any one of the dozens of emulators available on the internet, it’s easy to mistake one that perfectly imitates the dialogue between video game and console for one that just fakes it because it looks close enough. There’s differing perspectives, but for Pierre the only option is to imitate the console as closely as possible—even if that comes at a cost. “There’s an old way of doing things,” he explains, using infamously broken Nintendo 64 emulators as an example. “Where you just make a fast emulator that only works for 50 percent of games.”
These “fast emulators” care little for capturing the nuance of the dialogue and instead focus on the broad strokes. The problem is that recreating that conversation in a 100 percent accurate manner requires not only a huge investment of time and energy, but also a computer that can handle the often extremely taxing load of imitating the console hardware. That’s why it’s possible to get emulators that run on your phone—because they care little for accurate imitation.
“If you’re skilled enough,” Pierre says, “you could build a really inaccurate Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) emulator in a day.” The problem would be that, in doing so, that emulator would likely introduce thousands of bugs and glitches that were never present in the Super Nintendo to begin with.
THE (IL)LEGALITY OF EMULATORS
Because reverse engineering is such an intensive and demanding process, you might wonder why Dolphin developers wouldn’t just do what they could to get their hands on the documentation needed to understand how a Nintendo Wii or Gamecube operates. Most console manufacturers send out “development kits,” which are specialized non-consumer versions of a console meant to aide in building video games for that console, but if Dolphin were to ever use one to help them better emulate, it would be a death sentence.
“It would be very inappropriate for any of us to look at a ‘dev kit’ or the documentation of one,” Pierre says. He tells me that the first big problem is that development kits are sent out with very broad “non-disclosure agreements,” a type of contract that prevents you from sharing information regarding the hardware. Breaking these NDAs can have severe legal consequences.
Perhaps the bigger issue would be if Nintendo found out that its intellectual property—like a certain chunk of programming for example—were to make it into Dolphin. The most likely scenario would be Nintendo would have full legal rights to sue Dolphin into oblivion.
“We’ve sometimes had developers come into our chat channel and say, 'I know you’re doing something wrong because I read about it in official Nintendo documentation,’” Pierre says. “At that point we have no choice but to kick them from the channel. If we know that you’ve looked at official documentation, you’re basically tainted. We can’t let you get any code into the project.”
“Emulators are a perfectly legal piece of software if you do it right, but if you look at official documentation, you’re not doing it right anymore. You’re looking at copyrighted material and you’re illegally reproducing that.”
But while Dolphin itself is a perfectly legal piece of software, there’s no denying that emulators have created a massive community that revolves around downloading and playing pirated games. Digital copies of games can be uploaded to the internet where millions of people can download them for free. But just because an emulator enables piracy doesn’t mean it’s responsible for how people use it.
“You wouldn’t say a media player is wrong because it lets you play a pirated movie,” Pierre says. “Of course some people are going to play pirated games on Dolphin, but we can’t do anything about it. A pirated game looks the exact same as a normal game, that’s just the way it is.”
It would be impossible for Dolphin to add any kind of method to make sure that its users are only using non-pirated games. If, for example, Nintendo Wii games were printed on your average DVD (they aren’t), Dolphin could refuse to run a game unless it was inserted in your computer’s disc tray. But because Dolphin is open source software, it would likely be a matter of minutes before someone wrote the code out.
That didn’t stop console manufacturers from trying to take down emulators in the late '90s and early 2000s, however. The most notable case was when Sony, maker of the Playstation, tried to take “Bleem!”, a commercially sold Playstation emulator, to court. Sony lost that fight—the latest in a series of lost battles over emulators—proving that, at least in the United States, emulators are perfectly legal.
THE PIRACY PROBLEM
But while there’s no way of justifying piracy, understanding why people pirate games often highlights a major problem facing the video game industry: video game publishers are terrible at giving consumers what they actually want.
A large portion of the games that people pirate to play on emulators are unavailable to be purchased anywhere except from second-hand dealers who often mark up the games to obscene prices depending on their rarity. For example Harvest Moon 64 was released for the Nintendo 64 in 1999 and today currently sells for around $60 (more if you want the box and manual as well). Nintendo would never see a dime from that transaction. So what’s the harm in pirating it? At least, that’s the logic many use to justify piracy.
With Dolphin, a much more recent example would be the beloved Xenoblade Chronicles for Nintendo Wii. The video game was hugely popular in both Europe and Japan, but no plans were made for a North American release until a year after its initial release in 2010. When it eventually did arrive in the US and Canada, it was in such limited supply that a month or two after release there was no stock left anywhere.
“Of course people are going to pirate it,” Pierre says. “Are you going to blame people for not buying a second-hand game for a hundred dollars when they can download it and in the end the same amount of money goes to Nintendo?”
It is worth noting that, in the case of Xenoblade Chronicles, Nintendo did eventually bring the game to both their New Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo WiiU consoles as digital versions without the issues of physical supply. But it highlights an important question regarding video games: Should manufacturers and publishers be able to not only dictate where to buy their games, but how you should play them?
As Pierre tells me, that’s the real beauty in emulation; it allows anyone to circumvent the arbitrary and often harmful boundaries enforced on console-based video games. For some, that means pirating the game to escape issues with supply and demand of physical copies, but for others, it means being able to tailor the game to perfectly suit their needs.
“There’s tons of reasons why playing on an emulator is just better than on a console,” Pierre says.
Here’s a thought: have you ever hated the controller for a game system? The Nintendo Wii, for example, used a pair of “motion controllers” that were such a terrible substitute for regular gamepads that they had to later release a separate model (the “classic” or “pro” controller) to compensate. But what if you hated that new gamepad or worse, couldn’t use it because of a disability? Well, you’re shit out of luck—unless you’re playing on an emulator. Unlike a game console, Dolphin doesn’t care what controller you use—just as long as it has buttons. But emulators provide more freedom than just that.
What if Xenoblade Chronicles had never released outside of Japan? That’s exactly what happened with Mother 3, a sequel to the cult-classic game Earthbound. Even though Mother 3 released over a decade ago, it never had an English translation until a group of devoted hackers cracked the game open and made their own—which you can now play using an SNES emulator.
For hardcore PC enthusiasts, the best reason is ultimately that games just look better on an emulator. Consoles are, sadly, hamstrung by needing to be relatively cheap, meaning they rarely offer the kind of cutting-edge graphics you find when playing on a computer. But Dolphin can fix that problem too. For one, it can display games in high definition, which actual Gamecube and Wii hardware can’t hope to reach. It’s also typical for fans to go in and modify the game files to make them look even more crisp than they ever did in their original state. While Nintendo Wii games will never look as impressive as a Playstation 4 or Xbox One game, they can still look pretty damn impressive.
Emulators give you every tool to customize your experience in a given game. While most are content to play emulated games as is, there are huge communities devoted to dissecting them into pieces and studying their guts. And that’s all possible because people like Pierre continue to sacrifice countless afternoons to building these emulators. He tells me it’s fairly common to dedicate two or more hours of every day to working on or helping manage Dolphin. But he loves it.
“It’s work that has a very strong focus, you need to keep a lot of things in your mind while you’re doing it,” he says. “I’m far from being the most dedicated person to working on Dolphin right now, but for me it just feels like something I should be doing. I enjoy getting to do something so different when I get back from work, and I can have so much impact now that I’ve been working on it for so many years.”
There’s no denying that emulators often flirt with a dangerous line by so easily enabling piracy, but with that evil comes a much greater good. The inner workings of a game console might be a corporate secret, but emulators show us that they’re also a sometimes flawed but always interesting piece of engineering. Most of all, emulators remind us that the beauty of a video game isn’t determined by how you play it or on what console, but why you play it.
Steven Messner is a freelance writer with a zealous passion for good beer and good video games. He also enjoys taco night, games about space, and forgetting to take out the garbage. You can find his work at GamesRadar, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and Paste Magazine. Alternatively, you could just add him on Twitter @stevenmessner and say hello. He likes that.