Video game consoles ebb and flow like any other piece of technology in this world, rising and falling in popularity based on the latest-and-greatest system and the next must-have game. The evolution is so quick that we often forget there was a time when Nintendo was the king, when the PlayStation was considered groundbreaking for using compact discs, and Sega was still doing something other than milking that blue hedgehog for all he’s worth.
Needless to say, video games have come a long way from the heyday of cartridge-based functionality and 2D, side-scrolling masterpieces. But just because a game is old doesn’t mean it’s no longer fun — ahem, Mario Kart 64.
What is emulation?
That’s where emulators come in. An emulator is a piece of software for your computer that functions as a virtual console, allowing you to play ROM files that work in a similar fashion to digital copies of your favorite cartridges or discs. Most of them do so by recreating the correct environment for games to function, often by using demanding games to determine how API calls should be rendered. As you might imagine, emulating newer consoles becomes tricky without high-end hardware, but even Android smartphones can emulate some older consoles.
The software is pretty easy to obtain — many emulators are freeware distributed as zip files, after all — but downloading your ROM files online presents a legal quandary since you might not actually own the game in question.
The issue is one of intellectual property. Emulators on their own aren’t illegal to use, they’re simply a custom compiler for certain applications. The actual game files, on the other hand, are a different story. Depending on where you are in the world, the laws regarding personal backups may vary, but the rule is generally that it’s okay to have a digital backup of a game you already own a copy of. Sites that host or share torrent links to copies of games do so for users who don’t have the means to back up cartridges or discs themselves.
The exception to this rule is the MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) program, which catalogs classic arcade titles and makes them available as an act of historical preservation. If you just want to play those titles, look no further.