Seldom what they seem: game emulators

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Vancouver Computes, April 1999

As that star of a recent hit film (and screen writer of several others), William Shakespeare once said, ?A rose, by any other name would still smell as sweet?.

Computer users, particularly game players, know that the Bard was really predicting software emulators.

As personal computers get more powerful, they can do a lot more than just run Microsoft Word faster than I can type. Among other tricks, they are now powerful enough to do a respectable job of pretending to be other kinds of computers?emulation.

Products like Connectix?s Virtual PC or Insignia?s SoftWindows let make users run a DOS, Windows 3.1, or Windows 95/98 session on a PowerMac?increasingly the usefulness of these systems by letting them (slowly) run a needed program without leaving the cozy cocoon of Mac-friendliness.

For a while, there?s been a game-players emulation underground. Shareware emulators abound, letting PC-using game-players use their machines to run games designed for older game systems like the original Ninentendo. And some of them work pretty well.

Of course, the problem is how to get the actual games? there?s no way to plug a Nintendo game cartridge into a PC or Mac. On a slightly more underground level of the Internet, searchers can find ROMs-- software images of many popular games. To be legal, users would need to own a copy of the game cartridge, but as long as only older systems and games were being cloned, it seems like companies didn?t bother to prosecute.

That?s changed recently.

Connectix scored a big hit at the recent MacWorld Expo with its release of Virtual Game Station. Not yet released in Canada as I write, this program allows G3 Mac owners to play many PlayStation games from their Mac?s CD.

And it works surprisingly well, though with a couple of quirks.

Lacking a G3, I packed up my review copy of VGS and a selection of PlayStation games, and paid a visit to Vancouver Computes editor Chris Ladd and his iMac. His 14 year-old, Jeff, and my 15 year-old Joey installed the software, and put it through its paces. Their report:

  • Some games worked (like Crash Bandicoot Warped), while others (like EA Sports NBA 99) didn?t. Connectix has a list of games that they claim are known to work up on their website.
  • CD copies don?t work. They don?t work on standard PlayStations, either, but there?s a thriving underground market for so-called ?mod chips?, allowing real PlayStations to use these often-pirated CD copies.
  • Performance and appearance were pretty good, though not quite as smooth as on a real PlayStation. Presumably, a more powerful G3 would offer better performance. (The software insists on a real G3?it may  run on an upgraded system, but it only supports ATI video cards, used in all real G3 Macs).
  • Games were playable but awkward using just the keyboard and mouse. Serious gameplayers will want to get one or more gamepads to plug into their Mac.

And there?s the kicker. New PlayStations are selling for about CDN$175. Add $25 for a second controller. Or (assuming you have a G3 Mac, starting at $1800 for an iMac), get a US$49 (about $75) for a copy of VGS. Two USB controllers at US$ 29 each (about $90). You?ll probably need to add a USB hub to your iMac, if you don?t already have one?about $100. Is something wrong with this picture?

Still, Connectix reports that Virtual Game Station has been a hot seller in the US. Sony (makers of the real PlayStation) has filed suit, but the judge refused the company?s request to ban further sales of the software. The program dramatically increases the number of games available for the Mac?in this case, games users can rent at their corner video store.

On the PC side of the force, oddly-named garage startup Bleem ( claims to be close to release of a PlayStation emulator for that platform.

N64-users may be feeling left out?a PC-based N64 emulator, UltraLHE was yanked off the Net by its creators, only hours after its release. Emulators Unlimited claimed to be ?shocked? by the flood of people jamming its web site, looking for a copy of the emulator along with pirated game ROMs. (We couldn?t get it to run, anyway?in our tests, we got game music, but no video).

In the operetta, The Pirates of Penzance, William S. Gilbert wrote ?Things are seldom what they seem?skim milk masquerades as cream?. The latest wave of emulators seem to be doing the opposite?getting a $2,000 personal computer to act as if they were $200 game systems.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan