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Game On: What are ROMs and emulators, and are they legal?

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 17, 2022

RetroArch is a popular open-source app that houses hundreds of emulators under one interface. This allows a computer to mimic the programming of nearly any game console in history and play (legal or illegal) copies of any video game.  (RetroArch)
RetroArch is a popular open-source app that houses hundreds of emulators under one interface. This allows a computer to mimic the programming of nearly any game console in history and play (legal or illegal) copies of any video game. (RetroArch)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

If you’ve spent any time on the retro gaming scene, there’s a good chance you’ve heard a thing or two about emulation. Essentially, emulators are small programs that mimic the behavior of a specific game console. ROMs, meaning “read only memory,” can be many things – but in this context, a ROM is a digital copy of a video game.

In a nutshell, we’re talking about the possibility of someone playing their games on a computer or even cellphone instead of, say, their old Nintendo 64. On its own, the possibility of playing older games in whichever environment you please sounds like a nice option to have.

But while emulators are free and legal, ROMs are not. A person can go through the tedious process of copying game data off their disc or cartridge to their computer, but nine times out of 10, people who have ROMs probably just downloaded them off some corner of the internet.

But even if you were to manually “dump” all your own ROMs, a game publisher could argue in court that they lost money from your shenanigans because you used emulation instead of buying their game a second time on a second platform.

Of course, that argument presumes the game actually exists on multiple platforms. There are thousands of video games that saw a single release and were never ported to any other system. Sometimes, that’s by design – annual sports games are meant to be replaced. Other times, it’s because of legal difficulty, poor sales or something as tragic as the source code being lost.

Most publishers have remained silent on the issue, but Nintendo has contended that even in such cases, the onus is on gamers to seek an authentic version of the game in question and buy it no matter the cost. Because while Nintendo makes no cash from the transaction at this point, it still “strengthens their brand.”

So, basically, under no circumstances is playing ROMs on an emulator legal. But no one has ever been prosecuted for it – not even once. Mind you, websites sourcing ROMs have often been asked to shut down.

EmuParadise was issued a cease-and-desist letter by Nintendo in 2018 asking them to scrub all of their ROM downloads, and they complied. But as we all know, it’s essentially impossible to delete anything from the internet forever, so ROMs of every video game under the sun are still in circulation if you look hard enough.

You might be wondering why I’m bothering to discuss what constitutes pretty clear-cut piracy. The truth is, while I would never condone robbing copyright holders in any manner, in some cases I can understand why people choose to emulate video games anyway.

As I mentioned before, there are boatloads of games that had just one release before being shelved forever. In a lot of cases, that’s because the game was crap and sold like crap – no big loss there. But every once in a while, you get a situation like Panzer Dragoon Saga for the Sega Saturn.

1998’s Panzer Dragoon Saga is often revered as one of the best role-playing games of that generation – right up there with heavy-hitters like Baldur’s Gate, Final Fantasy VII, Grandia, Fallout and Diablo II.

While the Saturn sold well in Japan and other East Asian countries, it was a commercial failure everywhere else. It’s estimated that only 20,000 copies were released in North America and 1,000 were produced for all of Europe. Sega also lost the source code for the game, making future ports next to impossible.

While Japanese copies are plentiful, it’s a text- and voice-heavy game with no subtitle options. As of writing, the cost to acquire Panzer Dragoon Saga secondhand is around $750 for a European copy and $1,100 for a North American copy.

There are hundreds of similar cases – Conker’s Bad Fur Day, King of Fighters 2000, Air Raid and the original Shantae regularly sell for more than a grand. Unless you’re loaded, the only feasible way to play these legendary games is by breaking the law – and that’s a shame.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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