Emulation nation

My teenage dream has finally come true: I can play every single video game ever made.

For free. At home.

OK, maybe not every single game. But certainly the vast majority of the ones that truly matter: those colorful refrigerator-sized beasts that graced malls, convenience stores and roller rinks in the ’70s and ’80s.

Wonderful games such as Pac-Man, Galaxian, Tempest and even underappreciated cult titles like Burger Time and Mappy.

I never thought this could happen. When I was 13, my biggest passion was video gaming. One summer night before eighth grade, I dreamed my basement had turned into an enormous video arcade. Every arcade machine ever made was lined up in a shining row down the middle of the room. I ran from screen to screen, playing all my favorites.

Then I woke up.

Today – thanks to the Internet and some clever programming – my dream has become reality.

Somebody pinch me, please.

Meet MAME, the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator. Originally designed in 1997 by programmer and video gaming buff Nicola Salmoria, MAME is a freeware program that runs on your PC (mame.retrogames.com) or Mac (www.macmame. org). Clearly a painstaking labor of love, MAME emulates the operating systems that were the inner brains of classic arcade video games.

Two years ago, MAME’s features were fairly limited and it could only emulate a handful of titles. But shortly after writing the first version, Salmoria released MAME’s underlying program code to the public. As a result of his generosity, scores of other programmers have since donated their collective efforts to vastly expand MAME’s gaming repertoire.

Today the program can emulate just about any arcade game from the past 20-odd years (except, of course, the more modern releases). And it doesn’t cost a cent. (MAME even comes with a disclaimer prohibiting it from being sold.)

The release of MAME and similar game emulators has spurred an entire movement of "retro gamers." There are now even emulators of "classic" home systems such as the long-defunct Colecovision and the original Atari VCS.

At popular Web sites such as Dave’s Video Game Classics (davesclassics.warzone.com), hundreds of classic gaming buffs rate their favorite games of yesteryear, talk strategy and openly share the continuous stream of freeware emulator updates.

"Gaming the way it was meant to be" is the motto of the emulation nation. And for an aging video game junkie like myself, all I can say is "let freedom ring."

But is all of this, well … legal?

Not necessarily. In order to play a particular game on the MAME emulator, you must first have the game’s software. The MAME emulator is useless without it, and this software can only come from the original video game’s internal chips.

Worse still, many of these games are decades old, so the original machines are difficult to find. Enterprising retro gamers have tracked down hundreds of working arcade machines and carefully copied the programs from each unit’s aging memory boards.

Today, huge online public databases allow anyone to download the game of their choice (search for "MAME video game ROM" in Yahoo). And since most of these game programs are primitive by modern standards, their file sizes are tiny. You can download the entire contents of the Chuck E. Cheese game room to one floppy disk.

And that’s the problem. U.S. copyrights generally last for 75 years, so downloading these game programs is technically illegal. Plus, now that retro gaming’s popularity is increasing, industry organizations are beginning to take notice.

Dave’s Video Game Classics was shut down late last year by the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), an American trade body that represents video game manufacturers. The site returned shortly thereafter, but all links to game files were removed.

Programmer Salmoria maintains, however, that the reason he started the MAME project was for historical research, not piracy. "In 2050 or so … the games we are emulating will start to become public domain," he noted in a recent interview posted to the underground Emu Views (www.emuviews.com) Web site.

"The problem is, there will be absolutely nothing left of them if we don’t do something now. The hardware is not designed to last that long."

Salmoria’s project has taken on the sheen of scholarly research. Close to 1,000 game programs have been archived so far. Equally impressive is the Retrogames Web site (www.retrogames.com), which maintains an exhaustive database of games.

Still, the IDSA is not budging. The release (and subsequent forced withdrawal) of a Nintendo 64 emulator by a pair of programmers earlier this year only increased their ire.

But as quickly as emulation sites can be shut down, new ones spring up. And a few of the original game copyright holders are beginning to allow their works to be distributed freely.

"Even if you don’t consider old arcade games as works of art," adds Salmoria, "(you can still) think that they are part of our culture, part of our history, part of our lives, and they deserve to be preserved for future generations to enjoy them."

Game over? Thanks to MAME, not yet.

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