May 16, 2024 - Technology

Emulation's big moment

Animated illustration of an 8-bit spaceship blasting away the bite from a pixelated Apple logo.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Apple's recent decision to allow video game emulators on its App Store has sparked a huge wave of fresh interest in playing and preserving classic games.

Why it matters: Emulation — which allows games designed for old devices to run on new ones, like iPhones and iPads — enables older gamers to revisit childhood classics, and younger ones to get a taste of what gaming was like in the halcyon 8-bit days.

Driving the news: After years of barring video game emulators, Apple welcomed them onto its App Store last month.

  • Apple's about-face came amid an antitrust lawsuit here in the U.S. and a new tech competition law in Europe, both of which target what some regulators and lawmakers consider anti-consumer behavior from the Cupertino tech giant.

Zoom in: Delta, which emulates old-school handhelds and consoles like Nintendo's Game Boy and SNES, quickly emerged as a big winner, with millions of downloads in the past month, developer Riley Testut tells Axios.

  • "Emulation needed a moment to become mainstream," Testut says. Previously, "you had to really know what you're doing, or be technical-minded."
  • Having Delta and similar software on the App Store is "a turning point for the discussion about emulation," Testut says.

The latest: Two more emulators, RetroArch and PPSSPP, arrived for iPhones just yesterday.

Friction point: Video game emulation exists in a legal gray zone.

  • Emulation software is not itself illegal, but users aren't supposed to download game files (called ROMs) that they don't actually own.
  • While some iOS emulators have ads, Delta isn't directly monetized. Instead, Testut and co-founder Shane Gill are accepting donations through Patreon.

Between the lines: Video game emulation fans typically come in two forms: those who want to enjoy the classic games they grew up with, and those who want to preserve classic games as an important art form worth celebrating.

  • While some game studios "port" their old games to new systems, others make them harder to access. (Some gamers keep their old consoles and handhelds running, supporting a cottage industry of repair and modification shops.)
  • And some games are lost to the sands of time as studios fold or merge and ownership of old intellectual property gets murkier.

Yes, but: Emulation isn't just about playing classic games in their original form.

  • "ROM hacks" are a popular subgenre, in which game fans with programming know-how modify existing games to create something partially or wholly new.
  • In some cases, people who start with ROM hacks develop an interest in game design that leads to a career.
  • "The ROM hack scene — I would love for it to get so much bigger because I do think that user-generated content — it allows people to experience these things in new ways," Testut says.

💬 Alex's thought bubble: I've been playing a handful of childhood favorite Game Boy games — I own them, please don't sue me! — and boy if it isn't a delightful nostalgia rush.

  • That I now get to easily share them with my son is an added bonus.

The bottom line: It's never been easier to enjoy classic games on the go.

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