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10 Mar 09 Emulation: How Gaming Blew the Trumpet for Virtualization

Nowadays virtualization is a hot topic in IT circles, with people only just starting to discover the potential for the simulation of old hardware on modern operation systems. The trend has even reached the mainstream, with programs such as Virtual PC and DOSBox being widely used, and in the case of the former now shipped with retail computers.

Yet when wanting to introduce someone to the concept of virtualization and how it works in everyday terms, it may be an idea to start with what many consider one of technology’s most frivolous uses: video gaming. More than a ‘cute’ learning tool, it should be noted that one of the driving forces behind the rise of virtualization to the public eye came from the gaming community.

With the rising popularity of ‘retro’ gaming came an increased demand for older games being made available. In the last couple of years this desire has seen a virtual (in many ways) revolution in the market, with countless disc-based compilations and online services – most notably, Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade – offer scores of classic games at (mostly) affordable prices.

But as with all significant media shifts, this interest didn’t begin with the retailers’ change of heart; it originated with tech-savvy gaming fans that, having tired of having to pay ludicrously inflated prices for ‘vintage’ hardware and games, set to figuring out how those games could be enjoyed by all on universally-owned machines. Virtualization – or ‘emulation’, as the preferred terminology goes – provided that method.

Your average video game machine emulator acts like any virtualization program, enabling your operation system through reverse engineering to fully simulate the architecture of a specific machine. The first emulator, Bloodlust Software’s NESticle, was released in 1997 and allowed users to emulate Nintendo’s massively successful but at this point already long-obsolete Nintendo Entertainment System. Bloodlust followed this program up with the similarly ‘wryly’ named Genecyst, which mimicked Sega’s more advanced Genesis console.

What Bloodlust did not realize was that they were igniting the first spark of a revolution, albeit a slow-burning one. The idea of being able to play old, fondly-remembered video games on the humble family PC steadily spread throughout the newsgroups and message boards of the Internet world, and the following twelve years has seen hundreds of emulators’ surface, providing facsimiles of virtually every game system in history. Even arcade machines – historically far above home systems in complexity – became fair game thanks to programs such as the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME) For a generation forced to slog through ropey home-system adaptations of arcade hits like Double Dragon and Chase H.Q., with no hope of ever being rich enough to own ‘the real thing’, being able to convert one’s PC into a fully-functioning copy of these games in all their coin-guzzling glory seemed a dream come tardily true.

But while emulation brought the concept of virtualization to the masses, it also served as a stage to highlight its principal pitfall: Intellectual property. It cannot be forgotten that to replicate a foreign operating system in a computer can also be to make an unauthorized copy of someone else’s work. With the emulation movement being mainly spearheaded by bedroom coders with little or no affiliation with the companies that made these games, a legal whirlwind was both inevitable and perpetual.

Making matters worse is the fact that emulation by its very nature sidesteps all the physical constraints held by these games in their original forms. You no longer need an oddly-shaped cartridge or arcade motherboard to play ‘Mario Bros’; all an emulator needs is its ROM, a virtual image of the game’s entire code that integrates itself with the emulator program as effectively and cleanly as the cartridge in a plastic slot. Like the emulators, these ROMs are easily downloadable and easily small enough to do so in bulk. When you realize that the arcade game you considered a technological marvel in 1989 actually constitutes well under 100 MB, it becomes evident that you could download an entire amusement arcade, or the complete library of a classic gaming machine, without one’s broadband even considering breaking a sweat, without paying a thing.

Compounding the problem is the fact that, as emulation technology and techniques have advanced, the newer the machines that can be ‘conjured’ for free (In fact, modern games systems with currently available software such as the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo DS, are now widely emulated with full games available in illegally downloadable form) These modern emulations generally require the original machine’s BIOS to work, which itself has to be illegally downloaded. This has become an especially contentious issue now that games companies are applying themselves to repackaging these old games and technologies for sale (Thus satiating a market they, ironically, were mainly made aware of through the popularity of emulation and ROM copying in the first place)

Emulation is ideal starting point when wanting to demonstrate to people how virtualization works, especially when you can have their favorite Nintendo game up and running on a bog-standard PC in a matter of seconds (Provided you have a copy of the original, store-bought game – the only circumstance in which ROM ownership is legal) Its usefulness is not just for a bit of nostalgic fun, however, for video game emulation has served as the first battleground for a much wider and all-encompassing war. As virtualization becomes more and more popular, companies’ awareness of the value of their own past will also grow – along with their desire to protect it.

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