The Blessing and Bane of Video Game Emulators

Starting Super Mario Bros. 3 on the Wii Virtual Console. (Image: Chuck Lawton)

Starting Super Mario Bros. 3 on the Wii Virtual Console. (Image: Chuck Lawton)

With age comes nostalgia, and having grown up on the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, there is a certain level of sentimentality for the games that defined me. Game system and software manufactures recognize this and have begun repackaging and selling us back our memories in the form of emulators and rereleased games. And while these offerings make it convenient to take on Dr. Wiley or find that our princess is in another castle, there is something lost in the translation from dusty 8-bit consoles to modern gaming systems and high-definition TV’s. It all feels just a little off.

I have been playing with emulators for nearly a decade and a half now, mostly on the PC. It’s been great being able to play all of my favorite old games again. When my son was born six years ago, I had dreamed of taking him on a video game history lesson through the emulators, starting with Super Mario Brothers 1-3 and onwards to other great titles such as Mega Man, Super Metroid, the Mario Kart series and any of the Final Fantasy RPG’s. That didn’t exactly pan out for reasons I’ll explain in a bit.

When the Nintendo Wii was released, and the Virtual Console with it, there was a lot of excitement. Suddenly, millions of households had access to a fantastic library of old games that they could download and immediately begin playing. And we began to recognize that great gameplay shines through regardless of a game’s vintage.

But while we get to play all these games again, are we really recreating the gaming experience? The 1980′s were the golden-age of console video games and often the titles we were playing were pushing the hardware capabilities to previously unseen levels (example: compare Super Mario Brothers 1 to Super Mario Brother 3 on the NES). Additionally, the feel of the controller and the limitations of televisions at the time added to the charm. I played the NES on a 13″ black-and-white TV over an RF modulator. Being able to hook the system up to the big color TV in the living room was a privilege bestowed only on special occasions.

The one glaring problem playing any emulator on a computer monitor or an HDTV is the quality of the picture: it’s too good. These games were developed for CRT TV’s which have physical properties that help make the images we fell in love with look the way they do. The picture is a little fuzzy, flickers some and the colors bleed a little. But most importantly, artists designed sprites with an understanding that RBG elements in a TV were not arrayed in a fixed grid. And blowing these images up on a 52-inch HDTV’s leaves the edges too sharp, the color too bright, and graphics resampled in such a way as to distort those sprites. (A user on the NFG Games Forum had an excellent write up of this effect.)

Photo: Flickr user  moparx CC BY-SA 2.0

Photo: Flickr user moparx CC BY-SA 2.0

In response to this problem, in 2009, a group of Georgia Tech computer science majors were tasked to simulate the properties of CRT TV’s in Stella, a popular open-source emulator for Atari 2600 games. Ian Bogost, the associate professor who ran the course, shared the results on his website. In his post, you can see the difference that the student’s Stella plugin makes when playing these old Atari games. In Ian’s words, the elements he wanted his students to add – the texture, afterimage, color bleed and noise – are all present and look great. And I agree; it feels like what we’d expect if we were firing up an old 2600 on a vintage TV. The fantastic part of this story is that his team have returned their changes to the source code to the maintainers of Stella and that we’ll see these as a configurable option in an upcoming release, and hopefully, in even more emulators.

Looking back to my Wii emulator experience, I was disappointed starting up Super Mario Brothers and finding there were no configurable options for ‘enhancing’ the images to look more like how I remember them. Purists may say that Nintendo and others did exactly the right thing by not including such options. Certainly I can hook my Wii up to an old TV and bask in it’s phosphorus glow. But I think something is being missed as we play our old games on modern equipment. It’s nice to see that others recognize this problem and are contributing solutions.

So how has the emulator experience been with my kids as they’ve grown? Somewhat hit and miss. My son used to only want to play Mario Kart 64 (on the Wii Virtual Console) until he got Mario Kart Wii for Christmas. He then moved on to the New Super Mario Brothers for the Wii, which I think is a fantastic way to introduce kids to the series. But I’ve frequently caught him firing up Super Mario Brothers 3 on the Virtual Console and taking a stab at it, being somewhat indifferent to the game aesthetics and simplistic (but great) musical score, and enjoys the game for what it is.

But now Lego Star Wars is all the rage, and it’s clear that he’s forming his own memories playing games, sneaking down to the rec room early in the morning to fire up the HDTV and Wii in order to hop on Yoshi again or wield a light saber against droids, sound turned down low as not to wake mom and dad. He’s completely engrossed and because of that I hope platform creators like Nintendo continue to provide ways of playing these games into the future. Because I’m sure decades from now, my kids will want to spin up a disk and hear that familiar music once again.

Chuck Lawton

About Chuck Lawton

Chuck is a proud geek and a dad. By day he manages IT infrastructure and by night he's a multi-instrumentalist and music producer in the Milwaukee-based, Vitrolum Republic.

Chuck Lawton

About Chuck Lawton

Chuck is a proud geek and a dad. By day he manages IT infrastructure and by night he's a multi-instrumentalist and music producer in the Milwaukee-based, Vitrolum Republic.

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