Why I Like Unofficial Emulation More Every Day 

The sweet spot between authenticity and convenience - with a little effort.

Authenticity is important to me. But there is a tension between authenticity and convenience. The most authentic experiences tend not to fit very well in modern life. 

In video game terms: When I play a Megadrive game, part of the experience is in the connection between the video game, the player, and the controller (this is less relevant today, when most games are made for machines with almost identical controllers). But Megadrive games — with notable exceptions — were made for a different audience with different lives. 

An example: Dynamite Headdy. Like many Megadrive games, this one offered a considerable challenge and had to be finished in one sitting (or for as long as it was possible to have the console paused without it becoming a flaming ball of plastic.) It was common for a player to dominate up to a certain stage, and then lose several times in the same spot, until they managed to learn the enemy’s patterns and how to apply the game mechanics to match the situation. Of course, losing several times meant running out of lives and restarting the game from scratch. Modern games shorten the learning period because they have us restart almost immediately before the spot where we lost. 

In most old games, encountering an obstacle meant playing the entire game up to it in full, several times over. Great for a child with endless free afternoons to kill. Not so great for an adult with grown-up responsibilities. 

The solution offered in modern times is to re-release these games with added quality of life improvements, such as, for example, the option to save at any time. It’s a good initiative, but few are the old games entitled to this treatment. More importantly, authenticity is lost. Not because today's machines have a hard time replicating the games of yesteryear, but because the controllers, the way we interact with the game, have changed a lot (in some cases, radically — the “two tiers of three buttons each” setup that graced the MegaDrive and Sega Saturn hasn’t been replicated since). 

Given the choice between playing games on the original machines — an increasingly costly solution — for maximum authenticity, but a lot of inconvenience, and playing them on modern machines sacrificing the tactile experience to some extent, emulation offers a reasonable compromise. I specifically mean the unofficial emulation that is increasingly accessible on computers, portable devices, or third-party consoles crafted specifically for that purpose, not the emulation that is used to run these games in compilations for “sanctioned” machines. 

Using these solutions, it is relatively easy to connect, via USB or Bluetooth, replicas — official or not — of the controllers of yesteryear, and in so doing, to access a very faithful experience of what was like to play on original hardware, both in the audiovisual and tactile sense. 

This trend may seem “niche,” one which matters only to people like me, who grew up with video games and refuse to let go. But recently, Nintendo has offered their subscribers the possibility of buying old-style controller replicas for use with their Switch Online Super Nintendo and Nintendo Entertainment System collections. 

Nintendo is not always the best company when it comes to reading the market for money-making purposes, but they are one of the few that take the historical heritage of its artistic production seriously; that their decision fits my line of thought gives me some hope about my preference for authenticity not being a lost cause. 

Photo by Adam Valstar on Unsplash