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Emulators: How to Play Games for Other PC Systems

How do you relive classic games designed for systems as far back as the early 80s without spending an arm and a leg on antique hardware? With emulators, you can use your PC to “trick” those classic games into thinking that they’re running on the original computer.

There are literally hundreds of emulators available these days, for just about any computer, video game console, or arcade machine that has ever been made. Many emulators use just the keyboard, but others can emulate joysticks, game paddles, and even trackballs.

Of course, most emulators also enable you to run applications originally written for the older computers too, so if you’re interested in the history of the personal computer, you should grab every emulator you run across; besides games, you can try out programs like VisiCalc (the first spreadsheet program) and WordStar, the original word processor that started a revolution.

Are emulators legal?

Like any other original creation, all the computer and video games you’ve played have been distributed under a copyright, and it’s important to understand who has the rights to distribute the ROM and binary game code before you download and use an emulator.

Of course, emulation is indeed legal, and emulators are generally released as either freeware or shareware. As long as the author gives you permission in the program’s documentation, it’s perfectly legal to distribute these emulator programs on a website or e-mail an emulator to a friend.

However, the legality of distributing either the operating system ROMs or the game binary files is less certain, and naturally many newcomers to the emulation scene are confused about the origin of these files. Without drawing legal boundaries, you can divide these data files into the following three categories:

  • The developer will not allow distribution. Naturally, computer software developers and game console developers would certainly not approve of the distribution of the games that they’re currently selling. The only legal way to emulate one of these games — for example, a PlayStation 3 or Wii console game — would be to legally own the game already, so you’ll have to buy it before you can run the binary version of the game on the emulator.

  • The developer is no longer in business. Some computer and video game manufacturers have gone out of business in the intervening years — although the possibility of legal action greatly diminishes, that doesn’t necessarily give you free reign to copy their ROM and game code.

  • The software has been rendered public domain or freeware. When the demand for a certain computer has finally dropped to practically zero, many software developers decide to release their commercial software into the public domain or as freeware.

There's a lot of “gray area” surrounding the emulation of both game consoles and computers that are still in production. The boundaries of legal ownership have not been set in stone. It’s a safe bet to assume that playing a binary file for a game currently on store shelves is certainly not legal, while playing a binary file for a game that has been released as freeware is perfectly okay.

Most of the sites that distribute game files on the web look for binaries that fall into the second category, hoping that because the company is out of business, there’s no danger in distributing the binary image — a dangerous assumption that is certainly not legally proven.

Top emulators for the PC

Following are some of the best-known emulators for the most popular antique computers. Remember, however, that you’ll have to locate your own ROM images and program binary files yourself.

Each of the following emulation programs is freeware, so you won’t spend a penny (or a quarter) on your classic gaming:

  • MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator): MAME is it — the king of arcade machine emulators, and probably the best-known emulation project for any machine on the web. It’s available for virtually every computer operating system available today, including DOS, Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. It runs literally thousands of games, which are ROM cartridge codes saved as binary files.

  • Atari800: Among the Atari emulation crowd, Atari800 has become the premiere emulator for the Atari 800/800XL/130XE, and it also emulates the Atari 5200 video game console. Atari800 is available for both the PC and Mac, and it emulates both Atari joystick and paddle controllers, as well as the Atari trackball and light gun.

    The emulator enables you to store Atari games and applications as binary images on your hard drive, and it can also handle cartridge and cassette images to boot.

  • SDLTRS: If you’re a fan of the TRS-80 line of computers, you’ll want to pick up this great emulator. SDLTRS supports the loading and saving of disk images, USB joysticks, dot-matrix printer emulation, and emulated cassette and hard drives.

  • AppleWin: The freeware emulator AppleWin has an impressive list of features: It can emulate an Apple II+ or the enhanced Apple IIe (at several speeds, thanks to the custom CPU speed control), complete with twin disk drives, a joystick, and a serial card. AppleWin can handle all the IIe video modes, so it’s perfect for games and graphics emulation. The program can also mimic both monochrome and color Apple monitors.

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