By Scott Hamilton
In recent years there has been a great increase in the interest of classic gaming systems. Atari, Sega and Nintendo have all released retro gaming consoles in the last few years, starring the favorites of their classic games. These consoles use a technology called simulation to run the classic games on new hardware platforms.
Simulation is done by using a computing device called a field programmable gate array (FPGA) to rapidly manufacture an out-of-production processor. This will behave exactly like the original game console, bugs and performance issues included. Most of the retro game consoles on the market today use simulation technology with FPGAs. The one exception that I am aware of is the Atari retro consoles. Atari is remanufacturing their original processor, meaning their consoles are the original console with modifications to load the “cartridges” from a memory device. These consoles are a great way to bring back the memories and play the classic games. They range in price from $20-$100. When you consider the original cost of these systems, including the games, would have been well over $5000, it is a great deal.
If you are not into having the original controller and true feel of the classic games, then there is the alternative of using an emulator to play a majority of the classic games. An emulator is software that can run on any computer and “emulate” the original game system. This works well for the older systems like the Super Nintendo, Atari and Sega Genesis systems. They had very limited computer capacity, which makes them fairly easy to replace with software. However, when it comes to more modern, but still legacy systems like the first Sony PlayStation, emulation becomes much more difficult. The PlayStations had custom processors called cell processors. These were multi-core processors and required quite complex computing systems to provide adequate resources for emulation.
One of the best emulation systems available today runs on the $35 Raspberry Pi computer and requires very little custom configuration. The custom operating system for the Raspberry Pi, called RetroPie, comes with preconfigured emulators for several legacy gaming systems and a collection of games, called ROMs. The main issue with using RetroPie is the risk of getting illegal ROM images. Emulation is completely legal by U.S. copyright and trademark laws for computing and gaming systems that are no longer in production, but the games themselves are still protected under copyright.
What does copyright protection of game ROM mean if you want to play the classic games? First, it means that you must own a software license to play the game. This can either be through owning the original game, owning one of the simulators mentioned earlier in the article, or requesting a license from the original game manufacturer. The third option is nearly impossible. I find it important to mention this because there are a lot of game ROM sites on the internet that freely distribute ROMs, which ironically is not illegal as long as the provide the legal notice that you must have a license to use the ROM.
There is some good news here though. There are several games that are considered public domain, because the copyright has expired and the original copyright holder has not requested a renewal of the copyright. These public domain games are some of the less popular retro games, but you may find they are still a lot of fun and completely legal for download and playing. Unfortunately the great games like PacMan, PitFall, Zelda Series, Mario Series and Street Fighter have renewed copyrights and cannot be legally downloaded and played unless you have the original game.
If you want to try your hand at retro gaming, https://retropie.org.uk/ is a great place to start. Stay safe and learn something new.