Friday 22 November 2013

A Pale Emulation?

I flick the switch and the energy efficient light bulb dully blinks into life. There illuminated in front of my brother's expectant eyes are the rows of boxed Snes games that I have bought since starting this collection. They are glinting resplendent in their protective cases, arranged alphabetically and according to region. My brother laughs through his nose, sounding like a balloon slowly deflating. He was once like me, though always less so. While I played on my Nintendos he programmed games on his Amiga. It was a better use of his time, as he is now phenomenally successful in the IT industry whereas I write about games on the train for my own amusement and no money what so ever. That's not to say he didn't play games, we certainly played a lot of Mario Kart. But as the years have gone on and his time has been taken up with family and real life - the time he devotes to playing games has become less and less. When I've spoken of my blog he has been interested and enthusiastic, occasionally throwing a memory on a game my way which I then shamelessly pass off on my own. This is the first time he has seen them though and his reaction was exactly what I expect from my big brother, envy disguised by mocking criticism. "Take up a lot of space don't they?" He says, dryly. "Wouldn't it be much easier to play them on Virtual Console or something?"  It's a question I've already heard countless times. 

Why don't you just play emulations? Why don't you get the HD re-make? Wouldn't it just be easier and cheaper to download the games? What they don't realise when they ask is that I do play on emulation for the majority of time.  The reason for this is one of practicality - I can't carry a CRT TV and a console on a train. Like anyone who has children and a 60 hour a week job I have limited time to be self indulgent and play games. I do have a 2 hour commute though, which is when I play. It's not ideal, I'd much rather be sat on the sofa looking at a TV but it’s better than nothing. Emulation nowadays is flawless, even on my tiny laptop. In fact I even have a USB Super Nintendo style controller and play games in 4:3 to maintain as much authenticity as possible. To be honest, when lost in a game you barely even realise you're not playing the original cartridge. On the surface the only difference is the lack of box or manual, with the added benefit of being able to take screen shots and save the state of play when you need to get off the train.  I find fellow collectors disprove of emulated games, but how are they any different to playing downloaded version on non native consoles? (Ignore the fact that publishers and copyright holders benefit from this!) To me playing Mario World in widescreen using a Wii-mote is if anything less authentic than playing it pan and scan on a my pretend PC Snes controller.

The problem is when you install an emulator  is resisting the urge to get everything all at once. When I first found out about emulators I did what I imagine everyone does, I downloaded hundreds of titles and didn't play any. When you have every Snes title ever released, you have no reason to stick with anything - there's the belief that you could be having more fun with something else. You start a game, you play the first level and then you quickly move on. This is clearly madness, you often need to learn the mechanics or understand the character to really enjoy it.  To avoid this problem I have had a master idea. I have now only downloaded the games I have bought, so consequently if I have invested in them I want to play them and if I have spent money on them I need to justify that purchasing decision with my time. It’s a silly self enforced rule but one that allows moderation. There is the temptation to also download the games I really desire but can’t afford. But now the laws are written that feels like cheating somehow, and consequently playing Earthbound remains the stuff of dreams. What’s great of course that if a game has passwords, I can even continue using the cartridge on the big TV if I ever get the chance. 

I tell my brother all this and he looks at me over his glasses. Reaching for a box he pulls out Stunt Race FX. "So," he questions "you spent, what, £10 on this to not actually play it?" I nod sheepishly pulling out 'Mega Man X2'. "I spent ten times that to not play this game" I confess. By now his glasses have come off. I tell him that in an ideal world, yes I would spend my time playing them but if that's not to be I shall play a simulated version of the same game on the train. Emulation is a means to an end and there is no way I would ever choose it over playing the original cartridge with an original controller in an original Snes. Yes they may look, sound and play identically, but what is lost is the experience, the routine; the process of taking the game out from the box and clicking on the power. A JPG of the cover art and a mouse click isn't the same somehow.  

Since starting this blog I have actually found playing the Super Nintendo games I write about to be much more fulfilling than playing the majority of games I get free on PS+. In many ways PS3 or PS Vita playing seems like time wasted that could be spent on my Snes be it real or on my emulated. Clearly these 16 bit games are the ones I enjoy the most, and with few exceptions it will be Super Nintendo rather than modern games I’ll want to share with my children one day. If I am to do that, what better way can there be than presenting my girls with a cartridge in a box, not selecting a game from a drop down menu.  Yes, I may need to replace the battery backup but at least I’ll get to watch them picking a game from the colourful and misleading box art much like I once did. There’s something undeniably great about preserving what’s important to you for future generations.  The world may be going digital, physical media may be vanishing but I’ll hold onto my boxes. As convenient, versatile and flawless as emulated games are, they’re an incomplete experience. For me they never replicate the spirit, the essence the heart. 
My brother is now bored of me talking, shocked that I have thought so much about what a box means and why a series of zeros and ones may be accurate but can never be truly authentic. He smiles as he puts back on his glasses and hands Stunt Race FX back to me to put on the shelf with the other boxes.

“The next thing you’ll be doing will be taking the boxes on the train to open when you start your emulator”. He may be joking, but that is a brilliant idea. 

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