Rose-tinted glasses aside, there was something special about 1970s and 1980s video games. Because the medium was new and not driven by marketing executives, experimentation thrived. Bedroom coders explored territory that remains ignored since, due to the low-risk, low-budget nature of the gaming climate back then. And because of the limited technology, programmers concentrated on gameplay rather than graphics and sound.
As Macs and PCs became increasingly powerful during the 1990s, it became feasible to emulate obsolete systems – a practice that continues to this day. Nostalgia has its part to play, with gamers rediscovering systems they used to own, but there’s also the element of discovery, as emulator author Richard Bannister explains: “I always enjoy discovering unique computers and consoles from the 1980s that I never had a chance to explore in real life. Some obscure systems, such as the Thomson MO5 never made it outside specific countries; others, such as the SAM Coupe, never sold in large numbers, and so few people had the chance to experience them.”
Although the Mac’s selection of emulators is paltry compared to those available for Windows, most major (and some minor) systems are emulated. For each system, you need the relevant emulator and a selection of game files. Unless you have the original hardware and software to hand, along with the knowledge of how to transfer the relevant files to your Mac, you must rely on pre-dumped ROM and disk/tape image files, which can often be found online via the Web or P2P networks. Because emulation is something of a legal grey area (the hardware may be obsolete, but companies often fiercely protect their intellectual property), download Web sites for retro games can be hard to find, although some (notably World of Spectrum) pride themselves on gaining permission for the distribution of games for obsolete systems by contacting the original authors.
Despite many retro systems having specifications that would even make a Mac Plus feel good, you still need a fairly powerful Mac to run some emulators at full speed. Luckily, if your Mac is underpowered, most emulators offer a ‘frameskip’ capability, reducing smoothness rather than compromising playback speed.
Eight bits of power
Nostalgia is a big part of emulation, and many retro gamers favour games they grew up with. In the UK, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 battled for supremacy. The Spectrum, with its monochrome graphics and ear-wrenching audio, carved a place in millions of gamers’ hearts, largely due to its impressive catalogue of unique games, including Manic Miner, Pssst, and Stop the Express. ZXSP (available via the World of Spectrum Web site) has not been updated for two years, but nonetheless remains the best Spectrum emulator for the Mac. It has plenty of display options, compatibility is great, and it emulates different Sinclair hardware. There’s even an option to display a version of the Speccy’s rubber keypad, complete with commands and the Spectrum’s coloured stripes. FUSE (the Free Unix Spectrum Emulator) recently made it to Mac OS X, although it has a way to go to rival ZXSP’s quality.
In some ways, the Commodore 64 was a superior machine, due to its cutting-edge SID sound chip and hardware sprites. Programmers took advantage of undocumented hardware features to create impressive effects for C64 games, meaning the platform is tough to accurately emulate. Power64 comes close: it plays pretty much anything you care to throw at it, has a plethora of set-up options, and enables you to manage C64 disk and tape files via drag-&-drop.
Despite the popularity of computers for home gaming, it was clear their days were numbered – consoles soon ruled the roost. Computers went down fighting, though, with the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST. A version of UAE (the Ubiquitous Amiga Emulator) exists, but it’s a pain to work with, so those looking for 16-bit computer thrills are better off checking out NoSTalgia, an Atari ST emulator with reasonable compatibility, great speed, and a suitably silly name.
However, as we said, the mid 1980s saw consoles grab the gaming market by the scruff of the neck, and they haven’t let go since. Earlier efforts were mostly inferior to home computers, but the 16-bit era ushered in powerful consoles with capabilities that blew away everything that came before it. The SNES is particularly fondly remembered for classics such as Super Mario Kart and F-Zero, and the console is ably emulated via SNES9X. For emulating anything else, Richard Bannister is the man to thank. His emulation page houses Mac-based emulators for the NES, Sega Master System, ColecoVision, and many more.
Arcade at home
The most important and impressive emulator of all has nothing to do with home systems though. Yes, we’re talking about MacMAME, an application that can emulate a staggering 2,800 unique arcade games. To play a game, you need a copy of the arcade board ROMs, which makes that aspect of MAME legally dubious (unless you have a pile of arcade boards in your garage). MAME ROM sites are notoriously tricky to find, but, luckily, Atari has woken up to the popularity of emulation and the willingness of its fans to pay for old games. Much of its back catalogue is online at starroms.com – the first legal MAME ROMs download site. We’re hoping other companies will follow suit, but, until then, the usual methods of finding ROMs will have to do.
The harassment of retro gaming sites by the ESA, the main cause of sites being shut down) is a shame, largely because most retro gamers partake because of their love of gaming and an interest in its history. Also, emulator authors rarely get any financial reward – as Brad Oliver, MacMAME’s author, states: “MacMAME is something I do strictly for the love of it. It’s a nice diversion from the commercial work I do – when I get burned out from work, I return to MacMAME”.
Mind you, the MAME project should remain safe regardless, due to it being a documentation project (with the nice side-effect that you can play the games). With that in mind, we wondered what aspect of the project Brad most enjoyed: the programming challenge, the documentation, or playing all those old games? “My interest stems from all three,” says Brad. “The challenge of reverse-engineering something is always thrilling for me, and it’s something I work on in many commercial games ports. When I first worked on MacMAME, I was driven to play the old games, but as the project evolved, I developed a stronger interest in documenting the hardware.”
Although Richard Bannister’s interest in emulation doesn’t stem from documentation, he emphasises the general importance of hardware and software preservation via emulation: “It’s relatively difficult to obtain an Amstrad CPC today – a computer that was available in huge quantities in the 1980s. In ten years, it may be impossible to find one at all – an emulator will be all that’s left. With regards to MAME, there are huge numbers of arcade boards in there that would have otherwise been lost forever”.
One thing’s for certain: with the likes of Brad and Richard championing emulation on the Mac, it seems likely to thrive for some time yet. Richard worries slightly about the lack of new blood – but even so, new emulators continue to appear (such as Flarestorm, a Sony PlayStation emulator that should eventually provide something akin to Connectix VGS for Mac OS X). As for the popularity of retro gaming, this looks likely to rise and rise, but were games really better in the old days? As Richard quips, “if they weren’t, why on Earth would people play them now instead of current titles?”
Given the limited space available, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the Mac emulation scene. To dig deeper, start with the following Web sites: