Monday, October 4, 2010

The Ethics of Emulation Through an Earthbound Lens

ZSNES Emulator
Does a game still exist if no one plays it, or is it just a collection of random bits and bytes in a grey plastic shell, buried in our closets underneath the other forgotten endeavors of our bygone youth? Yes, the cartridge is physically present, but all of the fun it used to afford us and all of our fond memories are slowly fading away. Remember that kid you used to be great friends with before he or she moved away after elementary school? Maybe you do. But could you tell me what his or her favorite color was, the classes you both attended, or the games you used to play together at recess? Maybe not. And if I hadn’t just reminded you, would you ever again have thought about that old friend?

Although it had cult following on the internet, the general public's memories of Earthbound, at least in English speaking countries, are starting to grow faint. It has simply been too long since its release in 1995 to be fresh in the average gamer’s mind. Just take a look at reactions the actors get on the fan video site /Earthbound when they dress up as characters from the game and interact with people at the mall. Unless it has been edited out of the movies posted on the web site, no one ever picks up on the joke; no one ever yells, “Hey, it’s a New Age Retro Hippie!” or “Look! The Hint Man!” Yet, dress someone as a more current video game charter, like Solid Snake, Link or Wario, send them gallivanting through the local mall, and the reaction would be very different. Additionally, many players sell their old games to purchase next-gen systems and software; Earthbound was released three generations ago.

Stephen Georg in a still shot from one of his /Earthbound films.

We’re left with a conundrum: Besides its small but insanely devoted fan base, what’s preventing Earthbound and games like it from vanishing into obscurity? And while the game is uncommonly good at retaining its old followers, with no way for most people to play it in this brave new world of Wiis, Xbox 360s and PS3s, how can Earthbound spread to new fans? Is this quirky, decade old RPG doomed to be forgotten by all but the most loyal gamers?

There is a way to counteract all of this and keep the sprit of Earthbound alive for years to come, for new and old fans: emulation. For the uninitiated, emulation is downloading a copy of the game’s ROM code onto your computer and playing it via a program that “emulates” the functions of a Super Nintendo. Ask yourself, is the Earthbound experience any less real sitting in front of our computers instead of our television sets, playing a virtual SNES instead of a real one? Besides a few minor emulation bugs and a different method of control, the answer is “not really.” As we play though the game, we see and hear essentially the same things, and, more importantly, we still feel the same emotions. With emulation, if potential new fans hear about Earthbound on their travels through cyberspace, they could be checking it out for themselves that very day. The only thing they’ll be missing is the strategy guide, which is a shame; it’s definitely part of the Earthbound experience, but the game is still fun without it.

I don't advocate current generation video game piracy – it’s biting the hand that feeds us – but emulating an 15-year-old game that Nintendo refuses to re-release despite our frantic pleas isn’t going to make one damn bit of difference to their profits. If Earthbound is indeed offered for download on the Wii console, rabid fans will buy it regardless. Priced at a few dollars, lost sales due to distribution of the ROM are going to add up to very little. Preserving the game through emulation for new fans to discover what they’ve been missing out on is a tribute to Earthbound’s creator, Shigesato Itoi, and a testament to the game’s high quality and enduring charm. I’m sure it fills Itoi with joy to know that his game had such an effect on us that we’re still finding ways to play it years after its initial release.

Shigesato Itoi
Through its continued silence on the matter, Nintendo has just about confirmed that Earthbound isn’t coming out on the Virtual Console, so the only ones we hurt by playing Earthbound ROMs are the greedy people who charge fans ridiculous amounts of money for the game in online auctions. Talk about cutting into Nintendo’s profits! I’ll bet that a new fan discovering Earthbound for the first time on an emulator costs Nintendo a lot less than some jerk selling the game on eBay for the same price as an Xbox 360. Besides, paying a week’s salary for the game is in direct contrast to the true, free-spirited nature of Earthbound. Placing a “buy it now” price of $349.99 on an ancient video game is something the Runaway Five’s skivy manager would do. And do you really think Itoi wants anyone acting like that creep?

The first search hit for "Earthbound" on eBay, 10-3-2010. Note the $415 price.

But eBay sellers will only be able to swindle Earthbounders for so long before our Super Nintendos finally give out, or the battery in that ULTRA RARE COMPLETE L@@K cartridge finally dies. Unfortunately, this is a situation we all must face. Your old gaming gear might be working fine now, but one day, your SNES isn’t going to turn on, and your beloved Earthbound will no longer save your progress. I know I’ll play my cartridge for as long as the equipment holds up, but I have a sinking feeling that one day, I’ll hit the power button and that title screen just isn’t going to pull up. Then what will I do? Well, let’s just say that I’ll be investing in a larger computer monitor, Earthbound strategy guide in hand.

In this case of Earthbound’s unreleased predecessor, Earthbound Zero, emulation brought us a game we would have never had to opportunity to play otherwise. As for its legality, on’s list of every licensed game ever released for the Nintendo Entertainment System, MOTHER, NES Earthbound, and/or Earthbound Zero are not listed. Thus, according to Nintendo itself, Earthbound Zero for the NES does not officially exist. How can we be hurting anyone by playing a game that never commercially materialized, and most likely never will, in the US or European market? In fact, one could argue that this is a case where emulation is actually beneficial to a game company. Earthbound Zero is helping to create new fans while reminding old ones why the fell in love with Nintendo in the first place. This increases Nintendo’s fan base, and they're not losing a dime or expending any effort in the process.

Emulation is a many-tempered mistress, offering a confusing mix of nostalgic fun and previously nonexistent ethical dilemmas. The commercial window of opportunity for the stillborn NES Earthbound and the often overlooked SNES Earthbound has long been slammed shut, leaving little reason for us not to play emulated versions of those games.

1 comment: