What Emulation CAN and CAN'T Deliver
by Dave Giarrusso

Some things just can't be recreated.

DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. Michelangelo's David. The original lineup of Van Halen. The original “Trix” cereal. They are one-of-a-kind things that, no matter how good technology gets, no matter how good our artists (culinary included) become, can’t be duplicated. They were born not only of the artists’ souls, minds, and bodies, but also of the various times in which they were created. The Renaissance. The death of disco. The inundation of “sugary and proud of it dammit!” kids’ breakfast cereals.

We can also add “classic” arcade games to our laundry-list of stuff that just can’t be recreated.

Emulation is amazing. I love the fact that I can plug a CD into my Playstation and get instant access to pixel for pixel, sound for sound perfect versions of lots of my favorite classics: Tempest, Marble Madness, Crystal Castles, Super Pac-Man, Gaplus, Blaster, Bubbles, Robotron: 2084... I can play Robotron on my Nomad during boring holiday flights and horrific layovers. I gladly purchase all of these games the second they hit store shelves, and will continue to do so. (Except for those two Activision piles of crap - they couldn't emulate their way out of a damp paper bag. Activision: Please STOP!) With emulation powers at an all time high, one might think that trips to the arcade were nearly obsolete.

Not us though.

We still venture out to the arcades. We NEED to in order to play all of these glorious games as they were originally meant to be played. No matter how good emulation is, no matter how perfect the monitor the games are played on, something is still missing -- that little extra something that only the arcade experience can provide.

For starters, games like Tempest and Crystal Castles just aren’t playable using the standard Playstation controller, and unfortunately, it doesn't seem likely that anyone will ever produce a trackball or a paddle for the 32 bit disc spinner. (Wasn’t some company planning to release a PSX trackball about a year or so ago?) You can still load them, and stumble through the earlier rounds of each game, but come on, there’s just no way to get Bentley’s groove back without that trackball. Ever try to mow down a row of gem-eaters with the D-pad? It’s about as easy as using the same D-pad to mow your front lawn. Other specialized controllers fly out the window as well when games head to home consoles: Pole Position, Paperboy, Super Sprint, Spy Hunter, Tapper… Without a steering wheel, bicycle handlebars, or beer taps, these games are shadows of their former selves.

Even in instances where no specialized controllers are necessary, for example, Pac-Man, Dig Dug, or Galaga, the D-pad just isn’t the standard red-ball arcade game joystick. It’s not unbearable in these cases – the D-pad does do a fine job of controlling the action (except for Pac-Man), but the arcade feel is gone. The home player is also sitting and staring at either a computer monitor, or a television, neither of which is analogous to standing in front of a five foot tall game cabinet. After matching wits with Missile Command for three hours, even veteran players have trouble shifting their weight back and forth in an effort to keep leg cramps from setting in. Cries of “OW! My calf!” are rarely heard while playing Missile Command sitting at home on the couch, unless the family dog happens to be extremely hungry and not very well trained.

Let’s examine the best case scenario regarding emulation - the homemade, customized arcade cabinet with all the controls necessary to play the games of your choice. Lots of guys and gals have projects like this one in their basement or den, with PCs and monitors hooked up inside arcade cabinets with all the bells and whistles they need. Short of actually owning each and every arcade game you want to play, this route is about as close as one could ever get to arcade perfection without leaving the house. In fact, let’s go one step further. Let’s imagine that we have our own game room, filled to the brim with classic machines. We can now safely play these games day or night, in street clothes or in pajamas, without shelling out quarter after quarter after quarter. Perfect, right?

Wrong. It’s close. Very close… but, something is STILL missing.

The arcade atmosphere – the sum total of all of the tangible and intangible things that make going to the game room an entirely different experience than bringing the game room home. The simple, almost magical act of depositing a quarter or token is no longer necessary, and even if it is, there’s no feeling of “aw, jeeze, gotta make this quarter last,” because the gamer owns the machine, and the same theoretical quarter can be removed and added as many times as necessary in order to continue playing. There’s no gamble or anxiety over losing an entire week’s allowance or paycheck at the hands of a game. In the home-game experience, all of the paychecks have been lost beforehand.

All sorts of arcade experiences are absent when the gamer plays in the comfort of his or her own home: broken games, lost quarters, found quarters, free credits, soda-drenched control panels, obnoxious kids and adults, loud noise and or music, lines of players waiting to take their turn, evil game room managers who crank the difficulty settings all the way up, bums begging for quarters... Gone. (Strange how our value system changes upon entering the arcade: a guy who asks you for a quarter on the street has a good chance of getting one; same guy asking for a quarter in an arcade will get nothing! That quarter is worth a fortune within the walls of the mighty arcade.) Many players may embrace this aspect of the home game room, but at the same time, must acknowledge that while not necessarily detracting from the gameplay, it seems to take that extra “edge” off. A great game at home won’t be ruined by some snot-nosed kid unplugging the machine, or by the “sorry, we’re closing down” power shutoff at the end of the night, when you’re racing against the clock to save the Princess on the last level of Super Mario Bros for the first time… The home gamer, playing a lengthy game of Gauntlet, will never need to run across the room to feed another Abe to the change machine and back to the game faster than the speed of sound in order to continue. Home gamers even lose the sense of satisfaction gained by inscribing their initials atop the high score table that displays their gaming-greatness for all the world to see.

Remember Konami’s “Crime Fighters”?? If not, it’s a standard Double Dragon “me too!” game that started Konami’s quest to crank out as many cookie-cutter, four-player “absurdly difficult quarter-thieves” as it could, including Vendetta, TMNT, TMNT2, The Simpsons, X-Men, and others. When Crime Fighters arrived at our local arcade, two of my friends and I spent the better part of an afternoon, and the better part of our wallets, in front of the machine. At some point, we were joined by the most obnoxious, spoiled rotten eleven year old brat this side of the Kathie Lee kids, who was busy juggling an ice-cream cone, headphones, and a bike. Punk-kid felt the need to scream instructions at the top of his lungs to the three of us upon joining the team.

There’s a point in Crime Fighters where a pistol brandishing criminal appears. If a player can knock the pistol free, he or she may recover it and use it against the bad guys… Or other players. Mr. gun-guy appeared, cueing punk-ass kid to begin screeching, “Get the gun! Get the gun!!” as though he was being attacked by Cujo right there in the arcade. Naturally, your compassionate author, under the strict orders of ice-cream cone kid, proceeded to obtain the gun, and continuously “shoot” his on screen alter-ego until he was vanquished. We all had a good laugh over that one, selfish bastards that we are, but let’s face it, the kid was quite literally begging for it. The moral of the story? As annoying as the kid was, he added the “x-factor” to the game that only the arcade can provide, and we all had a better time playing the game than we would have if “Punky Rudester” never showed up. Ever play Crime Fighters by yourself? I’m all in favor of the time honored video game technique of stomping bad guys while they’re on the ground, but after five minutes or so, it’s about as much fun as Sssnake on the 2600.

I’d wager that we all have similar anecdotes about the arcade down the block, ranging from kids swiping your “on-deck quarter” from the game, to actual fist fights between those two guys who were ALWAYS sitting at Street Fighter, then Mortal Kombat, then Killer Instinct, then Tekken. You know who those guys are, EVERY arcade has them. No matter how intense, or how trivial, those stories are or were, they are a part of the arcade experience, and no matter how good emulation technology gets, it can’t reproduce them. For better, or for worse. Probably for better.

The arcade experience cannot be recreated, emulated, or duplicated. However, with emulators, we can still play all those great games in the privacy of our homes, day or night, street clothes, or pajamas, or even naked if the air conditioning is broken on one of those hot summer nights. Does emulation give us the best of both worlds? Maybe. How else could you play all of your favorite games in one place, without the help of a time machine? My local arcade has Donkey Kong, and Pac-Man, and Robotron: 2084, but it doesn’t have Gaplus. Or Burgertime. Or Super Pac-Man. Or Xevious. If I stay home though, I can fire up the Playstation and play all of these games and more. I guess I’ll just keep on playing some games at the arcade, and some games at home – heaven right here on earth.

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Last updated: Thursday, May 27, 2004 01:58 PM