If you spent much time in video game arcades throughout the golden age of the 1980’s, you have no doubt missed your favorite games from that time. Even decades later, you’ll catch yourself absently humming the theme from Super Mario Bros. or even trying to track down a Tron cabinet on eBay. Today, the cultural significance of the video game arcade generation goes largely unrecognized. Arcades you find today are a pale shadow of the golden age, with maybe a vintage multi-game machine tucked in a corner with PacMan, Burgertime, and Galaga crammed on it. Many of you might feel robbed of your childhood memories, which were won at the cost of so many dear quarters.
Well, check the screen shot from my desktop taken on 2/16/07:
1943, Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins, Mr Do!, QBert, Frogger, Shinobi…
And that’s just the beginning! The program that made this possible is MAME, the “Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator”. It is free and GPL licensed. It is cross-platform – here are the Windows downloads and here are the various ports to Mac, Linux, Amiga, etc., even including a port to a Motorola cell phone! There are also various front-end utilities, since the MAME program proper, in order to maintain such high cross-platform compatibility, must remain a command-line utility. Check out the site, the FAQ, the forums, and the documentation included with the emulator for exact details.
And I must repeat the admonition from part one: do not go in there asking for ROMs. Instead Google for “MAME ROMs” and you’ll find plenty of them free for the downloading from some random ROM hustler site. The reason for this is the border-line legality of owning a ROM copy of a game without having purchased it – see the legal discussion below.
Once you have a ROM, it will be in a zip-file. Leave it zipped, move it to your ROMs directory under the MAME directory created when you installed it, and you’re good to go. The command will be “MAME name-of-ROM”, with various switches to control things, but you’ll probably just have it on a menu in the front end.
Many game ROMs come in sets, and there are additional files such as sound samples for some games. You’ll need all the dependent files to run the game; check the docs for how to find out how to see what ROMs depend on what. Once you have the program running and a game loaded, I’ll give you some keys to get you started:
- TAB – control menu: reset game, info, etc.
- ‘5’ – ‘insert quarter’
- ‘1’ – start the game in 1-player mode
- Esc – exit
- ‘p’ – pause
- arrow keys – move
- ctrl alt – each of these will be either jump, fire, action, etc. depending on the game.
- shift+Page Up – zoom the game screen bigger (the games usually start the size of a postage stamp due to the higher screen resolution of your monitor)
- shift+PageDown – reverse zoom (make the game screen smaller)
The program is highly customizable, with files which will store your preferences for everything from screen dimension to custom key mappings. And I might add, it runs flawlessly. These are not just clones or one-offs, but the bona-fide arcade experience, with the same play, look, and sound down to the last pixel and note.
We have to discuss this. The MAME software is perfectly legal everywhere, since it is done to research and preserve arcade game history. Most game ROMs are still protected by copyright, and technically the average home user is pirating when they download a ROM to play it. So you heard it here, too, and it isn’t the purpose of this work to advocate illegal activity. However, see this Wiki discussion on the legal status of MAME and ROMs.
It is very true that there *shouldn’t* be a law against playing a game for free in your own home when the original copyright holder has taken that game off the market for two decades and there is absolutely no alternative to legally obtain the game for love or money. It can be shown that a reasonable legal system would not prosecute this infringement if there was absolutely no way that it was costing the company money. (And notice that some game ROMs are hard to find, such as some of those licensed by Nintendo, whom still use the Mario characters in games you can buy today.) If there was an arcade on every corner today like there was in the 80’s, we’d of course be in there paying quarters for playing.
Not every ROM is illegal, anyway. In the case of a game’s no longer being economically viable, the company has released the rights to the community. But these cases are few and far between; the vast majority of arcade game copyrights are orphaned works – the copyright holder is dead, out of business, bankrupt, etc., and has been for years. Consider this:
If you were lucky enough to catch this rarely-seen classic game from the late 1980’s, your heart just skipped a beat to see this opening shot. This was one of my favorites. If they had it today, I’d play it for money. If they released a movie based on it, I’d pay to see it. The soundtrack would even be a worthy addition to my CD collection. And so on. But this game is gone, and that’s a huge shame because it is a stunning achievement. If seeing it again, even just to write this article, was wrong, then I don’t want to be right.
Use your own judgment. Use it wisely. And this will extend to the Console Game Emulator ROMs below as well.
You could fill a book with the huge variety of console game emulators available for home computers. But I’ll pick just one example. ZSNES is the emulator for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Cross-platform only to Windows (DOS), Linux, and BSD, but other platforms may come in the future or be in development.
The now-obligatory screenshot:
Earthbound fans, if you can just stop humming the theme for a minute… I’m trying to think.
ZSNES has it’s own front-end, with a menu system accessible at any time by pressing “Esc”. Unlike the MAME emulator, you load the game ROMs from this menu, which doesn’t care where they are. Other menu features are the ability to save the game state (at any point!) load a cheat file, configure the sound and graphics, and so on.
A few keys to get you started: ‘Alt-Enter’ toggles the environment between full-screen and windowed. The default configuration has the controller buttons map to the keyboard like so:
But that might be awkward, so you can change it or configure it to use other utilities such as a joystick.
In addition to the usual song and dance about obtaining ROMs (which, since Nintendo is still going strong, is a much darker side of the legal gray area), it is quite possible that you have a few old SNES cartridges laying around somewhere. You can still find them at flea markets, yard sales, and such. If you are in the situation where you have SNES cartridges but no game unit (or TV that will accept its signal) there are special devices which allow you to plug a game cartridge into a PC. These are called “ROM readers”, but your best bet is to ask at an electronics store, because they’re pretty uncommon devices (though again perfectly legal).
Whew! That’s two more emulation fields for vintage games covered. In our last section, we’ll sweep up the miscellaneous bits into one shot, covering some live CDs that have a lot of emulators pre-installed, modern versions of RPG classics, Infocom-type adventures, and other trivia. In other words, we’ll be covering text-based games, from the days when gaming was about quiet concentration and the graphics were only in your imagination…
- Pitfalls of XMame Arcade Games
- Vintage Gaming – part one: The Least You Need to Know
- Vintage Gaming – part two: Sierra Games and DOSbox
- Vintage Gaming – part five: the miscellaneous part…
- Vintage Gaming – part three: other Adventure Games, ScummVM, and ID Software