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Pushing Buttons: The emulator app helping gamers replay classics from their youth – for now
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Pushing Buttons: The emulator app helping gamers replay classics from their youth – for now

A new app has been at the top of the charts on Apple’s store for a couple of weeks now: Delta. Its app store page is illustrated with shots of very Nintendo-esque on-screen controls, framing screenshots from Game Boy, Snes and Mega Drive games. The reviews are glowing: “I’ve been downloading tons of games I played when I was a kid, it’s so nostalgic!” “This has saved me so much money.” And yet neither Sega nor Nintendo has anything to do with the app, and until recently, software of this type was banned from Apple’s platforms. How can this be?

Delta is an emulator: that is, a piece of software that can successfully mimic a games console, and can run code designed for that games console (ie, games). Delta can run ROMs (digital copies, basically) of games for all the different iterations of the Game Boy, the Nintendo DS, the Nes, Snes and the Sega Mega Drive. This is not illegal. However, downloading those copies of games themselves is illegal. This is an imperfect analogy, but imagine Delta like a Kindle: it imitates a book, and you can read books on it, but only if you have the PDFs.

How are the 4.4 million people who’ve downloaded Delta obtaining the ROMs that they need to actually play anything on it? Are they using a special tool to extract a copy from an old cartridge that they own? Or are they downloading copies of them from places you can very easily find through a Reddit thread or Google search? I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions there – Delta did not respond to a request for comment on how gamers are using the app.

Emulators have always occupied this legal grey area. The software is usually made and maintained by teams of enthusiasts, working together to crack a console and then making the results available for free online. Generally, nobody is making money out of emulation – we’re talking about arcade machines and games consoles that are decades old. Emulation, you can argue, is a way of preserving gaming history. The companies that once owned these machines, or the games played on them, are sometimes long gone. Nobody owns them any more. Emulation is broadly seen as harmless both by its proponents and by most current games companies.

But there are exceptions. When it comes to emulating current consoles, which are actively on sale, emulation is more dicey because it enables piracy. Yuzu, an emulator for Nintendo Switch, was recently shut down by the Nintendo, and its operators paid a $2.4m settlement. All those dodgy 500-games-in-one machines that you see advertised on Facebook are definitely Not Legally Okay. And when Nintendo and the FBI cracked down on the R4 cartridge that enabled piracy on the Nintendo DS, it led to prison sentences and fines in the tens of millions.

Screenshot of the app store page for the Delta game emulator on iPad.View image in fullscreen

What Delta has done, via Apple’s app store, is bring emulation into the mainstream. Anyone who’s ever used arcade game simulator Mame knows that emulation used to involve a lot of fiddling about with specialist software, troubleshooting on forums and general techy tinkering; it was not something most laypeople who fancied a quick go on Mario Kart would be interested in.

But Delta makes it so easy that, surely, something is going to be done about it. Nintendo, as you might have gleaned from the previous paragraph, is notoriously litigious when it comes to protecting its intellectual property, and still makes even its oldest games available via its own Nintendo Switch Online service, through which you can play a selection of Snes and Game Boy classics – ironically, through emulation. Surely it will not love the idea of millions of people playing its older games for free on an iPhone instead.

If you’re wondering why Apple has decided to involve itself in this potential legal nightmare scenario, after years of banning emulators from its App Store: it’s because it is currently fighting a bunch of anti-monopoly lawsuits and has been ordered to allow third-party app stores on the iPhone. Apple does not want anybody downloading these third-party app stores. So rather than risk people turning to them to download emulators, Apple has decided to allow retro game emulators on its own store instead, while placing responsibility on the app developers to ensure everything contained within complies with the law.

Nintendo has so far said nothing whatsoever about Delta, and neither has Sega, but we can be sure these companies are preparing a response. Could this provoke a sea-change in the legal status of emulation as a whole? One thing that Delta proves is that there is a simply enormous audience of people nostalgic for older games that they have no other way of playing, save for hunting down an old cartridge on eBay. Delta’s developers have created something that’s much better at playing older games than anything available through a game company, including Nintendo’s own Switch Online service. The experience is excellent. But how much longer will people get to enjoy it?

What to play

Endless Ocean Luminous.View image in fullscreen

I am a bit of a thalassaphobe – the ocean is vast and full of things that might kill me, including the water itself, and I want nothing to do with it, thank you. As well as making ferry crossings challenging, this fear has made it difficult for me to play through the underwater bits of games from Assassin’s Creed (sharks? Nope) to Horizon (robot pliosaur? Also nope).

Endless Ocean Luminous, a game about diving to the ocean floor and studying the creatures of the deep (including extinct ones), is very much not for me, but it’s so pretty and interesting that I’m going to recommend it anyway. The ocean changes with each dive, so sometimes you’re under the ice and sometimes in a coral reef or in the pitch-black deep (once again, not thanks). Plus, in a team of other online divers, at least you’re not alone down there.

Available on: Nintendo Switch
Estimated playtime: 10 hours+

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What to read

Sonic the Hedgehog.View image in fullscreen
  • In what will one day be used as a textbook example of the broken internet, some poor social media intern at Google Play (or possibly some nascent AI, I can’t decide) tried to post a lighthearted thread of Sonic the Hedgehog through the ages and got absolutely everything wrong.

  • If your interest in Fallout has been piqued by the TV series and you’d like to get started with one of the games, Ash Parrish at the Verge spent some time with all the modern Fallout games (including the much-maligned online one, Fallout 76, which is actually alright now) to see which is best for newcomers.

  • Why, Claire Jackson quite reasonably asks for Kotaku, are games obsessed with puzzles that make you slowly drag around big boxes?

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Question Block

Fallout 3, a game we were perhaps too harsh on.View image in fullscreen

This week’s question comes from reader Kenny:

“Are there any games you haven’t really enjoyed, but are still glad you played? I ask because I played most of the FromSoftware games before Elden Ring. I loved them all except Sekiro, which I found a bit of a chore, but I’m glad I know it well enough to recognise its DNA in Elden Ring.”

I had the same experience with Sekiro, Kenny. It’s a game I wish I liked a lot more than I actually did like it. I had to play that one for work, though, so here’s another timely example: Fallout 3. I played it for 40 hours in 2008, restarting it twice just in case, and I simply didn’t love it.

I was a huge fan of the original duo of Fallout games and I found the third instalment overly grey, awkward to play, and lacking bite in its storytelling. (I maintain that “Do you want to detonate the nuclear bomb in the middle of this town, or… not do that?” is one of the most patronising “moral choices” I’ve been presented with in a game.) I also thought it betrayed the spirit of Fallout 1 and 2, which were overtly anti-militarism, anti-capitalist and anti-nuclear, by doing things like including a cool weapon that fires miniature nukes. But I’m glad I played it, because the ways in which is disappointed me were at least quite interesting.

If you’ve got a question for Question Block – or anything else to say about the newsletter – hit reply or email us on [email protected].

Source: theguardian.com