I recently tried out Nintendo 64 emulation again. Back when I had a PIII 500 and a Voodoo3, I fiddled with UltraHLE, which was of course the first N64 emulator. Since it was Glide-only, it ran pretty much perfectly on my Voodoo3, but it only ran like 12 games and most of those I either owned or wouldn’t play exclusively on my PC. Other emulators, like Nemu64, 1964 or Project64, ran more games but were slow on my system. When I upgraded my video card I tried some of them again but while their performance had improved, they still were unplayable.

Then the other day I realized that I should probably tinker with it again seeing as how my CPU is so much better now. I was pleased to discover that not only do most games now play at full speed, but that most games play perfectly in one or more emulators. I’m now on a mission/quest to get all the Nintendo 64 ROMS, or at least “good” copies of all the US and Japanese ones.

By that logic it’s weird to download and play games for a system not gone for very long. We’ve only ended the first year of the official death of the Nintendo 64, which I count as the day the GameCube dropped (since there were a few games released in the last months of the N64). Many of the games are fairly recent, which is interesting. I’m used to old systems and old games but some of these games date back to only 2001.

Several other things I find interesting. For example, Daikatana on the PC consists of a 550MB+ installation, but the N64 version fit in 16MB. Compression, shorter levels and different developer aside, that’s still impressive. Several games used sprites to keep the polygon count and draw in distance low but it’s not really all that noticable until the resolution gets bumped up as a result of the emulator and the sprites stay the same. Interesting that at the same time that Electronic Arts was doing their best to kill off the Sega Dreamcast, they continued to come out with sports titles on the N64 – even Madden 2002 came out on the N64 (though Madden 2003 even came out on the PSX).

The bit with the rental-only titles is odd to me. I can’t help but wonder how Blues Brothers 2000 ever even made it to a rental cart. I also wonder what was up with certian ports – like DOOM 64 and Mega Man 64, which was only a port of the PSX title Mega Man Legends, which wasn’t too good to begin with. Another odd thing that tended to happen with N64 titles – lots of hype led up to little fanfare. Jet Force Gemini was hyped up alongside Donkey Kong 64 and Perfect Dark, but JFG sucked, DK64 was merely passable, and Perfect Dark got delayed past its relevancy. This was probably the reason Nintendo dropped Rare.

Then there was the oddball PC ports. Command & Conquer was ported, and was even “in 3-D”, something the original franchise hasn’t even done. I guess it wasn’t too successful a marriage, since I never hear people speak of it. Same thing goes for the N64 port of Starcraft, though that may have more to do with the uneasy marriage between consoles and RTS games. Then there were the seemingly quite good games like Glover, Izzy’s Reckin Balls and Penny Racers that got completely ignored. Contrast those with the one-off games that didn’t seem at home anywhere, like Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero, which was to be the first in a series of Mortal Kombat side-scrollers. Baffling.

In the category of “quick and forgettable” ports there’s Virtual Pool 3D and Virtual Chess. Not sure why these got made. Then there are the games that decided two tries were neccessary – Castlevania 64 got re-released as the marginally better Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness, angering those expecting a sequel, and ClayFighter 63 1/3 was re-released as Clay Fighter: The Director’s Cut. Madness. Not to mention the three indistinguishable RUSH games.

Apparently the reign of the N64 came none too soon for the game publishers – while the trickle of N64 title died off a few months before the GameCube shipped, there are still PSX titles shipping to this day, like the aforementioned Madden 2003 and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – in theory if even a small number of the PSX owners buy it, you’ll still sell better than a decently popular XBox or GameCube game. Sure, part of it is that people didn’t neccessarily get rid of their PSX abilities with the PS2, but why would you come out with two versions of a game for one console, one of which is graphically poor? Lowest common denominator only goes so far. Interestingly the Harry Potter 2 game is one of the very few Game Boy Color games released since the Game Boy Advance game out, which hurts the “lowest common denominator” idea that fuels the idea as to why the PSX still has so many games made.

A short while back I lamented the lull emulation seems to be in, but now it seems to be even worse. Emulation of consoles wasn’t viable until 1997 or so when NESticle, the first viable NES emulator, was released. Suddenly the rush was on to emulate every old console ever. At the same time there were a few wackos trying to emulate “current” consoles, like the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. Emulation was always in a gray area, and for as long as the only emulators around were slow unviable ones using ancient disk images from companies long since dead. Despite still being illegal, no one complained or cared.

Once NESticle came around things changed a little – suddenly a lot of people became interested in emulation (like me), and ROM images were less for studying processor architectures and more for actually playing games. More attention came to emulation, which was seen as a bad thing, since some of the attention came from the copyright holders themselves. Few if any companies complained, but Nintendo was one of them and they shut down many websites posting ROM images. Still, no one died and no one denied the fact that, at the most, some very old games not for sale anymore were being traded online.

Then in 1999 two things happened – UltraHLE, the first viable Nintendo 64 emulator, was released, and Bleem!, the first viable PSX emulator, was released – commercially no less. Sony promptly sued Bleem, LLC, and though they never won a court battle against them they did eventually run them out of business through legal fees. Nintendo would have sued the authors of UltraHLE if they could have found them, but the Internet afforded them sufficient anonymity, not that it would have mattered – the program wasn’t written for profit and didn’t use or do anything illegal.

Nintendo even went so far at one point as to declare any and all emulation illegal, likening emulator authors to theives. They eventually retracted this position, but their disdain is understandable. They lost no money on NES games being free all of a sudden, but a company has to defend their copyrights or they will lose them. What if they had decided the NES was sufficiently old (in 1997-8) to not worry with (Nintendo cut off NES support in 1994)? Fine, what about the SNES? In 1998 Nintendo had even re-issued the SNES in a new sleeker case, so they probably didn’t want people to emulate the SNES or games. Fine, give it some time. So say you’re writing a Nintendo 64 game in 1998 – how would you like to know that the company you were publishing for wasn’t going to fight for the copyright you were depending on? Remember that console developers have to pay the console makers royalties – for this they expect the console maker to defend certian things.

But now it’s 2002. The NES has been emulated, more or less perfectly. Same as the SNES. Same as the Atari 2600. In fact, most consoles prior to 1994 have been emulated, so that left the consoles from the N64/PSX/Saturn generation. The N64 and PSX have been emulated, but the Saturn has still proven elusive, though at least one emulator is showing promise. There are a handful of consoles left to be properly emulated, but as a general rule, most of the popular consoles have been.

Which leaves the current crop of consoles. The Sega Dreamcast is going to be tricky, namely since it uses a proprietary disc format, the GD-ROM, so the only playable games would be pirated ones which kills the one advantage PSX games had – that in theory you still had to have the original CD. I suppose if the format of the mini-DVD’s the GameCube uses is readable by DVD drives then GameCube emulation is possible at some point, but both DC and GC emulation, as well as PS2 emulation, will all suffer from the same problem as early (~1997) emulators for the PSX did – getting enough processing power. Which is why I find the lack of XBox emulation intriguing – it is PC architecture, unified memory or not. What I’ve heard is that the DVD’s the Xbox use have their data on backwards, so they’re more difficult to read somehow. Perhaps its really that Microsoft kills off efforts too quickly.

One of the things that made emulation interesting for me again, for a time anyway, was the movement to the Sega Dreamcast. As soon as hackers reverse engineered the MIL-CD format and were able to get code to boot on Dreamcasts using CD-R sessions, it opened the door for amateur development. Of course, the first thing to be ported were any open source emulators. NesterDC 7.1 is nearly flawless NES emulation, a port of Stella brings the Atari 2600 to the DC, and even Bleem was able to bring some PSX games to the little white console. Of course, Bleem’s promise of 100 PSX games proved impossible, and they went out of business after three single game releases. SNES emulation has proved elusive, with the one serious effort – DreamSNES – apparently reaching a stall in its efforts to achieve 100% speed. So now Dreamcast emulation is at a lull – most goals are either too elusive or have already been attained.

And then there’s the beast that is Game Boy Advance emulation. Emulator authors had working GBA emus before the system even shipped to stores, and since that system isn’t very technically advanced then pretty much everyone can run the emulators – and therefore the newest GBA games. This brings emulation back into the piracy arena. The only thing that hurts this argument is the apparent redundancy of playing a GBA game on a PC.

So we have a basically stale emulation scene, whose goals are either attained, impossible (at the moment), or obscure. Perhaps this is what it needs to be – the retro thing was cool for a while and it still has its charm and its place, but now we can move on and actually enjoy new consoles and content. Or perhaps the next big emulation thing is right around the corner, and I’m just impatient.