Are Video Game Emulators Legal?

Updated on December 26, 2018
EricFarmer8x profile image

Eric has played many video games over the years. He loves to write about his favorite video games so others can learn about them.

Nintendo Is Going After the ROMs

Emulators are a way to play older Nintendo games like GameBoy games. Many people play Emulators on their PC and download ROMs. If emulation is legal why is it such a heated topic?

This article will explain why some people consider emulation to be a legal gray issue.

What Is an Emulator?

An emulator is a piece of software or hardware that runs software on another system like it would have originally run. There are many examples of emulators.

  • Calculators
  • Older computer systems
  • Video game consoles

In this article, I am going to focus primarily on video game consoles.

A Game Boy Advance emulator running on a Chromebook.
A Game Boy Advance emulator running on a Chromebook. | Source

Emulation Is Legal

Multiple court cases have proven that at least in the United States just possessing or using an emulator is legal. I have linked to official legal documents for the curious.

To sum up the legal battles of emulation in a few sentences. Emulation is legal as long the ROMs are dumped from the original hardware and the ROMs and dumped by the user. Making backups of your own games and system is legal.

Have You Used a Video Emulator Before?

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But Wait! There Is More to The Story

Like I just mentioned, emulation is legal as long you dump your own ROMs. But what does this mean?

This means you take the original cartridge or CD in the case of newer games and download the game files into a digital format.

Let's be real, most people have no idea how to do this, nor are capable of doing this. You need specialized hardware and software to do this, and your ordinary GameBoy is not going to dump ROMs for you.

If you download ROMs you did not dump yourself, you are breaking the law.

But if emulation is legal and downloading ROMs is not, then why are people still arguing about this?

People have multiple reasons for defending emulation and downloading ROMs.

Preservation

Some older video games are very hard to find these days, so some people argue that dumping and archiving ROMs is necessary to preserve them.

In quite a few cases, the original development and publishing companies no longer exist, and only legal holding groups have the rights to the games and the intellectual properties (IP).

Nostalgia

Many people played Nintendo games growing up as a kid. I fondly remember having a GameBoy when I was younger. These people may download ROMs if they still like there favorite older games and have a strong desire to play them again.

Emulators Provide Many Options

Some emulators can run the video game software in better resolution than originally provided. For example, Dolphin, the very popular Gamecube emulator can do this.

Emulators also allow you to use many different input options. If you use a computer, you can use whatever inputs it accepts.

People may also enjoy playing ROMs on their computer or phone or other devices like a Raspberry Pi.

Every decent emulator lets you manage multiple save files, and any good one will let you take a save state of your exact position in the game. Some emulators can even let you rewind the game!

For popular games, people have made their own modified versions of the game. These are called ROM hacks. ROM hacks let you play an old game like it is new again.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you can download and store every single game on a one hard drive. This is much more manageable, in my opinion, than having a huge physical collection.

Pirates Ahoy!

Of course, some people just want everything for free. Downloading ROMs and emulating them gives you a huge library of games to download without spending a single cent, other than the hardware and input options you choose.

However, to do this, you must pirate games. This is illegal.

Main Arguments Against Emulation

Companies like Nintendo frequently sell their classic games for modern video game systems. The Virtual Console for the Nintendo 3DS and the WiiU are examples of this.

Nintendo has also somewhat recently released the NES Classic and the SNES Classic. Both of these modern releases of the consoles have collections of popular games for people to play.

So, shouldn't you still be buying the games if the company is still selling them? That is what Nintendo would want of course.

There are other examples of older games being sold in modern formats as well.

  • Atari Flashback

  • SEGA Mega Drive and Genesis Classics on Steam

  • Sonic the Hedgehog on Google Play

Companies argue that because of people illegally downloading ROMs, they are losing money. This is why they've created these systems.

This is the NES Classic. It is was so popular it initially sold out.
This is the NES Classic. It is was so popular it initially sold out. | Source

But This Doesn't Please Everybody

Some people feel that Nintendo is charging too much money for their older video games.

To play Virtual Console games, you will need a Wii, Wii U, or 3DS. Not all games are available on all platforms.

People who are against buying games this way may see the cost of paying for these systems as too much money.

Still, both the NES Classic and the SNES Classic sold out and were hard to purchase.

What I Personally Think About Emulators

I feel that companies like Nintendo charge too much money for older video game systems and hardware.

Whether they like it or not, developers have made great emulators that in some cases work better than officially licensed emulators.

I would love to pay money for an official ROM pack and then run it on my desktop computer or phone or wherever I want with an emulator.

The hilarious thing is with some older games on Steam you are buying an emulator with a ROM file included. I could easily buy the game and then extract the ROM and run it however I want just fine.

Official emulators are now only catching up to the options unofficial emulators have had for years.

Maybe I am selfish for wanting to play older Nintendo games without buying a Nintendo system, but this is how I feel.

Nothing Really Changes

People who download ROMs will continue to do so, and Nintendo will continue to close down ROM websites.

The thing is anybody with enough know-how will download the ROMs they want anyway. There is always the option of using Peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing to find ROMs, too.

The issue of emulators is not going away anytime soon.

© 2018 Eric Farmer

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