Is Video Game Emulation Legal?

Updated on July 29, 2020
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Eric loves to write about video game-related topics. He has years of experience playing games and wants to share his thoughts.

Learn About the Legality of Video Game Emulation

Emulators are a way to play older Nintendo games like Game Boy games. Many people play Emulators on their PC and download ROMs. 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. In this article, I am going to focus primarily on video game consoles.

Emulator Examples

  • Calculators
  • Older computer systems
  • Video game consoles

The VisualBoyAdvance-M Emulator.
The VisualBoyAdvance-M Emulator. | 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.

Court Case Examples

How Is Emulation Legal?

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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Emulation Is Only Legal If You Do It Right

Emulation is legal as long you dump your own ROMs. If you download ROMs you did not dump yourself, you are breaking the law. 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.

Dumping ROMs Is Hard

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

Why Are People Conflicted on Emulation?

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.

Keeping Old Video Games Alive

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

Some Video Games No Longer Exist

Sometimes because of legal reasons or company issues, some video games are no longer sold anywhere. It would be almost impossible to play these games without emulation.

Video Game Nostalgia

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

The Benefits of Using an Emulator

  • Emulators Can Run Better Than the Original Hardware: 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 Have More Controller Options: Emulators also allow you to use many different input options. If you use a computer, you can use whatever inputs it accepts.
  • Emulators Run on Many Devices: People may also enjoy playing ROMs on their computer or phone or other devices like a Raspberry Pi.
  • Save Games in Better Ways: 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!
  • Play Rom Hacks: 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.
  • Easier to Manage Video Game Collection: Another thing to keep in mind is that you can download and store every single game on one hard drive. This is much more manageable, in my opinion than having a huge physical collection.

Why Do People Pirate Video Games?

Pirating video games is illegal, but many people still do it anyway. Why would people do this?

Many Games 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.

Some Companies Still Sell Old Games

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

Nintendo has also somewhat recently released the NES Classic and the SNES Classic.

Other Examples of Companies Selling Old Games

  • Atari Flashback
  • SEGA Mega Drive and Genesis Classics on Steam
  • Sonic the Hedgehog on Google Play

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

The Cons of Modern Retro Games

  • Retro Games Cost Too Much Money: Some people feel that Nintendo is charging too much money for their older video games.
  • Need Specific Video Game Consoles: To play Virtual Console games, you will need a Wii, Wii U, or 3DS. Not all games are available on all platforms.
  • Availability: Both the NES Classic and the SNES Classic sold out and were hard to purchase. Ironically despite being a release of older video games both systems went out of stock. People who use ROMs would not have this issue.

What I Personally Think About Emulators

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

Emulators Are Just Better Options

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.

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

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Eric Farmer


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