How the Game Boy found new life through emulation


When Nintendo’s Game Boy hit the world in the late 1980s, two things happened. The first was that the handheld became a instant international sensation – Nintendo sold its entire first launch in Japan in two weeks, and it sold 40,000 units on the day it arrived in America – and the second was that it changed the way games could be played. He brought games outside.

I never had a Game Boy. It wasn’t until after the Game Boy Advance came out that I got a Game Boy Color because my parents were somewhat biased against the latest material. In my memory, this happened shortly after kids my age switched to 3D consoles, like Sony’s Playstation 2, Microsoft’s Xbox, and Nintendo’s GameCube. The moment, at least for me, had passed. We have found Halo, and we could drive ourselves to the LAN cafe. But I never felt like I missed part of that time because, in previous years, I had discovered emulation. That was how you could play Game Boy without having a Game Boy.

“Emulation” is a dirty word in the game development industry because it is adjacent to piracy. Emulators mimic proprietary hardware, which means that if you have the code for a game, you can play the games on just about any computer without making any hardware changes. This is also only partially against the law. Legal precedent says that emulators are not in themselves illegal, but downloading game files is because these materials are copyrighted. It’s similar to the fact that it’s not illegal to own a bong – you can use them to smoke anything, after all – but to have weed, in most parts of the United States, may be enough to put you in jail. The sites where you could download ROMs looked pretty dodgy in the same way. They were filled with advertisements and had a certain Geocities brutalism. You can buy a bong at gas stations across America, but depending on where you live, buying pot is a more sordid experience, involving A Guy.

(There is a long-standing rumor online that if you deleted the ROMs you copied after 24 hours, you would be safe from legal action. But there is absolutely no truth to that. US copyright law protects original works for 75 years, and games have only been popular for a few decades. Probably legal to rip games to ROMs, as long as you own the game in question and don’t share the file.)

Emulators also allow you to do things you could never do on the original material, like fast-forwarding in cutscenes, recording anywhere, slowing down game time to perform maneuvers you might not be able to. not to do otherwise, to use tricks more easily and to optimize the passages to speed assisted by tool (TAS). You can also play new games designed for the old hardware; thanks to the software, you can even resuscitate old computers that no longer exist physically, like Jupiter Ace or Nascom 1.

The history of Game Boy emulators is a bit cloudy, but the first one started appearing around 1996, seven years after the console’s release. According to the probably reliable Emulation Wiki, Virtual Game Boy – written by Marat Fayzullin – was the first emulator capable of playing commercial games, which was a revelation. No $ GMB (pronounced “no cash GMB”) arrived in 1997 for DOS. This is important because Game Boy emulators were among the first console emulators to exist. They were preceded by some NES emulators (notably iNES, also from Fayzullin, and Pasofami by Nobuaki Andou, both of which cost money), but it wasn’t until the late ’90s that computers got fast enough to mimic consoles.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

“Well, I also grew up on emulators,” said Vicki Pfau, the developer behind mGBA, which is widely regarded as the best Game Boy emulator on the internet. “I didn’t have a Game Boy before the Game Boy Color came out. I guess it was around 1998. Pfau’s parents offered to buy her a Game Boy when she was very young, but she refused. “I ended up saying: ‘No, I rather want the Sega Nomad because it is in color and I can play Sonic on it, ”she said. “I still have this Nomad. It still works. ”Pfau is 29, around my age, 27, and like me, she fell into emulation at this critical time when she was young enough to want to play games she couldn’t. to do otherwise but old enough to know how to understand herself.

“I remember playing Pokémon Red in No $ GMB [now No$GBA], which was sort of a fullscreen DOS thing. It really wasn’t planned for 1998, ”she said, which I interpreted to mean that he was technically more advanced for the time than he perhaps needed. That and NESticle – an ambitious NES emulator released in 1997 that redefined the way audiences played retro games and was too named after a specific body part – were Pfau’s introductions to emulation. She only had three games for the system, and to her that meant emulation had introduced her to classics like Super Mario Bros 3, which she did not have.

“I remember the sites that said you had to remove them within 24 hours,” she says. “But you know, as far as I know, no kid has ever done that.” Later, Pfau used vSNES, a popular Super Nintendo emulator, to play Final Fantasy VI and Super Metroid. Then when the Game Boy Advance came out, it immediately got one. Around the same time, Pfau also downloaded Visual Boy Advance from “[give] some games a spin ”, .ike Breath of Fire II, a port of an “infamous and poorly translated Super Nintendo RPG” that ended up on the Game Boy Advance. Pfau liked it so much that she finally bought a copy. “It was my introduction to the RPG genre, a genre that I really liked. But, you know, if it weren’t for the game in an emulator, I never would have known.

Pfau wrote his first Game Boy emulator in 2012. “I decided, jokingly, to see if I could write a Game Boy Advance emulator in JavaScript” – GBA.JS – “and it worked pretty well,” says- she. “It was slow and a complete disaster in terms of implementation. But I worked on it for about a year and a half before I said, ‘It’s not worth my time at all.’ Although the project was not a success, it was not a failure either. Pfau decided to write an emulator in C and see if they could make it fast enough to run on a first generation Raspberry Pi. “And in late 2013, early 2014, I really dug into it, tried to make it as fast and accurate as possible, and it finally emerged as an mGBA in late 2014.”

This first version did not make much noise. He played the games pretty well, but it was, in Pfau’s words, “one hell of a buggy.” Eventually, mGBA gained notoriety because it was simply more accurate than any other option on the market. To replay TAS from emulators on real hardware, you need very precise software. mGBA has gotten faster and more accurate than VBA, which was enough for people to notice.

When I was growing up I felt the same as Pfau. I had never really played a Pokemon game before finding a ROM of Pokemon Sapphire and Visual Boy Advance. I remember loving the way he played and feeling like I came across something that I hadn’t, until then, known I missed. There were other games that I liked too, like Advanced wars and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. This was before real life started to intrude and before I had to think about anything other than my homework. I felt like I was entering a hidden world. Eventually I deleted the ROMs, the computer I was dead on and moved on. At that point, I had a few next-gen consoles, and playing online with my friends was more exciting than revisiting games that got older by the second.


Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Pfau sees herself as a conservative, although her stance on piracy is more nuanced. She won’t write or port emulators for current gen consoles, but she does feel better about hacking hard-to-find or unprinted games because, she says, if you buy a copy from eBay, the only person who benefits financially is the person you are buying from. “I don’t really like hacking [because] I know how much of an impact this can have on people, ”says Pfau. “I’m not going to dent Nintendo’s Virtual Console sales. I just don’t want to do this. You can do it legally. And I don’t want to bump into Nintendo that way, either.”

Game emulation is a form of preservation. Copies of out-of-print games, for one reason or another, are circulating on ROM sites. You can find things online that you can’t buy anywhere else. If you think art and culture are worth protecting for future generations, then preserving the games is extremely important. The problem with digital preservation is looming: Companies don’t always save original source code or assets in games, and, more broadly, there is the issue of formats. (What happens to games, for example, that only lived on floppy disks?) There are organizations like The History of Video Game Foundation, led by archivist Frank Cifaldi, who have been trying to catalog and save as much as possible from the early days of the game. Cifaldi gave a conference at the Game Developers Conference 2016 on emulation, arguing that emulation was the best way to republish old games to avoid the fate of early movies. “More than half of the films made before 1950 are faded away,” he said.

The other day I downloaded mGBA. When I searched for ROMs online, I felt the landscape had changed. None of the websites were familiar; the sites were smoother and seemed less obnoxious. I downloaded a few games, started the program and everything was fine. The old magic was there – sort of. But I buy my own games and consoles now, and emulation isn’t what it used to be for me. I don’t need it as I felt then. But that’s because it shaped me.

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