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A video game console emulator is a type of emulator that allows a computing device[fn 1] to emulate a video game console's hardware and play its games on the emulating platform. More often than not, emulators carry additional features that surpass the limitations of the original hardware, such as broader controller compatibility,[fn 2] timescale control, greater performance, clearer quality, easier access to memory modifications (like GameShark), one-click cheat codes, and unlocking of gameplay features. Emulators are also a useful tool in the development process of homebrew demos and the creation of new games for older, discontinued, or more rare consoles.

The code and data of a game are typically supplied to the emulator by means of a ROM file (a copy of game cartridge data) or an ISO image (a copy of optical media), which are created by either specialized tools for game cartridges, or regular optical drives reading the data.[1] Most games retain their copyright despite the increasing time-span of the original system and products' discontinuation; this leaves regular consumers and emulation enthusiasts to resort to obtaining games freely across various internet sites rather than legitimately purchasing and ripping the contents (although for optical media, this is becoming popular for legitimate owners). As an alternative, specialized adapters such as the Retrode allow emulators to directly access the data on game cartridges without needing to copy it into a ROM image first.

United States

As computers and global computer networks continued to advance and emulator developers grew more skilled in their work, the length of time between the commercial release of a console and its successful emulation began to shrink. Fifth generation consoles such as Nintendo 64, PlayStation and sixth generation handhelds, such as the Game Boy Advance, saw significant progress toward emulation during their production. This led to an effort by console manufacturers to stop unofficial emulation, but consistent failures such as Sega v. Accolade 977 F.2d 1510 (9th Cir. 1992), Sony Computer Entertainment, Inc. v. Connectix Corporation 203 F.3d 596 (2000), and Sony Computer Entertainment America v. Bleem 214 F.3d 1022 (2000),[5] have had the opposite effect. According to all legal precedents, emulation is legal within the United States. However, unauthorized distribution of copyrighted code remains illegal, according to both country-specific The code and data of a game are typically supplied to the emulator by means of a ROM file (a copy of game cartridge data) or an ISO image (a copy of optical media), which are created by either specialized tools for game cartridges, or regular optical drives reading the data.[1] Most games retain their copyright despite the increasing time-span of the original system and products' discontinuation; this leaves regular consumers and emulation enthusiasts to resort to obtaining games freely across various internet sites rather than legitimately purchasing and ripping the contents (although for optical media, this is becoming popular for legitimate owners). As an alternative, specialized adapters such as the Retrode allow emulators to directly access the data on game cartridges without needing to copy it into a ROM image first.

By the mid-1990s, personal computers had progressed to the point where it was technically feasible to replicate the behavior of some of the earliest consoles entirely through software, and the first unauthorized, non-commercial console emulators began to appear. These early programs were often incomplete, only partially emulating a given system, resulting in defects. Few manufacturers published technical specifications for their hardware, which left programmers to deduce the exact workings of a console through reverse engineering. Nintendo's consoles tended to be the most commonly studied, for example the most advanced early emulators reproduced the workings of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Game Boy. Programs like Marat Fayzullin's iNES, VirtualGameBoy, Pasofami (NES), Super Pasofami (SNES), and VSMC (SNES) were the most popular console emulators of this era. A curiosity was also Yuji Naka's unreleased NES emulator for the Genesis, possibly marking the first instance of a software emulator running on a console.[2]

Legal attention was drawn to emulations with the release of UltraHLE, an emulator for the Nintendo 64 released in 1999 while the Nintendo 64 was still Nintendo's primary console - its next console, the GameCube, would not be released until 2001. UltraHLE was the first emulator to be released for a current console, and it was seen to have some affect on Nintendo 64 sales, though to what degree compared with diminishing sales on the aging consoles was not clear. Nintendo pursued legal action to stop the emulator project, and while the original authors ceased development, the project continued by others who had gotten the source code. Since then, Nintendo has generally taken the lead in actions against emulation projects or distributions of emulated games from their consoles compared to other console or arcade manufacturers.[3]

This rise in popularity opened the door to foreign video games, and exposed North American gamers to Nintendo's censorship policies. This rapid growth in the development of emulators in turn fed the growth of the ROM hacking and fan-translation. The release of projects such as RPGe's English language translation of Final Fantasy V drew even more users into the emulation scene.[4]

Legal issues