Emulation: The Benefits

By Dave E

Originally published in EUG #63

The time was when computer buyers chose from a whole host of hardware and would spend countless hours arguing the toss over which machine was best. "The Vic 20 is much easier to use than a Spectrum 16k!", "The Elk has as much memory as a Commodore 64!", "Very nice that Amiga 500. I'm waiting for the Sam Coupe to come out though - it'll be much better!" These sort of comparisons were very common, fuelled generally by the frustration their makers felt by the complete lack of compatibility between home computer systems. With some pangs you'll remember that if the great game your friend had for his MSX wasn't available for your Amstrad then it was just hard cheese for you and, to him, another reason why his computer was better than yours.

In retrospect, it probably seemed that as night followed day, arguing in this manner followed buying any new computer. (Hands up all of you who have tried putting an Amiga disk into a BBC drive in the hope that "it just might work"! It didn't, did it?) But even if those unlucky enough to buy one of the lemon machines of the Eighties did upgrade, it meant changing everything (apart from the printer). So it would be at least a while before the collection was packed into a cardboard box and sold via the local paper. In its place would come the latest Atari variant and it would be apt at this point to promulgate the circularity of this era by ringing up all acquaintances and boasting about it down the telephone.

Of course this still goes on to a greater or a lesser extent with modern PCs. However, although they have their powerful and not-so-powerful variants, the degree of standardisation in the PC world is far superior. You will not have to change your whole computer, use wholly different operating system commands, learn a new programming language and sell off all your existing gear to play the latest game. At the most you'll need a more powerful CD-ROM drive, processor or higher capacity hard disk drive.

While some do still champion machines that rival the PC - new Amigas, Acorns and Macs, for example - few will be unaware that these are now supplied with utilities designed to allow PC software to function on them. This really speaks volumes, doesn't it? Imagine how much easier the Eighties would've been if your Elk could play Spectrum software. So standardisation has firstly rid the consumer of his diet of hard cheese. Compatibility problems between computers are less profound.

A further benefit, which is probably already known to you as an 8-bit fan, is that rival computers not only emulate the PC but the PC emulates other computers. Indeed, since internet fever took hold of the world several years ago, the standardisation we've seen in "computer land" has been phenomeonal enough to worry the manufacturers of dedicated games' machines! Go to any web search engine and search on the top Nintendo or Playstation title and you'll get hits where you can download it to your PC and play it with the help of an emulator, this being a utility that transforms your PC into a Nintendo or Playstation! Worrying indeed for the manufacturers of the games' machine hardware should people choose to download to their PC instead of spending their £350 on the real thing.

Firmly established too in cyberspace are emulators for the machines of yesteryear, not to mention the newsgroups where those who still want to argue about whose machine really was best can ramble to their hearts' content. Ex-8-bitters inevitably have stumbled across both of these in a few idle moments and the benefit this has had in reawakening interest in the machines they long since gave away is immeasureable. PC hardware is now probably the primary gaming medium used to play all vintage software. It's so easy! Emulators for everything from a 1K Acorn Atom to a 15 Meg Amiga are mouse clicks away. You can play Target Renegade on an emulated Spectrum 128k followed by Milk Race on an emulated MSX with a few keypresses inbetween and, because it's all stored on the hard drive, no disk- or cassette-swapping. Or buy a DVD-ROM Emulation Disc containing practically every game and every emulator for every retro computer, all sorted into appropriate directories, for a few quid!

As if this wasn't enough for retro fanatics to get their teeth into, a new cult of conversion is developing between the formats. Utilities have been written which effortlessly convert PC images, perhaps taken with a digital camera to say Spectrum or Acorn screens. The limitations of the art packages available for the BBC, therefore, become a thing of the past - you can design your screen on an Amiga, enter a few commands, save it to a bona fide BBC disc and load it into your BBC in exactly the same way as a loading screen.

Emulation has also breathed new life into the retro community as a whole - all machines have their cyberspace presence and the sites offer inducements to budding games' authors in much the same way as the old glossy mags did. As if to drive home the prevalance of converting between formats too, a competition to design a Spectrum screen on the World of Spectrum web site recently read, "All screens must be designed using a Spectrum program or art package. Screens must not be converted from any other format."

There are many new challenges therefore that emulation is throwing up. One obvious one is the proliferation of emulators written by different authors. Specifically, the BBC has at least a dozen emulators for users to choose from. Another is the user-friendliness of each. Remember that there is little money to be made from emulation hence the authors are hobbyists; their utility may not be completely bug free. Finally there are the differing Disk Image Formats which can befuddle a newcomer if not correctly explained.

Rather than killing off use of vintage machines however though, you'll appreciate from the above that much is to be said of emulation. In the following few issues of EUG will be published a series of articles pointing to some of the most well known and used programs on the PC, hopefully prompting many of you to have a go with them to see what great things can be achieved...