Nick Bowman points to the old-fashioned game consoles that litter his office.
“Every time I have a shitty day, I pull out the Nintendo,” he says, pointing. “It’s a license. I also have a Raspberry Pi which I have all my emulators on. [And] I have the original Pokemon Red on my smartphone.
Bowman, an associate professor of journalism and creative media industries at Texas Tech University, has an extensive collection of consoles and hundreds of cartridges and records.
Like me, he grew up in a time when video games were intimately tied to a physical device. We played on handhelds, while the games themselves were on cartridges – the kind you pull out and blow on the dust if it doesn’t work.
As children, we spent hours immersed in game worlds, but when our devices were lost, broken, or replaced, the game probably was too.
While music and literature have long been well preserved and constantly reissued, games were not like that. For years, our favorite games were inaccessible because they weren’t interoperable: cartridges didn’t work on other devices, and old computer games didn’t work on newer operating systems.
Playing them was only possible thanks to a handful of dedicated, often anonymous individuals who remade them or ported them to work on current systems.
“Think of all the cultural capital that was tied up in cartridges and electrical cables that our parents threw away,” says Bowman. “And then a few people found it and put it together.”
Reconnect with your past
Bowman’s research shows how powerful the nostalgia of playing old video games can be. For many people, games are intimately tied to social media. We played Mario tennis with our friends or racing games with our dads.
“We already know that games are a source of psychological well-being,” says Bowman. “…With nostalgia, you get a kind of extra connection because you connect with yourself. You are replaying a game of a positive childhood memory. These things can be particularly powerful for short-term stress release.
“It’s almost like a digital cigarette break. Come back to that past life, play it and reconnect with yourself, literally.
“In our research, we found that people who have memories of social nostalgia – memories of games with friends in the past – feel connected to themselves and their friends in the past, and they also feel connected in the present.”
These days, companies are preying on the nostalgic gaming market. Nintendo is slowly adding Nintendo 64 games, some of which I played as a kid, to its Switch console.
“I don’t think the industry was that interested in delivering nostalgic games until retrogrammers, modders, and emulators took care of it themselves,” Bowman says.
“I think coders, hackers, and modders saved classic gaming. They showed the industry that there is a market.
“I had the tools and the skills”
The Raspberry Pi Bowman has a basic computer loaded with emulators on its desk. Emulators are software that can behave like the hardware of a video game console, allowing you to simulate a console on your computer.
The coders and hackers who created the emulators are motivated by many factors. One of the most famous emulation projects is MAMEwhich was first published nearly twenty-five years ago and had hundreds of contributors.
“This one has probably one of the loftiest emulator purposes,” says Stuart Cairne, a Tasmanian software developer.
“It was trying to emulate the original hardware and preserve it so that we don’t lose that part of our history. Some of the games it emulates date back to the mid to late 70s or even earlier – material that was only available at universities.
But other emulators are created simply for the fun of playing them, or because of the technical challenge of making them work. Many developers still have access to old devices and even go so far as to open and inspect chips so they can reproduce bugs and make accurate digital recreations.
Carnie, whose day job is at a data company, has often found herself contributing to these projects, so favorite games like monkey island would work on whatever operating system he was using.
“I wanted to play the games, and as a developer I had the tools and the skills…I often brought them to the platform I was on, which was a Mac for 20 years.
“It’s fun to see those things come back. It’s all that nostalgia too – there’s this game I used to play when I was 10 or 13, and now it’s running on my PC.
After the iOS App Store launched in the late 2000s, Carnie began working on a Commodore 64 Emulator for iPhone and iPad. He and his partner in the project teamed up with a major Danish game developer with industry connections so they could license everything.
“We had licensed the brand, so we were able to sell it as Commodore64,” says Carnie. The emulator sold on the App Store for US$4.99 and included five games: Dragons Den, Le Mans, Jupiter Lander, Arctic Shipwreck, and Jack Attack.
Sometimes it was impossible to find out who owned the rights to the games – over the decades many companies went bankrupt or their catalogs were sold.
“We had a few big names on the emulator that we had fully licensed from people who still kept their IP addresses…but we also found that some of the developers we could communicate with no longer had the rights or didn’t know where. [the rights] was gone.”
“We had one [game] we had posted it on the Commodore 64 for free because we couldn’t regain the rights to it, then the Bruce Lee foundation messaged us to say it had to be taken down because the Bruce Lee name can’t be used says Carnie.
“I remember this joy”
For many years, emulators have been the link with our childhoods. They existed, as Bowman and Carnie note, in a sort of legal gray area. Some of the most popular – such as Visual Boy Advancea classic Gameboy game – were created by anonymous people, who have sometimes been the subject of legal proceedings against them.
Most emulators were technically difficult to use. Hobbyist-created software might be hard to find and install, and buggy. The gaming gray market was full of shady websites.
“It was tough,” Bowman says. “[Just to play them] you had to learn a lot of coding on the fly. I remember downloading these files and you had to trust the link, unzip it and load it into this file not this file. And it was always kind of a wink culture.
“I remember that joy, I think it was [the game Contra], [of] hear the sound. You go into the emulator and you have to do all the settings and I finally got to play and all of a sudden… I remember getting tingles that I was about to play a game, on my work computer, which I didn’t have. I haven’t seen it since I was in my pajamas.
Even if you still physically own an old game disc, it can be a nightmare to play.
My friend Praveen has a disc of an old Star Wars shooter originally created for MS Dos. In fact, the game started by trying to find a copy of Microsoft Windows 95.
“After that, it’s pretty simple,” he said. But as he continues, it really doesn’t look like that.
“You have to use the command line to install it,” he says. “The other cool thing about this game is that it’s one of the first games with sound. But if you want to hear sound, you have to manually configure your sound card.
“Hardware comparability is a huge issue with these older games,” says Praveen. “They can’t ‘understand’ things like 1GB of RAM when they were designed to run on 16MB.
“There is a certain level of skill and pride that comes with grabbing a controller. Turn on a 30-year-old game and enter the same code you had when you were 11, and it works,” Bowman says.
“For a lot of older players, we take pride in not going to see the guide but remembering it when we were kids.”
Retro gaming is now more democratized than ever. Emulators have gotten much easier over the years – even available on smartphones. I have met many people who immersed themselves in their childhood games to overcome Covid lockdowns and other stressors.
A recent YouTube video by someone who remade Simpsons Hit & Run has had over five million views. It’s a game I also played for countless hours as a kid. Except I didn’t really own it, so all those hours were actually at my cousin’s house. He remembers it too.
“I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that these rom enthusiasts, emulators and makers may have saved the game in two ways: by providing people with access to content that had become completely inaccessible, and by reminding us of the properties that we had actually forgotten,” Bowman says.