Phil Spencer Calls for Industry-Wide Support of Emulation

by in Technology | Nov, 20th 2021

When it comes to retro titles there’s not a lot of ways for players to relive their precious memories from their youth if they don’t have the means to do so. Some people may have sold off some of their games from previous generations in an effort to afford a new console or purchase a whole other product. While not every player is willing to keep their previous consoles, the ones who do are the people who are able to play games from previous generations. The retro world works like the stock market, with the price of games slowly rising the more people buy the game, to the point of a copy of Mario Party 5 for the GameCube going for a price of $100. There’s one other way to play the games that people enjoy, without having to purchase games for more than they were originally worth. Emulation.

The topic of emulation, however, is a tricky one, being that the idea behind it is that it’s used by retro pirates to play older games without having to pay for them. However, emulation is being used all the time in modern gaming to help preserve titles. However, it’s not to the extent that people think.

During the days of the Wii and the Wii U, Nintendo’s Virtual Console library was filled to the brim with the ability to play games from previous consoles, however, these games weren’t running natively, they were being emulated. The game boy advance, Nintendo DS, even the Wii titles, were being run via an emulated version of the console on the Wii U. Games that were extremely hard to find like Metroid Zero Mission, or Metroid Fusion, which normally go for anywhere from $90 to $120, were being sold for $10 on the Wii U eShop. Players were able to purchase these games legally, without having to spend an arm and a leg to play them. The Xbox One emulated the Xbox 360, and thus, the original Xbox, as they were being emulated on the 360 for backward compatibility. The PlayStation 4 emulated PS2 games when they were begin ran through the backward compatibility features in the PlayStation store. All of these old titles were being emulated for all to play, and they were being done legally. While this is the case, a lot of companies like Nintendo have been looking down on emulation despite running their N64 games via emulation on Switch.

Xbox Head Phil Spencer Calls for Emulation to be an Industry Wide Practice

Someone who understands the benefits of Emulation is Phil Spencer, the current head of Xbox. He recently spoke to someone at Axios to talk about preserving old titles, “I think we can learn from the history of how we got here through the creative, I love it in music. I love it in movies and TV, and there are positive reasons for gaming to want to follow.”

Being that the backward compatibility library of older titles on the Xbox Series X and Xbox One, Phil Spencer is advocating for this use in other companies as well, seeing that some of the cherished games of the past are still unable to be played unless players either dig up their old console or pay for a used one. “Hey, anybody should be able to buy any game, or own any game and continue to play,’ that seems like a great North Star for us as an industry.”

How Emulation Is Being Handled Right Now

It may not be the only way that companies can help bring their older titles to new generations, but it’s also the easiest. The fact of the matter is that this would be the easiest way for players to be able to experience older titles on newer platforms. Nintendo did this so well with the Virtual Console, allowing players to be able to purchase some of their favorite games to then be replayed on their new systems. These titles were sold at a decent price, and players were able to play them without much issue, the only problem is that now this isn’t the case. Nintendo has changed their business model to the one being used in the Nintendo Switch Online program, giving players access to a Netflix-styled library of titles from previous consoles, but still missing a lot of the titles that were on the Virtual Console. Worse than that there’s been an issue with their new Nintendo 64 emulator, which was tested originally with Super Mario 3D All Stars, which brought three of the best Mario games to the Switch. The game emulated both Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, however, the Wii variant of the emulator was running semi-natively on the console, allowing players to play the game without much issue.

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Emulators let fans play old games, like Nintendo’s Mario, on their PC

However, when Nintendo moved to the Nintendo 64 Online program, they ran into some issues for the game that ruined the experience for many, the emulator for the Nintendo 64 wasn’t able to use the Memory Pak on the controller, nor was it able to save anything on the game, forcing players to use save states to save for themselves. The only problem is that if they were to save with any graphical glitches in the game, they would persist for the rest of the emulation. On top of this, there’s a sizable amount of lag on the emulator, something that players weren’t able to fix, being that the games are effectively being streamed to the console. Playing multiplayer titles online like Mario Kart 64 would also give players many headaches while playing as one bad internet connection would ruin the whole experience for everyone.

However, there’s a solution to this, but it would require that the Virtual Console steps out of Nintendo’s console itself. This is also the best option for all companies.

How Emulation Could Benefit the Industry

Hypothetically, what would happen if all the major companies started working on emulation for other devices? And released official emulators on other devices, selling the files for the games the same way that the Virtual Console does?

This would be the perfect way for companies to be able to preserve titles. Consider the possibility of Nintendo making a “Phone-Boy” application for iPhone and Android, allowing players to purchase Gameboy titles from their library like the Virtual Console, and then run them on their phone, even connecting their phones to other players and simulating a virtual Link Cable?

Creating a Virtual Console application for both PC, Nintendo Switch, and phones would work to be similar to Xbox Game Pass, and would help players play older titles while preserving them, as well as allowing players to experience more titles that would be expensive if they were to be purchased Physically, which is the only way to acquire games legally.

PlayStation could also benefit from this as well, as they’re currently using their PS Now service to allow players to play some of their best titles on PC by streaming games from their servers to computers with a good internet connection. Putting some of their PS2 titles onto the PC or powerful enough phones to run them would allow players to be able to play their games anywhere they want as long as they pay for the files to run them, making it easier to enjoy titles that many wouldn’t have been able to do. None of the games require any tweaking to work on the emulator, since the games running would think they’re on the original hardware. This is already possible on phones and tablets now as well, with emulators like GBA4iOS and Dolphin, which are available on the Google Play Store. The only thing that these companies would have to do, is run a live service, which would have to be consistently supported, and provide the files necessary to run these games without having to resort to piracy to play older titles. This makes for minimal risk on the parts of the companies, and maximum reward.

The fact is that emulators are still being used on devices outside of the main console, and the best way to preserve and make emulation legal is if companies like Sony, and Nintendo were to allow players to enjoy their games on other platforms in a safe and legal way. Xbox is doing this already, with Game Pass being available on phones and on PC, allowing players to download games and enjoy them. However, their backward compatibility library is still a little slim, but for those who own an Xbox, there’s still the majority of games from the previous generations that are completely playable on the latest console.

While the idea of a “Virtual Console” service coming from any of the “Big 3” outside of their own consoles seems like something out of a dream, their uptick in the use of emulation to keep older titles accessible is a start. Perhaps as time goes on, the pipe dream of playing Pokemon Crystal on an iPhone legally might not be such a pipe dream.


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