This is the million-dollar question and one we’ve all asked ourselves at some point when playing classic games from previous generations from the convenience of a PC. You can get any classic game in ROM or ISO format for free, and playing it on an emulator is so easy that it seems hard to believe it’s legal.
And the fact is that playing a physical version of the game on the game consoles of yesteryear is a real odyssey nowadays. There are too many elements to take into account, such as the condition of the device and the cartridges or disks, the functioning of the controls, and not to mention the prices of the original games… if you can even find them.
For these reasons, one of the best alternatives for retro gaming is console emulation, which gives anyone the possibility to enjoy those gems with just a few clicks. And the fact that you don’t have to pay a penny makes it even more suspicious.
Are Video Game Emulators Legal To Use?
Emulators are 100% legal… Video game emulation of some ROMs is not. Video games are intellectual property, and it is illegal to own these ROMs without the copyright holder’s consent.
So it is the games not the console emulators where the bigger problem lies and they can only legally be reproduced, distributed and possessed if the owners of the rights give their permission.
As you can see, the subject is complicated, but to understand it better we have to talk in a more technical language.
What is an emulator?
An emulator is a physical device (hardware) or program (software) that allows you to run a game (software) for which it was not originally designed, through copies or imitations in a ROM (read-only memory image) file.
An open-source program is licensed in such a way that users can study, modify and improve its design by making its source code available.
Most emulators found on the internet are created through this process, managing to simulate the experience of a console on a platform that initially could not do so. How did the programmers achieve this feat? That is a topic for another day because it’s very long.
Thanks to community maintenance, emulators are completely safe and legal. But of course, what good is an emulator if it is illegal to play games on it?
ROMS and ISOs
These are the names given to the read-only files of games that are playable on an emulator.
An ISO is a CD, DVD, or Blu-Ray image, while a ROM is a read-only file that is a copy or a console cartridge.
To give a simple example, if you want to emulate God of War from PS1, which is a CD, it would be an ISO. On the other hand, if you want to emulate Super Mario Bros from NES, it would be on a ROM.
Both file formats are intended to play games and can be found on many sites for free. But we regret to inform you that this counts as piracy, just like downloading movies or shows from the Internet.
However, many justify downloading ROMs or ISOs of old games because they don’t have the console or they are impossible to find today in good condition. And the truth is that they have a point.
Is It Morally Okay To Use Emulators?
If you have no legal right to possess and play the game then you should not pirate it. If you really want to play a game, save up for it or find a cheap re-release.
Piracy has more negative than positive points, but in the case of old games, they have a strong point in favor, and that is that it is the only way to preserve those classic titles nowadays, since no developer is still producing them.
Of course, the most popular ones are usually ported to new consoles as the generations progress, or even return in the form of Remake, such as the popular Final Fantasy VII from 2020 or Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy from 2017.
Thanks to these new re-releases, current generations of gamers can enjoy classic titles, although veterans often fall into nostalgia, preferring older consoles. And we all know how complicated it is to acquire one nowadays.
There are many factors to take into account that we already mentioned in the intro, although the main one is due to the high prices of classic consoles and their cartridges, so many users prefer to use emulators even though it is illegal to download ROMs and ISOs.
By this point, you are probably wondering why they can be downloaded so easily if they break the law. Well, some sites have already paid the consequences…
Nintendo’s Ironclad Protection Of Its Intellectual Properties
The makers of Mario, Pikachu, Zelda, and other super popular characters have always had a bad relationship with emulators and anyone who tries to create something based on their intellectual properties.
At first glance, it seems cruel since many of the independent projects they denounce are only based on certain mechanics of their games or are even homages to their creations, but the reason is quite simple. Nintendo is still making money with its old games.
Of the current developers, Nintendo is one of the few that still distributes its old titles, at least in Japan, where many SNES and Game Boy cartridges are sold. In addition, the Nintendo Switch online store features several ports of its NES and SNES classics.
That’s why Nintendo is very overprotective of its properties. In July 2018, they shook up the emulator world by suing the owners of Loveroms and Loveretro, sites that until that time offered free downloads of games and emulators from Nintendo and other retro console brands.
The Arizona District Court ruled in favor of Nintendo, recognizing trademark infringement and unfair competition.
This was the first alarm for the ROM industry, but in 2019 they hit harder when they sued Emuparadise and RomUniverse, one of the most popular emulation websites. The owners of Emuparadise were forced to pay Nintendo $2 million. Both sites ended up going down and their thousands of copies of games from all over the world, as well as unreleased projects and demos, disappeared forever.
With that move, they already made their opinion about emulation clear. But now another question arises.
Why Don’t Other Developers Do Anything To Prevent Emulation?
So far, Nintendo is the only one of the big companies that have taken action on the issue, as Sony and Microsoft have remained more neutral. To explain this stance, first of all, it is important to clarify that ROM ownership laws change depending on the country you are in.
ROMs or ISOs are not illegal in many jurisdictions, despite Nintendo’s belief to the contrary.
Downloading or distributing them is a copyright violation in countries like the US or UK, as the legality of those copies does not depend on which distributor they come from. In the end, it depends on the laws of your country.
This does not mean that if you live in the United States and download ROMs, an FBI squad could show up at your house to arrest you for playing Pokemon Red Version on a Game Boy emulator.
Since its origins, emulation has become very popular, with millions of users already resorting to such methods. Therefore, it is almost impossible for them to be punished even if the law requires it, as it would require an arduous investigation of the ROMs of each suspect, as not all of these games are illegal to download.
It is simply too much work for law enforcement agencies and game distributors, who prefer to attack the source of the problem, the ROM and ISO pages.
Well, by distributors we mean only Nintendo, though they are not the only one that continues to receive revenue from its old games. Latecomers to the industry Sony and Microsoft, are not as affected by the emulation problem. In fact, they benefit from it.
How Does Emulation Benefit Big Developers?
This point is more personal than it seems because if you were born after 2000, your first experience with a SNES or Nintendo 64 game might have been through an emulator. That’s not counting those who were born in the 80s or 90s but couldn’t enjoy video games due to other factors.
For example, countries like Brazil, Indonesia, India, and the Philippines did not have too many video games at those times. Their gamers missed out on the first appearances of Sonic, Mario, and other famous characters. But thanks to emulation, they managed to enjoy those franchises and end up becoming legal consumers of the games in today’s market.
And so, emulator users become regular customers of Sony, Microsoft, and even Nintendo. It sounds contradictory that it is through piracy, but it is the reality.
We have to understand that many of those who use emulators are because they can’t find a way to play older games, or simply can’t afford a console, leaving them with no choice but to use their PCs or phones to emulate.
We are not justifying piracy either, we are just highlighting the reality of many gamers.
Those who are left in a bad light in this matter are those who download copies of games when they have the possibility of acquiring them legally, although they should not be singled out as the culprits either. It’s not like the big developers, except for Nintendo, are complaining about using emulators.
In the end, it’s up to you to decide whether to use emulators or not.
What Can Retro Lovers Do To Enjoy Classic Games Legally?
If you want to stay as legal as possible, the first thing we recommend is to buy the original consoles and their cartridges. They are hard to come by but there is nothing better than enjoying those classics on the devices where they debuted.
You can also play legal ROMs that are no longer protected or that their original creators authorized their free distribution, such as the first two GTA, Command & Conquer: Red Alert, The Elder Scrolls: Arena, and many more.
Among gamers, there is a theory that abandonware, games that are no longer supported or were forgotten by their creators, can be used freely. That is false since as long as they are under the protection of their owners, they can fight for copyright infringement.
And the last and one of the best options is to use alternatives from official providers. As mentioned before, in the Nintendo eShop you can find games from their classic consoles. Likewise, in the Xbox and PlayStation stores, there are also ports of their older games, as well as remakes and remasters.
Final Thoughts On Emulation
After this long but necessary research on the legality of emulators, we can say that it’s up to you. It is a matter of perspective. Nothing in this life is completely black or white, it’s a scale of grays.
While distributing ROMs and ISOs is illegal, it is undeniably a way to preserve games today, although official developers are already finding ways to preserve them in their own way.
You can justify your emulators with the argument that you don’t want to give more money to Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, as they are already the giants of the industry. And while that point is true, it may not be legal.
If you can afford to buy old consoles and their games, then you have no reason to resort to ROM and ISO sites.