Even better than the real thing?

Emulation is the most sincere form of flattery, right? Maybe, but in the world of retro gaming, does emulating childhood memories on modern kit really cut it? James Matson gets his opinion all up in your business….

My Amiga 1200HD has a problem, and in terms of an early 90s computer it’s a pretty serious one.  The floppy drive is – for want of a better term – pooched.  It’s not broken-and-battered-selling-its-body-on-street-corners pooched, but it’s certainly squealy-squeaky-read-what-disk? pooched, which is almost as bad.

So I started roaming various retro gaming forums asking for the best solution to circumventing the aged and unreliable floppy disk technology, particularly as even with a working floppy drive, the magnetic media of circa 1990’s double-density floppies are starting to fail by the sheer force of entropy.  I got all kinds of useful suggestions, ranging from flash to PCMCIA readers, WHDLoad, burning ADF files to new disks etc – all of which you can Google for yourself, but the one that really struck me was someone making the statement, “why don’t you just run an emulator on your PC? Save yourself the hassle”.

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Interesting posit from random internet forum user #298,867,112.  Why don’t I just run an emulator on the PC and save myself the hassle?

There’s no logical reason I shouldn’t. WinUAE is an incredibly successful, robust emulator and one of my all time favorite emulator platforms, and the truth of the matter is that it’ll do a bang up job of emulating most Amiga games. If my penchant was for the NES, SNES, Megadrive or even the venerable Commodore 64 I could find my emulation fix – and associated game images – all over the web.

Emulation of platforms is even a pet interest of mine, I completely dig the whole opcode thing, the abstraction of hardware and the immortality afforded elderly gaming systems by the hard working chaps behind WinUAE, Snes9x etc.

So why did I come away feeling slightly uneasy the suggestion made by random internet forum user #298,867,112?

It’s because to me, emulation doesn’t really cut it.

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It ticks all the boxes, and it’ll run my Amiga games with clockwork precision (although there are some games which to this day fail to run 100% within an emulated environment) but there’s something missing from the whole experience, and that’s the tangible sense you get from actually engaging the vintage gaming platform you’re in front of.  The Amiga can and will be a pain, there will be errors, bad disks, an array of hair-tearing problems – but when it’s running, it’ll be oh so real.  The sight and feel of the keyboard, the constant whirring of the ancient hard drive,  the thrashing of the dodgy, worn down joystick.

These are the sights, sounds and feelings of your gaming life, of a childhood spent lost among fantasy lairs and outrageous planets, of cold nights warmed by turn after turn of Civilization and seemingly endless summer days narrowly avoiding explosions in Dynablaster.  That blinking floppy access LED was your constant companion, those loading times gave you a chance to plan out your strategy while absentmindedly mashing all the buttons on the joystick in anticipation.

These are things that for the most part an emulator can’t give you. It’s the sweat, blood and yes, the frustration of using the machine too.  An emulator is by and large a flawless experience, but you become so far removed from the unique experience of actually gaming on a machine so old it was probably made just a few short weeks after the extinction of Archaeopteryx

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Emulators are handy, useful and have their place in the world without a doubt (how else will some of us ever play those unattainable eBay ‘mega rare’ games that command crazy prices?) but I can never accept their use as a replacement for actually playing on the machine being emulated.  Is a racing simulator ever the same as sitting in the cockpit of an F1 car?  I doubt it.

Nothing is going to emulate the clunk of the Amiga keyboard, nothing is going to emulate blowing into a NES cart, or the wiggling of a Master System RF cable. If we all went down the emulator route, there’d be no retro collecting, there’d be no joyous photos of games rooms stacked high with prized and loved possessions.

There’d just be folder after folder of game images on your hard drive. Cold. Sterile. Orderly.

I’m sorry random internet forum user #298,867,112, but I’ve realised that for me, the experience is as much about the trials and frustrations and reality of retro gaming as the sunshine and 8-bit lollipops, and that’s just the way I like it.