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. The History of Emulation
and its relationship to computer and videogame history
10 September 1999
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. Author: The Scribe


I want to thank the many, many people who have made this document possible - providing source material, making suggestions, offering corrections, etc.   I wish I had room to give credit where credit is due, but you know who you are.  Thanks again ... thank you very much.

This document is very much a work in progress.  It is still far from complete on the emulation side of things and probably too long by half on both background data and concurrent events, but this is the way that you have demanded it to read.  My apologies for any errors that may still remain.

As always, your comments are welcome.

Abbreviation key
  • (C) - Combination or "combo" emulator
    • An emulator that has both hardware and software components.  The software component is usually the actual emulator, while the hardware component provides key parts of the original system required for popular emulation.  This offers the most flexibility in terms of design, but is generally frowned upon by emulation purists as not offering "true" emulation.  Combo emulators are by far the most prevalent form of the technology, including many examples not documented here.
  • (F) - Firmware emulator
    • An emulator that is contained entirely within hardware.  This usually involves one or more emulators embedded in ROM that reconfigure the system into behaving like another completely different system.  By far the fastest form of the technology, it is also the most specialized and requires a high degree of systems knowledge in order to implement properly.  Firmware emulators are usually limited to situations where back-compatability with an older system is a major concern.
  • (S) - Software emulator
    • An emulator that is contained entirely within software.  In other words, the only hardware components involved are those of the host system, which the emulator then reconfigures as needed for its own purposes.  Purists consider this to be "true" emulation in that no part of the original system is required.  It is also the slowest form of the technology for the same reason.  The chief advantages to a "true" emulator are twofold - it can be easily changed or updated as need requires, and it can be easily ported across different platforms.

Paradigm Shift:  The NextGen Wave (1999 - present)

1998 (April - December)

  • By the end of April, some six weeks after the start of their campaign, the IDSA has brought about the total shutdown of the fifteen most popular "ROM sitez" on the Internet.  Many others close doors of their own accord, fearful of IDSA action, while still far more relocate their operations overseas in countries whose intellectual property laws are only laxly enforced at best.
  • Cosimo de Michelle's open source WinNES (S) emulator makes its debut.
  • The unreleased sequel to Q*Bert becomes the first inactive commercial arcade videogame "ROM."  It is donated by its author to the M.A.M.E. team in time for the v0.33 release.
  • Nam1975 (S), a arcade videogame emulator for the game of the same name, earns the notable distinction of being the first NeoGeo emulator.
  • In May, Anders Nilsson and Janne Korpola release the first version of NeoRage (S), the first popular NeoGeo videogame system emulator.  As a result, those with the resources begin dumping NeoGeo "ROMs" as fast as they can get their hands on them, which only adds fuel to the IDSA campaign's fire.

  • (NOTE:  SNK has been rather quiet about NeoGeo emulation except for one notable incident - giving permission for its use during a well-known anime convention in the summer of 1999, provided that no "ROMs" were distributed at that convention.)
  • NESticle by Bloodlust Software becomes the first videogame emulator to offer network play support.  It is added to Callus shortly thereafter.
  • The term NextGen emulation arises from a series of videogame magazine reviews of the "next-generation" PSEmu Pro (S) and Psyke (S) PlayStation emulators in comparison to the actual hardware.  It is quickly seized upon by the emuscene, and is now used to describe all emulators that deal with hardware capable of sophisticated 3D polygonal graphics.

  • (NOTE:  Some emulation historians also include NeoGeo emulation in the NextGen wave for a variety of reasons, but most see it as the last great achievement of the Golden Age of Emulation)
  • UAE finally achieves stable Amiga support with the v0.7x series of releases.  It becomes the first freeware computer system emulator to be bundled with a commercial product in many ways.  Copies are included with Red Hat Linux and other retail packages of Linus Torvald's revolutionary operating system.  It also forms the core of Cloanto's licensed Amiga Forever software bundle, thus making it the first BIOS-dependent emulator to be legally distributed with its requisite BIOS dump.
  • Jason Meehan releases VGen v0.14 (S), the first G/MD emulator to support a Sega CD BIOS image.
  • The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) is signed into law, which among other things makes it a crime to bypass the embedded security systems of any device.  Many videogame vendors, including Sony and Nintendo, interpret this to include the anti-piracy security systems of their dedicated consoles.
  • Connectix releases Virtual Game Station (S), the first commercial PlayStation emulator, for Macintosh computers.  It sells like crazy, and is also proudly featured at several Apple trade shows.  This draws the ire of PSX manufacturer Sony, and they immediately file a lawsuit in an effort to have it removed from the market.
1999 (up to September)
  • UltraHLE (S), programmed by Episilon and RealityMan, becomes the first working N64 emulator.  It also earns the ire of Nintendo due to its required use of N64 "ROMs" (which are springing up like crazy in its wake), prompting a second, smaller, Nintendo-sponsored sweep of "ROM" sites.  Emulators Unlimited is the first site to offer UltraHLE; it is also the first site to be shut down by Nintendo (for a time).  The Nintendo sweep continues on an infrequent basis throughout the rest of the year.  Many commentators of the day see UltraHLE as the emulator that actually kicked off the NextGen wave (1999 - present).
  • Many vendors begins copy-protecting their videogames once again, thus reversing a decade-long trend against use of the technology.  Many reasons are given, but the rapid rise of software piracy via the Internet and strenghtened legal protections against violating copy-protection schemes (considered to fall under the term "computer security systems" per the DMCA) are the two usually cited.  It should be noted that some vendors had actually resumed the practice a year or two earlier, along with a handful that never stopped.
  • In February, Sega releases the Sega Smash Pack, providing eight classic G/MD games running under a modified version of Steve Snake's KGen G/MD emulation engine. It is the first time that a freeware videogame emulator receives any kind of "official" sanction (however indirect) by the vendor of the original product.
  • David Herpolsheimer and Randy Linden release bleem! (S), a sophisticated PSX emulator and the first commercially vended videogame emulator for IBM compatible computers to be advertised as such.  Sony immediately files a lawsuit to stop it, and a "cracked" bootleg appears on the Internet only five days after the commercial copy-protected version hits the stores.  In spite of this and varirous other bootleg versions, bleem! sales remain surprisingly strong - proving that emulation remains a viable force in the personal computer market regardless of intended (or emulated) plaform.
  • Nintendo confirms that its next-generation home videogame console, the Dolphin, will use a custom DVD-ROM format.  They are the last videogame vendor to abandon the use of plug-in cartridges as the primary delivery system for its console videogames.

  • (NOTE:  Cartridges are still being employed for hand-held videogames as of this date, although they go by a variety of different names.  It has also been argued that the memory cards employed by many NextGen arcade and home videogame consoles constitute a form of cartridge.)
  • In April, Sony succeeds in getting a court injunction against Connectix, thus preventing additional copies or updates of Virtual Game Station from reaching the market until the following year.
  • ASCII Software of Japan becomes the first vendor to threaten legal action over an unauthorized "ROM" translation patch (KanjiHack's English patch for the SNES/SFC release RPG Tool Super Dante 2)
  • Sony files a lawsuit against Dave's Video Game Classics and its Internet service provider (ISP) for providing a link to an illegal PlayStation BIOS dump.  The offending link is removed, and Sony subsequently drops the suit.  As a result, Dave's is forced to find a new ISP.
  • Omar Cornut and Hiromitsu Shiya release MEKA, widely regarded as the best DOS-based emulator to date for Sega 8-bit systems (SG-1000, SC-3000, Master System, Game Gear).
  • DGen (S) becomes the first open-source, cross-platform G/MD emulator.  It becomes to Sega G/MD emulation what SNES9X has become to SNES/SFC emulation.

  • (NOTE:  As of October 1999, DGen was widely regarded as the most capable G/MD emulator available, even though it still couldn't quite match KGen's performance at the time)
  • Concerned by his growing knowledge of the legal morass into which the emuscene has descended, G3 author Sam Pettus writes a series of articles under the title Emulation: Right or Wrong? in a concerted effort to sound out the legalities of emulation.  This document, the first serious in-depth study of the emuscene, is beter known on the Internet as the EmuFAQ.  He eventually completes it in October.  It is a controversial work, to say the least, and debate about its contents and conclusions continues even today.
  • Sony releases a new model of the PlayStation that does not have the I/O port of the original design.  Sony claims the redesign was done as a cost-cutting measure, but this does not wash with the tens of thousands of Game Shark, Game Enhancer, and other such legal add-on PSX accessories who now have no place to attach their devices.  A strong underground market quickly develops for older-model PlayStations, and sales of the newly designed units suffers as a result.
  • Capcom releases the original MegaMan (RockMan) arcade games for the PlayStation.  It is the first confirmed commercial release that appears to employ "ROMs" in some form, as dumps of the original arcade ROMs for the included titles are subsequently identified on the CD-ROM.
  • The emulation scene revisits history yet again when Sony is denied its third and final injunction to force the bleem! PlayStation emulator off the market.  The Sony v. Bleem LLC legal battle is held to have done for videogame emulation what the A-Max precedent did for personal computer emulation ten years earlier.

  • (NOTE:  The actual civil trial for Sony v. Bleem LLC is scheduled for April 2000)
  • Sega releases the 128-bit Dreamcast home videogame console, setting a new standard for such products.  Curiously enough, there is open talk that Dreamcast emulation is theoretically possible within the year, due to the unit's usage of nearly identical hardware and operating system components found in high-end, 3D accellerator-equipped IBM compatible personal computers.  Further fuel to the fire is added by news that Taiwanese and Hong Kong hackers have successfully broken its initial software copy-protection scheme.

  • (NOTE:  Rumors of a working Dreamcast emulator abound through the end of the year, but nothing concrete materializes.  Other rumors have it that the emucoders are deliberately holding back so as not to infringe upon Sega's narrow four-month window of profitability as the lone 128-bit system on the market.  Nevertheless, emulation of the system's custom GD-ROM drive and its operations is successfully achieved by the following month.)
  • RealityMan resumes work on UltraHLE, much to the irritation of Nintendo and the delight of N64 emufans everywhere.
  • In October, Sony formally unveils the 128-bit PlayStation 2 home videogame console.  It is the first home videogame console to use the DVD-ROM storage format.  Actual release is delayed until the following year for a number of internal reasons.
. . .  and the saga continues  . . .

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The History of Emulation by Sam Pettus, copyright © 1999 Zophar's Domain, all rights reserved.

Want to learn more?  Want to contribute?  Do you have an emulation history story to tell, or want to know more about one?  Then watch in the coming months for the Scribe's next project ...

A "Year 2000" Zophar's Domain exclusive!
(besides, we gotta have somthing to do during Y2K, right?  *grin*)

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