There’s a phantom lurking in video game history that I fear may disappear forever.
Emulation is, basically, the video game medium’s porn: nobody admits to it, but everybody does it, and there’s a stash on a thumb drive under your bed. People love to talk about how emulation is ruining video games, whether it’s destroying the gameplay experiences of yesterday, demolishing the resale value of classics, or terminating the lives of entire gaming systems. Yet, you’ll find a very healthy portion of the gaming population played Mother 3 without a GBA, or experienced a number of arcade games that never saw a quarter.
I just download the games for the articles. I was… just curious. I did it a lot when I was younger, but not anymore.
I myself have general ethical objections to emulation, and I’d be glad to rant on about the importance of adhering to the medium for which a system was created in the first place (particularly when you consider controllers of yesterday vs. today), and the minute you introduce save states, game genies, and other such tricks to a game from twenty years ago, you’re effectively playing a completely different game. Mind you, I agree with this assessment on the premise of judging a game by its own intentional methods, but, when I just want to have fun with a game (that I bought to have fun with), you better believe I’m whipping out anything that’s going to enhance my play experience, and not just leave me floundering on Level 3 until the end of time. But I know, really, that the reason I can take the moral high road on emulation is that I’m a man of means, so I can literally afford nearly any video game I actually want, and I have the luxury of space to store them all. I’ve got a copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga sitting in its box that I got for a steal due to almost miraculous luck, but when it came time to actually play the game, I decided to not risk any sort of damage to the valuable game itself, and pursue other avenues. Similarly, I’ve always been curious about the NES title Panic Restaurant, but I wasn’t $300 interested, so… other avenues.
See? See the shame I can’t even excise for the purpose of this article? Emulation is gaming’s dirty little secret, the mistress you pray the wife will never know about. WiiU, baby, I swear she means nothing to me, she just… does things you don’t. Honey? Dear? I know how you feel about cheating devices, we don’t have to get into it right now…
But similar to how you’ll go to the grave never knowing about Grandpa’s secret family (yes, that’s why he always openly wept whenever there was a waitress named “Denise”), nobody wants to explore the history of emulation, and its full ramifications on the gaming community. There are too many back allies and completely illegal avenues involved, so even if you found the people behind that great PSP collection, and the no doubt interesting story behind how untold gigs of data were collected, you’d still be reporting on, essentially, a crime on par with a bank robbery, with untried criminals as your primary source. There are people, probably hundreds of people, responsible for your emu stash, and they’re not only anonymously uncredited, they’re probably literally hiding their illegal accomplishments.
Which, sadly, is more the pity, as emulation has had a tremendous impact on gaming and video game journalism. As I’ve mentioned before, I find video game preservation incredibly important, because you’re never going to get anywhere in anything without first knowing your past. And, while I grieve the loss of games like Gremlins 2, Goonies II, or Ghostbusters II to licensing issues that will guarantee they never see another legitimate gaming platform, I know that secretly, stashed in the back of your digital sock drawer, there’s those games, just as fresh and ready to go as ever with a USB controller and monitor. As I lived through it, I can safely say that around the early 21st century, there was a direct correlation between free video game roms floating around and the rise of retro gaming blogs like this one. I’m a little late to the party, but, geez, you can’t even fathom how many articles there are out there written by dudes just discovering Monster Party for the first time thanks to some rom dump. And, to be clear, I’m not saying this is at all a bad thing. If emulation had not propagated in the way it had at the time it had, I doubt we’d be seeing Super Mario making or Shovel Knight dueling Battletoads today.
Conversely, there’s the negative impact emulation has had on gaming. The PSP? The DS? Both likely gone before their time thanks to the fact that you could download their entire libraries weekly faster than the release schedule. The Saturn? The Dreamcast? If emulation was a little more relaxed, we might have a Sega designing game systems to this day, but, no, the Neptune is forever relegated to a ghastly Vita franchise. I realize the call of free Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is a siren song to many of us, but I’d be willing to shell out an extra $40 every six months or so if it meant a more robust gaming landscape. Much like how we’ve lost all the artists that never had a chance to reach your ears in the wake of Napster changing the music industry forever, emulation may be a chief reason AAA gaming rose to prominence: in a quasi-self-fulfilling prophecy, only the wealthiest, most stable companies could survive, and thus designed games with an emphasis on using the one resource they knew they had: money.
One company that didn’t survive was SNK. SNK was responsible for the Neo Geo, and much of the Neo Geo library. If you’re like 90% of the population, you never owned a Neo Geo, and, odds are, never even saw a single Neo Geo console in the wild. Maybe, if you were an arcade rat, you played a Neo Geo arcade cabinet or two, but even the odds for that are low, as the system never had a Street Fighter 2 or Mortal Kombat. Fatal Fury, World Heroes, King of Fighters, and Metal Slug were all hits, and many made their way to home consoles like the SNES or Playstation, but I’m assuming that’s not where you played these games. Let’s not mince words, odds are good you emulated a number of Neo Geo games, you filthy emulator, you.
Another game you likely never played is NeoGeo Battle Coliseum, a “dream match” fighting game where characters from wildly disparate Neo Geo universes battle it out. Released in the arcades of Japan in 2005, NGBC features a host of characters from popular fighting games like King of Fighters, Art of Fighting, Fatal Fury, and Samurai Shodown, and then combines them with some lesser known heroes and villains from World Heroes, King of the Monsters, and The Last Blade. As is always the spice of “dream match” style games, a few characters that had never seen the fighting genre were imported, like Goddess Athena from Athena (not KoF), and Marco with his favorite Martian from Metal Slug. Toss in a pair of original characters that are just excuses to use a potpourri of Neo Geo references as offensive techniques, and you’ve got a complete fighting game with an amusingly eclectic mix of choices. It’s a 2v2 fighter, and it actually uses its huge roster to create a rather memorable one player mode that will see you fighting a huge chunk of the roster… if you’re any good. You’ve got five minutes to beat as many opponents as possible, and when that time is up, you fight a final boss based on your skill level. And no matter which final boss you fight, you’re battling a ranking member of the nefarious organization WAREZ.
Wait, where have I heard that word before?
Yes, NeoGeo Battle Coliseum and its creators were not subtle about its stance on emulation, and how it was generally believed that the chief reason Neo Geo / SNK failed was emulation eating the lunch of every man, woman, and child who ever worked on Mark of the Wolves. At the time of the game’s US release, late 2007, I assumed that SNK was just being salty about the whole “going out of business, going into the pachinko business” thing, and was blaming everyone in the immediate area. Like Metallica before them, there’s a historical precedent for pointing at a bunch of criminals, claiming they’re the source of all your woes, and then sitting pretty in the knowledge that no one is going to take the side of the thieves. Come on, SNK, you guys were always the Hydrox to Capcom’s Oreo, just sit back and be glad you were ever as successful as you were.
But a funny thing happened in the years since I played NGBC: I don’t think I’ve ever met someone with affection for Neo Geo games that didn’t first play these games through emulation. I realize it’s purely anecdotal, and I’m sure someone is reading this and just simmering with anticipation to post the most scathing comment about actually playing the Neo Geo as it was intended… but, seriously? I don’t think anyone ever got past Metal Slug 2’s second level outside of the couch, and Geese Howard reigned undefeated over many an arcade. And, yes, I remember distinctly playing Fatal Fury and World Heroes in the arcades (God, I loved WH3: Jet)… but if I’m being honest, I don’t think I ever sunk more than a dollar at a time into either cabinet, and only truly mastered either game with unlimited credits and a controller that was just different enough from a Dualshock to avoid a lawsuit.
So, sorry Neo Geo Battle Coliseum, I misjudged you on first blush. You’re welcome to hate WAREZ all you want, as they probably are your mortal enemy. I’m just as guilty of putting Mr. Karate out of a job as anybody.
And, maybe, it’s time we all admitted it. Look, I’m just a guy who posts about video games on the internet, I can’t grant amnesty to software pirates or bring the Dreamcast back from the dead, but I am someone who is interested in the history of video games, warts and all. If there’s a resource for this information available, please point me to it, but it is currently completely impossible to verify if emulation has had an impact on gaming… even though everybody who has ever seen a Mario sprite hack (anybody remember Wheelchair Mario?) knows emulation might be the most important factor in video game production.
It’s the biggest open secret in gaming that nobody talks about. Maybe it’s time we did.
FGC #78 NeoGeo Battle Coliseum
- System: Arcade, Playstation 2, Xbox 360, and just this year, Playstation 3. You’ve got some options… and I bet you still never heard of the thing.
- Number of players: 2, as is right and proper for a fighting game. Just to be clear, though, you do control two characters at a time, but tag team style, so there’s no way there’d be a four-player simultaneous mode like some of the wackier Capcom Vs. games.
- Big Boss: There are a couple of different big, bad bosses for the game, but the most appropriate is the upgraded final boss of World Heroes: Dio has become… Neo Dio! I’m kind of disappointed that that name appeared before NeoGeo Battle Coliseum, though.
- Favorite Contributing Series: Man, when ROB finally picks it, I have a lot to say about World Heroes. In the meanwhile, I’ll just have to satisfy myself by noting that this game chose the three safest reps from the series (its Ryu, Ken, and final boss), and one weird choice in the form of Mudman, the witch doctor of Papua New Guinea. That seems weird enough, but consider that this is a series that also features a sadistic mutant football player, pansexual Russian mystic, and cybernetic Nazi superman (who, incidentally, is pretty much straight out of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure). Point is, there were some other options there.
- Favorite Character: The only representative of Aggressors of Dark Kombat is Kisarah Westfield, and if you told me she originated from some obscure dating sim or something, I’d believe you. She does hail from an actual fighting game, though, and, while I’ve never played it, I’m interested if only because of this one character. Yes, you’re welcome to play as practically the whole principle cast of King of Fighters in this game, but I’ll go with the school girl who possesses a super move based entirely on making her opponent fatally jealous. Heartbreaker.
- Did you know? As mentioned, the two original characters created for this game are a boy and a girl that are both secret agents that possess super powers based on various SNK properties. They have very different personalities, though: Yuki, the boy, is a serious, no-nonsense agent that is only interested in results… though does have a goofy side when he goes full henshin superhero; conversely, there’s Ai, the girl, who is silly and bubbly and just omg such a gamer you don’t even know, with the magical ability to summon characters from her Neo-Geo Pocket. … There’s probably some odious sexism going on here, but I’m just happy to see a dedicated gamer gal out of Japan that… wait a minute… she is literally fanservice! Dammit!
- Would I play again: Everything about this game feels like Street Fighter 2 to a Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo that will never be. The whole thing is retro in the worst way, and really needs an updated version to utilize this fun cast and its absurd variety. Regardless, I do wind up popping in this game on occasion even without provocation from a random robot, so I’ll probably try it for a few rounds again within the year.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Bomberman for the NES! I’m sure that’s going to be a blast! Please look forward to it!