In almost* every case, videogame piracy is indefensible, inexcusable and plain wrong. Behind every angry assertion of draconian DRM or Robin Hood-style heroism lurks gamers who just want something for nothing, willing to effectively steal copyrighted code that developers worked hard to create. It may seem like a victimless crime, and it's difficult to sympathise with faceless corporations who clearly aren't short of a few bob, but when even struggling indie developers find their inexpensive wares being distributed and charity bundles end up on torrents, the whole thing becomes a farce. I can't stop you doing it, but don't try to defend it.
However, the practice of emulating older games via downloaded (or user-created) ROMs is usually lumped into same murky waters by overzealous publishers, and I'm not convinced that's entirely fair. At all. This might seem like a hypocritical double standard, but when you look closer at the scene, emulation has more in common with Kew Gardens' Millenium Seed Bank than the Jolly Roger.
In a perfect world, copyright holders make their back catalogues readily-available to purchase at appropriate prices on current hardware, else classify ancient games as free-to-distribute abandonware. And in fairness, in this imperfect world, it does happen. For example, Sony provides a huge library of PSX games on the PlayStation Store for pocket money prices, while Nintendo's Virtual Console and SEGA's Mega Drive compilations are a step in the right direction. There's no excuse for downloading a Metal Gear Solid ISO when you can just buy it on the store - or an Earthbound ROM now that Nintendo have finally released it on Wii U. That's... well, that'd be stealing.
Unfortunately, for every legacy game that's managed to make it into the 21st century, dozens if not countless hundreds more are becoming an endangered species.
Picking a platform at random, look at the Amiga. Okay, I admit that's not entirely random, since Commodore's outstanding system is near and dear to my heart. Its gameography is the stuff of legend, from the efforts of the Bitmap Brothers to Psygnosis and Craftgold, but beyond the multiplatform PC games and a tiny handful of re-releases (Alien Breed, The Chaos Engine, Superfrog HD and... erm... so... yeah), complex copyright issues and other concerns hold back the likes of Carthage, K240, Uridium 2, Walker, Awesome, Apidya, Globdule, Benefactor and so many more from getting another day in the sun.
Then consider even more niche systems, niche games, arcade games on obsolete bespoke PCBs and titles that only released in specific territories in limited runs. All just sitting there, in obscurity, as their hardware crumbles around them.
My Amiga 600 is faded and yellowed, finally giving up the ghost this year - with replacements becoming increasingly rare and expensive to source beyond canny eBay sniping. Magnetic media has a shelf life as floppies degrade when improperly stored and cartridges lose their internal batteries, wiping save files in the process. Lasers lose alignment, gears brittle and snap. Developers can even misplace or accidentally destroy source code as the years roll on, as we saw with Panzer Dragoon Saga.
Meaning that there's a real risk of these endangered games becoming extinct, leaving future generations of gamers -- our kids and successors -- unable to enjoy or learn from them when creating the next generation of videogames.
Except that there's no danger at all. Our games are safe, protected, pristine for all eternity and readily available to all on the internet thanks to any number of dedicated emulation sites. Though motives may be murky, the end more than justifies the means in this writer's opinion. Age will not weary them. They're safe. Forever. And we should be grateful for that - both us gamers and publishers themselves.
To reiterate: emulation becomes piracy when games are re-released on current platforms or PC. I bought Earthbound's Wii U version on day one, and if I happened to have a ROM, I would have deleted it immediately. Quoth Jonathan, glibly, glancing over his shoulder. I'd love to see copyright holders make an effort to make more legacy games available, or at least honestly ask themselves whether going the abandonware route would be easier for all concerned - while many emulation sites should probably clean up their act.
But better yet, I'd love to see the emulation scene treated as the conservation project that it really is, not maligned and criminalised. I yearn for an official industry-wide initiative, involving numerous publishers, developers and spearheaded the by ESA, designed to create an open-source database of classic games from countless ancient systems, free for academia, game design courses and future generations of curious gamers unless there's an earnest genuine desire to re-release them. A Millenium Seed Bank for videogames.
Until that happens, though, our games are safe. Let's hope it stays that way.
*With very specific and rare exceptions, which this article is not about.