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Lost in Cyberspace

Relive the classic days of yore with video game emulation

This article was originally published on September 8, 1998 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

So, what's the latest and greatest in home computer gaming these days? With the flashiest graphics and best sounds? Quake II? Sin? Unreal? Tomb Raider II?

Sure, those are are selling well – but nearly as popular are titles such as Berserk, Centipede, Joust and PacMan.

Yep. One of the hottest crazes on the 'Net right now is a series of "emulators" that can take a 300 MHz PowerPC Mac or Pentium II Windows machine and turn it into a 3 MHz Z-90 or 2 MHz 6502-powered classic video game like Galaxian, Choplifter or Defender. Note that these emulators are mainly of the video arcade console units – the big, coin-operated machines in the malls, not the home video games like the Atari 2600 or Colecovision (although those emulators exist, too).

One of the best sites for learning more about the arcade game emulators is at Dave's Video Game Classics.

At Dave's Video Game Classics, you can find public domain and shareware emulators. The best – and most popular – of the lot is MAME, short for the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator.

But the emulator is only half the equation – you also need the software for each arcade game. Using MAME, you can run the original programming code from the classic arcade games – and the programs are also available at Dave's Classics. The code originally existed in the arcade game hardware itself, in ROM, or "read-only memory," but has been extracted and converted into a software image of the ROM.

Because nearly all those old games are still copyrighted, the emulators all come with a prominent disclaimer reminding you that you are not supposed to use the software ROM maps unless you own a legal set of actual ROM chips – i.e., have the original game console out in your garage. Otherwise, the ROMs are for "24-hour evaluation" only.

The MAME emulator is available for Windows, Mac, DOS, Amiga, Linux, Unix and Acorn/RISC machines. The list of hundreds of game ROMs available is too long to list, but includes every popular arcade game from 1975 to 1990, plus a few obscure ones. Just a few titles in addition to those already listed include Asteroids, Battle Zone, Congo Bongo, Dig Dug, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Galaxian, Lunar Lander, Missile Command, Pooyan, Q-Bert and Zaxxon.

Unlike the home computer translations of these games, which necessitated the shrinking of the arcade screen to fit the early RGB monitors and TV sets that the Atari, Commodore and Apple II computers ran on, these ROM-based arcade games have the original narrow, vertical images. The graphics and sound are identical to those of the original games – it is a very odd feeling to be sitting in front of a modern PC watching a 20-year-old arcade game play on your screen.

While MAME for Windows is the easiest of the arcade emulators to use, the DOS version is recommended if you don't have a Pentium 233 with MMX or better. Other arcade emulators include the upcoming Retrocade, Sparcade and EMU.

For information on emulators of the Atari 800 home computer (also an outstanding gaming platform) or the Atari ST and Apple Macintosh 16-bit computers, visit Emulators Online.