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The old school meets the new

Emulator programs add arcade flavor to PCs, gaming consoles

By Stephen Ryan
CNN Headline News

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(CNN) -- There may be some truth to the old saying "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." But you have to copy carefully when it comes to the world of video game emulating.

If you want a reasonably priced arcade-type system for your home, emulator programs are a fun way to bring back old-school games -- so long as you do it legally.

Download an emulator, couple it with a retro game, and you're good to go. You can keep the setup as is or even turn it into a full-scale arcade game.

Emulators are essentially programs that trick your computer into thinking it is whatever you want it to imitate -- an arcade machine for example.

"The emulating programs themselves are legal. They only set up your PC to play the game," says Crispin Boyer, senior editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly. "ROMs, or the game programs, are technically illegal unless you buy or download a licensed version. Otherwise the content creators aren't really being compensated. Nobody has successfully sued yet though."

There are emulators and CD-ROMs for pretty much every type of computer and game, even PDAs, and they can be found online.

"The older '80s arcade games are generally the most popular. But as PCs become more powerful, there are emulator programs for PlayStation and Xbox, too," Boyer says. "Those aren't recommended though. It's almost the same thing as pirating software, like downloading songs from Napster. You're downloading someone else's intellectual property for free."

Console companies also are launching pre-emptive strikes against emulators.

"Once you hack into an Xbox, you can't play Xbox Live online anymore," Boyer adds. "Microsoft is always trying to stay one step ahead. Although hackers always find new ways too, it's a constant war."

Think of a PC coupled with an emulator as a blank canvas. Want an arcade in your basement? It may set you back a bit, but do-it-yourself retro arcade machines are still cheaper than refurbished ones. You can buy or build an arcade cabinet, then put a PC into it.

Most of the necessary components are free, except the cabinet and PC.

"Pre-made arcade cabinets run about $850, for the cabinet only. A complete setup costs about $1,200, including the PC," Boyer says. "You only need a bare-bones PC. A 166-megahertz processor will suffice. Now you can trick out the system with a nice controller. Those run anywhere from $95 to $200. The emulator program itself is free because you download it.

"Finding the games themselves requires a lot of searching. There is a lot of turnover on sites. They're mostly run by kids. The site you get a game from may not be up in a few weeks."

If you consider gaming a hobby, then check out emulators.

"It all started because of gaming culture," Boyer says. "Programmers reverse-engineered systems to play at home, partially for a challenge, and partially for the old geek culture. Don't do it to try and save a couple of bucks on a game. Just do it because you're nostalgic."

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