The worm has turned, it seems. Emulators, which let people run old console games on their computers, were once the scourge of the gaming industry. Now Sony is using one of the very pieces of software the industry decried as the basis for its PlayStation Classic retro console.
In the licenses list for the console can be found PCSX ReArmed, as Kotaku noticed in its review yesterday. That’s the ARM port of PCSX Reloaded, itself an offshoot of the original PCSX emulator, which ceased development in 2003.
Don’t worry, it’s not a crime or anything: Sony is well within its rights to do this. It’s just ironic, and indicative the hard work emulator developers have done for over two decades, that a tool most famously (though by no means exclusively) used for piracy is being deployed officially like this. PCSX and its derivatives are open source under GPL.
It’s a huge vindication of these rogue developers, as you might call them, whose software based on reverse-engineering the proprietary systems of major companies has grown to be not just useful but the best option for running these old games — as chosen by Sony itself! Gaming historian Frank Cifaldi has an interesting thread about why this is so mind-blowing for some of us.
It also makes sense to a certain extent: Sony would have had to dedicate a non-trivial amount of resources to building an emulator from scratch, or (even more complex) rebuilding the PlayStation hardware in some fashion. Why not use a high-quality, open-source emulator with years of active development and testing?
Not every company has made that same choice, though: Nintendo, for its NES and SNES Classic mini-consoles, developed its own emulators, as did before for Virtual Console (and indeed inside Animal Crossing on GameCube). But even then those devices run on a custom Linux build, which of course uses a similar open source license. So one way or the other the gaming world is finding itself in bed with the open source community.
It’s true that the emulators themselves were never really illegal — unless they used some proprietary code or something. It was always the ROMs themselves, copies of games, that companies fought hardest against. But emulators have always lived in a sort of grey area even if few actions were taken against them. The last few years have seen a resurgence in interest for retro games and a willingness to pay for them, but if emulators hadn’t been letting us do that for free for decades, there’s a good chance that many of these games would have been forgotten.