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The Arcade Underground
Kevin Poulsen, SecurityFocus 2000-07-10

They save Pac Man and Pengo for future generations while ducking the copyright police. Being an arcade archivist is no game.

I've heard whispers of it for years: the dark corners of the Internet where you can download 80's-era arcade games, from Pac Man to Strider to Crazy Climber and Joust. Not cheap knock-offs, slick cover versions or modern updates: the originals -- perfect emulators of the machines that once filled arcades, liquor stores and bowling alleys, until home consoles and PCs made them obsolete.

It's called MAME, it rhymes with game and stands for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, a open source software project led by one Nicola Salmoria that began in early 1997 with the goal of preserving the spirits of vanishing arcade classics. Imagine a group of paleontologists who, through some temporal quirk, are given a chance to save the DNA of the dinosaurs as they begin to go extinct, and you understand MAME.

When you play Donkey Kong with MAME, you're not playing a recreation of the original 1981 Nintendo arcade hit. You're running the exact same software that was written for a Z80 microprocessor almost twenty years ago. Every nuance of play in Mario's barrel-leaping duel with the eponymous gorilla is exactly as it was when you played it at the 7/11 as a kid. It's the same game.

This works because today's PCs are mind-bogglingly fast compared with the arcade games of yesteryear. The 1982 Williams' classic Joust was built around an eight-bit Motorola 6809 microprocessor running at 1 megahertz, with a separate 6808 handling the sound. With today's cheapest low-end PCs packing a thirty-two-bit processor at three or four hundred megahertz, MAME can emulate both of Joust's chips simultaneously with enough computing power left over to run a spreadsheet and two word processors. Today's cheapest monitors and graphics boards can easily meet the resolution needs of the old games, and can even match the vector graphics of Tempest, Star Wars or Major Havoc.

Mr. Do
MAME is two parts, really: the emulator itself, and then the code that comprises a particular game. You can only play Donkey Kong, for example, because someone, somewhere, pulled out the Read Only Memory chips (ROMs) from a Donkey Kong circuit board, read the software into a PC and uploaded it onto the Internet.

It's not just Donkey Kong and the other blockbusters that can be found online, but also the obscure game you discovered at the arcade on the boardwalk when you were thirteen, played for five hours straight then never saw again; the games that you're only dimly aware of in your childhood memories, but, if you were to play again, your fingers would recall with clarity and confidence. Somehow, in the three years since the MAME project began, the code for virtually every arcade game from 1979 through the mid-nineties has been salvaged and uploaded to the Internet: 2157 games in all.

They're copied, shared, and cataloged. Comprehensive repositories can be found with any search engine. The games are easy to find. The people, however, are somewhat more difficult.

"The phone way is no-go. We have to conduct [the interview] via email," wrote Mr. Do, who, along with his associates, BombJack and DigDug, runs a web site for old arcade games from a server in Denmark. He has them all, from Asteroids to Zaxxon. But like the rest of the arcade underground, Mr. Do is circumspect. In email, he explains that the ROMs "are not really legal." He calls them "abandonware," and worries "if the original owners decide to try to protect the old abandoned work it will give us trouble continuing the site."

This is the dark secret of the MAME scene. The code burned into all those ROMs years ago is still owned by Nintendo, Atari, Williams, Sega, and the other surviving video game makers. At a time when copyright holders are increasingly litigious in dealing with the web, there's concern that the same tactics used by the recording and motion picture industries might someday be brought to bear on the gamers.

Fortunately, unlike much of the copyrighted music flying around the MP3 free-for-all Napster, the old arcade games aren't manufactured any more. The game-swapping scene has no equivalent of Metallica desperate to protect a million-dollar revenue stream and plush Hollywood Hills lifestyle. Some of the old video game makers have reportedly sent threatening letters, but none have actually gone to court.

But no one wants to be the first to be hit with a copyright infringement suit, so the gamers take some legal precautions, keeping the MAME program and the arcade ROM library as separate as church and state, never to share the same web site. You also can't download the ROM images for a particular game unless you swear, by clicking, that you already own the ROMs.

And they all lay low. I continued to put out feelers, I wanted to talk to someone who's actually opened up an arcade game cabinet, crawled inside and pulled out the circuit boards, lovingly de-soldered the ROMs, read them, and uploaded them to the Internet. I send my phone number to key members of the arcade underground with my request, to no avail.

Just when I'm ready to give up, my phone rings.

Game Over
His name is Ed. He's 31 years old, and by his count he's read the ROM's for five-hundred arcade games, and passed them on to the 100 or so volunteers who work on the emulation software. "MAME itself is legal, but putting the ROM images on the Internet for people to download violates some copyright laws," says Ed, who insists that he personally doesn't put the ROM images on public sites. "That's definitely illegal."

Ed is part computer geek, part Indiana Jones. He lives in California, where he does graphics and design for an arcade game magazine, but his 12-year-old quest to find and preserve the classic games has sent him to far-flung corners of the earth and into cavernous warehouses overflowing with old, decaying arcade cabinets and piles of rusting circuit boards.

"You go into the warehouse, and there's just arcade games everywhere. It's so crowded you can barely walk through. They're stacked on top of each other, cocktail models stacked seven or eight high," Ed recalls. Most of the ROMs he's acquired came from places like this, where old video games go to die. "When Pac Man isn't making money any more, they'll turn it into Street Fighter. They'll take the Pac Man circuit boards and put them in a pile," Ed says. "I'd buy a whole pile of circuit boards for a few hundred dollars."

Those were the golden days; it's been four months since Ed read a ROM. "Right now, there's hardly anything left to put into MAME. The only thing left is really obscure stuff, and the stuff that's hard to emulate," he says. "It's nothing like a year ago, when all the exciting stuff was being emulated."

With nearly all the games online, preserved forever, diehard gamers have turned their attention to building custom cabinets for MAME, typically starting with an authentic cabinet for, say, Defender or Galaga, gutting it, sticking in a PC, then equipping the front panel with a monstrous array of buttons, trac balls, spinners and joysticks - just the thing for a machine that can play every great video game ever made.

Some arcade purists won't touch MAME, and Ed understands. "Disks of Tron. You're standing inside the environmental cabinet, with the glow from the florescent lights, the four speakers mounted around your head and the image reflected on the mirror with the artwork backdrop from the movie," he says. "You can't emulate that kind of experience."

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Comments Mode:
Where to get 2000-07-10
Anonymous
Other emulators 2000-07-10
Anonymous (1 replies)
NonMAME 2000-07-10
Anonymous
Owning the ROM itself is NOT ENOUGH LEGALLY! 2000-07-10
Anonymous (1 replies)
Owning the ROM itself is NOT ENOUGH LEGALLY! 2000-07-11
Anonymous (1 replies)
Q 2000-07-11
Anonymous
What about MESS? 2000-07-11
Anonymous
The top of the iceberg... 2000-07-11
Anonymous
Download MAME and Rom files here 2000-07-11
Anonymous
But where can you get the ROMS? 2000-07-11
Anonymous (2 replies)
But where can you get the ROMS? 2000-07-11
Anonymous
But where can you get the ROMS? 2000-07-11
Anonymous (1 replies)
But where can you get the ROMS? 2000-07-12
Anonymous
Money is still made from the old games. 2000-07-11
Anonymous (3 replies)
Those are called "remakes" 2000-07-12
Anonymous
Wrong! 2000-07-12
Anonymous (1 replies)
Wrong! 2000-07-12
Anonymous (1 replies)
Are you looking for ROMs??? 2000-07-11
Anonymous
classic emus for all systems here 2000-07-11
Anonymous
Bleem! 2000-07-12
Anonymous (2 replies)
Bleem! 2000-07-19
Anonymous
Bleem! 2000-07-21
Anonymous
Illegal? Yes, but ... 2000-07-14
Anonymous
I think video game companies could turn emulation into a profit center 2000-07-17
Anonymous (2 replies)
Agreed. 2000-07-18
Alun Jones <alun (at) texis (dot) com [email concealed]>
correction for article 2000-07-18
Anonymous
re. "owning ROM not enough" 2000-07-19
Anonymous


 

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