The Game Room

The other day I had an awkward moment. A pal of mine excitedly thrust his recently acquired mint-in-mint-package Charlie's Angels fashion doll into my hands, and before I had a chance to smile and say, "Hey, that's neat," I had thrown it to the floor and started jumping up and down on it, yelling, "I . . . hate . . . '70s . . . television!" as I did so. He got kind of mad about that and sputtered out something about how much he'd paid for the thing on eBay, and I'm sorry to say that I did little to cool him down by grabbing him by the collar, dividing the dollar figure by 1.77, and spelling out to him how many starving children Sally Struthers could have fed with the money he'd wasted.

Hit Me with Your Best Shot

Hop on over to www.emulation.net, John Stiles's love letter to Mac emulation. The site is so exhaustive, I can assume only that he's an alien sent to collect all this stuff so it'll survive when Earth is consumed in the upcoming invasion and Armageddon. There are emulators for Game Boy, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Super NES, Atari, ColecoVision, Intellivision - honest, you read the list and you can almost hear a Pat Benatar tape playing somewhere.

These emulators are little more than curiosities, though. The quality of emulation is pretty spotty, and it's hard to locate a solid range of compatible games to play on 'em. But the primary problem I have with them is, I mean, if you want to play the Atari 2600 version of Frogger, you can find a console and a shopping bag full of tapes for next to nothing at a garage sale, on eBay, or at the curb on trash day.

But MacMAME ( www.macmame.org ) is the real deal. A Mac version of Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, it rolls emulators for every significant piece of coin-op arcade hardware into one piece of software. And as a free, open-source project, MAME runs on almost every computing platform you can name. That means there's a unified demand for the original game software, and therefore there are easily found, openly operated central sources for locating them.

Oh, yeah. The ROMs. See, obviously none of these emulators can play Track & Field without the game software itself. Normally the code would be burned onto a cartridge or onto some ROM chips on the arcade's motherboard. At some point an owner of a Track & Field machine must have copied the contents of said ROMs into a file and posted them somewhere, begging the question (he said, looking over his shoulder first and then whispering) Is this legal?

Well, no, not as such. These games are still copyrighted by someone, after all. Nintendo goes after Web sites that offer ROM images of Nintendo games for downloading. In the case of a game that hasn't been produced for 15 years and was available only in coin-op form from a company that went out of business during the Reagan administration, the question "Well, what difference does it make?" comes readily to mind. But for God's sake don't ask that aloud when Mom's in the room, because she'll tell you that right is right and ROM is . . . well, wrong.

Virtual Song

Connectix's Virtual Game Station can be run guilt-free. The second question people ask about it is "How can it possibly be legal to sell a product that emulates the Sony PlayStation?" Well, it is, and Connectix has the court findings to prove it. The first question is, of course, "Does it work?" and the answer has been upgraded from a qualified and fidgety yes to a somewhat more confident one.

Earlier versions were limited by slower Mac speeds and a rather hypothetical understanding of compatibility requirements. Once the threat of lawsuits was done away with and it became clear that Virtual Game Station would be a continuing, viable product, it matured in a big hurry. At first it played like a Macintosh doing its best under trying circumstances, but now, thanks to version 1.4 (and admittedly, today's faster Macs), it plays like a PlayStation. Still, you're advised to consult Connectix's list of games that have been tested and judged playable before you buy any expensive games.

Speaking of expense, Virtual Game Station costs $50 - not that much less than the price of a PlayStation, and it's no less expensive at all if you don't already have a game controller. So why even mention it? Two words: travel and PowerBooks .

Poor PC Performance

I'm hopeful that a Second Age of Mac Gaming is upon us. Still, there are a lot of Wintel-only titles, and some of them are tempting. A PC emulator such as Connectix's VirtualPC or FWB's SoftWindows is a handy app to have on the shelf, just as a balanced part of this nutritious breakfast, but emulators can be disappointing for spinning PC games. Obviously there's the built-in performance hit, but in general a G4 runs like a credibly modern Wintel box. The problem is that most of the Wintel games worth having rely heavily on features of the Pentium processor - features that work slowly in emulation and that are constantly evolving. Many modern games just won't work at all on a Mac.As a rule of thumb, if a game requires a Pentium II rated in the low 200MHz, it'll run fine under emulation. Otherwise, it's an exceedingly dicey proposition.

Nostalgia Trip

It's not until you wrap up a long session of Tapper or Crazy Climber or, Lord forbid, that video game based on the adventures of '80s supergroup Journey, that the significance of emulation really hits you. In the '40s, the primary engine of nostalgia was music. In the '50s and '60s they added cars, and in the '60s and '70s they added movies.

But growing up in the '80s gave future fogies a new means by which to rehash the past on a rainy day: video games. When I imagine Leonard Nimoy's voice, it's not from a Star Trek episode or movie - it's from Spock's opening welcome to the vector-image Star Trek video game. I can Name That Tune for any decent game soundtrack within seven notes, and the sentence "Stop the humanoid . . . stop the intruder" and a million similar details can instantly put me back inside a candlepin bowling alley in suburban Boston. For a moment, all of the things I was thinking and feeling when I was in junior high are fresh again in my memory.

Nostalgia is a powerful waster of time, potential, and brainpower - and so it's no surprise that it would one day get tied up with modern computing. It's a combination as natural as the Home Shopping Network hooking up with the porcelain-weeping-clown industry.

Longtime Mac columnist ANDY IHNATKO doesn't have a nostalgic bone in his body. Oh, but back in the day . . . .

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