In recent years, old school games have experienced a full-blown renaissance. This is in large part due to the release of a slew of mini consoles, replicas of classic arcade games and the availability of older titles on newer consoles.
If you’re someone who wants to revisit yesteryear and feed your nostalgia with and relive the era of button mashing and pinpoint platforming, you may be tempted to make your own retro gaming set-up. This can be a done a number of ways. You can use your PC to run emulators or you can grab one a single board computer like the Raspberry Pi to run RetroPie or Recalbox. The only issue you may face is, where do you get your hands on the games (legally)?
What Is a Video Game ROM?
ROM stands for “Read Only Memory”. In the context of video game emulation, a ROM is simply a digital copy of a game. In order to play ROMs on a computer, you’ll need an emulator.
An emulator is a piece of software that mimics the original video game console hardware. The emulator will then read the digital copy of the game (the ROM) and you’ll be able to play the game. Generally, emulators are free and users can download and install them onto a PC or mobile device.
Legality of Video Game ROMs
Emulators are usually completely free and are generally considered to be legal in most places. However things are different when it comes to video game ROMs.
ROMs are copyrighted material. Therefore, they a legally protected media that users are prohibited to copy, share, etc. The laws around ROMs are notoriously vague and they almost certainly vary from country to country, but there is one thing that is definite. Downloading ROMs (or sharing/uploading them for others) that you do not own is illegal.
What About Games I Own?
Downloading a copy of a game that you already own, or creating a digital copy by dumping a cartridge or disc of a game in your collection is a grey area at best. For example, in the United States, making a digital copy of a game that you already owned and for your own use, should fall under fair use. In contrast, a country like Australia does not have a fair use equivalent on the books. Therefore the legality of such behavior will largely depend on where you are in the world.
This can be unpleasant, as many older games are not available to purchase on modern consoles. Furthermore, tracking down an original copy of a game can be time consuming and prohibitively expensive. The chance you will get into legal trouble is slim, however there are instances of big companies like Nintendo suing individuals who distribute copyrighted ROMs. We do not condone pirating software, so we’ve compiled a list of websites where you can get your hands on legal ROMs to start your digital retro game collection. Alternatively, you can also purchase some of the retro games from these sites.
1. MAME Dev
MAMEDev is the official site of the MAME Development team. MAME stands for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, and recreates the hardware of various arcade game systems. The MAME team has developed the emulator with the explicit purpose of video game preservation. Many arcade games were never ported to home consoles and the ones that did were often inferior versions of the game. MAME allows users to enjoy these games as they were originally intended through emulation.
Unfortunately getting your hands on an arcade ROM is tricky and costly. Theoretically you could buy an entire arcade cabinet or the PCB board inside and create a digital copy of the game. However as we mentioned above, this is a legal gray area – not to mention it requires a bit of know-how. Luckily, if you want to experience classic arcade action, the official MAME site hosts a small collection of ROMs. Their original creators made the games available for download for non-commercial use, so they’re all legit.
PDRoms is a website that hosts ROMs that have either fallen into the public domain or are freely distributed by the developers. The site has a ton of games for a wide variety of consoles, handhelds and retro computers. You can find everything from systems such as the NES and lesser known hardware like the Watara Supervision.
Clamoring for games for even more obscure hardware? Don’t worry, PDRoms has you covered. They even have games for mobile platforms like Nokia’s defunct Symbian OS and J2ME. In addition to games, PDRoms also features various software like emulators for the Nintendo Wii and the PlayStation Vita. Finally, PDRoms also has a news section, where you can find out about new software developed for old and discontinued hardware.
NESWorld is one of the oldest sites on this list, with its first incarnation going live all the way back in 1995. A love-letter to retro gaming, NESWorld features a ton of interesting gaming that might be interesting to explore. This includes things like the history of unreleased games, obscure region specific stuff and exhaustive prototype game lists. The site also boasts a robust community forum and Discord, where enthusiasts can discuss any number of gaming-related topics.
Of course, the reason why we’re featuring NESWorld on this list is because it is also home to a number of homebrew and freeware games. As the site’s name would suggest, NESWorld only features games for Nintendo consoles. That being said, there is quite a bit to choose from. Titles for the NES, SNES, N64, Gameboy and Gameboy Color all available to download.
4. Zophar’s Domain
Like NESWorld, Zophar’s Domain is a fan-site covering all things retro gaming and emulation. If you’re just getting started in video game emulation, Zophar’s Domain is a great place to start. The site has an exhaustive list of emulators for a variety of different operating systems and even details the pros and cons of each one.
In addition to emulators, Zophar’s Domain also features a bunch of ROMs for a number of different systems. The ROMs featured on the site have all fallen into the public domain. This includes full games that were abandoned by the developers and even curiosities like tech demos. Furthermore, Zophar’s Domain is home to a slew of technical information about emulation including ROM modification tools like Hex Editors. Users can use it to create ROM hacks.
5. My Abandonware
The site features games for everything from MS-DOS to home consoles, and all titles are available to download free of charge. Sound too good to be true? Maybe, maybe not.
All of the games (up to 20,000) hosted on My Abandonware are classified as “abandonware“. Basically it means that the original developer is no longer selling the game, either physically or online. This could be due to a number of reasons. Perhaps the original developer sold its business or went bankrupt. Whatever the reason, the original copyright holders have effectively “abandoned” their software.
In My Abandonware’s FAQ, you’ll notice that while they allow users to download the games, they do not take responsibility for downloads “considered illegal in your country”. So if you have any reservations about downloading a game from this site, we recommend you trust your instinct. Even so, my Abandonware has been operating since 2009 and continues to be live, so interpret that how you wish.
RomHacking.net features “hacks” of various games. A “ROM hack” is when someone alters the code of an existing game. This is to either offer improvements to the gameplay/graphics, add unofficial language translations or to fundamentally change the game, like new levels or player abilities. For example, a ROM hack of the Sega Genesis classic “Streets of Rage” might give players the ability to play through the game as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Keep in mind that the site does not host any of the original ROM files. Instead, the site only allows users to download the “patch file” that augments the original game. Let’s say you found a ROM hack that would allow you to play through “Super Mario Bros.” as Mega Man, with his blaster and all. You would need to supply your own ROM of “Super Mario Bros.”, and then apply the patch file obtained from RomHacking.net.
Note: Modification of a ROM may be illegal in your area.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I "dump" the games I already own?
If you want to make your own ROMs from the physical copies of games that you own, you can through a process called “dumping”. That being said, the process of dumping will vary from console to console. For example, dumping a Sony PSP UMD requires a PSP running custom firmware and a PC. Dumping a NES cartridge, on the other hand is a bit trickier. You will need an extra piece of hardware to connect your NES cartridge to your PC.
How do I apply a ROM hack?
As we mentioned above, you’re going to need the ROM of the game and the patch file (hack). Some emulators allow users to apply patches (hacks) from directly within the user interface. This is convenient as the emulator applies the hack automatically. If you’re not using an emulator that can patch the original ROM on the fly, then you’ll need to do it manually. This can be achieved by using a piece of software. Programs like Floating IPS gives users the ability to apply patches and create an entirely new, hacked ROM file. Be aware that patches (hacks) usually come in one of two formats, IPS and UPS. You will need a patching tool that corresponds to the patch file type.
I've got the emulator and the ROMs, which controller should I use?
Most emulators available for the PC will support keyboard controls. That being said, you’re definitely going to want to use a standard game controller. If you’re running Windows, an Xbox controller is probably your best bet. Since both Windows and Xbox are from Microsoft, the Xbox controller (and third party Xbox controllers) is recognized straight away without any fiddling around. That being said, if you have a PS4, you can still use the DualShock 4 controller on your PC. Long story short, you can use pretty much any controller you wish. Logitech, 8bitDo and others will all work, you’ll just need to be prepared to map buttons from within the emulator’s settings.
Image credit: Pexels All screenshots by Ryan Lynch
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